2020 sucked. I’m sure it sucked for pretty much everyone. OK.. maybe Jeff Bezos was skipping all the way to the bank, but for many businesses 2020 was a bust. Like many small business owners, I survived on savings, keeping things lean and working my ass off, which makes the success of 2021 all the sweeter. My sales have increased and are the highest they’re been since I took over the winemaking and began the Willful brand in 2011.
When I started the business with my then husband in 2000, he was the winemaker, and I was the sales manager and sometimes cellar grunt. It was after we split in 2009, that I took over the winemaking. My first vintage in the cellar full time was 2011 and I usually describe it as learning how to swim by being thrown in a swimming pool. I crushed 54 tons that year, went to enology classes at night twice a week to fill in the gaps of my education, and finally heaved a sigh of relief after the first wines were in bottle. But then I had to convince our distributors that the wines were still going to be saleable now that the person that they knew as the sales manager was in control of the winemaking. I’m pretty sure our bank manager thought that my ex-husband was still making the wines behind the scenes up until he died in 2013 (and who knows, possibly beyond that…?) I felt constantly apologetic, wanting it to work, and yet always wondering whether what I was doing would be good enough. Even when my wines started to get good scores in the press, I would brush it off.
Now, having just finished my 11th vintage as the winemaker, I finally feel comfortable in the cellar. Every vintage still provides unique challenges. Every year there is something new to learn, different things to experiment with. It’s one of the things I love about my job. Not everyone will prefer my style of winemaking, and there may be times when I will wish in hindsight that I had made a different choice about something in the cellar. There is much that I can still learn, but I am very happy to present my wines now. I’m exploring more single vineyard pinot noirs, and getting to work with new vineyards and varietals. And I’m selling more than ever apparently. Like the little bird on my logo, I am taking flight and it’s pretty exciting.
A "punch down" is the term we use for when we push the grape skins back down in to the juice during fermentation.
When we make white wine, we usually press the grapes as soon as we receive them and ferment the juice in tanks or barrels (unless we’re make a “skin-contact” white wine, but that’s another blog post…)
When we make red wine, on the other hand, we ferment the whole grape, juice and skins altogether (sometimes even the stems too!). Those lovely grape skins are what gives us the intense color, the tannins and some of the flavors. It’s basically a big soup of juice and grape skins in our tank or open top fermenter, which we call “must”. When the must ferments, it produces carbon dioxide gas as by-product, and that pushes the solids to the surface of the must. If we let it just hang out there, we wouldn’t get all that yummy goodness that we want in our wine, so we “punch” the grape skins down into the juice regularly. The amount of punch downs a winemaker chooses to do each day will have an impact on the tannin profile of the finished wine, so the method and the frequency of these punch downs is an important stylistic decision as a winemaker. More frequent punch downs will generally result in a more tannic wine. Less frequent (or no) punch downs will generally yield a lighter wine.
All of my red wines at Willful Wine are fermented in small, open top fermenters that hold about a ton and a half of grapes. I like smaller fermentation vessels as it allows me to be more creative with the grapes I receive. I can ferment individual clones from a vineyard source separately and do some as whole cluster fermentation and some destemmed from the same source.
With fermentation vessels like this, the usual way to do punch downs is with a punch down tool, which is basically a long pole with a disc or rectangular shape on the end which you use to push the skins down to the bottom of the fermenter. At the start, or even before fermentation starts, this is hard work. The grapes are such a solid mass you could easily lean on the tool without hardly moving it and it’s a workout to push the grapes down and pull the tool up to try and get some air in to the must to support fermentation. As fermentation progresses, the skins break down, less gas is produced, and it gets a lot easier. Lastly, you have to hope that you didn’t overfill the fermenter, because then you may get a …. muffin top.
A “muffin top” is guaranteed to wreck my day during harvest. It’s all too easy to say “sure, we can squeeze those last few pounds of grapes in’’ when they’re falling off the conveyor and in to the destemmer, but if the vessel is over full and you have a yeast that is very active, you’ll get Mt Vesuvius in the fermenter, spewing grape skins over the side of the fermenter and leaving you with a tasty mess to clean up after what was already a 12-hour day. Want to see what it looks like? Click here to see a video of our 2021 muffin top mess.
