Friday, September 29, 2017

Robert on the 2017 Harvest and when to pick

This season has been like no other harvest in my memory, 45 of them. We had four of the longest and hottest heatwave ever, one a record setter at 109° and sustained over 100° for five days. When the temperature reaches 90° the vines shut down. The stomata on the undersides of the leaves close to prevent the vine from wilting. We had more days over 90° this year than ever. We started the harvest three weeks earlier than historic normal but with the sundowns the vines are now back to historic normal for harvest. The chemistry of the fruit however has changed. You can’t judge this year by past experience. The shutdowns changed the metabolism of the vines. What we are seeing as a result is ripeness at lower sugar, higher acids and lower pH.

The question is, what is ripeness? When grapes are ripe the seeds turn brown (mature), the skins get soft, the pulp separates from the seeds and the stems holding the bunches lignifies, which means the get harder and turn brownish and break easier. We picked a vineyard yesterday that is ripe at 24 Brix, low pH and high T.A. where we didn’t use any knives. The bunches where just pulled off.

As grapes get over ripe the pH goes up and acid goes down. Is this a good thing? Not in my opinion. Do you want a peach that is over ripe, or a strawberry? No. The texture and flavor in each start to change, becoming less varietal, less balanced, less juicy, and less interesting. You need to evaluate grapes using your senses along with the chemistry. If you do it regularly enough you don’t need the chemistry at all. We all know how to pick a ripe tomato or pear or strawberry. We don’t need a lab to tell us how. Wine grapes can fool you because of their high acid. High acid makes them taste less ripe. We therefore like to measure the sugar acid and pH because these are easy to check and give us a baseline. But it is only a baseline. It is not gospel.

Every vintage is different. This one is very different. The high acids are dominated by Malic acid. How this will play out in the wine is unclear. Malic is converted to Lactic. This could mean the wines will be more creamy, not more acidic. If the acid goes down with longer hang time I think you’ll loose Tartaric acid first. Then once the Malic has converted the acid that makes grapes taste like grapes - Tartaric, might be too low, robbing varietal characteristics from the wine.

pH is buffered. See:

For the buffered pH to change there has to be very large changes in the chemical balance of the grapes. I do not believe that pH should ever be used to judge when to pick grapes. We shouldn’t even be testing for it from a viticultural point of view. You simply cannot tell ripeness by pH. However, you can tell stability by pH. This is really why we test for it. It is to inform the winemaker of the probably stability of the must and wine. We know we have to be more involved with higher pH juice and wine, than with lower. The lower the pH the more stabile the wine will be. Stable wine is a good thing.

Cecilia Valdivia, our production winemaker, says your last three field samples had the same sugar. While a heatwave will temporarily raise sugar in the grape, we have had a variety of weather during this sampling period. Cool weeks interspersed with hot weeks. Sugar would not normally be static during such periods. Another indication of ripeness is when the grapes stand still.

Lastly, vigor of the canopy will tell you a lot about conditions of ripening grapes. If the leaves are shutting down there will be no factories to make carbohydrates for the grapes. In fact the vine will start to abort the grapes.

I trust my senses more than the instruments.

- Robert Rex, 9/30/2017

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2016 Pinot Noir Futures

by Robert Rex

John Farrington, my friend and Pinot Noir mentor many years ago, described our Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, as a “Brunette in high heels, a twinkle in her eye, seductive and sexy, on her way to the bedroom.” That fits so well. Pinot is a feminine wine, light in color for a red, delicate but memorable on the nose, complex on the pallet with soft tannins and gentle acids. It can be contemplated like no other wine. John’s mentees were myself and Michael Browne, who was then my assistant winemaker. Michael has gone on to great fame for his Pinot Noir. Much of the vintification techniques we were developing at the time were new to California winemakers, such as clonal selection, whole-berry fermentation, multiple yeast choices, lightly toasted 3-year air dried French oak barrels, and bantonage or stirring of the lees, like done with Chardonnay.

For the first-time Deerfield is offering futures on its Pinot Noir. Even though our reputation is more closely associated with red blends and Zinfandel, our Pinot Noir sells out before the next vintage is released. The 2016 vintage is aging in the barrels and will be bottled in December. Its release date is March 2018. We have 14 barrels, which will make a little over 300 cases. It won’t last a year. Now is your opportunity to reserve a case or two of this great wine so as not to miss out. The price includes a nice discount to make up for the wait.

