Thursday, July 28, 2016

Hey, This is Easy

My first harvest was 2007.  Everything was beautiful, from the fruit to the pace of everything in production after the fruit came in.  Many of you know about the ’07 vintage.  It was, many would say, perfect.  I remember my brother calling me, asking “So how’s is going?” I answered back, “You know what, fine, this isn’t so hard.” But that was the last time I ever expressed anything like that when it came to harvest.  Why?  Because everything that followed introduced its own little stew of stress.  Everything from the reduced yields in ’08 through ’10 and 2011 of course, then the problem of having too much in ’12 and ’13.  Harvest is never really predictable.  Each one is different.  

Mother Nature will always remind you she’s in charge.  She offers her own set of challenges on top of what happens after you have the fruit on the crush pad.  I’ve learned that you keep learning, whether you’re a winery owner, or winemaker, or in the tasting room.  The lifelong learning aspect to this business and this life is real.  With each new harvest there’s not just a new lesson and new slew of experiences, but more growth for us all.  I’m still pleasantly surprised by what I see and experience each harvest, and more in love with this life that I’ve been a part of the last 10 years.  I didn’t anticipate this maybe as much as I should have, but the challenge and the education is incredible, especially to someone like me from Wisconsin who for years dreamt about this.

It’s challenging, harvest.  I realize that now.  Peaks and valleys, different stages… everything from bud break to bloom.  Over the past nine harvests and approaching my tenth, I see the vineyard and each vintage as the puzzle that we all put together and the ripples we all feel.  A lot of people don’t think about that.  What happens in a vintage affects everyone from the vineyard team, then the winemaking team, then the sales teams who have to sell through the vintage.  If there’s a big vintage that blesses us with amazing clusters and overall yield, that’s great for the winemaking team, but for the tasting room and other departments creates quite the challenge with having so much to sell so we can release the next vintage.  It’s all connected, everything at the winery, and it all stems from the vintage’s conditions.

Kerry reminds me that in the last ten years he’s experienced more weather variation and general challenges in the vineyards and winemaking than he has in his 40-year career.  Whatever you take away from that, you should appreciate that vintage is unpredictable, that Mother Nature is in control.  And when you have sales goals to meet and inventory to move through, it can get a little stressful.  The stress I’m talking about, I didn’t feel even a twinge of in ’07.  Oh but I learned over then next the next eight vintages (2008-2015), many times having too little and then in ’12 and ’13 having 40% over capacity.  Harvest is never the same.  No vintage is like another.  It’s stressful, it’s unpredictable, but we always rally and pull together.  We come out successful and satisfied in the end, and I love it.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It’s Hot but I’m Not Moving

Our first ever Grower’s Party, I think in ’08, was held on the crush pad.  Kerry and I decided to take a backseat to the growers, which was really the point of the party— to showcase the growers and their family stories, and their passion for their vineyards and the fruit that comes from it, all for the club members to taste from the barrel right next to them.  It’s fair to say we didn’t think this thing through all the way, as it was in the high 90’s, and the heat radiating off the concrete registered at about 130 degrees.  I was in the back grilling food and members kept coming back and urging me to bring the growers inside.  I mean, it was hot out there over that concrete, and if we can get them away from it, we should.

I went out to the crush pad after a few more guests approached me.  Tina Maple and Eivor Taylor had bags of ice all around their bodies, and standing close to the tanks which were in full chiller mode (with the glycol jackets around the outside of the tanks).  Even still, they looked like they just got out of the lap pool.  Eventually, we had them seated in a shaded area.  But, I overheard someone say “I wish I would have gotten a taste.” So one grower, then another, then all of them went back to the pad.  So did all the club members, and my staff followed them trying to get them back in a shaded area.  I laugh now, like with many of these stories, but then I was genuinely concerned.  I mean, it was hot, and the weather was hard on the younger people let alone growers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.  

They wouldn’t leave their barrels, they wanted to tell their stories.  The Grower’s Party is a whole day dedicated to them, ‘cause they are the stars of the show.  So it’s no wonder they didn’t want to leave the pad, standing their ground in that hotter-than-hot heat.  And they did NOT budge.  This is about relationships, I’ve said before about this business, and this pride in our work is one of the many things we have in common with our growers.  The intensity in representing their family vineyard is what kept them on that hot crush pad, that first year.

