Pinot Noir is a story of place, time and emotion...
When we talk about making Pinot, we always think it boils down to a discussion of place and time. We think of “place” because the place where the grapes are grown is critical to the voice of the wine, and “time” because each vintage is different. Each "place" has a voice- it's the thing you feel when you encounter a place that for some reason just feels "special" to you. We've all had the experience of being somewhere in the world and just feeling connected to that place, even if the person standing next to us doesn't feel that at all.
Vineyards are no different. One vineyard may have all the empirical things a winemaker might look at- soil, climate, micro-climate, rootstock, variety, clone, row orientation to the sun, and on and on. The place next door can be identical in all those respects, but you just "feel" something there. That is a place you want to make wine, and that thing you feel about it, that "voice", is what hopefully will be conveyed through the wine.
But that voice of place is affected by "time"; the vintage- it can be a cool year, warm year, early harvest, late harvest, and so on. In fact, the buds for a particular year's grapes actually form the prior year, and there is lots of thought (although not a lot of studies that allow one to draw firm conclusions about specifics), that the weather during a given year during bud formation will affect the following year's grapes. The point is, the weather in a given year can substantially change aspects of the wine from a given place year to year, but at the same time, that "voice" should come through.
To make Pinot is to always remember that Mother Nature is in charge, and the only way to even begin to unravel the mysteries of the grape are to supplicate to her each year.
Probably the most familiar expression in wine is that “great wine is made in the vineyard”. This lesson is one we know quite well, but are reminded of each year. As winemakers, we are simply caretakers of the grapes. The moment they are picked describes the apex of their potential quality- they wine can never be better than that, and really, our job is to try to retain that quality through bottling. Pinot Noir should not be the story of a winemaker’s hands shaping the destiny of a wine through constant intervention, or the winemaker’s ego- such things only tell the story of a person, not the story of place or time.
So long before "minimal intervention" was a buzzword, it was how we approached winemaking. It’s not easy to “stand back”, to not intervene and to defer to Nature- human instinct is to the contrary. Minimal intervention requires a lot more effort than one might think, which is but one of the great ironies of working with Pinot Noir. We have learned over the years that the more we respect nature, and the less we intervene, the stronger the voice of the finished wines.
So, we try to avoid large differences in how we approach making all the different wines, as doing so teaches us nothing about place. By lessening the differences in how we make them, our goal is that the differences in the finished wines are the reflections of their place rather than some manipulation by us. Of course, in a given year, or in a given circumstance, we may have to react to the vagaries of nature, which only reinforces the fundamental truth that in Pinot Noir the only absolute is that there are no absolutes.
We aren’t proponents of adding “things” to our wines. Our fermentations are always done on “native” (wild) yeast rather than inoculating with commercial strains of yeast.
Our basic approach is to pick grapes at night when the fruit is very cold. We typically de-stem most or all of the grapes, and then let them soak at a temperature too low for fermentation to start (“cold soak"). While this approach is common for Pinot, we tend to push these cold soaks out a very long way- typically 7-12 days as opposed to a more typical 3-4 days. During that time, we do a lot of manual “punch downs” to keep the grapes in contact with the juice, to gently break the skins and to facilitate the release of color and flavor from the skins.
In addition to using wild yeast for our primary fermentations, we also let our secondary fermentation (“malolactic” - during which “malic” acid, which is a hard acid, converts to a softer “lactic” acid) occur naturally instead of adding commercial "starters". We don’t use the myriad “powders and potions” that can be utilized in winemaking- we can’t understand how a laboratory product makes a better wine than what nature gave you; if it isn't in the fruit you start with, it's never going to be in the bottle. We aren’t fans of waiting so long to pick grapes that they lack acid and then having to try to add enough acid to make up for it. Really, we just aren’t fans of trying to treat winemaking like a science project.
Sometimes, we like to give a nod to "old school" approaches, such as gently walking on the grapes to break the skins- an ancient process known as "pigeage". Only the most well trained and lithe cellar hands can perform this task.
The older cellar hands just get to shovel!
We like to press before the wine is completely dry and finish fermenting in barrels. When we press the grapes, only the very lightest and most gentle pressing is used. This is essentially “free run" juice- which has the very least astringency. Everything beyond that is captured separately and sold in bulk to other wineries.
During the midst of harvest, the winery can get crowded with bins- it can be a little like painting a bridge- we get all the way through the tanks and bins, and then have to start again at the beginning.
To further minimize differences in the finished wines, we only use barrels made by one cooper, with a singular flavor profile, and the amount of new oak we use is quite limited as we prefer the taste of grapes to the taste of oak.
Once in barrels, our minimal intervention approach continues. Once malolactic fermentation is over (typically December or so) we give the wines a small amount of sulfur to keep them stable. We try to limit the amount of sulfur we use, and typically bottle with fairly modest levels of sulfur. Aside from keeping the barrels topped regularly (each wine is topped with from its own pressurized keg to retain its distinctiveness), and sometimes stirring the spent yeast cells (the "lees") to improve texture and mouthfeel, we tend to leave the wines alone- other than regularly tasting them.
We typically bottle within the year. The wines are never fined, and only filtered if absolutely necessary (a rather uncommon event for us). We should add that while we choose not to do many things to our wines which can be done, there are many tools which can be beneficial if necessary (filtering being a good example). While we prefer to avoid such things, we also believe that quality is the primary concern, and we will use the tools we need if it will ensure quality.
There is no way to express the depth of the lessons we learn each year from making Pinot. Every vintage is a journey, and every year we gain insights into nature, this place we call our home, and about the mysteries of life. Our words about how we make these wines are wholly inadequate to convey what they mean to us, or how we feel about this special place, and this very special grape. We hope that the stories “in the bottles” convey those feelings for us.