The Vineyard: Great Pinot Noir starts in the vineyard. Of course, this is true of any wine but no wine reflects and is influenced by terroir more than Pinot Noir. Our 2016 Pinot Noir is from the Elieo Vineyard on Old Vine Lane. This is the epicenter of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. From here some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world are made. Elieo’s neighbors include Kistle, Williams Seylem, Copain, Amber Ridge of Kosta Browne fame, Sonoma Cutrer. It is a beautiful spot, with rolling hills of corduroy covered hills of vine rows, looked over by typically small homesteads and a few important but not fancy wineries. It is all about the earth and the weather. Pinot Noir grapes have thin skins. This is the secret to not only its delicate nature but its sensitivity to Mother Nature. It can’t take too much sun or too much heat and retain its femininity. The Pacific influence on the Russian River Valley AVA creates a shroud of foggy overcast most summer mornings, protecting the delicate fruit and moderating the daily temperature.

The Clones: Elieo Vineyard is planted to three clones of Pinot, 777, 667 and 115. These are not genetically modified clones from a laboratory. These are clones of the same varietal as a product of evolution and separated by growers for their uniqueness. Natural clones. We made wine from each clone, using different yeast on each small batch and kept the clones separate through the barrel aging. Each clone has individual nuances of flavor and structure. Our 2016 Pinot Noir is a blend of these three clones. Clone 777 is the most common clone of modern American Pinots. It can stand on its own, delivering a complete Pinot experience. Clone 667 is about structure. It adds backbone to the blend. It also broadens the taste profile. Clone 115 is the most delicate and focused. It helps focus the unique Pinot nose and increases the aromatics in the top of your palate.

The Vintage: No vintage is perfect for every wine but 2016 came close. Perhaps it could have been a little warmer for some Cabernets but it was perfect for Pinot Noir. Spring is coming earlier now. Bud break is in the middle of April instead of the beginning of May. Our summers have been getting cooler, due to the thicker and more intrusive marine layer. Russian River Pinot Noir and Chardonnay love this. The weather further cooperated with very few heat spikes or waves and no rain during the critical harvest period. It was a joyful and rewarding vintage.

The Vinification: The secret to the vinification technique is whole berry fermentation. This means we don’t macerate or break the berries. The grapes are left whole as much as possible. We used to put the grapes through carefully spaced rollers after destemming to break them open, allowing juice to run out and expose more of the skins to tannin extraction by the water and alcohol. During my period with Michael Browne, John Farrington and a few other Pinot devotee winemakers around Sonoma County in the early 90’s we were coming to realize that the goal of modern grape processing equipment should be to immolate what hand processing did, particularly with Pinot Noir, because hand processed wine tasted the most nuanced. Winemaking by hand also allowed for more care in culling bad bunches and bad grapes from the pick. The processes we developed now are de rigueur in high end winemaking. It started by sorting the bunches on a movable belt sorter followed by destemming without breaking the berries. Since then we’ve added two more sorters and better de-stemmers to achieve almost 100% whole berries in perfect condition, free of anything you wouldn’t feed a baby. This is the first step in making Clean Wine®

The secret to whole berry fermentation is that most of the fermentation takes place inside the berry. The yeast migrates in through the stem hole and work inside what becomes an enclosed space. This traps the small more aromatic molecules and carbohydrates that create the most interesting aromas and taste but would under the old style of macerated grapes would escape to the atmosphere. This makes the winery smell good but these nuances are lost to the wine.

We let the fermentation start on its own, from native yeast, spores and other flora that comes in on the grapes and lives in the winery. This helps create complexity. After the start, we inoculate with pure strain yeast so that we have a predictable finish. Each pure strain produces a slightly different taste and feel to the wine. We use various Pinot strains that were isolated originally from great French Burgundy wineries.

The fermentation is managed by punching down and mixing the must twice or three times per day, carefully controlling the temperature and feeding the yeast periodically with organic food and oxygen. Keeping the yeast happy keeps bacteria from growing, which is the second step in making Clean Wine®.

