Speaking to winemakers over the years, many have mentioned to me that bottling is their most stressful time. Harvest is busy, of course, but it's an exhilarating time. Bottling, on the other hand, is just pure stress. You’ve done all this work, from vine to barrel aging. You’ve nurtured the wine and babied it along. Everything has gone just as you hoped, and now it’s time to take a vat of the stuff, break it into little pieces, run it through a machine and enclose it in a bottle.
And now I know exactly how they feel, as I just went through the same experience as I made my own Syrah.
It’s the final step, other than actual consumption, as I made my own Syrah at a custom-crush facility in San Francisco. I’ve blogged about starting the process and some of the decisions that get made during the winemaking, such as picking a yeast strain for fermentation. I’ve been a flying winemaker for a day, heading to the West Coast and back in just 24 hours to rack my barrel. And I’ve even had to look at things from a hypothetical marketing angle in designing my own label (though the wine will never be commercialized, due to the obvious conflict of interest).
And now, the moment of truth: Putting it into bottle without screwing it up.
The bottling line is probably the most high-tech gadget the wine has to go through in the whole process. It’s a wonder of modern engineering and efficiency. In the video you can see how the wine goes from its settling tank (I did not fine or filter the wine) to the bottling machine, where the bottles are first filled with a dose of inert gas (to offset oxidation), and are then filled by gravity. Each bottle is over-filled slightly, then the level adjusted automatically before the cork is inserted. On goes the label, and with a few hands on deck, the bottles are boxed up.
It’s certainly a moment of pride, especially tasting the wine just beforehand—at this point, it’s open and exuberant, and showing more weight and depth than it has all along. As a winemaker, you hope to capture the wine at just the right moment when bottling.
In the end, I couldn’t be happier or prouder of the end result, and I kept hearing myself answer the proverbial “Well, how is it?” question from my friends with the line I’ve heard a thousand times from winemakers: “I’m really happy with it.”
For the wine geeks out there, the numbers are 14.31 percent alcohol, with a pH of 3.69 and a total acidity of 0.52 g/100ml. The wine is totally clean too, with both volatile acidity and residual sugar in the completely normal and dry range.
Interestingly enough, I found myself unable to review the wine as I normally review wines. Even when I’m drinking casually, every wine I taste causes a tasting note and score to pop into my head. But when drinking my own wine, I kept drawing a blank—too much emotion involved to take a clinical approach toward it. And so once again, I can see how winemakers have different feelings about their wines being assessed by a critic. (I wonder, should I send my wine in for review, to put myself through the whole torture test?)
To celebrate the event, Nancy (who worked the end of the bottling line like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory) joined me for a pseudo-release party. Joining up with a few friends, we brought a few bottles to dinner at Boulevard, where chef Nancy Oakes and sommelier Rob Perkins were more than generous with their time and efforts. Seeing that I had brought in my own wine, Rob opened up a bottle of the Skylark Pinot Blanc Mendocino Orsi Vineyard 2007, a wine that he makes himself along with his fellow Boulevard sommelier, John Lancaster. Its bright, fresh, unadorned style was a perfect match with the Dungeness crab salad, fresh hearts of palm, shaved black truffles, white asparagus tips and truffle crème fraîche.
We followed that up with a bottle of Alban Viognier Edna Valley Alban Estate Vineyard 2007, the rich, slightly sweet tropical fruit profile of which melded nicely with a lush, almost heady miso-roasted local black cod and lobster bisque scented with ginger.
A few mid-courses - fonduta ravioli with shaved black truffles and a quail stuffed with duck merguez - easily soaked up a bottle of Flowers Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Camp Meeting Ridge 2006, before finally getting to my Syrah. If you know me, you know that as soon as I saw shaved black truffles came with the organic, free-range chicken (a slow-roasted breast and crisp thigh stuffed with truffle sausage and confit wing) that I was in heaven. Following that, a bottle of the sleek, stylish Quintessa Rutherford 2005 then went with the cheese course.
It was a fun evening, with the conversation spinning from politics to which five celebrities would your spouse let you get away with having an affair with (assuming the opportunity were ever to present itself). By the time we were done, we were the only ones left in the place. Which just goes to show: After all that work to get the wine into the bottle, the best part is getting it out.
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