Select Page
Corrected version: Sonoma grape supply, smoke impact, fall pruning, and winter mustard

Sonoma grape supply, smoke impact, fall pruning, and winter mustard

Are you running out of Chardonnay? Here’s why…

The long years of wildfires in Sonoma has taken its toll in the vineyards and on the grape supply. Combine that with high e-commerce demand from Covid. And you get this:


Is that smoke I smell in my Merlot? Maybe, or maybe not…

The presence of smoke taint appears to be overblown in the wine press. In a totally anonymous Feb. 20221 blind-poll of over 200 winemakers, about half the winemakers have found less than 25% of the wine shows any signs at all of smoke in the wine. A majority of winemakers from Sonoma have found some evidence of smoke impact and less evidence of damaging smoke taint in their 2020 vintage wines. Most are now choosing to refer to the issue as ‘smoke impacted’ and not ‘smoke taint’ because while ‘taint’ refers to serious flaws, and smoke-derived molecules may be present, smoke is likely a minor impact and probably taking a back seat to the other more elevated attributes of the wines. These slides from Laffort and UC Davis allow you to dig deep into the chemistry:

 


That’s a lot of grapevines to prune by hand!

Even in smaller ranches of a few acres, it still adds up to many thousands of vines. And vines must be pruned by hand, one by one, it’s the only way. And when you take the time to carefully choose how many fruiting buds to leave on each vine in the winter, the result will be fruit that will ripen to perfection at the end of summer.

Our Sagrantino vines below are where the Dysfunctional Family ‘Estate Reserve’ is grown at the Hydeout Ranch. Click on this link to learn more about Sagrantino, a “thick skinned, dark, tannic monster.” The whole family gets involved in pruning and tieing…


If it’s February in Sonoma, it must be time for mustard…

What a spectacular panoramic of Hydeout Sonoma’s client vineyard, Frog Creek, a steeply-sloped vineyard at 800 feet elevation. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah grows here. Over the back fence next door is Peter Haywood’s famed Chamizal Zinfandel.

That’s me, Ken Wornick, waving to the drone flying overhead. Piloting the drone is filmmaker Joseph Daniel, producer of the 2018 film, Tiny Vineyards.


 

Dysfunctional Family Winery – You still haven’t tried our wines? Boldly defying wine branding convention and in a humorous contrarian twist – ours is a simple premise – we take our wine seriously, but not ourselves. For decades we have farmed the vineyards and produced the wines for over fifty noteworthy private clients from Silicon Valley to Sonoma. Now we invite you to taste our own family’s wines, visit our ranch, and feel at home, relaxed, and ready for fun. That’s why we named our winery after all of our wonderful families – happily, humorously, proudly Dysfunctional

We deliver, or you can pick up at the ranch in Sonoma

Try out this delicious Red Blend tonight…

 


And a farming post-script from the Hydeout Ranch

Thanks for reading these blog posts, for your great questions, and for being loyal customers of our Dysfunctional Family wines.

Ken and Cynthia

 

Sonoma 2020 grape harvest finally winds down as red flag weather warnings continue…

Sonoma 2020 grape harvest finally winds down as red flag weather warnings continue…

Another grape harvest in the books. 22 vintages for me. And what a vintage 2020 has been. The winery established a ‘no visitor’ employees-only policy, so no client visits this season. We’ve all been functioning as a tight pod. And hanging over the entire harvest were continuous red flag warnings and the smoke taint issue widely appearing in the news.

winery bbq

As the last few tons of fruit rolled in, I hosted the winery crew with my annual harvest BBQ. This great group destroyed a cooler full of beer and many dozens of hamburgers. Love these folks! From left to right: Kate, Rex, Victor, me, Jose, Miggy, Arturo.

Smoke

I’ve personally tasted many dozens of 2020 wines in tank and barrel and (so far) there is little to no evidence that smoke taint has made its way into the wines. I know, it’s a big claim, but that’s honestly what I’ve personally observed. We won’t know for certain of course for a few more months, so stand by for an honest re-assessment this winter. To understand more about the process of smoke taint, read here: Smoke taint as presented by the Wine Spectator in 2017 and Smoke taint as presented by the Wine Spectator in 2020.

