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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Flying Winemaker for a Day

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 6, 2008 10:36am ET

James Molesworth, Flying Winemaker. I kind of like the sound of that. No, I don’t have any delusions of grandeur, and I also happen to still like my day job. But still, "Flying Winemaker," even for a day? It’s worth a shot.

So with that in mind, I hopped the early flight yesterday morning from New York to San Francisco and then took a 10-minute cab ride to the custom crush facility where I’ve been making my own barrel of Syrah from the 2007 vintage. It was time to rack my lone barrel and I wanted to get my hands dirty.

Racking is a basic necessity for red wines and so there’s really no room for debate, the way there might be when deciding on which yeast strain one uses for fermentation, or which type of oak barrel to use.

Racking is needed to aerate the wine so that it doesn’t become hard-edged and reduced. It's also used to remove the gross lees (sediment) that have settled out over time. As you can see from my video, it’s a fun process if you only have to do one barrel. It was cool to get purple stains up to my elbows and it definitely helped me "connect" with my wine a bit, considering I don’t get to check on it every day. But I couldn't help but imagine how my back would feel if I had to do a few dozen barrels a day ...

After racking my barrel, the resident winemaker, Michael Zitzlaff, took me through a tasting of several other ’07 Syrahs from Santa Barbara (which is where my fruit came from) as well as a few other regions in California, covering a diverse range of vineyards including Alder Springs, Eaglepoint, White Hawk, Stolpman and more.

As we moved along we tried different barrels—new, used and even zebra barrels (with alternating staves of new and used oak)—containing the same wine. That's always a fun way to see the effect different amounts of oak have on a wine. For my own wine, I felt there was enough oomph from the vintage that I didn't need to use any new oak, so I opted for a one-year-old barrel with medium toast. I really liked the way my wine was showing, while overall the ’07 Syrahs are showing lots of black fruit flavors with ample structure. It looks like a strong vintage and the '07s were a big step up from some of the ‘06s we tasted, which seemed a bit angular and lean.

When I was done with the hard labor, I hooked up with some friends for dinner at the Slanted Door, a Vietnamese restaurant that has grown from humble beginnings into a large 200-plus seat bustling restaurant located in the brand new Ferry Building overlooking the water. It was a Monday night but that didn’t seem to matter as the place was really buzzing.

The wine list is a wine geek’s dream, heavy on Austrian, German and Loire whites along with a handful of light-bodied, cool-climate reds from Burgundy, the Loire, Jura and so on. Prices are modest too. A bottle of Hirsch Grüner Veltliner Qualitätswein Trocken Kamptal Kammern Heiligenstein 2006 was bright and floral, proving a nice match with a round of vegetable spring rolls and other appetizers. A main course of cellophane noodles with crabmeat stole the show though, as it played effortlessly with the off-dry François Chidaine Montlouis Sur Loire Les Bournais 2005—a perfect match,

Properly satiated after a day of honest work, I was promptly dropped off back at the airport where I caught the red eye back home. From coast to coast and back again in 24 hours, Flying Winemaker for a day.

The Slanted Door
1 Ferry Building No. 3
San Francisco, Calif. 94111
Telephone: (415) 861-8032
Website: www.slantedoor.com

Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  February 6, 2008 1:24pm ET
James,Thanks for the continuing updates! Did you run a malic test to see if the wine had completed ML prior to racking? Curious to hear . . .

Racking is certainly one of those things that everyone has slightly different opinions on. I know that there are some winemakers that prefer not to rack their syrahs often, instead choosing to bung them up tightly and 'let them ride' for 12-18 months . . .

I have yet to rack my 07's and will be running enzymatic ML's on each to assess where they are in the process later this week.