Aging: Barrel selection for aging is critical to the Pinot. We use barrels from French coopers who have made barrels for Burgundian winemakers for generations. We collaborate with them on the selection of the best barrel for our wines and develop barrel programs over years of trials. The new wine is pressed before the last of the fermentation has completed so that it completes in the barrel, adding another layer of complexity. After the primary fermentation is done we inoculate with a Malo-Lactic bacterium to start the secondary fermentation, which convert Malic acid (think apples) to Lactic acid (think cream). When the Malo-Lactic conversion is complete we begin the stirring of the lees, called Bantonage, which helps create more mouth feel in the final wine. We continue stirring about every two weeks until we like the taste profile. The we top the barrels and let them rest until it is time to bottle.

Bottling: About two months before bottling we blend the wines and make final adjustments. A blend of the three clones and the various barrels is done by taste trials. The stability of the wine is tested and any final adjustments made, like removing any excess oxygen by sparging with Nitrogen, raising the CO2 level a few parts per million to enhance brightness; little tweaks like any good cook does.

Aging in the Bottle: This Pinot will improve with age for a couple of decades. That doesn’t mean it needs to be aged to be good. Our wines are good when they are released because we go the last quarter mile to make them that way. A good wine should be enjoyable when young and age well. This is created by using good techniques and good science and a lot of experience.

The results: Results are always in the taste and our 2016 Pinot hits the bullseye. It is everything a great Pinot Noir should be. It’s the Brunette in high heels with a twinkle in her eye, seductive and sexy. Everything about it sings Pinot Noir. The color is correct, a beautiful shade or ruby. The nose is haunting. It brings you back again and again for another take. There is something about a good Pinot nose. It is seductive. The taste enters gently like a brook moving along in the shade. Then, when it reaches mid-palate, it expands exponentially in all in all directions like a Super Nova. The tannins are there but not intrusive. Everything is in perfect balance. It is really hard to stop drinking it once you open the bottle, so invite a lover and a friend.

Pinot pairs with a wider variety of foods than any other wine. It is great by itself, with spicy oriental, with tacos, with grill ribeye. 

Buy some, you won’t be disappointed. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Clean Wine™ is arsenic's enemy

After the recent Arsenic scare in the consumer wine market,​​ Deerfield Ranch Winery, located in idyllic Sonoma Valley along Hwy 12, tested its popular Red Rex, Winemaker Robert Rex's proprietary seven varietal blend. American standards allow for 10ppb (parts per billion) in wine and drinking water. "The Red Rex includes fruit sourced from no less than 14 of our organic, biodynamic, and sustainable vineyards​​​Deerfield Ranch Winery is proud to report our Red Rex had NO ARSENIC in it, none at all​​.* We are committed to producing Clean Wine™.  Our success in meeting that goal has been confirmed yet again." said Winemaker Robert Rex   *Arsenic testing by ETS Laboratory, Napa Valley
Europe tolerates levels of Arsenic in wine 10 times greater than American wines, or 100ppb.  The next time you reach for a bottle of Bordeaux, Brunello, or Burgundy from your cellar, let your conscience take the wheel and reach for a bottle of Deerfield instead. 

"It’s just another reason to confidently enjoy Deerfield Clean Wine™," notes Winemaker Robert Rex. To paraphrase an English playwright, “To drink water, or to drink Deerfield wine, that is the question.’”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Releasing Wines After the Curve

Why does Deerfield age red wine longer than other Wineries?

The short answer is that wine ages better in a barrel than it does in a bottle.

Most wine drinkers are aware that red wine improves with age. While this might not always be the case, it is widely believed primarily because of our experience with French wine. Particularly the better French wines, those with vintage and appellation designation have long been sold with the understanding that they require additional bottle aging before they are as enjoyable as they can be. While very few California wines of the last century could be represented as improving with age, the best California wines, those vintage and appellation designated, follow this French model, requiring additional bottle aging to show their best.

The difference in most modern California wines is that California winemakers try to make their wines more drinkable when young, even if they can improve with bottle age, because American’s don’t typically age wine. Most wine is consumed within hours of when it is purchased. Less than one percent of all wine sees any additional bottle aging in the cellars of consumers. This obviously has a disadvantage for the perceived quality of the California wine being consumed if that wine is known to improve with bottle age.