The first time I fermented pinot noir with 100% whole clusters, it was by accident. In 2015 I contracted for just one acre of pinot noir from Lia's Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountain AVA. The vineyard is dry-farmed and it was a warm year and the yield from that acre was almost exactly two tons, which presented me with a bit of a dilemma. One macro fermenter bin holds about a ton and a half of destemmed fruit. If I’d removed the stems the fermenter bins would have been only two thirds full, leaving lots of “head space” above the grapes, which isn’t good for a healthy fermentation. Leaving all the stems on would give me two fairly full fermenters, so instead of running the grapes through the de-stemmer, we just loaded the whole clusters into the fermenters. Which left me with another dilemma… how to get fermentation going?
When you pull the grapes off of the stems, the must is fairly juicy and it’s easy enough to get a punch down tool in there to move the grapes around and get fermentation going. With 100% whole clusters they just kind of sit there: just a huge pile of grapes, so I had to get my shorty shorts on and tread the grapes with my feet to juice them up a bit. Here’s a clip of me doing “pigeage” in 2015.
Two years later, the wine had the additional tannins and spicy flavors that I was expecting but it also had some beautiful floral aromatics. I’ve been choosing to do some degree of whole cluster fermentation most vintages since 2015. The 2019 RIbbon Ridge Pinot Noir has a fair amount of whole clusters in it. I like the additional structure and spicy characteristics it gives the Wadenswil clone pinot noir from that vineyard.
Sign up for our annual Blending Workshop on June 5th and June 10th, and I’ll tell you more about whole cluster fermentation and some of the other choices I make as a winemaker to create the Willful pinot noirs. During the workshop you’ll taste through eight barrel samples and then blend your own bottle of Pinot Noir. Space is limited and by reservation only.
The classic wine pairing for a big juicy steak is Cabernet Sauvignon. But why?
Well... if we look at it the ZiNG way, we'll think about what is the dominant element in the food. The eight food elements are: salt, oxalates, acidity, umami, fat, sugar, spice and protein. Clearly a steak doesn't have acidity or sugar, and it doesn't have oxalates (you'll just have to trust me on that, or come to the workshop...). I guess it could have salt or spice depending on how you season it but you'd have to really go over the top with the sauce to overwhelm the dominant element which is... protein.
So what about the Cabernet Sauvignon works well with protein? The elements of wine are acidity, viscosity, fruitiness, sugar, alcohol and tannin. While a Cabernet Sauvignon may have acidity and most likely a good amount of alcohol, it also has a lot of tannin. Those tannins bind with the protein in the steak and those mouth puckering tannins just disappear so you can taste the fruit and other elements in the wine. The wine and the food enhance each other.
During the ZiNG! workshop next month we will taste Cabernet Sauvignon with all eight of the food elements and see how each of the interactions work. Do they zing! like the protein, or are they a train wreck, making the wine taste awful and leaving us reaching for the bread to take the experience out of our mouths?
The ZiNG workshop is $40 in person at the winery or $100+shipping if you join us online. Last order for the online participation will be next week so we have time to ship you the four bottles of wine and worksheet you'll need. So.. book early! There's enough wine in the package for you to invite your friends to join you too!
Click here to get tickets.
And you can read more about ZiNG and it's creator, and our workshop host, Trish Rogers here.
Chaly and I love lentils. We have enjoyed this recipe with the simplest and most accessible Oregon Pinots and also some of the most coveted Oregon Pinots. While we are Dundee Hills people, the earthiness of lentils lends itself really well to some of the wines from our Yamhill Carlton or Ribbon Ridge natives. During quarantine, we could not find lentils at the store for 2-3 weeks and I got so nervous that I found a Washington state grower that sold online via amazon and bought a bulk amount of Lentils. We just finished them off a week ago.
