As you all have most likely heard, the 2019 harvest and season are looking pretty amazing—a historic harvest that will be talked about like the 2010 vintage wines. This month, as we “wine’d” down from harvest, We want to use this blog to herald our team here at Sunset Hills Vineyard. As a vineyard guest, you hear from us individually, whether it is on a tour with Bridgette, at a club party with Sydney, or behind the bar with Audrey – but there are so many other wonderful, hard-working wine and farm enthusiasts here at the winery that perhaps go unnoticed.
Sunset Hills and 50 West could not exist without them. There would literally be no vineyard, no wine, no tasting room. We play host to a full-time crew of five (5) people. Their work week is dedicated to our vineyards rain or shine, freezing temps or scorching sun. The vineyard crew of 5 do everything; from mowing the grass to flipping cases for ten hour bottling days, and everything they do for the winery, they do with great effort and pride. They may ask for a soda or request pizza instead of brats for lunch, but they do the hard work day in and day out so that our business can create a the incredible wines that we are then able to share with all of you.
Our vineyard crew is joined for 8 months out of the year by a team of eight that joins us from the Baja California Peninsula. This hard working team is keen on learning new ideas and perfecting our processes. Take Joel for example, who has worked with us in the cellar for harvest. Joel is the type of friend that everyone needs—he always has a smile on his face and a quiet yet witty joke ready for you. He asks for clarification when he feels like he needs to, and he takes initiative to do the next task with no hesitation. Joel has learned to speak slowly so that we can communicate both on cellar actions for the day or a casual conversation about our families over the sorting table. We have a goal that he teaches us one Spanish word every day – we learn, we grow and we create together.
The Tasting Room, for those who don’t know… IS SO EXHAUSTING. Harvest is one of the most tiring yet exciting times of the year for me. We joke that “every day is Wednesday” because there is no sense of a weekend, no tracking of days of the week other than to ask “what day are we picking?” Although tiring, nothing compares to a busy Saturday behind the tasting room bar. The day begins with a morning meeting where our teams prep the staff by communicating the weekend events, big groups, or special occasions that are taking place at the winery. Everyone is listening, quiet, the calm before the storm. And then… THE DAY….
Finally, at closing, the floors are vacuumed to perfection, bathrooms are spotless, bar is wiped down—we can all relax with a beautiful glass of wine on the porch as the sun sets behind the tree-line. Yes we share stories from the day, but we have interesting conversations about all things other than wine.
Our weekday staff is the glue that holds it all together. We support each other, listen to plans, pitch ideas, lend a hand. We work to make our dreams come true, as a small business we know that we all have each other’s backs; there is no line drawn between jobs. Just because my title is winemaker does not mean that I can’t help stock the tasting room or cut the grass every now and then. Helping each other out is just skimming the surface. We are a true family here at Sunset Hills. Sunset Hills is not just a vineyard, a winery, a place to spend a Saturday, it is a place where talented, driven people work to make this lovely, inspiring, beautiful place run the way it does. From the vineyard to the tasting room to the management team, we all look out for each other in a way I hope continues in years to come.
At the time of writing this, the last of the Cabernet Sauvignon to pick is scheduled for Friday. I am listening to the hum of the press squeeze Shenandoah Springs Cabernet Franc. Barrels will be filled tomorrow and stacked in the cool cellar. Another vintage ends, but our staff keeps it alive as the bottles come into the tasting room to share with each other and our wonderful members, clients and customers. We all look forward to having a bit of free time now that our epic 2019 harvest is complete, but we are happy to be surrounded by the team and our family here at Sunset Hills and 50 West.
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.
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!
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:
Let’s keep going with a few “usually” statements:
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.
Peynaud, Emile. Knowing and Making Wine. Wiley, 1984.
The Basics in Grape and Wine Chemistry. Nathan J. Sikes Bl.Arch.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!