      Now, of course, we have the party on the lawn.  It’s still hot, yes, but a little bit more tolerable.  But it wouldn’t matter, they won’t leave their barrels’ sides, for anything.  I love seeing members of my staff bond with the growers, learn more about the wines they pour everyday and where the fruit came from.  The Grower’s Party truly is a day for the growers.  I’ve always felt it was like the rockstars entering the arena, and I think that we all should see it that way.  The same level of pride and joy we feel toward the Dutcher Crossing  wines is easily mirrored if not slightly eclipsed by these growers and what they feel for their vineyards, the fruit they provide for our wines.  There was just no convincing them to walk away from their barrels.  That kind of passion can’t be instilled, or taught.  It’s just who they are, and that can only be admired and studied by consumers and those of us in the business.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Nick: Way of Life, Not a Job

Nick Briggs, who is now our associate winemaker, was one of seven final candidates Kerry and I had selected to replace our last assistant winemaker.  Nick was on of the candidates that we were particularly interested in, and we wanted to meet him.  Kerry thought Nick was great for the position, but I was still a little on the fence.  Not that I had doubts, I just wasn’t as inspired by him as Kerry was.  But we met with him, and he was dressed to the 9’s with his pleated dress pants, looking all dapper, and he spoke to us about his background and skill-set, and that he was an assistant winemaker somewhere else.  Kerry voiced the concern that this is kind of a lateral move for him (Nick).  Kerry had in his head the fear that Nick wouldn’t be around too long as he’s already been an assistant winemaker.  What would the longevity be of a guy with this level of skill?  It’s not much of a step up.  The other guy we were interested in was this English bloke that was a cellar master somewhere else, so a job here would be a huge step for him.  But when Nick approached us and said, “I have my boots and gear in the truck, and if I’m not the guy for the job, fine, but I’m happy to help you out till you find the right person.” I asked Kerry if he heard what he said.  Kerry said ‘yeah’, but then I asked him again, “Did you HEAR what he said?” I knew, he was our guy.

It’s clear, it’s not just a job for him, it’s a way of life.  Nick brings everything to the table, to our winery; humor, really extensive wine knowledge, and an approachability that’s perfect for what we want guests to feel when they arrive.  In business, there needs to be a balance of all moving parts.  Nick brings an attitude and a personality that is all about passion.  In the wine life, you can have two attitudes:  1, you make it part of you so it’s not just a job, it’s a career and something you can build and grow with.  Or, 2, it’s just another job; you take no ownership and just go from day today, no that interested, no passion.  Nick is a winemaker who’s made this winery and the story my father and I started so many years ago a part of him.  He’s a part of this winery, in a serious way.  Kerry would agree.  He does agree.  I keep thinking about him saying “I have my boots and my work clothes in the car”, and how Kerry and I looked at each other and knew.  We just knew.  So why am I telling this story?  Because it’s important to see how you can have a plan but learn as you go.  I didn’t expect for Nick to say that, and for Kerry and I to agree in the end as strongly as we did.  At first, I wasn’t as sold on him, and then after that last interview Kerry wasn’t as taken by him.  But, it was him.  His actions, his approach to the wine life, to mentoring the staff (not intimidating them, inviting them to learn about wine rather than condescending to them), to telling the Dutcher story.  It’s a perfect fit.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cabernet Split

It’s a kick as a winery owner to see what wines people gravitate toward.  There are so many that love that more classic California style of Chardonnay like Stuhlmuller or Costello, with the butter and oak suggestion the whole way through, then you have your more old-world Chard lover who’ll take the Winemakers’ Cellar Chardonnay out of the tasting room by the palate!  And Zinfandel, well, we make eight different Zinfandels year to year, and those preferences are all over the board.  The Zins are hard to keep track of, frankly, on where the trends are and who likes what— of course you have the Maple Vineyard loyalists who’ll take the vineyard designate and Bill’s block over anything, then I notice people who only love our Proprietor’s and Bernier, or the Pritchett Peaks® Zinfandel from Rockpile…  Again, it’s hard to keep track of.

One particular split that I’ve always found interesting is the fans of the flagship Taylor Vineyard Cabernet versus the Alexander Valley Cabernet from the Cooney Vineyard.  This friendly ‘rivalry’, I guess you could call it, has proven again and again to be the most opinionated and fierce.  People who like the Taylor seem to be those that like that big California Cabernet but with a little more swagger and finesse to its taste and overall palate.  People who prefer the Cooney seem to me to be the Cabernet drinkers who like that gritty, dark, chewy and chunky style of Cab.  It never fails, literally every time a group comes in and someone behind the bar pours the Taylor and Cooney side-by-side, the camps are split.  And, I’ve always found this fascinating.  It’s fun to see people split into smaller groups in their thoughts and opinions about the two Cabernets.  Of course there’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just fun, for them and for me.

