There is No "Off Season" in Winemaking
Have you joined us for the cozy winter season at the vineyard? The bare vines sleep under their blankets of ice and snow. The tasting room is warm and fragrant with mulled wine in winter. The winemaker sleeps in, resting up for spring pruning and planting.
Wait. Not that last part. In fact, behind the scenes of what looks like a vineyard’s “off season,” our winter wine crew is working harder than ever. Blending, aging, tasting, ordering supplies, changing barrels, bottling…. Summer may look busier when you visit, but a large amount of a winery’s yearly work is done behind the scenes during the winter, especially after the most bountiful harvest in the history of the Winery.
We caught up with winemaker Matthew Meyer the day after our January snowstorm, when Williamsburg was shut down by almost a foot of snow. Matthew was at the winery, very much “business as usual.” We asked him about the winery in winter, and what he does there.
There’s almost a foot of snow on the ground, why are you at the winery today?
There’s really no rest in the winter at a winery. Right now we have all last year’s red wine in barrels, so in January we have to go through and taste all of them and make the blends. That means we determine what barrel of wine goes into which blend, and how many barrels of each wine lot.
We have many different barrels from various countries and types of woods. We also have a variety of yeasts for fermentation. All those factors go into making the best blend. That takes a lot of time and attention because a tiny change can make a real difference in a blend. It can change a wine from a 95-point ranking to a 92-point ranking.
What kind of work goes into making a wine blend?
A lot. First we spend many hours tasting each wine from the previous vintage, in this case 2016, to determine which wine will go into which blend and how many gallons. After numerous tastings and discussions we then start the process of pumping each wine out of the barrel into their respective blend. Once the blends are all made we then prepare them for bottling, which concludes the 2016 vintage red wines – remember we are always working with two vintages simultaneously.
During the bottling process Stacey and I then start to work on getting the 2017 vintage reds into barrels that they will age in for the next year; like what Petit Verdot from what vineyard will get what barrels – two-year-old French oak, three-year-old French Oak, Hungarian oak, whatever. And we have to decide that for each lot. I have it all on a spreadsheet to keep track.
Once you are done with blending and bottling, is it time to start prepping for the spring growing season?
I’m actually already well into planning for 2018. That’s more spreadsheets, full of production numbers, budgets, plans, all the details that go into the general year-round management of a winery.
I’m also calling wine growers and lining up contracts to buy grapes for next year. I like to start that early, lining up the contracts with local growers to make sure we get enough grapes to produce our award winning wines.
And actually, by January we are already out in the vineyard. The vineyard team is out there pruning, fixing wires and posts, aerating the soil, and tilling. This is a good time to do all the maintenance and repairs that we don’t always have time to do during the busy growing season.
Is there even a “slow” time at the vineyard?
Believe it or not, summer can be kind of slow at times, once the grapes are growing and the previous year’s vintage is bottled. This winter we are bottling the 2016 reds, and in spring we’ll bottle the 2017 whites. Once they’re bottled and everything is growing, it’s slower – although there’s never really a slow time.
Really, it’s feast or famine. I can come in one week and it’s slow, so I can work on budgets, future plans, research, whatever. Then the next week it’s us busting our butts to respond to a weather situation, checking the grapes, or get everything ready for bottling. That’s farming.
In a few weeks we will start monitoring the vines for buds. But honestly, I’m so busy right now that’s not even on my to-do list yet.
What does “rest” look like for you?
If it looks like we have a couple of slow weeks, no matter what time of year, I look forward to going out with my wife Elena for sales and promotions. We go to restaurants and wine shops to organize tastings. We make sales calls and host wine dinners from Virginia Beach to DC to Richmond and Charlottesville.
Any time there’s not a lot going on, I like to go to restaurants and shops and promote the wines. Honestly, it’s nice to get out and talk to people!