Jesse: 4am isn’t the normal wake up time for Barbareño field trips, but when deciding to go a bit more in-depth on researching a winery we’ll be sourcing from, I thought we might as well get the full experience. By 6am, after meeting winemaker Bret Urness of Levo Wine, we were riding the picking bins behind a tractor that barely slipped between rows of carefully pruned and trellised vines. We tossed out dead leaves, spoiled grapes, earwigs, and black widows in an effort to limit Mother Nature’s less positive contributions to the terroir of Kimsey Vineyard. Picking early in the morning meant these syrah grapes would stay cool until pressing, keeping acid levels in a better place and preventing spoilage.
Loading Bret’s truck with that morning harvest made me question how winemaking on any serious scale was possible before forklifts. Wine makers use them for everything! Once back at the winery, the grapes were weighed, a couple natty lights were popped (supposedly everyone knows, it takes a lot of beer to make good wine) and the de-stemming began. For some of the bunches, stems were kept on as a stylistic choice which winemakers use to alter perception of tannin, complexity, and freshness. Again, more forklifting to dump the grapes in the de-stemmer, and the juice began to flow (however, this is not always the case as many de-stemmers don’t actually macerate the grapes so the maceration process is a separate stage). This juice, complete with skins, seeds, and some stems were pumped to another bin for extraction and fermentation, and eventually would be pressed for the wine to be put into barrel.
At this stage, the wine can almost make itself – and in fact, there are many winemakers who let the native yeasts on the grape skins take over from here, after all, the best wine is made in the vineyard (insert spiel about terroir, soil types, and meticulous farming methods that this blog post doesn’t have room for). Of course there are a million other small variables to control if you want a consistent quality product: sanitation, temperature control, extraction time, pump overs, what yeasts to add, whether you want to add SO2 or not, when do you/ do you stop fermentation, malolactic fermentation, toast level of oak, do you use oak barrels at all, cork or screw cap, and on and on and on. After some reorganizing in the winery (more forklift), we made our way over to Bret’s cellar for some barrel samples. Bret’s method, I can safely say, is one without t excessive alteration. He sources quality, meticulously farmed fruit that’s planted on good soil, so his job is not one where he has to force the fruit to do anything, he’s more of a grape herder.