6 year fire map

Check out this map of the most recent 6 years of wild fire in Napa and Sonoma wine country.

Rejected Fruit

While smaller producers forged ahead with harvest and winemaking, larger players rejected huge loads of fruit. Why did some producers proceed with harvest while others rejected grapes? Many theories abound. Here are my personal observations:

  1. In many dozens of 2020 wines made from northern california fruit, we have observed very little presence of actual smoke flaws in the wine so far.
  2. Larger growers maintain significant crop insurance. Their policies allow for smoke taint as a covered item. If buyers reject their fruit, they are covered.
  3. Winery’s contracts with growers also provide for smoke taint as a rejectable flaw.
  4. Labs have the ability to test for smoke taint in the parts per billion range, in alignment with grower and winery contracts and policies.
  5. Grower and winery insurers have established smoke taint rejection criteria.
  6. The mere mention of smoke taint associated with a wine is enough to sully a valuable brand. So why put the brand at risk when you can collect insured coverage?
  7. But, the science of smoke taint is not perfectly understood.
  8. Market forces are in control. Some wineries are not unhappy with the chance to reduce a glut of inventory from the various production, economic, and virus pressures in the market. Thus rejecting fruit under contract may be a welcome relief from a mounting inventory and financial burden.
  9. Worthy of note, brokers have quietly tied up significant portions of the 2019 bulk wine supply right as the fires started.
  10. Last, look for lots of 2020 rosé wine soon  – due to the way rosé is made by quickly removing the smokey skins from the juice, many wineries took that step.

Barreled Wines

Back to the 2020 vintage – at the conclusion of fermentation, the wines are pressed and barreled. They are carefully labeled and stacked. It’s quite a feeling to see 12 months of work put safely to bed.

barrel fermenting chardonnay

Barrels of wine completing the last of primary fermentation. Note the white plastic bungs are ‘breathable’ allowing the last of the CO2 gas to escape.

barrel stack

In this barrel stack of Hydeout Sonoma client wines (about 1,500 cases of wine in view in this image), the wines will sit cool and quiet through winter.

The very last tub of fruit for 2020

DSCF1060

The very last ‘lug’ (40 pound picking bin) of the 2020 vintage – super dark tight and gorgeous Cabernet berries from Sonoma.

Jan Keating

One of our really fun and generous Hydeout Sonoma clients cooked an over-the-top breakfast for the harvest crew. A 5:00am start was wrapped by 9:00am. In the foreground…braised rib “Birria”, a delicious classic, along with fresh tortillas, beans, and drinks. Thank you Jan!

OPen top syrah tank

Final tank of red wine gassed, settling, and ready for oak barrels.

A moment for MLF science – the secondary ML (malo-lactic) fermentation and chromatography

Why are some wines crisp and citrusy and others so soft and jammy or buttery? Primary fermentation involves the conversion of sugar to alcohol according to this formula: 2 parts sugar + yeast = 1 part alcohol + 1 part CO2 + heat. As the yeast converts the last few molecules of sugar, the red wins are pressed and settled, then moved into barrels. Over the winter months, the ‘secondary fermentation’ occurs. In the presence of the friendly and beneficial bacteria, relatively weak Malic acid (somewhat tart) is slowly converted into Lactic acid (the softer acid typically associated with dairy). This has the benefit of reducing some of the tartness and making the resulting wine taste softer. To monitor the status of the secondary “ML” fermentation, we use paper chromatography.

Gas chroma 1

The secondary ML fermentation reaction is undertaken by the family of lactic acid bacteria (LAB); Oenococcus oeni, and various species of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. Chemically, malolactic fermentation is a decarboxylation, which means carbon dioxide is liberated in the process.

gas chroma 2

Please watch this You Tube video of how we perform this MLF status test: Video fully explaining the MLF test process

Marking the end of the harvest and arrival of the Monarch Butterflies
Shmetterling

So cool! Getting ready to depart for their winter range in Mexico, our first siting of the Monarch butterflies at the Hydeout Sonoma ranch. Monarch butterflies are an iconic species, easily recognized by their large and vibrant orange wings. Monarchs carry out one of the most incredible cross-continental journeys in the animal kingdom, travelling upwards of 3000 miles from Canada and the northern United States, and particularly Sonoma, to the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of Mexico.

