Corry Craighill
 
February 22, 2018 | Corry Craighill

Behind the Scenes of Bottling Day

Bottling day – it’s exciting, stressful, and fast-paced.  As the first wines of the 2017 vintage are completed, our team toasts each other with a glass of bubbly in celebration of coming full circle on the first vintage together.  We looked back at harvest and laughed at how many lugs of fruit it took to make the 800 cases of Sunset White we just bottled (It was about 800 lugs).  We thought of all the time spent tracking fermentations, moving wine from tank to barrel, and of course cleaning equipment - all that time spent just to get to the finish line of bottling day.  Even the weeks leading up to bottling day are a frenzy of blending, stabilizing, and filtering.  Finally, bottling day arrives.  We bottled 1,807 total cases, that’s 21,684 bottles!

It’s a long day and it starts early. A typical day of bottling looks like this:

6:00am:  The truck arrives while the sun just barely begins to glow.  Coffee in hand, hazy from the morning darkness, I pep up as the generator spurs the bottling truck to life. 

6:01am:  Full on bottling mode has taken hold of me. 

6:02--6:45am:  The bottling guys do a test run with a case of bottles, corks, capsules, and labels to calibrate their machines.

 

6:45am:  The rest of the cellar crew arrives and more coffee is a necessity.  The first tank is connected to the bottling truck and bottling begins!

7:00am--4:30pm:  Unload, fill, reload, stack. Repeat 1,807 more times. 

4:30--5:00pm: Clean up time.

5:01pm:Cheers!

The people:  We have five positions on the bottling line. 

First is the forklift operator.  They’re the person that makes sure everyone has what they need, when they need it, where they need it.  He supplies the empty cases that are loaded on the truck.  He takes the palettes of full cases and stacks them away in the barrel room. 

Second is the glass unloader.  This person stands on the truck, takes the cases of empty bottles, flips them onto the bottling line’s conveyor, lifts the box off of the upright bottles, and watches as the bottles get taken away further into the abyss of the bottling line. 

Third is the box filler.  This person also stands on the truck.  He is the final check of the full bottles.  Labels are straight? Check.  Bottles are corked and capsuled?  Check.  There is actually wine in the bottle?  Check.  The completed bottles are then placed back into the cases and sent down another conveyor. 

The fourth and fifth person stand at the end of this conveyor to receive the full cases.  They trade places labeling and stacking the cases.

The in between:  So where does the actual bottling take place?  Once the glass unloader sends the empty bottles onto the truck, that is where all the action happens.  The bottles get flipped upside down and filled with nitrogen to protect against oxidation.  The bottles are then circled around in merry-go-round like fashion and filled to the correct level.  Next, they get the screw caps spun on.  The last step is labeling--the front and back label are adjusted by the slightest millimeters and put on the bottle.  Finally, the long conveyor takes the bottles around the back of the machine where they leave the truck and are placed safely back into their case.

Although stressful, bottling day is a relief.  We are happy to see our product completed, our hard work paid off.  Now we can enjoy the finished product and look forward to the next bottling in May!

Time Posted: Feb 22, 2018 at 8:08 AM
Corry Craighill
 
January 3, 2018 | Corry Craighill

What is Malolactic Fermentation?

In the last post, I explained what is going on in the cellar in these cold winter months.  I want to delve deeper into a topic that I briefly touched on.  Malolactic fermentation is a process that I get a lot of questions about--not only what is it, but what effect does it have on a wine’s profile and misinterpretations of the effects of this process.


*MLF is short for malolactic fermentation


Let’s start with a few facts: 

  • MLF is a bacterial fermentation (*Remember: alcoholic fermentation is when yeast convert sugar into alcohol, ie how we get from grapes to wine).  
  • MLF is the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid.  You can remember this by M→L fermentation, MLF!  Think green apple for malic acid and butter, cream, or just a general softness for lactic acid.  This conversion changes the overall texture of the wine.  We will cover this in detail later in the post. 
  • MLF usually happens at the tail end or after alcoholic fermentation is complete
  • A winemaker can either inoculate with bacteria OR allow the fermentation to go through naturally.  At Sunset Hills and 50 West, we do both--some barrels get inoculated and some are allowed to naturally complete the process.  We do this to see how the wine interacts with the different strains of bacteria--two types of commercial and au naturale. 
  • MLF will change the pH.  For example, if your pre-MLF pH is 4.6, your post-MLF pH could be 4.7 or 4.75.  This goes along with the texture change because the wine is now less acidic. 

