What’s a Brix?

From John, April 22nd, 2016
The Elements of Pizza by Ken Forkish

The Elements of Pizza by Ken Forkish

Measuring Brix isn’t just important for winemaking.   The consistency and quality of premium canned tomatoes (such as San Marzano) relies on careful measurement of the Brix of  tomatoes at harvest (to determine ripeness) and in the final product (to determine sweetness and thickness).  Here we proudly present “What’s a Brix?”, written by my wife Teri, and featured on page 67 Ken Forkish’s fabulous new book, The Elements of Pizza.

The Brix scale is named after 19th-century German scientist Adolf Brix, who invented the hydrometer, an instrument that could measure the sugar content of grape juice for wine.  Before this, ripeness could only be determined subjectively, by taste.  The Brix scale can also be used to measure ripeness in the juice of other fruits, like tomatoes.

In winemaking, 1 degree Brix is equivalent to 1 g of soluble solids (the sum of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, proteins, and so on) per 100 g of grape juice.  In winemaking, an effort is made to harvest at a particular Brix level, and this measure of ripeness and its corresponding sugar content in the fruit directly relates to the fermentation potential in the wine, its flavor, and ultimately the conversion to alcohol.  In theory, alcohol is produced at a rate of approximately 51% of fermentable sugar.  Variables such as exposure to oxygen and temperature, the amount of yeast and yeast diversity determine the actual conversion rate from fermentable sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Tomatoes go through the same seasonal harvest variability as grapes and other fruits of the earth do.  There is a right time to harvest, and measuring Brix in tomatoes is as important to timing harvest as it is for grapes, when the desire is to produce canned tomatoes that have consistent flavor, acidity, texture and water content (think of it as thickness or thinness of tomato sauce from one can to the next, from one day to the next).  Fruit ripening involves a series of related and complex enzyme-catalyzed transformations.  When starches are converted into simple sugars by natural enzymes, the fruit sweetens.  A tomato changes from green to red as chlorophyll breaks down to reveal underlying pigmented compounds such as anthocyanins and lycopenes.  It becomes less tart as organic acids are converted into less acidic molecules; softer as pectin is broken down; and more fragrant as volatile aromatic compounds are synthesized.  Brix is an extremely useful objective marker for ripeness.

 

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The Clones of Clos Electrique

From John, February 13th, 2016
Clos Electrique

Clos Electrique

The vineyard at Clos Electrique is a study in the power of the massale (the French term for selecting and propagating the best vines in a vineyard). Clos Electrique owes its existence to a number of different personalities, many of whom have long ago passed away. This writing is an homage to the various people who made our collection of vines possible.

I arrived at Carneros Creek Winery in 1979 to begin my stint as the assistant winemaker under the tutelage of Francis Mahoney, then considered the guru of Pinot noir in California. An extensive Pinot noir clonal plot had been established at Carneros Creek by the venerable UC Davis professor emeritus Curtis Alley. Alley had gathered clones from famous vineyards all over California and planted them on a random numbers basis. Each clone was marked with a lettered stake and most of the alphabet was utilized, which gives one an idea of how many clones he had managed to gather. While some of the material originated as “suitcase clones” from supposedly such notable domains as Chambertin, most of the great material was brought to California by one man, Paul Masson. Masson purportedly arrived in the vicinity of Saratoga in the late 1800’s bearing a huge amount of budwood from his native Burgundy. For hundreds of years the strength of Burgundy has always been found in the wide array of different clones of Pinot noir that comprise the vineyards. So Mr. Mason planted his vineyard to these disparate clones and from there, bits and pieces of his masterpiece were disseminated around California.

Inspired by Dr. Alley’s recreation of the massale paradigm, I began to gather many of these clones for my soon-to-be established vineyard in Oregon. I went to one of the most notable early Pinot noir winemakers in California, Bob Sessions at Hanzell Vineyards above the town of Sonoma. After spending a day in his vineyard gathering cuttings of some of his best clones, I sat down with Bob and he kindly filled me in on the history of Pinot noir in California. The best of it did indeed start with Paul Masson but the story gets richer from there. It turns out that a young man growing up in Saratoga in the early part of the 1900’s became friends with Mr. Masson. After purportedly hanging around his winery for years, Martin Ray purchased the property from Paul Masson in 1940. Unfortunately for the new owner, the winery mysteriously burned in 1943 and Martin was forced to sell the property and the rights to the name “Paul Masson” to Seagrams of New York. Before leaving, Mr. Ray took cuttings from throughout the original vineyard and planted them on a new piece of property high above Saratoga. That vineyard eventually became known as Mt. Eden Vineyard and it was this vineyard that became the source of budwood for many of the early significant Pinot noir vineyards of California including Chalone, Hanzell and Joseph Swan.

