Vine, Fermenter, Barrel,Wine: Stories from the Journey of a Grape at Willamette Valley Vineyards
(Last week, Jim Bernau, founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, led a small group on a tour of his winery from one-ton fermentation vats, through damp wine cellars full of barrels and into a room adjoining his tasting room where he uncorked some of his best wines.)
Jim Bernau stands by a fermenter filled with of pinot noir grapes that have been washed, and sorted. This is the “cold soak” where temperature is controlled with dry ice. These one-ton vats are intentional because smaller batches allow for less mechanization. The grapes will stay here anywhere from three to seven days, then will be gravity-fed and allowed to “free run” into special aging barrels.
Jim grasped a long-handled plunger-like contraction to “punch down” the grapes, a labor-intensive practice winemakers do typically three times a day to allow the mix to equally ferment. Labor intensive is the operative phrase around here.
The prior week, workers picked 24/7 at the Estate, more than 100 people working 13-hour days, feverishly picking and sorting grapes to beat the heavy rains which were predicted. Head Winemaker Forrest Klaffke says the crew brought in over half of the harvest in five days, which has typically taken five weeks. Happily, they gathered in all their pinot noir grapes before the rain turned on.
Photo of Jim Bernau and a work-weary Forrest Klaffke that needs to catch up on his sleep after the last few weeks.
The cooler season in Willamette Valley this year and the late start for the grapes to bud and ripen will turn out wine with a lower sugar and alcohol content, down from 14 percent to 12 to 13 percent next year, which is what Jim calls the “classic Oregon style,” what local wineries made for years before Oregon’s warm snap in recent years.
At the Vineyard, grapes ride over conveyer belt into a machine and workers carefully sort out the MOGS (material other than grapes).
Using this acronym to distinguish between grapes and other, makes sense, although the line between the two is fuzzy since everything at the winery seems to be permeated with the grapes’ purple nectar: vats full of it, hoses running with it, barrels heavy with it, rags sopped in it and curvaceous Riedel glasses diffusing it into the air and sending it gliding down the throats of wine tasters.
One machine with metal fingers sorts grapes carefully so they plop out perfect like purple marbles. One batch of intact grapes is sent to stainless steel vats to create a “whole cluster” pinot noir that explodes with wild berry flavor, “You can reach in and take a grape and the berry will burst in your mouth because of the fermentation.” said Caitlyn Kari, communications manager at WVV.
Here’s Forrest in the cellar beside some of his wines. One of his specialties is Quinta Reserva Pinot Noir Port Style.
Forrest started making this unique Pinot Noir Port in 2003 and they make only about 150 cases a year and release it around Valentine’s Day for their annual Pinot & Chocolate event – it sells out in 3 to 4 months. Current law prevents wine from being called “port” unless it was produced in Portugal, but because WVV has been producing the product for so long, they were grandfathered in.
This barrel is crafted from the wood of an oak tree, harvested, left to season, cut and strung with metal hoops and shaped over an open flame by a third-generation family business in France called Francios Freres Cooperage, which started in 1910 and is still going strong today. “The barrels are like the spices in your kitchen,” says Bernau. Meaning, each barrel adds distinctive characteristics to wine depending on the type of wood, how heavy the toast was and how many seasons of wine the barrel previously held.
WVV’s Cellar Master Daniel Shepard shows how a traditional Spanish Barrel maker fashioned barrels. The barrel goes through a 10-minute hot soak, is shaped over an open flame then toasted in an oven.
Willamette Valley Vineyards was the first winery in the world to use cork certified to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-standards by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program.
There’s a debate in the wine industry about what kinds of enclosures are best to use, but WVV sources its cork from cork farms in Portugal, like one called Fruticor, a fourth-generation family-run business that harvests cork from 300,000 cork oak trees. Men carefully cut bark from the trees with small axes to avoid penetrating the inner lining and impacting the growth pattern of the bark. Jim feels that cork is the better alternative to cheaper plastic corks and screwcaps.
WVV founded the Cork ReHarvest recycling program in January 2009, which has since become an independent non-profit led by Patrick Spencer, a former WVV employee.