Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a part of the team making the world-famous wine that is produced in Sonoma and Napa Valleys? We decided to get the inside scoop from a winemaker himself, Randy Bennett. Randy makes wine at Sojurn Cellars, but also has his own label, Townley Wines. Like many others, Randy knew he wanted to live in Sonoma in order to work in the wine industry. After making the move, he enrolled in an apprenticeship at Nicholson Ranch, where he learned to make wine from some of the most seasoned vets in the industry. Over the years of making wine, Randy has educated himself as much as possible on the science behind wine, as well as seeking out those that he can learn from and improve his skills. We were eager to hear what he had to say about the process, as it was clear how much passion and excitement he had for winemaking.
The next few months are a flurry of harvest, crush, and wine related on-goings, and quite possibly the busiest time of year for anyone in the wine industry. Although winemaking is a highly complex and year long process, Randy broke down what these next few months look like for someone working in the industry as a winemaker.
The action for winemakers during harvest all starts with verasion- when the grapes begin to change colors.
And yes, even the white grapes change colors too. When the vineyards reach 90% verasion, the winemaker and vineyard crew proceed with what is called a green pass or green drop. Essentially this means that they go through the vineyard, pruning off any grapes that are at less than 50% color. This makes for consistent ripeness in the crop.
After the green pass, the winemaker watches each vineyard and block of grapes very closely, returning at least once a day to do vineyard sampling. They use visual indicators, taste, and measure the sugar and acid levels in the grapes to help them decide when to pick. This is one of the biggest decision a winemaker makes throughout the wine making process, and is perhaps the most complex. Within one vineyard, each section (or block), and each clone might need to be picked at different times, so the winemaker generally has to make this decision several times throughout harvest season.
Then, the grapes have to be picked at night so that they stay cool before production. If you live in the area you have more than likely seen the night picks going on in the vineyards, complete with bright lights and busy crews moving quickly to beat the sunrise. Once the grapes are picked they are transported to the sorting line, where the winemaking team picks out any grapes that are below standard for fermentation.
At this point, the winemaker has yet another decision to make- do they de-stem the grapes? This has a significant effect on the flavor of the wine and each winemaker’s style is going to determine their decision here. Whole cluster fermentation can lead to a spicy flavor in the wine, and many winemakers will de-stem the majority of the grapes, leaving a portion of the stems in order to carry through some, but not all, of that flavor.
Critical Decisions in Wine Making
At this point in the process, many questions arise for the winemaker: where am I fermenting? How much is going into each vessel? Whole cluster or de-stemmed? Do you bleed the juice? All of these questions and more are answered depending on the ripeness of the grapes and how they look.
After some of these decisions have been made, the grapes are put through what is called a cold soak. This process is a few days long, and means placing the grapes in a colder environment to help understand the chemistry of the juice. Do the grapes contain any diseases or mold? This is the point when the winemaker can adjust the cleanliness of the grapes.
Come September, this process gets more complicated. The winemaker is the ultimate multitasker. This means taking morning trips to the vineyards, and gathering samples. In the afternoon, they are collecting and reviewing data to determine when to pick, if they need another trip to the vineyard for more samples, and scheduling the next sampling based on the ripeness of the grapes. At night, the winemaker might assist on the picks in the vineyards, making for a long day.
While already juggling this complex schedule, any grapes that have been processed are moved to fermentation and the winemaker needs to monitor this as well.
Fermentation is generally about 2 weeks long for red wine, and is the most scientific portion of the wine making process. Each day the winemaker takes samples to monitor the brix and temps (sugar levels), makes note of any smells the fermented juice is giving off, and schedules punch downs and pump overs to alter the wine’s chemistry and flavor.
As the juice starts to go dry, or the sugar levels drop, the winemaker begins to taste the juice on a regular basis. Once the sugar has dropped to the desired levels, it is time to press the grapeskins. First, the free run juice is pumped out of the fermentation tanks, and then the grapeskins are pressed to release more juice. The last and final portion of juice that is extracted during what is called a “hard press” is separated from the main wine, and generally sold to other wineries to make lower price point wine.
Once all of the desired juice is extracted, the wine is put into barrels. At this point, all the sugar is gone, and the wine goes through malactic fermentation. This is additional fermentation at an ambient temperature. How long this goes on, is a decision made by the wine maker based on desired flavor and taste. Red wine poses several questions to the winemaker here- do they add sulfer? Do they place the barrel in a cold room? Do they top it for aging? How long will you let the wine age?
Generally, red wine ages from 11-14 months or 18 months-2 years, depending on the varietal. Once the wine has aged to perfection, it is bottled. This process generally takes place right before harvest for the next season, to free up space in the winery’s barrels. This year, the warm weather has moved up harvest and the wineries are often bottling during harvest. The winemaking team must taste through the barrels, evaluating the oak impact and finalizing the blends before bottling.
As if this time of year couldn’t possibly get busier, this season is also when wineries have their fall releases of new wines. The industry is booming at this time of year and harvest, crush, bottling, and selling newly released wines have wineries working at full capacity.
Lucky for all of us, we get to reap the benefits of all the hard work of winemakers like Randy. We have seen a rise in small wineries popping up all over the valley, mostly in part to the availability of custom crush facilities that are able to be shared by small wineries and winemakers. This helps cut production costs and creates a community between the smaller wineries within the industry. Each new winemaker and new small winery contributes a little something new to wine country, and we couldn't be more grateful for that!