It therefore became my intent to gather clonal material from each of these seminal vineyards as well as others including Louis Martini and finally the mother block at Martin Ray’s Mt. Eden Vineyard. The winemaker & vineyard manager at Mt. Eden, Jeffrey Patterson, was kind enough to allow me to mark individual vines during the early Fall season prior to harvest. As a result I was able to select interesting cluster morphologies and small yielding vines while avoiding those with heavy infections of leaf-roll viruses. When we came back in the winter months to gather the budwood, we also gathered a bit of material from the Chardonnay block, part of which was also originally brought to California by Paul Masson. The bitter irony of that occasion occurred as we were gathering the wood: I noticed a lot of dust in the valley down below. Seagrams was at that very moment plowing under the entire Pinot noir block that Paul Masson had brought from Burgundy nearly a hundred years previously. So as I was attempting to bring to Oregon the greatest set of Pinot noir budwood that state had ever seen, Seagrams was busy destroying the greatest set of Pinot noir budwood that California had ever seen! So much for corporate agriculture.

The cuttings that I collected were rooted and planted in 1984 to a 2 acre section of vineyard in the Dundee Hills. To prevent deer damage in the newly planted vineyard, we surrounded it with an electric fence, hence the name Clos Electrique. The remarkable wines produced from this piece of terroir owe their unique qualities to the pioneering efforts of Paul Masson and Martin Ray as well as the succeeding generations of Californians who kept alive the clones and the stories about them.

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Why Donald Trump Hates Oregon Pinot noir

From John, January 4th, 2016

It has come to our attention than Donald Trump vociferously denounced Oregon Pinot noir at a recent campaign rally.  We sent our team of crack reporters out to garner the details.

The feminine qualities of many Pinot noirs such as Abbey Ridge sent him into a rage but when he heard that possibly immigrant workers  had actually touched the fruit, Donald started retching uncontrollably.  Add to that the fact that many of these wines are aged in French oak and you have generated an epic diatribe.

When our team attempted to ascertain what The Donald actually liked, they were informed that he didn’t drink, but if he did “the grapes must be machine harvested and the wine would definitely need to be aged in American oak”.   A new campaign slogan may be taking shape as well, apparently along the lines of “Make Merlot a Grape Again!”.

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The 2013 vintage saved… by a website

From John, November 12th, 2015

Inclement weather in the Fall is no joke to those engaged in agricultural pursuits. Hail, rain, wind, cold and heat are all enemies of the grape vine throughout the growing season. But in the Fall, as the perfect clusters are nearing their state of perfection, it is rain and the temperature associated with it that I keep a vigilant eye on.

In this regard there is no better friend than the University of Washington Department of Meteorology! In the latter part of September 2013, through the use of satellite imagery and modeling, they produced a 5-day rolling forecast that caught my attention and left me scrambling for the harvest. The Pinot noir was just entering what I think of as “the ripe zone” which, depending on the year, might have a window of 2 weeks or several days. In this case I saw a major storm sweeping out of the North Pacific generated by a low pressure area. More importantly it was caught by and being swept around a high pressure system to the south, veering north of Hawaii and concentrating its full force straight toward Oregon. It looked like we had less than 5 days to get the Pinot noir picked before it would hit so I started scheduling picking for each of the 5 days.

The final Pinot noir that I was able to get to arrived at 1 pm on a Friday, was unloaded and covered by 1:30. Literally 15 minutes later, warm rain started to fall. The storm increased in intensity over the next several days and dumped several inches of rain in the process.

Hail to the University of Washington Meteorology Dept!

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Dry Farming in a Hot, Dry Year

From John, October 27th, 2015

The growing season for 2015 was the hottest and driest on record.  A high pressure ridge over the Pacific has been shielding California from rain over the past 3 years and is doing some of the same for Oregon.  So it is natural to ask what this all means for those of us who are growing our grape vines without “artificial precipitation”?

