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!