Balanza Family Lentil Soup
2 cups Lentils
5 cups chicken stock (we like better than bouillon low salt with water)
Linguica Sausage (11 oz package)
1 green pepper
2 medium carrots
1 medium yellow onion
2 stalks of celery
2 roma tomatoes
2 large cloves of garlic
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika (we use Bolivian Ahi but when we don’t have it smoked paprika is nice)
1 tsp cayenne pepper
3/4 tsp tunmeric
1/2 tsp ground coriander
2 bay leaves
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
Dice all vegetables (including the tomatoes)
Slice the sausage links
In a large stock pot, sauté the green pepper, carrots, onion, celery, garlic in a little bit of olive oil until the onions are soft but not brown.
Add diced tomatoes, broth, spices, and lentils.
Bring everything to a nice simmer
Add the sliced sausage and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour
Salt and pepper to taste
Stir in some chopped parsley (1/4 cup)
Garnish with parsley
Serve with crusty bread
Note: if you prefer lentils as a side dish rather than a soup, don’t add as much broth.
What is native fermentation?
Native fermentation is using the indigenous yeasts from the vineyard to cause primary fermentation i.e. the process where the sugar in the grapes turns to alcohol.
When I’m working with grapes that I know are going to go to the Jezebel pinot noir, I usually inoculate them with yeast. There are a few that I tend to use more often and they’re mostly designed to highlight the fresh fruit flavors of the wine and contribute to a fleshy mouthfeel. The fermentations with these yeasts tend to be fairly uniform each year, and shorter than the wild yeasts I use for the Willful pinot noir. The yeasts are one of the tools that help me to maintain consistency each vintage.
I approach the “willful” pinot noir grapes a little differently. I do a “cold soak” for at least a week, where I keep the grapes in a chiller (usually around 48F). This allows the grape juice to be in contact with the skins for longer and builds structure in the wine, especially the more elegant type of tannins that I prefer. Then I let the fermenters warm up and whatever yeasts came in from the vineyard with them go to work and turn the sugar in to alcohol and the juice into wine. The native ‘wild’ yeasts generally ferment at lower temperatures and take longer to convert all of the sugar in to alcohol and this gives me yet more skin time to build structure in the wine, and also tends make the wines a little more aromatic. Naturally fermented wines tend to have a particularly supple, velvety texture.
I often refer to my wines as children. You have an idea of what you're going to get, but they also often surprise you, and that's one of the things I love about winemaking in general, and about native yeasts. I find they do require a little more work in the winery but I think the variety of terroir and nuance that can be expressed and the impact on the texture is well worth it to me.
The best way I've found to explain grape clones is comparing grapes to roses. A rose is a rose, but there are different types of roses, and each has their own unique characteristics in how they look and smell. Similarly, the different clones of pinot noir are all pinot noir, but each have their own attributes. Some are more floral and some more spicy. Some are earlier ripening and tend to be more fruit forward, and others are later ripening and are more expressive of some of the secondary flavors in grapes. And.. because it's pinot noir in Oregon, each clone will express itself in a different way depending on the site where it's grown. So.. there's a lot of choices to be made before we even start to get in to what we decide to do in the winery!
In 2019 I chose not to blend a Winemaker Cuvee pinot noir, and to focus instead on a three different clones of pinot noir from three very different vineyards and I bottled three "reserve" pinot noirs from 2019, all very much with their own personality:
2019 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir: This is 100% Pommard clone pinot noir from the Balanza Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA. Pommard was one of the earliest clones to be planted in Oregon. It tends to be later ripening and maintains acidity pretty well. It has a soft, supple mouthfeel and when grown in the jory soils of the Dundee Hills it shows the typical bright red berry flavors of the AVA with a floral (rose?) aroma and a bright minerality. This wine is pretty and elegant and very feminine. We released this last November to the wine club and it's now available generally on our web site. $35 (47 cases produced)
2019 Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir: This is 100% Wadensil clone pinot noir from Stewart Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA. This is the other clone that was planted in the early days of the Oregon wine industry. It tends to be very aromatic with a particularly spicy note. I think it works wonderfully with the darker red fruit flavors and slightly richer tannins of this Ribbon Ridge vineyard. We just released this to the wine club. It will be generally available on the web site in April 2021. $35 (98 cases produced)
2019 "943" clone Pinot Noir: This was my first time working with this newer pinot noir clone. I tried to research it online prior to working with it and found such varying responses to it. It seems to be particularly expressive of the terroir where it's planted. I found it in Jubilee Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. I fermented it as 50% whole clusters which seems to add to what I think is the inherent peppery characteristic. Early on, it tasted almost like a Zweigelt. It's lower in alcohol (just 12.5%), with flinty, mineral characteristics and dark fruits. This is also a new release to the wine club and will be generally available on the web site in April 2021. $35 (47 cases produced).
