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Brandon Lapides is winemaker at Armida Winery in the Russian River Valley wine region.
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Ask the Winemaker
What is ML Fermentation, Malolactic Fermentation, Secondary Fermentation?
Why do wines get better with age?
How do you pair wines with dessert?
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 1-2
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 3-4
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 5-7
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 - Finale
What’s so special about Syrah?
Harvest 2009, First Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Second Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Third Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Fourth Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Final Interview with Winemaker B
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 5-7
Winemaker BWe are interviewing Brandon on Skype (internet telephone) and we can see him. He is sipping and enjoying a bottle of Pyramid IPA as we do this interview. One of the many microbrews he enjoys.

ViciVino: So it’s the middle of October, where are you at in reference to harvest?
Winemaker B: We are still bringing in the last of everything. Today we brought in Marin County Pinot Noir grapes. And they look really nice. Any grape that can stay on the vine until mid October means that the flavors should be incredible. The sugar measurements are coming in extremely low, which is really cool to see.

VV: What happened since we left you last time with the Devil’s Gulch Vineyard Pinot Noir?
WB: We had two open top fermenters with a little over 10 tons. It is awesome! In one of the open tops we did completely indigenous fermentation; it went perfectly. It’s now going through an indigenous ML fermentation. Which is very interesting. So whatever bacteria were in the vineyard, those are what are fermenting the wine. This will give it an amazing terroir. The second tank of Pinot from Devil’s Gulch includes more of the terraced and steep blocks from the vineyard. This lot we have decided to leave the skins in contact with the wine longer than most wines. I have noticed an improvement with the smell of it. We are hopeful that doing this will give the wine something extra in its flavor that will be unique. We don’t know what will happen but we are keeping a very close eye on it, looking at the cap and skins and tasting it to see how it is doing, several times a day. Each day it has gotten better and better, and ideally tomorrow it will be where we want it and we will press it. This is artisan winemaking at its best.

VV: After the fermentation of these two wines what will happen to them?
WB: We are going to let them finish fermentation and age separately, in separate barrels. This will let us learn from the experiment and find out what works. Usually we will start doing some blending trials in March and April and we can decide to blend them then or we might decide to keep them separate but decide what we want the blend to be. Then we put that together before bottling.

VV: Are you expecting any more grapes to come in or is it done?
WB: I’m still expecting two more tons of Pinot Noir tomorrow.

VV: When we were there a couple weeks ago we tasted the juice of the Syrah. How is it doing?
WB: It is still fermenting in the open tank. It’s almost there. That color and flavor is amazing, which means that we got everything we wanted out of the skins.

VV: What is going on with the Chardonnay right now?
WB: Right now our last lot of Chardonnay is finishing its primary fermentation. One quarter of the grapes that came in first are going through the ML fermentation. During this part of the season we bring down the barrels once a week and we’ll stir them; this process is called “Batonage”. There is a propeller on the end of a stick and you basically place it at the bottom of the barrel and you start shaking it and it scrapes the bottom of the barrel, which mixes all the yeast and bacteria and suspends it all in the wine. This is a very important part of the ML fermentation stage. The yeast adds a lot to the flavors, body and texture of the wine. By the end of the week after stirring you will see that half the barrel is starting to clear out. We do this process every week until the ML fermentation is done, which will probably be in December. Eventually we go to stirring the wine every other week until sometime in Spring. We keep tasting it and that tells us what stage the wine is in. Sitting on the yeast for that long (5-10 months depending on the vineyard) clarifies the wine to the stage for getting ready for bottling. Depending on the vineyard and the grapes we decide whether or not we filter the wine. This varies from year to year. The 2006 Rued Vineyard Chardonnay, for example, didn’t need filtering and the biggest reason for that was because the cellar crew took good care of it when they were racking and stirring. They babied that Chardonnay and it shows in the bottle.

VV: So we now have gone through the whole process of the Chardonnay from the picking to the final fermentation with you. What do you like about making Chardonnay?
WB: Chardonnay is such a great grape. Once you put it in the barrels, it stays in the barrels and you don’t have to do much. You just let it sit on the lees and everything that it came with. That is what adds to the Chardonnay flavor. The Chardonnay grape isn’t very flavorful on its own compared, say, to a Gewürztraminer grape.

VV: When is Harvest ’08 declared over?
WB: Well, (giggle, giggle), this Saturday is Balletto’s harvest party. There will be about 200-250 people attending. There will be wine, food, and a live band - should be a blast. But to answer your question realistically, the beards will be shaven when the last of the grape skins are gone. That means when the last press lot goes into the press and the juice flows off the skins, probably in about 1-2 more weeks, hopefully by Halloween.

VV: Are your hours slowing down a little bit?
WB: Yeah, a little bit. This week I’d say that I had more of a regular week, that means only 12-hour days instead of the 16-hour days. With these hours I can go home and have dinner with my wife and get some extra sleep. I still feel like I need to catch up in that department.

VV: Any other harvest highlights?
WB: Yesterday Anthony (assistant winemaker at Balletto Winery) and I dug out a tank of 38 tons of grapes in a 12,000 gallon fermenter. This tank is 30 feet tall. Since I’m the safety manager of the winery I told everyone that this is potentially the most dangerous thing that has ever happened here. And since I was the one with the most experience doing this kind of “big dig” I got to partake. To get prepared for this first we drain off all the wine, as much as we can get which takes about 2 ½ hours with the wine gushing out of the tank through a hose. Then at the door to the tank, which is about 3 feet above the ground, we start to literally dig out the skins with plastic shovels, so we can press them off. We start with a little hole so that the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in there can escape. We also have a fan at the top to help it along. It took about 2 hours to clear out enough CO2 so we could go completely inside the tank. The skins were about at eye level. This was really cool! I think it’s near the top on the cool chart in the winemaking process. You have to imagine, it’s about 85 degrees in there because of the fermentation, all the skins are hot, all you can smell is CO2 and alcohol and we are sweating up a storm. I don’t claim to get drunk in there but there is some sort of euphoria going on.

But as I said, it is very dangerous due to the potential lack of oxygen. We have harnesses on with a tie to the back of them and we have a buddy outside the door who is raking out the skins that we are digging towards the door. The buddy is mainly there just in case someone passes out and they have to be pulled out of the tank. One of the worst tragedies to occur at wineries is if someone goes into the tank and doesn’t realize how much gas is still in there (CO2 is heavier than Oxygen so it stays down in the tank), and he passes out. Then the buddy goes in to get him and then he passes out too. It was a tough job but a lot of fun.

On that note, we said goodnight to Brandon and thanked him once more for keeping us informed about his experience at Dutton Goldfield Winery and how the Harvest of ’08 is going. We will talk to Brandon one final time in a couple of weeks when harvest is over and get a final summary from him.

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