As it turns out, the answer is fairly simple:  grape vines are actually quite hardy and adapt readily to harsh conditions.  Dry farmed vines differ in significant ways from their irrigated counterparts.  The most obvious divergence is with the root system.  While irrigated vines spend their energy developing diverse root systems near the surface where the water is, dry-farmed vines push their water-gathering infrastructure downward where moisture will be found even in dry growing seasons.

Another less obvious adaptation of dry farmed vines appears in the leaves.  Leaves are covered with a waxy cuticle to limit water loss and place their breathing pores (stomata) on the undersides of the leaves.  A typical dry farmed vine, however, possesses around 50% less stomata than an irrigated vine and under conditions when the temperature soars above 90F they tend to close up their stomata to prevent water loss.  Thus the propensity to conserve precious water even while the root system is searching it out deep in the soil typifies a dry farmed vine.

As a result, dry farmed vines in the summer of 2015 fared just fine as long as they were old enough to have developed an adequate root structure.  Young vines (generally less than 3 years old) were severely stressed and in some cases required some hand-watering to keep them alive.  Thus no one likes a hot, dry summer but, once established, dry farmed vines are quite adept at surviving it.

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Send in the Clones!

From John, March 31st, 2015

First, let’s define cloned vines: it is a group of plants derived from a single ancestor such that all of the vines propagated from that mother plant are genetically identical.

A vineyard in Burgundy, France, where different clones express color variation in the Fall

A vineyard in Burgundy, France, where different clones express color variation in the Fall

Within any grape varietal are a number of clonal variants which, though they are genetically distinct individuals, are still grouped under a common heading.  For example Pinot noir is famous for having an unstable genome and therefore is characterized by 100’s if not thousands of different clones but they are all called “Pinot noir.”  And the same thing is true of Chardonnay.

In both cases, if you take a trip to Burgundy, you will find that the most notable vineyards (and therefore the most famous) are composed of an enorm

ous number of different clones within the same small plot of land.  The idea, worked out literally over centuries, is that a vineyard which possesses all of this genetic variation will produce wines of the greatest complexity.

Here in the United States (and in the New World in general) we have committed our agriculture to clonal redundancy, planting our fields and vineyards often with single clones.  This of course sets us up for problems with respect to poor disease resistance and, certainly in the case of grapes, to lack of complexity in the finished wines.

The irony of all of this is that over 100 years ago, pioneer grape growers came to this country carrying with them multitudes of amazing clones from Europe.  Paul Masson in particular brought legendary genetic material, both Pinot noir and Chardonnay, from Burgundy.  And other people added to it over the years.

However, in the 1950’s and 60’s agricultural scientists decided that production, and as much of it as possible, was the model that they would convey to the wine world here in the US.  So they undertook the task of “cleaning up” the aforementioned clones and getting rid of even more of them until our inventory was reduced at least officially to a relatively few high production, early ripening, frankly for the most part boring examples of Pinot noir and Chardonnay.  In the 1980’s agricultural scientists in Dijon accomplished a comparative program bestowing upon us clones of Chardonnay and Pinot noir that would “ripen earlier” (if one uses only Brix and pH as the ripening criteria).  Much of the Oregon and California wine industry is now planted to these clones.

Fortunately many of the old Paul Masson and Carl Wente clones still persist in vineyards across California and Oregon.  For those whose intent is to make kickass wines, these vines are still sought out for the amazing budwood that they can convey.  So the next time that you are wondering why one vineyard produces lofty mind boggling wines and another right near it does not, consider the clones!

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What Makes a Vintage Fabulous?

From John, December 2nd, 2014
Freshly crushed Clos Electrique Pinot noir. Photo courtesy of Olivia Schelly

Freshly crushed Clos Electrique Pinot noir. Photo courtesy of Olivia Schelly

Whenever a vintage gives us beautiful fruit to vinify, discussion often revolves around “why?”. Some growers will tell you that it was the meticulous manner in which they cared for the vineyard. Some winemakers will strut around attempting to take credit. But the truth always lies in the vagaries of weather. And generally the vagaries are most important in the spring (around bloom) and in the Fall (just prior to harvest). Even the previous vintage (with its effect on primordial bud development) can be equally credited.