I love working with (and drinking!) pinot noir because it can be such an expressive grape. At its best it has so many different layers of flavors. I like it when it's not overly showy. I'm not sure who described it this way (maybe Aron?) but I like it: "wines that reveal themselves over time". It doesn't smack you in the face with a big dollop of jammy fruit, or whack you over the head with a 2*4 of oak. It gently allows you to enjoy the floral perfumes, the hint of sandalwood and the suggestion of the freshly dug earth. I love wine that I find myself thinking about the day after I drank them and I find that more with pinot noir than most other varietals. Whatever your reason for drinking pinot noir, I hope you enjoy these. Regardless of clone, terroir or whatever, the only really important thing is - do you like it?
If you're interested in finding out more about pinot noir clones and about how we make decisions in the winery, please join us for our blending workshop on May 15th. We're offering it live at the winery, or online. If you plan to join us online, please sign up by May 1st so we can get the wine to you in time.
Food is important during harvest. When you're working 12+ hours a day, seven days a week for several weeks, good food is something that helps you keep going physically and it's something to look forward to during the work day. However, sometimes it's hard to know exactly when you'll be able to break to eat, so I prepared our crew meals in my crockpot. This recipe was one of my favorite harvest meals (and the crew seemed to like it too). The preparation is quick and it's super healthy. Recipe courtesy of the Paleo Slow Cooker.
salt & pepper just before serving
Mix cinnamon, cumin & turmeric in a bowl and toss the chicken to coat. In a heavy bottom-ed pan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of ghee and saute the onion and garlic until onion is transulcent, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker. Melt the remaining ghee in the padd and add the chicken. Brown on both sides in batches for about 5 minutes a batch. Transfer the chicken and remaining ghee to the slow cooker. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a bowl (I just throw them in to the slow cooker), then transfer to the slow cooker and cook on low for 4-6 hours (or until the crew is ready to eat it :) Salt and pepper to taste, then serve. (I add the salt and pepper with the other ingredients as I know I'll forget to do it when it's time to eat and I'm trying to manage incoming grapes. I think about a half tsp of freshly ground black pepper and a tsp of good salt is about right for my taste.)
I love Julia’s boeuf bourgignon recipe but these days, as a single parent with two teenagers in the house, it just isn’t realistic for me to follow it to the letter. This recipe keeps the essence of it but is a lot quicker to put together. This pairs wonderfully with the newly released 2018 Willful Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet-Merlot.
Saute the onion in the olive oil over a low heat until it softens and starts to turn a golden color. Add the garlic, thyme and rosemary and cook for another minute or two stirring occasionally. Add the bacon and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add the celery and carrots and cook for another 3-4 minutes stirring occasionally. Turn the heat up to medium and add the beef and cook for 6-8 minutes. Stir it as occasionally to stop it from sticking to the pan and cook until the meat is browned on all sides. Sprinkly the flour over the meat, stir thoroughly and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the tomato paste, bay leaves, red wine and beef stock and transfer the pot to the oven. Cook at 350F for three to three and a half hours. This is a great Sunday dish as you can throw it together and then go on a hike or something and when you come back you have a lovely dinner ready.
Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley to garnish and serve with mashed potatoes.
Pair with 2018 Willful Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet-Merlot.
My boys are off of school for the next "who-knows-how-long" and we're self-isolating for the next week. Today we cooked Chicken and Dumplings. We made an extra large batch and canned some of it for our friends and relatives who are older and have compromised immune systems. It's super easy to make and goes great with the 2018 Jezebel pinot noir, which is really affordable, just $18/bottle or $14.40 if you join the wine club. Any new wine club members get free shipping for their first shipment too! Here's the recipe. It will feed 6-8 people.