 

Let’s keep going with a few “usually” statements:

  • MLF is usually used in red wine production.  Remember in the facts part above, lactic acid is associated with a general softness of texture, we want our red wine to be smooth for our consumers.  One way to work towards a smooth wine is to put it through MLF.  
  • MLF can be used in white wine production.  This is a stylistic choice of the winemaker.  For young, acid-driven wines MLF may not be the best option.  Never say never, but I will mostly likely never put the 50 West Chardonnay or the Sunset Hills Sunset White through MLF because I want them to remain edgy with an attitude and bright in their acidity.  However, I always put at least some of the Chardonnay for both properties through MLF to give texture and different blending components.  MLF can add complexity when used on the right wine!
  • MLF DOES NOT produce an oaky wine, it can produce a buttery wine but is not guaranteed to deliver buttery notes.  This is the most common misconception I hear in the tasting room.  I repeat, MLF does not mean your wine will be flabby, buttery, or creamy.  Instead, MLF can add complexity, depth, and roundness to a wine.  Also, oakiness comes from oak barrels.  Why is MLF important?
  • Malolactic fermentation is important because not only does it change the texture of the wine, it also gives the wine stability.  Once the wine is complete with both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, we want the environment to be a desert--no more sugar, no more malic acid, nothing for any volatile to develop wine faults.  


How do we track MLF? 


We try to track MLF on a weekly basis.  There are two methods we use here at Sunset Hills/50 West.  First is chromotography.  After taking samples of barrels we want to test, we use a tiny capillary tube to drop the sample on the bottom of the paper.  We then roll the paper up and place it in a solvent that over the course of several hours, will travel up the paper.  Then we pull the paper out, let it dry, and can read the results.  If all of the yellow dots have travelled to the top of the paper, we know that the level of malic acid is less than 0.2g/L.  However, our goal is actually 0.02g/L!  This leads us to our second method: enzymatic testing.  Using our new spectrophotometer, we can get qualitative numbers. 

 
In short, chromotography allows us to see the process of MLF is (or is not) taking place over time.  The enzymatic testing gives us actual numbers to see exactly how many g/L of malic we have left.  Once we get to 0.02g/L, then we can call the process complete and add sulfur to the barrels.  


Reference:
Peynaud, Emile. Knowing and Making Wine. Wiley, 1984.
The Basics in Grape and Wine Chemistry.  Nathan J. Sikes Bl.Arch.
http://sikesvineyard.blogspot.com/2009/08/basics-in-grape-and-wine-chemistry.html

Time Posted: Jan 3, 2018 at 7:59 AM
Corry Craighill
 
December 7, 2017 | Corry Craighill

Harvest is Over. Now We Can All Relax, Right?

The cellar to-do list is still quite long: top all 350 barrels, watch malolactic fermentation trudge on, clean the residual grape matter still plastered to the sorting table, all the while preparing for the first bottling of the year.  Yes, the hours have relaxed, but the work goes on. 

First thing’s first--the new wine.  For whites, we are focused on finishing out the last bit of residual sugar in order to catch the wine before malolactic fermentation takes off.  In reds, we encourage malolactic fermentation to go through on every single barrel.  Side note: Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that converts malic acid (tart) to lactic acid (creamy). Once the wines are at the appropriate stage, we will add a small amount of sulphur to each barrel.  We do this in order to protect the wine from oxidation or any other bacterial growth.  Afterwards, every barrel will get topped, tightly bunged, and put to bed. 

Then we look backwards.  The pieces for 2016 Mosaic, Reserve Cabernet Franc, and Aldie Heights Cuvee are still patiently waiting to be tasted, tested, and blended.  For me, blending is one of the more “fun winemaker” tasks that my job entails.  It is the romantic part--the part that my friends, family, and neighbors think I do on a regular basis.  Challenges do arise though!  Analyzing the differences between barrels and vigorously taking notes for every sniff, swirl, and spit.  Finding the balance of structure, body, acidity, length, fruit integrity, and age-ability for each wine when you have seemingly endless options to choose from--THAT can be challenging.

While 2017 may be coming to a close, the products of this year’s harvest will be stored in the cellar patiently waiting their next step in 2018!

Time Posted: Dec 7, 2017 at 7:46 AM
Corry Craighill
 
October 2, 2017 | Corry Craighill

How Do We Decide When to Pick?