To better understand why this is the case and how this improvement with aging happens, we need to understand what happens during aging. Wine is a very complex beverage, like no other in the world. It is a complex suspension of minute solids in a solution of water and alcohol. These solids are held in suspension by weak electrostatic charges. These solids are made up of even smaller molecular structures based on carbon chains. These carbon chains are ultimately what produce everything we like, or dislike about wine. These molecular structures and the way these molecular complexes interact with each other, on our palates and our bodies are so complex that we have yet to fully understand it. There are textbooks and PhD papers written on the subject.

We do know that the carbon chain based molecular structures change as the wine ages. These changes produce the flavors and aromas we recognize in the wine we consume. The changes in the molecules are produced by chemical reactions that rely on oxygen. Carbon chains grow, change, split, and are constructed using oxygen atoms. Without the oxygen not only do the desirable reactions not take place but adverse changes can occur, which can develop off flavors and aromas in the wine and, in fact, ill health affects. Oxygen is key.

Like so many things in life, oxygen in wine is good in small doses and bad in large doses. The same oxygen that can create a memorable experience in a well-aged wine can also make a wine lipid, dead and cooked tasting, commonly referred to as “oxidized”. A properly aged wine has had a very slow and measured introduction of oxygen. It take time and the right conditions to work property and predictably. This is why, at Deerfield, we still use cork as a stopper. The cork breaths, a few molecules of air at a slow rate into the wine. Without it, the wine in the bottle will not improve but it will die. Winemakers like to control the rate of oxygen uptake. In the bottle we do this by the density and the length of the cork. However, this is not a lot of control. We have much more control over this process in the barrel than we do in the bottle.

Barrels breath too. It’s kind of like Velcro, that magic material that transmits water in only one direction. The barrel stave because of the liquid seal on the inside produced by the wine, transmits air (oxygen) one-way as well. The wood also allows some of the alcohol molecules and a bit of water, which are lightweight, to escape through the wood to the outside. This causes a reduction in the overall volume of the wine, a slight reduction in alcohol and a concentration of the flavors in the wine because all those minute solids that make up the flavor are too large to pass through the wood. In the barrel, the winemaker can monitor and taste the wine, sometimes stir it, move it to different barrels, change the conditions or keep them stable all to better control the slow uptake of oxygen and the concentration of the flavors, to better age the wine.

There are two caveats. The first is that the wine and the barrel need to be clean and stabile and free of pathogens and defects. This cannot be taken lightly. Barrels are made of wood and can become easily contaminated. Wine is alive and breathing and it loves to grow things in it that don’t belong. It takes great effort and constant attention by the winemakers to keep the wine healthy in the barrel and it needs to be healthy in order to age properly. The second caveat is that all this takes time. What is easier and less involved is to do what most wineries do, bottle and release the wine just as soon as you can. Deerfield marches to a different drummer. Our focus has always been on producing the very best wine available anywhere, and then keep studying ways to make it better. We think you can taste the difference and we know you can feel the affects, or lack thereof.

All this effort to make the best wine also includes making wine that is good for you. We learned that the wine needed to be clean and stable in order to age a long time in the barrel. This pursuit of cleanliness and stability produced exciting and unexpected results. We found our wine didn’t produce headaches, hangovers or allergic reactions. Information on this is available on our website. The extended barrel aging also seems to affect histamine levels. We think (we are still studying this) this is because what histamines are produced combine with other elements in the wine that render them nonreactive.

So, what’s the real reason we age our wines longer in the barrel? It makes better wine. It give you the consumer all the benefits of wine that is properly aged. Our fans don’t need a big cellar and a fat pocketbook. We are aging the wine for them, and in a better way than they can do it themselves. Our fans and our wine club members know the difference and are willing to pay a higher price for our properly aged wine. They become very loyal to the brand, not only because the wines are delicious; they are clean, produce no headaches or allergic reactions. Our motto is, “Clean wine, clear head.”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Robert's Letter to the Sonoma Board of Supervisors

Hello Board members,

I would like to offer you my observations when to counter VOTMA’s continued attempt to kill, or severely limit, the wine industry in Sonoma County

I would like to remind you of the Sonoma County General Plan adopted in 1968. That plan called for the eventual population of Kenwood to be 40,000 people and highway 12 to be a four lane separated highway. You can imagine how differently that environment would be if this plan had come to fruition. Sonoma Valley would have been housing from one ridge line to the other.