Keep blogging and keep us posted on the wine! Thansk!
James Molesworth
February 6, 2008 1:46pm ET
Larry: Yup, malo was finished. The last time I tasted it was just as malo was starting so it was great to see the 'before and after' so to speak...
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  February 6, 2008 1:53pm ET
Ahh racking...really just another excuse to sit in the garge with my wine geek friends and barrel sample! We are going to wait for spring for racking #1 -- a bit warmer temperatures to kick start any residual ML fermentation that needs to be complete. This is a great hobby...isn't it?? Enjoy
Eric Arnold
NY, NY —  February 6, 2008 2:40pm ET


How much junk came out of the barrel, and what did you do with the extra space once all the lees was out? Do they have a topping barrel that they then add to your wine? is it all juice from the same vineyard?

Also, what did you think of the Eaglepoint you tasted? I really liked the '06 wine from that vineyard

Eric Arnold
Wine Spectator News Editor
James Molesworth
February 6, 2008 2:46pm ET
Eric: There's a surprising amount of cloudy, not-too-thick sludge that comes out, particularly when the power washer hits it. I topped up the barrel with more '07 Syrah from the same vineyard source (the Thompson vineyard in Santa Barbara). I needed about 5 liters to get the level back up, so basically 2 percent of the total juice in the barrel (which is a 228 liter Damy barrel).

The Eaglepoint was really fruit driven, lush and rich. Very California in style for me. I liked the Stolpman fruit quite a bit too - very dark with a brawny undertow.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  February 6, 2008 7:40pm ET
James, I see a lot of good ratings coming out for White Hawk sourced wines. What were your impressions of that vineyard? I've been toying with the idea of doing a Crushpad barrel for a couple of years now. The whole operation has really grown in that short time!
James Molesworth
February 7, 2008 1:41pm ET
Troy: That was an interesting one to compare to my own - White Hawk is not that far from Thompson yet the profiles of the two are totally different. Thompson is bigger for me in terms of structure, with a more briary undertow and a mix of red and black fruit. In contrast, the White Hawk was almost entirely black fruit driven and rather flashy.
Mr-mrs Joel P Friedman
Hillsborough, CA —  February 11, 2008 8:15pm ET
James - - we have a Crushpad group also making the Thompson Vineyard Syrah this year (using a zebra barrel as you describe in your blog). We barrel-tasted a few weeks ago and are encouraged by the early results. Will you be attending the Mash Up next week? We'd love to compare wines. Joel Friedman.
Ben Justus
NY, NY —  February 12, 2008 2:49pm ET
Dear James,I understand you oversee WS's Restaurant Awards Program, is there an avenue (on the website or otherwise) for a consumer like me to comment on an award winning restaurant's wine service? I recently dined at a Best of Award Winner and had a rather shocking experience: outrageously rude sommelier, 5 x retail pricing, etc. Seems like the sort of thing that should be taken into account before the next Awards review.
James Molesworth
February 12, 2008 6:03pm ET
Joel: I won't be at that event unfortunately, but maybe I'll be able to have a sample of my wine there.

Ben: The program is now handled by Nathan Wesley. You can send comments to restaurantawards@mshanken.com. Also, if the restaurant is a current winner, you can comment on them directly via the restaurant awards database here on the website.
Jonathan Mepham
February 15, 2008 3:45pm ET
James, looks like fun, any chance for contact details for the winemaker, the racking wand you were using looks just the thing for a small winery in NZ.
James Molesworth
February 15, 2008 6:41pm ET
Jonathan: You can reach out to Michael Zitzlaff at Crushpad, Inc. in San Francisco
James Molesworth
February 16, 2008 10:40am ET
Jonathan: You can reach out to Michael Zitzlaff at Crushpad, Inc. in San Francisco.
Steven Glazer
Orinda —  February 19, 2008 7:23pm ET
James-I appreciate the inside look at winemaking. I have to admit that I was taken aback at the lack of hygiene in the method of barrel racking. Was this because it is "your" wine and not for the consumer market or are any germs transmitted removed in some other way or eliminated by the alcohol. Sorry for the novice inquiry.
James Molesworth
February 20, 2008 9:53am ET
Steven: I don't think it's an issue between the alcohol and sulphur adjustments...think of all the feet that have trodden grapes throughout history...

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