September 2011 Archives

It is the end of the day on Tuesday, September 27, 2011, and it has been a satisfying day at the winery.  I am Tim Bell, the newly-appointed Click photo to enlargewinemaker for Dry Creek Vineyard.  It's hard to believe, but we have all our Chenin Blanc and nearly all the Sauvignon Blanc in the house for this year.  Some of my colleagues in cooler regions of Sonoma are just starting their white grape harvest.  The fruit has been coming in looking clean and fresh.  I get a thrill when our cellar master, Jerry, takes a big whiff of the aromas at the hopper and says how much he loves it!  "Smell that lemongrass," he tells me, and I feel like I'm at my first crush again.  It's nice to see people who get as excited about the promise of harvest as I do.

This has been one of those years where we winemakers have to test our assumptions about the correlation between sugars and flavors.  For years, we've been saying that we want to pick on flavor, not just sugar.  Usually this has been used as justification for waiting to pick as sugars climb and berries start to wrinkle a little.  This year has seen moderate, cool weather for most of the growing season.  As a result, we are seeing ripe flavors at lower than normal sugars.  So we as winemakers have to be willing to pick when the flavor-sugar relationship shifts on us.  Just this morning I was in a block of Zinfandel at Somers that looked and tasted fully ripe.  Zinfandel is notorious for needing to be at high sugars to be flavor-ready.  But when I saw the numbers from my sample, I couldn't believe it.  It will be one of the lowest sugars I've picked Zin at in years.  Nevertheless, I know it is time.

Speaking of Zinfandel, we picked our first load of it today; our first crop from the head-trained vines of DCV 2 right in front of the winery.  The fruit looks and tastes great.  I can't wait until, in future years, we have enough of these four great Zin clones to make small lots of each.   With both red and white fermentations going, it will be full-tilt, all-out, harvest crunch time for the cellar crew.  The guys seem hungry and ready for action.  With a little help from the weather, we are poised to cruise into October at a steady pace for harvest.  This is the time of year I live for as a winemaker—one more chance to get it right!

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I have to say that with all life can throw at me - the winery, the kids, the bills, the family BS in a family business, well, sometimes things can get pretty overwhelming.  Sometimes I wonder out loud about hanging up my winery hat and trying something different.  And then, in an instant, I am reminded why I love the wine industry so much. 

Last night, we hosted our annual Sonoma County Harvest Fair judges' dinner at our home.  Each year, on their "off night" we invite the judges and their dates for a casual dinner.  This has become something of an annual tradition and, over the years, we've made lifelong friends with many of the attendees who are invited to judge year after year.  I always like to bring out a "moldy oldie", a treasure from our cellar. This year it was our 1999 Estate Fumé Blanc DCV3 Vineyard. Wow. Breaking bread together is always a terrific way to get to know people and it's great for the winery because we get to share our wines with a mixture of trade and media personalities.

But, that's not really why we have the dinner.  I've come to realize that some of my greatest friends are also a part of the wine industry.  It's so special for us to reconnect over a wonderful meal and some delicious wines all the while enjoying a warm autumn evening in wine country. Sitting around the table last night listening to the din of laughter, clinking glasses and friendly chatter, I took a deep breath and felt very thankful for all that I have. 

Because, at the end of the day, isn't life all about your family, friends and those you cherish?  I think what makes wine so great is that it binds us together in common purpose to share memories and experiences that last a lifetime.  Last night, was one of those memories I will always cherish.

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Note to self: Avoid flying home on 9/11.

Despite a poorly planned departure date, I made it home from my NewClick photo to enlarge! York sales trip without a hitch. And just in the nick of time! Yesterday we received our first load of ripe grapes. As is the tradition around here, everyone gathered around the crusher to witness the big event. Even my father was there, to ceremoniously shovel grapes into the shiny stainless steel hopper. A glass of bubbles was raised as we toasted the safety, success, and serendipity of this annual event that is the lifeblood of our winery.

The 2011 harvest is important for a number of reasons:

  1. The resulting wines help us pay the bills. Duh.

  2. It's about time we started, after all it's already mid-September.

  3. The 2011 harvest marks several important milestones. 

Now about those milestones...