Other stuff

Metallica drive in movie

Cyn and I have oddball ways of celebrating our wedding anniversary. For our very first anniversary in 1988, then living in Texas, we took a rickety public bus across the Rio Grande River into Nuevo Laredo to watch greyhound dog racing. (Sadly, the track is now owned by the Zeta’s Gang. 32 years later, in the middle of Covid, we celebrated by going to the exceptionally retro West Wind Drive-in theatre in Solano – to watch the one-night only release of Metalicca’s drive-in movie aptly titled Pandemica. The grape harvest started early the following morning.

dinner

And as the harvest concludes, a small celebration in the backyard with close friends to acknowledge that even in the middle of Covid, we can still celebrate life, food & wine, the seasons, and friendship.

The smoky grape harvest of Sonoma 2020

The smoky grape harvest of Sonoma 2020

A smoky harvest like no other…

Pandemic, wildfires, smoke, and riots. And who can forget the electromagnetic solar pulse that destroyed the electrical grid! While all this mayhem has been going on, the Sonoma wine industry has been grappling with a grape harvest like no other.

While firefighters fought blazes across the west, growers attempted to protect their employees from the virus with masks, thermometers, and testing while also protecting the valuable grape crop from endless exposure to smoke. The compounds from smoke can settle on the grapes and be metabolized into the fruit through the grape skins. In some wines, the effect will be little to none and the smoke is no cause for worry. In other cases, experts and trained consumers will detect the smoke taint in the wine after 6 months or so. Behind the scenes, most winemakers are saying that the frequency of smoke taint is overblown. We’re just not seeing detectable levels as wines complete fermentation. But no one wants to be caught pressing a narrative that could appear to be self-serving. Click here to read a detailed story on smoke taint from noted SF Chronicle wine writer Esther Mobley and this article by noted chemist Clark Smith.

Here are some photos of Hydeout Sonoma’s first few days of the smoky harvest:

Bringing in the fruit:

We managed to bring in great fruit despite the many challenges, and thankfully most of it looks to be free of smoke taint. But we won’t really know for sure until a few months from now when a) the lab test results are back and b) the wine is safely in barrels.

Processing the fruit:

This time-lapse video link below says it all: Click here for the time lapse video of the winery crush pad.  Note that each white bin that arrives and departs represents a half-ton of fruit, equal to about 80 gallons or 35 cases of finished wine. I am standing atop the catwalk at the top of the frame ruling over my loyal subjects.

Fruit processing

A 1/2 ton bin of Syrah waiting for the de-stemmer

Surprising news about what wine drinkers care about:

Grape growers and winemakers live and breathe farming and fermentation all year long, and many wine marketers wrongly assume that is what consumers want to hear about. But no, it appears that they are not very interested in how the wine is made or for that matter even how it’s grown. The top three important pieces of information consumers are after are 1) wine type, 2) flavor and taste, and 3) where the wine was produced. I suppose then a word to the wise – no more putting people to sleep droning on and on about farming methods, special blocks, blending trials, oak barrels, and so on.

Whhat wine customers are looking for?

Dysfunctional Family Winery construction news:

After 3 1/2 years of Sonoma County-required studies for a micro-winery Use Permit, we finally ‘turned some dirt’ and started digging test pits to reconfirm the building foundation requirements.

Geotech test pit 1

Excavator operator Jim Rong digging the test pit next to the old barn which will become the winery some day.

Geotech test pit 2

Don Whyte from PJC Geotechnical climbs into the test pit to study and report on the soil characteristics. We tossed in a Coors Light and a small dog and said “have fun down there”.

Happy winemaker:
IMG_1377

Underway with my 21st vintage. My happy face and the bags under my eyes is a regular gift from the long days of every harvest. That hat on my head, my local gym, well, I haven’t seen the place since March.

There goes my hero! – (watch the Foo Fighters song on You Tube)
DAW

Were you perhaps wondering who is this brave firefighter featured at the top of this post? His name is Dennis Wornick, and he is our middle child. He is a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service ‘Texas Canyon Hotshots’ based in LA. I am not certain where or when this picture was taken, but it was likely either on the Red Salmon Complex fire in or on the Dolan fire in Big Sur; and today his crew went into the Bobcat fire.