Wine is about getting together, with family and friends, loved ones, and finding what you like.  The playful rivalries are fun, too.  Nothing brings a little antagonism out like Taylor and Cooney.  I mean, I see it again and again.  Between my employees, between myself and some of the tasting room staff…  The jokes start flying, we start laughing and having little debates on which is better, and we move on.  All in the life of someone living the wine life. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Don’t Drop My Babies

I know dropping fruit is part of the game.  I’ve always known that.  But that doesn’t mean I like it, or have to like it.  One of the first times I tasted Kerry’s wines, which was the 2005 Syrah, he asked me what I thought.  I said, “They’re okay.” I think he may have been a little offended.  Kerry being the devoted guy he is wanted to do it better the next vintage, so he called for a green drop of fruit, insisting the change needed to be made in the vineyard.  This means that while the fruit is on the vine, and still green (before veraison, or ripening), the crew goes through the vineyard blocks and drops fruit to facilitate concentration in the berries.  Well, I didn’t know how seriously Kerry was going to take my remarks.  I’d say he dropped anywhere from 50 to 55% of the fruit, between the “green drop” and an additional drop after ripening.

First time I saw all that fruit on the ground, a “green drop”, I about had a momentary meltdown—  Well, it was more than a meltdown, I think it lasted about a week.  I mean, my fruit, my babies, were just lying there.  On the ground!  All that kept going through my head was, “It costs money to drop the fruit, and all that fruit on the ground will never be made into wine to sell.” Look, I understand that this has to be done, but it was another hard lesson I had to not just learn but appreciate as a winery owner.  What a mean lesson, though.  A painful one.  It hurts to even talk about, I swear.  But I know, if I want the wine to have more structure, more character and persuasive power, then we need to drop fruit.  But just imagine, seeing a pile of fruit, about a foot tall, mounds all over the vineyard of fruit that was just cut off, just dropped.  Just sitting there.  Potential product, gone…  UGH!  See?  Just thinking about it bothers me…  My poor grapes!  My babies!  But, it needs to happen.  For the quality of the wine.

Walked the vineyards just this morning, and I enjoyed the peace, the in-tact picture I see.  I know it’ll change, and I know it has to change if Dutcher wines are to continue tasting as delicious as they are, as our winemaking team makes them.  It makes sense, it just hurts.  I mean, just imagine seeing all that fruit, just lying there…

Expect me to post a picture of the mounds later in the season.  Right now, the grapes are all there.  Together and so beautiful, untouched.  I know it’s coming, the green drop.  I know more or less when it’s going to happen.  Just don’t expect to see me around the winery.  And if you do see me on-property, I’ll be hiding in my office, so I don’t have to see those mini green mountains.  ‘Cause if I go out there, there’ll be a meltdown.  Ask my staff, no one wants that.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

They Taste like WHAT?

One harvest dinner, only a couple years into owning the winery, I had my oldest brother Steve come out from Wisconsin.  I was getting more and more familiar with the California Wine Country way of life, or so I thought.  Definitions of dinner and stuff you can eat is different out here, obviously.  This was made very apparent one year when one of the courses was barbecued quail.  My brother gave me a look.  He didn't know what to think.  Nor did I, especially after seeing one of our growers eat not just the quail, but the bones.  “The bones!” I thought.  My brother was, well, I don’t know which would be the better word— ‘disgusted’?  ‘Disturbed’?  It may sound like I’m being judgmental, but I’m not.  I was a little bit taken by the demonstration of the old school wine country farmer mentality.  Nothing goes to waste.  This same grower also told me that he used to eat robins and their bones growing up.  Now this was a bit hard to hear, but it’s the way out here.  That wine country farmer mentality, especially families that are 4th or 5th, or 6th generation, this is just what they do.

Once we started talking about it, the whole table knew what was going on.  And everyone was reacting.  This grower kept on eating quail, and the bones… crunch, crunch, CRUNCH.  Everyone was looking, but he just kept going.  Looking at my brother, he couldn’t wait to leave the table.  Again, I’m not judging, I’m just sharing how casually and freely he ate these bones.  When he was asked about how they tasted, he compared them to eating robin bones as a kid.  In my head, I was like, “HUH?” I still am, but this reminded me that this is where I’m supposed to be, here in wine country for experiences like this.  I still have dinner with this grower from time to time, but not when he’s fixing gamey meats, or any birds.

My brother hasn’t been out here for a harvest dinner since.  But I’m here, living the wine country way of life and this is just what you find at the table sometimes.  People eating quail, and their bones.  THEIR BONES.  I still have a hard time saying it, but it happens.  I can’t look at a quail now the same way, I’ll tell you.  I’ll get over it eventually.  That same grower now brings over abalone, meats from his hunting outings, among other things.  This was part of building the relationship.  In wine country, relationships are what sustain the community, what builds businesses and make life out here so enjoyable.

I’ve owned Dutcher Crossing for almost ten years now, and these instances keep coming up.  They’ll only happen here in Sonoma County, I’m convinced.  I can’t wait to post the other stories I have.  This is actually pretty mild in comparison.  I mean, eating robin bones isn’t something that happens every day, or really ever in the lives of most people.  But, just wait and see what other stories I have.  Just wait….

Oh, and Steve still won’t come out for harvest dinners.

All my best,