"We don't have a lot of tank space, especially for this harvest, so the barrel acts as another vessel to put the juice in. It takes a couple days for fermentation to kick in in the tank, so you're occupying it for two days for settling, then another two or three days to get a fermentation going. [So] we inoculate barrel to barrel. You just fill it with unfermenting juice, and inoculate it there. It's simpler and cleaner to do it that way for me. You don't have to be as careful--you don't have to go slower with the pump, since there's no foaming. When you're filling a barrel with fermenting juice, it has a tendency to be a lot slower since it wants to spill over.
"You can ferment a wine in a tank and put it in a barrel when it's done, but the fermentation process itself has some sort of seasoning action on the barrel, so the wood integrates pretty seamlessly from the beginning. What I'll do with some of the Pinot Noir barrels is run a load of Chardonnay through them first. It has a softening effect.
"If you inoculate with a good, solid strain, you get a good, clean fermentation. Wild yeasts are not part of anything new--just a lazy man's way of making wine, I guess. It's definitely cheaper since you didn't have to buy yeast. I call those feral fermentations, sort of like feral dogs or pigs. These other microorganisms tend to give different characteristics to the wine--some people like them, I don't. As it ages anyway, it ages toward sameness--it doesn't matter what you used. It'll age toward a certain common point. The problem with a feral fermentation is it can bring you other potential nightmares.
"Overall, the barrel fermentations are great. We live on the west side of the Santa Ynez Valley, and it'll get down to 50 every night. The cellar just stays cool. It's a big, massive adobe building, so the fluctuations in temperature are minimal. The barrels will get warm anyway, but only for a very short amount of time.
"Right now, the fermentation is taking care of itself and doing what it needs to do. It gets really mellow now. All the fruit is in, so the frenetic nature of it all is over."
Next week, once his ferments have finished, D'Alfonso will conclude this series by talking about how his wines are managed once they're in barrels.