Why didn’t this happen? It didn’t happen because of the wine industry. It didn’t happen because the land kept being down zoned in favor of agriculture, thanks to the wisdom of your predecessors and the will of the people of Sonoma County. It didn’t happen because vineyards saved the land like no other sort of agriculture could afford to do. Wineries buy all those grapes grown by all those vineyards that saved us from all those houses and all those cars and all that pollution and all that water use. 40,000 people in Kenwood would have used a lot more water than the vineyards and wineries do. They would have generated much more traffic. You don’t have to be a genius to know this to be true.

Wineries must sell their wine directly to consumers to make ends meet. Speaking for Deerfield, when we sell wine through a distributor, who then sells it to a retailer to sell to the public we make 38% gross profit. When we sell it directly to consumers we make 72% gross profit. The difference makes the difference if we make money or loss money. These percentages are gross profit, not net. Last year we made less than 5% net profit, even with the sales directly to consumers. We alone, just one small winery, support incomes from as many as 30 vineyard owning families and more than a dozen families associated directly with the winery. We are green and clean and most of our land is open habitat. We are not alone in our local industry for this kind of responsibility. It is the general rule rather than the exception. Wineries are green, they don’t pollute and use little water, compared to housing or other industries. Vineyards produce oxygen and clean the air, like forests. Almost all the vineyards in Sonoma are now sustainably grown, a much higher ratio I am told than any other agricultural use or industry.

Sonoma County is a tourist Mecca, not just for the wines but everything else that this wonderful county offers, and looking at houses isn’t one of them. Would we want to trade all this for the alternative envisioned by your predecessors in 1968? I think not. I don’t know without looking it up how much revenue Sonoma County tourism adds to our local economy but I don’t think anything else comes close. I know you have those figures. The wine industry is a integral part of this success and an integral part in keeping agriculture the central theme of Sonoma County.

The county already limits events at wineries. The county already reviews and permits every winery and every tasting room. Caltrans and the county requires traffic studies and left turn lanes where they are necessary for wineries. The road improvements paid for by wineries benefits everyone, not just the wineries. The stop light at Madrone Road and Highway 12, paid for entirely by the Hamel Family Winery benefits everyone. In fact, if there was a winery being built at four corners, where we desperately need a stop light, a stop light would go in, paid for by the winery. Let’s let a winery go in on that corner so we can all benefit from a stop light there.

Don’t kill the golden goose. We have it better with the vineyards and wineries than almost any valley in the greater Bay Area. Don’t let the late comers organized by VOTMA, without anyone’s vote, sway you to believe that vineyards and wineries are a bad thing. Just bring up the General Plan of 1968 and decide which future is better.

Thank God for the wine industry. It saved Sonoma.



Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day 2014 - Checkerbloom Workday

For Earth Day, we headed out into the Kenwood Wetlands to lend a helping hand to the endangered Kenwood Marsh Checkerbloom.

The Kenwood Marsh Checkerbloom, Sidalcea Oregana, is a federally protected endangered species. It has been officially recognized to grow in only two places in the world, and the Kenwood Wetlands at Deerfield Ranch Winery is one of them. Our property is the only one with any type of conservation efforts underway.

Kate Symonds, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, has been guiding us on how best to protect the Checkerbloom for years. "The best way to protect these endangered plants is for the land owners to get involved," Kate said.

There are three colonies of the Checkerbloom plant in the wetlands. Two of them were native and a third colony was planted as part of the conservation efforts. Each of the colonies is protected by an enclosure to prevent people and animals from treading on them. It is striking how different each of the colonies are. Each of them required very different types of maintenance.

The first enclosure is in the middle of a low area where tall grass naturally grows. The ground is relatively dry compared to other parts of the marsh. For the workday, we needed to cut the tall grass away to allow more light on the Checkerbloom leaves and improve the chances of the seeds being spread. We had to be very careful to make sure that we didn't inadvertently clip the Checkerbloom itself as we gave the grass a haircut. We were working quietly and carefully for about 45 minutes when all of a sudden, with a great burst of feathers and wings, a duck erupted from the brush. A local volunteer correctly guessed that the duck had been silently guarding its eggs. Sure enough, we discovered 11 eggs in a beautiful nest. Not long after, we discovered a finch's nest as well. We continued our work, but left a large area around the nests undisturbed.