With this type of weather, we have the luxury to decide when to pick.  Some vintages, we are checking multiple weather stations daily to see which weatherman can offer us the most optimistic forecast only to find that the 80% chance of rain causes a hurried picking spree.  Luckily, after the rains that started out September were over, the forecasts have been quite pleasant.  Our vines are basking in this 80--90 degree weather.  Sure, we could ask for cooler nights to retain that acidity, but I will take sunshine over rain any autumn day.

Other than weather, we are walking our vineyards on a regular basis to look and taste for ripeness.  As verasion hits, the fruit gets softer, more plump and sweet.  As the sugar levels rise, the pH also continues to inch upwards causing the fruit to become less acidic with ripening.  Balance--it is all about balance.  We are looking and tasting for the balance between sugar levels and acidity, between taste, texture, and numbers. 

What do I mean by numbers?  When we walk the vineyards, we often take a random berry sampling of the vineyard.  Every few steps, pause, grab a berry, and throw it in a bag.  Up and down a few rows, and you have quite the sample!  Back to the lab, we crush the fruit in the bag to get the juice in order to test the Brix (the sugar content) and pH. 

As a young winemaker new to the area and to our vineyards, I hope to learn more about the nuances that each site can bring.  Sometimes the picking decisions also depend on location.  For example, last year we picked one of our Cabernet Franc sites in three sections--top of the hill, the slope, and the bottom of the hill.  The slope, with better sun exposure than the bottom and the best drainage, gave us the most complex wine.  It has a clean texture, a depth and complexity that the other sections fall just short of.

These types of picking decisions can really affect the wine.  With good weather in sight, we are continuing to balance taste, chemistry, and site selection. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for harvesting updates! 

Time Posted: Oct 2, 2017 at 7:40 AM
Corry Craighill
 
August 16, 2017 | Corry Craighill

50 West's Vineyard Explained

We’re often asked ‘if we grow all of our own grapes, then why are the vines so small at 50 West?’ That’s because 50 West is our youngest of our five sites. The property at 50 West had excellent potential for a vineyard so that’s exactly what we decided to do - plant a vineyard!


Planting Albariño Vines at 50 West Vineyards

Not only did we see the potential of the Middleburg area and being surrounded by other sophisticated wineries but also a great site for growing grapes. Heading off the beaten path, Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño were selected instead of the more well known Chardonnay and Viognier, which we grow just down the road at our Sunset Hills property. Cabernet Sauvignon is also to your right as your drive up to our tasting room.  

As you meander up the driveway, you might notice that these vines have little to no fruit on them. But why? In the first two years of the vine’s life, we want them to focus on root growth and vine balance.

In the first year, the vines need enough leaves to support downward root growth.  Through photosynthesis, the vines generate enough energy to drive a deeper and more established root system for future upward growth.  Simplified: healthy leaves equal healthy roots!  

In the second year of growth, like our Sauv Blanc and Albariño, the focus is still vegetal growth.  If the cane does not reach the first wire of the trellis system, then we will continue to treat the vine as if it were still in its first year.  Why?  Because the vine is not strong enough and needs more time to establish itself.  


Second Year Cabernet Sauvignon Vine with Springtime Growth


Second Year Cabernet Sauvignon Vine with Late Summer Growth

If the vine is strong, then we will be able to select a trunk and cordon for the next year.  On the cordon, we will eventually get shoots which will then give us some fruit in the third year.  

Take a look at the diagram to see the breakdown of the vine in its first two years of growth.


Wolf, Tony; Reynolds, Andrew. (2008).  Pruning and Training. In Wolf, Tony (Ed.), Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America (p. 111).  Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  

 

The wait is worth it, if you ask our team! We’re patiently tending to these vines knowing that all of this hard work will payoff in the bounty of grapes produced in the future.

 

Time Posted: Aug 16, 2017 at 7:17 AM
Corry Craighill
 
July 24, 2017 | Corry Craighill

Introducing 50 West's Blog!

Welcome to the blog of 50 West Vineyards!

From the trials of hand-tending vines in five different vineyards to releasing wines that our winemaker has carefully crafted, our goal is to share what’s going on at 50 West with you! We hope that you’ll gain knowledge and find entertainment from this blog.

Each month we’ll post an entry authored by various personalities from around the vineyard. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Instagram!

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Time Posted: Jul 24, 2017 at 7:13 AM