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Taking a Crack at a California Côte-Rôtie

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 9, 2007 2:22pm ET

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me if I wanted to make my own wine, I could’ve made a competing bid for Robert Mondavi Winery.

The answer, of course, is always "yes." I’d love to make my own wine. But I never could get around to it—one, I’ve got a day job and, two, I live in New York City.

But I recently unearthed a way to make my own wine while successfully dealing with those issues. Using a custom crush facility in California that buys grapes for hundreds of private customers, I can get access to a supply of quality grapes, and then have them vinified and aged according to my specifications.

It’s a little bit of winemaking via telephone (so I guess I know how Michel Rolland feels now) but it’s the best I can do.

The custom crush facility also bottles and labels the wine for me, and lo and behold, my inner marketing machine already has a label design in mind. Go figure. [Note: Because of the potential for a conflict of interest, the wine will not be commercialized, and will only be for consumption by family and friends.]

So, off I go, on my first ever winemaking foray. It will be a Syrah, sourced from Santa Barbara fruit from this year’s harvest. I’m aiming to make a more restrained style of wine—fruit, yes—but not all fruit. I want some structure that will support moderate (3 to 5 years) aging, and I want a wine that will do well either by itself or with food.

As the process moves along, I’ll let you know what I decide to do, from when the grapes get picked, to how it’s vinified and aged. And I’m sure I’ll wrestle with a few issues along the way. Right off the bat. for instance, am I asking a California vineyard to do too much by reining itself in so that I can get the style of wine I like? Have I already begun making a manipulated wine, instead of just letting the vineyard speak for itself?

But for a lover of Côte-Rôtie to be working with California fruit, this should be interesting either way ...

Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 9, 2007 3:13pm ET
I think this is AWESOME. Are you going to try to be "hands on" at all? There are LOTS of flights from NYC to Cali :) Are you using CrushPad in SF? How much wine are you making? Which vineyard are you sourcing fruit from? Are you doing 100% Syrah... or are you going to blend in some Viognier? Soooooo many questions!!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  October 9, 2007 3:33pm ET
The whole process is a blast but I think you are going to find that the growers are not going to care about specifically what you want when you are only buying a small amount of fruit. That being said, there is a lot of control you have once the fruit is in the winery...cold soak, maceration, yeast selection, blending etc. This year, I am making 75 cases this year (in my garage..so more hands on). Enjoy!
Neil Koffler
New York, NY —  October 9, 2007 3:43pm ET


Sounds like fun. I assume you are using CrushPad. Is WS footing the bill for this experience? In any event, please let us know about the overall economics and how those might factor into decisions you make.

Since I've already asked a personal question (who is paying), does that get me on the list of "friends" slated for a bottle.

Neil K.

Forest Hills, NY
Don R Wagner
Illinois —  October 10, 2007 1:41am ET
James...Salute...How much is the entry fee to rate it? Cha Cha Loco -- This should be great fun! What was that old saying in school about those who can teach, can"t ,,,,,,,you know what I mean....DRW
James Molesworth
October 10, 2007 9:29am ET
Brian: Oh, I'll be out there at some points along the way. I won't be stomping grapes, but I will be involved. Yes, I'm using Crushpad...

As for the wine itself, it's Syrah with maybe a drop of Viognier. The Syrah is coming from the Thompson vineyard in Santa Barbara.

Neil: No, it's coming out of my pocket - and the wife is not exactly thrilled. I culled my cellar recently and sent some stuff to auction to help finance the project.

At Crushpad, it's a one-price-covers-all deal, from purchasing fruit through vinification and up to bottling. So when it comes to the choice of a new barrel versus a used one for instance, there's no difference economically.

Don: You hit on a point there that is a factor in my decision to try this. Part of me says, who am I to judge other people's wines if I've never done it myself?

Do I know how wine is made? Yes. But never having actually done it I consider a hole in my credentials, so to speak. I don't want to be one of the junior high school gym teachers we all made fun of!
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 10, 2007 2:36pm ET
James,I think the questions that you ask yourself - are you asking too much of the vineyard (or something that is natural to the vineyard) - are you manipulating the wine - are very real questions. What conclusions did you come to with regard to these questions? What are your general thoughts on terroir and the importance of the sense of place coming through in a wine (there's another blog topic for you)? -- Adam Lee, Siduri Wines
James Molesworth
October 10, 2007 2:54pm ET
Adam: First, I've bought a few bottlings of Thompson vineyard Syrah from some commercial wineries to see what similarities might exist (and I'll report back on that after the weekend).

But I'll pretty much have to wait and see on in regards to the answers to my own questions. Without any prior experience with the vineyard in question I'll have to see how the grapes express themselves in my wine - and the winemaking process will be as non-interventionist as possible.

