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Sep 25, 2017

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Throngs of Beautiful Women
by Brendan Eliason
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.1

International Travel, Opulent Living and Throngs of Beautiful Women

Being a winemaker is just like being a rock singer, a movie star or a famous sports hero -- luxurious international travel, opulent living and throngs of beautiful women at your beck and call... Okay. I'm lying. Winemaking isn't like any of these. Actually, winemaking isn't like any other profession that I've ever been involved in or heard of. On a basic level it's an equal blend of art and science, which are mostly incompatible in other professions. Also, despite the reality that winemaking is, in large part, dirty and strenuous, it continues to maintain a very elite, romantic aura. So I'm not complaining. I like the fact that, although my job's like that of any other hard-working farmer, it gets to be considered "romantic." I just don't always understand it.

Winter's a season that highlights the polarity of winemaking between the mundane and the artistic. On one hand, most of the work we do consists of cleaning up after crush (harvest), topping off tanks and barrels, and basic winery maintenance. (These would be the mundane things.) On the other hand, the rest of our work consists of tasting and analyzing the wine that we now have in the barrel. This is in preparation for blending the final wines -- very much the artistic part.

In the winery, most of the work is pretty straightforward. For starters, by the time crush ends (sometimes it feels like it never will) the winery's a mess. All of our equipment (and often our bodies) is covered with a sticky layer of grape juice and grape skins, and is stained by gallons of new wine. This all needs to be cleaned. We have 40 to 50 dirty bins, tractors, trailers, forklifts, a crusher, a press, two pumps, hundreds of yards of various-sized hoses, and a full winery to clean and put away. (This is actually a very small amount of equipment since David Coffaro Winery is a very small winery. It's more than enough, however, to keep our entire workforce -- me -- busy.)

In addition, it's my weekly duty to "top off." This involves climbing through our barrel stacks and making sure the wine is filled to the top of the bung hole (the official name of the hole in the barrel where the wine goes in and out). A certain percentage of wine evaporates through the oak barrel staves and is lost. The percentage works out to be about two bottles per month per barrel. For a small winery like ours, that amounts to about one barrel of evaporation per month. That's a lot of wine!

The real problem with evaporation, however, isn't the loss of wine. It's that the lost wine is being replaced by air. Air and wine are archenemies, like Superman and Lex Luthor. (The barrel's like the Superfriends Hall of Justice. Everyone who knows what I'm talking about was a geek growing up.) Air causes the wine to oxidize and lose fruit. It also increases the likelihood of contamination. Both of these effects are bad. Therefore, to keep our wines protected, I climb through the barrel stacks and add 10 to 15 ounces of wine to each barrel to keep it safe. This job could never be considered "artistic" even if I learned to do it while singing the lead to La Boheme.
The exciting part about this time of year is that we get to work with our new wines. This is the first chance we have to start putting aside our educated guesswork about the quality of the vintage and taste for ourselves what we've got to work with. Tasting young wine is an interesting challenge. We start sampling barrels within days of pressing the grapes, and continue to taste and sample until the wine is bottled. Although absolutely fascinating, sampling wine this young presents primary impediments. The first is how to start sampling wine on a daily basis (often starting early in the morning) without letting the alcohol get to you. The second impediment is that wine changes so much and so rapidly in the barrel, it's difficult to judge what the wine's going to be like when it ages.

The answer to the first impediment is relatively simple. Given that it's as important for me not to get buzzed or drunk on the job as it is for any banker, lawyer, etc. (possibly more important because I have to drive heavy machinery), one of the most valuable things I've learned is to spit. Most wine drinkers consider this akin to blasphemy, and I'm normally not an advocate of spitting over swallowing. But in this case, it's invaluable to the profession of winemaking. It's often necessary to swallow a very small amount of wine to get a full sense of the finish, but you can get most of the flavors you need for judging it by swishing the wine in your mouth and then spitting it out (preferably while watching your aim). When you taste through 20 to 50 samples at a sitting, this is both a luxury and a requirement. (This, by the way, isn't in ANY respect "romantic," and I don't expect a gift from the National Endowment of the Arts any time soon, no matter how good I get at it).

The second impediment -- how to judge young wine -- isn't as simple. Wines that're days, weeks or even months old are only vague shells of what they'll be once they age and develop in the barrel/bottle. This, coupled with the fact that wines are still fermenting, makes analysis shaky at best. There are, however, some very important and basic factors that make tasting young wine very valuable. For zinfandel (and this generally applies to most varieties), there are three things to look for: 1) flaws; 2) fruit; 3) spice.

Flaws can take many forms, but typically you know them when you taste them. Flavors of vinegar, a barnyard smell or taste caused by a wild yeast called Brettanomyces (or Bret for short) or abnormally high or low acids are all examples of flaws. Fruit's the easiest characteristic to detect in young wine. As a general rule, all wines lose fruit as they age, and this process starts almost immediately in the barrel. With most zinfandel you should taste explosive fruit flavors when young. If zin doesn't have it in the barrel then it definitely won't when it's bottled. The final characteristic that should be apparent in young zin is spice. Spice can take the form of anything from black pepper (pretty basic) to cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice (more exotic) to ginger, posh, scary, baby and sporty (looks better in Spandex). Most great zins are a compelling mix of mouth-filling fruit and structured, balanced spice.

Now we're getting into the definite "artistic" side of winemaking. The highest form of art in the wine industry is blending. Blending wine is the world's coolest adult jigsaw puzzle; you get to taste, smell and drink the pieces into place. If done well you get a perfectly built and balanced wine (beats the hell out of a picture of a fuzzy kitten in a tree). On the other hand, since you're dealing with young wines at this stage, it's also like running a dating service in preschool -- they get along fine now, but when they get older...? So blending basically comes down to an educated guess, intuition and personal preference on how you want a wine to taste when it's released.

At David Coffaro Winery, we start with more than 40 barrels of zinfandel from a variety of vineyards on and off our property. Every single barrel tastes different, based on a million different factors. From these 40-plus barrels we choose about 30 that'll make up the base wine for our 1999 zin. To these 30 barrels of zin we'll add another 10 barrels of red wine to fill out and perfect the blend. So the big question is which other reds will improve the zin we're trying to make. Traditional favorites for blending with zinfandel are petite sirah and carignan. In addition, we've been impressed with the potential of barbera, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah.

There's a basic framework we keep in mind when deciding which of these other varieties to use. We want our zins to possess up-front explosive fruit flavors combined with a full-structured, spicy middle and a lingering, rich finish. In addition, we want a complex, floral aroma and a rich dark color. (That's not too much to ask for, is it?) It's almost impossible to find any single barrel of any varietal that has all of these components. So it's up to the winemaker to pick and choose wines that'll add a unique element and blend well with the other elements. This is definitely what makes winemaking such an interesting blend of standard farming and expressive art. Now all we need is the luxurious international travel, opulent living and throngs of beautiful women at our beck and call.
Maybe next year.

Check out Brendan's "Harvest Diary -- A week in the life of Crush at David Coffaro Winery" at

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