So this brings us to 2012 which is getting lots of positive press. The crop ended up tiny overall in 2012 and for the most part this was due to necrosis of the grape flowers. With necrosis, the promising little flowers simply dry up and, for a while at least, sit there tormenting the grower with what could have been! In 2012 a warm early Spring initiated substantial growth and the roots responded with ample ammonia to fuel the early growth. But then, just prior to bloom, the average temperatures dropped precipitously, growth stalled and the ammonia levels started to rise (apparently nobody thought to tell the roots to cool it). When ammonia levels start to become toxic, the floral parts of the plant are particularly sensitive and necrosis results.

What this meant overall for the developing 2012 vintage was that the crop would be small. In our vineyards, it would average less than 1 ton per acre (or around 13-14 hl/hectare). These are tiny yields of considerably less than half of normal. As we proceeded through a warm, pleasant summer the crop slowly ripened. And then we hit almost perfect Fall weather: cooler than average night temperatures (which preserves acidity) and warmer than average daytime temperatures (which aids ripening). And to top it off, we experienced absolutely clear weather from the 22nd of September to the 12th of October which covered the bulk of harvest.

The result is wines of high intensity (due to the small crop), perfect ripeness (due to the Fall weather) and high acidity (due to cool nights). And while the intensity on these young wines makes them seem a bit “un-Pinot noir-like”, they will show their mettle as they age.

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Why Nebbiolo?

From John, November 1st, 2014
The venerable Alan Foster and his prize-winning nebbiolo cluster

The venerable Alan Foster and his prize-winning nebbiolo cluster

If you gaze across many a famous Barolo or Barbaresco vineyard in the Piedmont, the chances are quite good that tucked along it’s edge at some point you will find Pinot noir vines.  And if you gaze across the vineyard of Cameron Clos Electrique in Oregon, chances are good that you will also see Nebbiolo vines tucked along it’s edge!

These observations are not random events:  Nebbiolo and Pinot noir share many traits in common, both from an esthetic and geographic point of view. While anyone who has experienced both red Burgundy (Pinot noir) and Piemontese Nebbiolo can easily find the similarities in complex aromatics, it might be less obvious that the 2 regions share a common latitude and similar rainfall. And while parts of the Piedmont are generally considered somewhat warmer than Burgundy many of the famous Nebbiolo viticultural areas are in fact cooler (for example Val d’Aosta and Valtellina).

Many growers in the Piedmont understand this fact and, coupled with a natural curiosity, endeavor to try their hand at Pinot noir. I think that most (but not all) of these attempts have failed, though I fault the techniques more than the fruit. You cannot use the traditional techniques developed for making Nebbiolo to make Pinot noir. Nor can you use techniques developed for making Pinot noir in the production of Nebbiolo!

So I go to northern Italy to learn how to make Nebbiolo just like I went to Burgundy many years ago to learn how to make Pinot noir.  The differences in approach are both cultural and related to differences in the respective grapes. As a window on the Burgundian and Piemontese cultures, the 2 techniques are fascinating. Stay tuned!

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Summer on the Tractor

From John, July 20th, 2014

The roosters in the vineyard start to crow.  It is 5 a.m.  The eastern sky is showing that a new day will soon be upon us.  Teri and I have spent the night in the yurt after an evening of revelry in front of it!  I roll out of bed;  my old dog thumps her tail but makes no other movement;  Teri buries her head under her pillow as I tiptoe out of the yurt, carrying a bundle of clothes.

The tractor is in place, sprayer attached, ready to roll.  I quickly consult my notes: 4# sulfur per acre X 2 acres per tank;  but my scale weighs in grams so 8# becomes 3.64 kg (I am happy to note that my college days of using a metric balance to weigh out 1 oz portions is still useful!).  The sulfur is weighed out and carefully stirred into a 5 gallon bucket.

My tractor, which has been idling for a several minutes, is now revved up to 2700 rpm, the PTO engaged and sprayer rumbles to life.  Slowly the sulfur mix is poured into the tank and a man looking somewhat like a space alien with respirator, goggles and ear protection climbs on board.  Even though sulfur is an organic spray, it stings the eyes and insults my nose!

The clutch is depressed as the stick is slammed into high 1st and suddenly we are ambling toward the first row.  The air is dead still, the sun still not showing itself as I swing the lever forward to activate the sprayer.  A mist of sulfur hurdles into and over the vines behind me, settling on leaves and young fruit clusters.  Everything is working perfectly and I hope that bit of good fortune stays with me over the next 4 hours as I finish one vineyard

block, reload, finish another and so on.  I am continuously glancing behind me, taking a quick inventory of how the nozzles are functioning, then eying the pressure gauge, checking the rpm and the tank level.