I'll be picking on the earlier side to avoid higher alcohol (but I still obviously want ripe fruit). If by doing that the wine is out of balance in terms of herbal or green flavors, then I'll know I asked the fruit to do the wrong thing.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  October 10, 2007 3:13pm ET
The "problem" with Crushpad, as you know, is that it ain't cheap so to speak. You must have sold some good bottles to pay for it? How much are you making? The good news about Crushpad is that they offer an excellent service -- great grape sources, winemaking advice, etc. I do it on my own but I just tasted a mendocino syrah (2005) made at crush pad from a semi-absentee vintner and it was pretty damn good. I am sure you will be pleased with the final product.
James Molesworth
October 10, 2007 3:25pm ET
Andrew: No, it's not cheap. I'm just getting a single barrel.
Barry Webster
October 10, 2007 4:55pm ET
We have a group of us that went together for a 2006 Stagecoach Cab (one barrel, which six of went in on) and we're looking forward to tasting it this month and then back in December for some discussions on blending before bottling. Crushpad guys have been great. Yeah, it's not cheap, but how many times do you have the opportunity to tell your dinner guests that you're serving your own wine.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 10, 2007 5:09pm ET
agh ... it's been an itch for the longest time, but I can't bring myself around to pick up 25 cases of stuff. Esp if I wanted a blend, which would mean 50 cases of stuff =T.
Mark Mccullough
GA —  October 11, 2007 7:05am ET
"[Note: Because of the potential for a conflict of interest, the wine will not be commercialized, and will only be for consumption by family and friends.]"James, I applaud you for this distinction, a standard not applied by all reviewers in your industry.
James Molesworth
October 11, 2007 9:28am ET
Jeffrey: You can make a blend in one barrel, rather than having to buy two to blend together (my Syrah will have a little Viognier in it for example)...Yes, 25 cases is a lot, so just get a group of friends to help you...
Mr Christopher N Solle
October 11, 2007 4:14pm ET
James ¿ Congratulations and I wish you the best of luck! I have been lucky enough to produce 3 different wines through CrushPad and I have only the highest praise for every facet of this organization. And as far as the pricing -- CrushPad sources fruit from only the best vineyards and I think the pricing is commensurate with the quality of the fruit. Bottom line: A world class organization creating world class wines! Cheers!-Chris
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 11, 2007 11:10pm ET
The other cool thing CrushPad offers is the option to use a "zebra" barrel - which is a barrel with mixed new and old staves. That way, even if you're only doing one barrel, you can still do 50% new oak and 50% used.
James Molesworth
October 12, 2007 9:16am ET
Brian: What's your experience with zebra barrels - the idea seems clever, but not sure if the integration would really be there...?
Santiago Achaval
Mendoza —  October 12, 2007 3:13pm ET
No experience with zebras myself, but from any angle that I can think of, they should work perfectly well.
James Molesworth
October 12, 2007 3:26pm ET
Santiago: On paper it makes perfect sense to me - but something about it is nagging. Like putting the fender of a different make and model on a car and just painting it over it to make it match.

Perhaps I'm just being a hyper-purist here, but could you maybe forsee any problems if the staves of new oak were a different grain or consistency than the staves of the used oak?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 12, 2007 10:22pm ET
James - I've never used them... but I think the concept is solid. If you had enough wine to do 2 barrels, and one was used and one was new... would that really be different than taking half of the staves from each to make a single barrel? If you're in the "co-fermentation camp", you might even argue that it would be better, since the wine had a chance to marry to both oak profiles at the same time.
Mike Maguire
Port Orchard,Wa —  October 14, 2007 9:21am ET
James,Congrats, a group of us have used Crushpad the last three years and have been very pleased with the results.We made a To-Kalon cab each of the 3 years,and in 05 we also made a Syrah from the Thompson vineyard.We bottled both in August,I think you will be very happy with your selection.
Michael Brill
San Francisco, CA —  October 14, 2007 11:44am ET
Just a quick note on the zebra barrel. The only concern we ever had was structural. But we've had very few problems (no more leaks than new barrels). We've also created some lower %, such as 33% - which is 50% new staves, but the heads are from the older barrels. For stuff you don't want to move around, like pinot noir, whites or reductively-made syrah, they work well. - Michael Brill, Crushpad
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  October 14, 2007 11:58pm ET
I am not sure if Crushpad will do this for you, but you can also age the wine in new oak for 6-12 months and then rack over to used barrel for an additional 6-12 months (thats what I do...for example this year we are making a Zin and Petite Sirah; the petite will go in American oak for 6 months and a 2 year old French oak for 12 months or thereabouts; the Zin will be 6 months in the used barrel and then 6-8 months in the now once used American Oak barrel). THis will help ensure balance and the proper concentration in both wines (or at least I hope....). In the end, its like being parent I think, there are so many ways to screw it up you wonder how it EVER turns out well in the long run. :)
Santiago Achaval
Mendoza —  October 17, 2007 10:24am ET
Regarding zebras vs. racking to a different age of barrel at mid-time: My take is that better integration occurs when the wine stays for the whole run (be it 12 or 18 or 24 months) in the same kind of wood, be it new or used. So I'd go for a zebra and not for exchanging barrels with other fellow "crushpadders"

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