This is our 40th harvest.  It's also the 35th harvest for longtime employee Gary Emmerich, and it's the 1st harvest for newcomer Tim Bell. Tim joined us earlier this summer as winemaker. Now don't go getting all worried that massive Click photo to enlarge!changes are ahead: on the contrary, Tim's exacting nature and attention to detail will help us ensure the continued high quality and consistently delicious nature of our wines. Longtime consulting winemaker Bill Knuttel remains part of the team and will be working closely with Tim throughout the harvest.

We have a few other newcomers in the cellar too. Donovan Ackermann and Kosie Van De Merwe are our latest harvest interns (both hail from South Africa) to add to a long list of international talent who have worked crush at Dry Creek. They are joined by veterans Nova Perrill (assistant winemaker), Jerry Smith (cellar master), Abel Garcia (cellar foreman), Mike Gillian (mechanic), and Tarcicio Garcia (Abe's brother).

To say we have an awesome Click photo to enlarge!team is an understatement. Just look at this picture… there's enough brawn, brains, and bravado to make some seriously hard core wines! As the work on the crush pad begins to pick up the pace, the work continues in our vineyards. Besides the actual picking process, our vineyard crews are busily dropping fruit, eliminating clusters that don't look good and encouraging maturation and ripeness in the remaining clusters. Monitoring sugar levels is a daily to-do while waiting patiently for Mother Nature to do her thing. Harvest generally starts out rather slowly, but nearly always escalates to a frantic pace that somehow everybody manages to survive.

No wonder they call it CRUSH!

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Our family is in a state of transition.  My eldest child, Taylor-whom many of you know from the wine named after her, (Taylor's Vineyard Sauvignon Musqué) as well as her annual singing performances at our Summer Lobster Fest, recently headed off to college. Packing her up (three cars full!) was a surreal experience as any parent who has been through this transition knows. Happily, she is loving college life and has made many new friends.  Her grades better be positive too as we sure are going to have to sell a lot of wine to help pay for this! Our family life is slowly adjusting to a slightly less complicated existence with one less person in the house.

The winery is in a state of transition too. We have several new faces around the cellar and we are rapidly gearing up for our 40th harvest. With all the cold weather earlier this year, we're already behind schedule by a few weeks. But most winemakers I know secretly welcome a little delay as they finish up their last minute preparations before the first load of grapes arrive. This year, we will most likely start picking Sauvignon Blanc first. Quality looks good, but yields, especially in Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel are light. A bit of last minute scrambling is going on as we search for added vineyards to shore up our estate fruit supplies.

Sadly, I'll miss the arrival of our first load as I'm on a plane headed to New York for a week of market work. You certainly wouldn't have had that forty years ago! Nor, would you have had the overcrowded marketplace, distributor consolidation and a lagging economy to worry about in addition to harvest. As a matter of fact, harvest forty years ago was a very different matter.

The summer of '72 was very hot and dry. A serious wildfire had occurred on Bradford Mountain, just off West Dry Creek Rd. I was 9 years old at the time. The California Division of Forestry Services had set up camp in our newlyClick photo to enlarge cleared field- in what would soon become known as DCV 3-the birthplace of Fumé Blanc and the first vineyard planted to Sauvignon Blanc in the region. Dad was fresh out of UC Davis and excited as hell to make his first vintage of wine. The winery itself had not been built, so our first load of grapes was actually crushed over at Cuvaison Winery in Napa where good friend Tom Cottrell was winemaker. Many of the industry's legacy vintners were also getting started that same year—Bernard Portet, Jim Barrett, and Tom Burgess to name a few.

It was an era of trial and error, of teamwork and innovation—most Click photo to enlargewinemakers were new at this, and they were such early pioneers! One of my favorite family stories involves my father using chewing gum to plug up a leaky radiator hose during the long slow drive over the hill to Cuvaison. With 100 degree plus weather, the grapes were at risk of being scorched and a solution had to be found quickly.  A couple of wads of Wrigley's soon repaired the problem and Robert Young's old red truck eventually made it over the hill with our precious first load. Hopefully, we won't have similar problems this year although I'm sure there will be a few snafus...there always are.  

So much has changed in the nearly four decades of our existence. We now have dozens of fermenters, three presses, and thousands of barrels that fill the walls of the winery. Our cellar crew has grown to 9 and we have a full time maintenance man to repair radiator hoses instead of using chewing gum. I've grown up and so has the winery. What will the next forty years bring? Who knows, but I sure feel blessed to have been a part of the winery's early days as well as that very first harvest.

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from September 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

August 2011 is the previous archive.

October 2011 is the next archive.

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