The second enclosure is very different, as it abuts the waterway that leads to the wetlands' vernal pond. It is very wet and the Checkerbloom is clustered on the only solid ground. There are the fewest Checkerblooms here but they are the largest. One impressive individual is massive compared to the rest. Here, the main task was to cut back the willow tree that was almost completely shading the Checkerblooms in the area. It was tricky to cut the branches while standing in the swampy marsh and extract them without the branches falling on the Checkerbloom, but we got the job done.

The third enclosure was totally overrun by the enormous nearby blackberry bush. You wouldn't even know there was Checkerbloom growing there at first sight. Very carefully, we snipped away the treacherous vines and disentangled them from the fragile stems of the Checkerbloom. When we were done we couldn't believe how many Checkerblooms were thriving under the brambles.

Happy Earth Day! If we all do our part, great things can be accomplished.

Click here to see photos from the Workday!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Robert Rex on the Winemaker's relationship with Growers

Deerfield Ranch Winemaker, Robert Rex, wrote this in response to a fan's questions about our grape sources:

Hello Mark,

We do have an estate wine. It is Estate organic Syrah. We have relationships (contracts and handshakes) with 29 Sonoma County vineyards, which allows us to choose wine from where they grow the best. Cabernet nor Pinot Noir would grow well on our property, too much soil for Cab, too hot for Pinot. I like Chardonnay from east facing slopes and Sangiovese and Cabernet from mountain tops. We get Old Vine Zin from Dry Creek Valley, the best place in the world in my opinion to grow Zinfandel. Pinot comes form the Sonoma Coast (Stage gulch district) Merlot comes from four different spots. Malbec and Syrah from the valley flow, which gives them more dark berry flavors. Many of our partnerships with these growers go back 20 to 30 years or more. As we grow we add new vineyards very carefully. It is as much about the relationships as it is the grapes. We, the grower and the winemaker, need to be on the same page.

One of my main jobs as the head winemaker is to take an active role in the decisions made in most of the vineyards, especially when to pick the fruit and often from which rows. It takes about five years to learn how to make the best wine from a given vineyard so the long term relationships are vital. It sort of like having estate vineyards but we didn’t have to shell out the millions to by them and farm them. I’d rather pay for this in the price of the grapes. You will find the vineyards listed on our labels, even often in the blends. This type of relationship is the most common in California, way more common than wineries who own all their own vines.

There are plenty of grapes grown. In fact the best grapes are grown by people who don’t make wine. They are both specialized crafts. The winemaker needs to spend a lot more time in the vineyard than does the grower in the winery. Today our vineyard crew is out taking suckers off the vines and making sure the cordons are tied to carry the coming weight. My friend is spraying our vineyard and another we lease (Petit Verdot, which could also be called “Estate” because we do the farming) with an organic mixture of mildew inhibitors. I, on the other had, worked on two wine blends this morning in anticipation of the next bottling in July. I also started our barrel program list so I can order barrels. This gives you some idea of the division of duties.

We own about 62 acres of land in Kenwood, both sides of the ridge where the winery is. We have planted only 7 acres. The rest, by design has been left as habitat. The land you see around the vineyards is wetlands and we are protecting and restoring it. We own the forest behind it. It is one of only about 10 places in the U.S. where sizeable wetlands meets a forest. This provides a very rich habitat for flora and fauna. We have many wild animals including a black bear (his habitat is from our forest to Sonoma Mountain, mountain lions, bob cats, foxes, fresh water otters (occasionally seen in the pond) and hundreds of other smaller species. If you were there this past weekend you might have seen the five baby Canada geese just hatched last week, cute as the dickens in their chartreuse green down. We would never consider cutting down the trees and filling in the wetlands to plant more grapes. We think it is important to protect what wild land there is left in Sonoma. It is one of the things that makes Sonoma County so special. There are plenty of great grapes grown by our friends, as our wines attest. Thanks for asking the question.

Regards, Robert