The sun starts to peak above the horizon.  I flip on the music to my head set…the Brandenburg Concerti this morning.  The fruit set looks really good, wow, we’re going to have to drop some crop out here.  Leaves have been pulled where necessary and the vineyard is in near perfect shape.  Life is good.

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Bee Positive

From John, April 22nd, 2014
Neonic-induced decline in honey production

Neonic-induced decline in honey production

The collapse of honey bee colonies is by now fairly well known by the public at large.  And of course we all know that a large swath of our agricultural fruits are brought to us courtesy of our pollinating symbionts.  What has not been well understood is the reason for this rash of colony collapses.

Well, I’m here to tell you that the answer turns out to be fairly straight-forward!  As with Global Climate Change, there are certain corporate entities who have a vested financial interest in confusing the public.  In this case, rather than the players being oil and coal companies, it turns out to be the closely related chemical companies led by Bayer and Syngenta as well as Dow and Sumitomo.

And here is the answer: Neonicotinoids (“neonics”).  Neonics are a class of insecticides, chemically similar to nicotine, which were developed in the 1990’s by Bayer and introduced shortly thereafter.  The best known of these, Imidacloprid, was launched in 1994 and now earns Bayer over a billion dollars  per year.  The demise of the honey bee correlates exactly with the introduction of these pesticides which in numerous studies have been shown to be extremely toxic to bees.  As with Global Climate Change, the perpetrators of this disaster have sown the usual “we need more research on this issue”, “the causes are so complex” etc.  Actually it is not very complex:  neonics are extremely toxic to bees;  they are water soluble and therefore systemic in the plant and do not break down quickly in the environment;  millions and millions of pounds are being pumped into our environment each year.

The European Union has partially banned the 3 most prevalent such neonicotinoids for 2 years in an attempt to get a handle on the problem.  Meanwhile in the United States, both the EPA and Department of Agriculture are resisting any efforts to restrict their use (what a surprise!).  Since bees can travel up to several miles in search of food, they are easily exposed to profligate use of these pesticides.  So here is what you can do to help:

✿Write to your congressman and Senators asking them to write a bill banning these pesticides. But since this is a quixotic request (given that the chemical and oil companies now own a majority of congress people) you can take personal action since many of these insecticides are common household products.

✿ Check any insecticides that you own, if they contain the word “SYSTEMIC” and/or have lovely Madison names such as “Gaucho” “Admire” “Merit” “Advantage” or “Winner” (you get the point!) you need to dispose of them.  On the back check to see if the insecticides contain Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, acetimiprid or other lesser known nicotinoids.

✿ Look for organic options such as nematodes, or products containing  pyrethrins, neem oil or other natural oils such as rosemary & peppermint

✿ Buy only organic seeds.  It turns out that 90% of seeds are now soaked in neonics, which means those so-called healthy garden plants that you are growing from seed my be full of these toxins!

✿ Check out the Xerxes Society website

✿  Alert and educate your neighbors to this unfolding disaster.  When the public becomes involved, things will change!
I don’t know about you, but to me a world that exists solely on gruel, which is where we are heading, doesn’t sound very fun!

Gruel-based diet.  Photo from Greenpeace International.

Gruel-based diet. Photo from Greenpeace International.

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What’s a Brix?

Measuring Brix isn’t just important for winemaking. The consistency and quality of premium canned tomatoes (such as San Marzano) relies on careful measurement of the Brix of tomatoes at harvest (to determine ripeness) and in the final product (to determine sweetness and thickness). Here we proudly present “What’s a Brix?”, written by my wife Teri, and featured on page 67 Ken Forkish’s fabulous new book, The Elements of Pizza.

There’s More... >
The Clones of Clos Electrique

The remarkable wines produced from the Clos Electrique terrior owe their unique qualities to amazing clones of Pinot noir that I collected and planted in the Dundee Hills in 1984. This writing is an homage to the pioneering efforts of early winemaking pioneers Paul Masson and Martin Ray as well as succeeding generations of Californians who kept alive the Burgundian Pinot noir clones and the stories about them.

There’s More... >
Why Donald Trump Hates Oregon Pinot noir

It has come to our attention than Donald Trump vociferously denounced Oregon Pinot noir at a recent campaign rally. We sent our team of crack reporters out to garner the details.

There’s More... >

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