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Brandon Lapides is winemaker at Armida Winery in the Russian River Valley wine region.
Winemaker Biography
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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 - Finale
Benovia When did you declare that Harvest ‘08 was over? When did you shave?
Winemaker B: On November 1-2, the last of the Zinfandel that was brought in and was pressed off. That weekend there were no punch downs, no pump-overs, no nothing. Everything is sitting securely in tanks. So on November 6th I shaved my beard partially and saved the chin. It looked horrible, so today I shaved it all. But I kept my hair intact.

Now that there are no more grapes in tanks, we are turning our time and efforts to the wines (mostly Chardonnays) that need extra love and handling. Trying to help a few of the fermentations that are a bit slower, because we are using an indigenous fermentation on some of them. So when we have a sunny day here we like to put our barrels outside so that the sun can heat them up naturally, but we have to watch them closely because you don’t want them getting over 70 degrees (Fahrenheit). The cellar stays a consistent 60 degrees, not really optimal temperature for the Chardonnay to finish its first fermentation. So while we are waiting for the barrels to finish we top them off biweekly and put them outside if they need a little bit of help. The thing that I like about barrel fermenting Chardonnay is that if we have 30 barrels of the same juice, we most likely have 30 separate fermentations going on. Once the first fermentation is done they are inoculated with ML: the bacteria for malolactic fermentation are introduced to the barrels.

VV: Is there any correlation between how a wine tastes and how long the fermentation takes? What are the primary factors from fermentation that affect taste?
WB: First, we always hope for a nice, clean, perfect fermentation that goes as dry as possible, because the residual sugar is easily tasted in the wine. Second, how long the fermentation lasts has a major affect on the flavors. And these two factors are related, not surprisingly. For example, if the fermentation stops early or gets “stuck” (doesn’t go completely dry), then there will be an added sweetness in the wine. The chance that a winemaker takes with having the wine go through a long fermentation is that it might not go completely dry. The end of a long fermentation is the “freak out” period. You know that there aren’t too many warm days left, and you really don’t want to hold it over until Spring. We try and use the natural way of warming the Chardonnay in the sun, instead of using blankets around the barrels or using heating elements. This is a more “green” approach and one we like to use.

VV: In the last interview we had with you the Syrah was still in the open top fermenters. You were very excited with how it looked. Where is it now?
WB: The two tanks were pressed together. One was pressed with a little bit of residual sugar in it and the other one was completely dry. Then the combined wine finished up its initial fermentation in the tank. It just took a couple days. We inoculated it with ML and sent it down to barrel and it is currently “raging through ML.” It’s tasting fantastic.

When the wines are going through ML there is an interesting smell in the air. ML bacteria produce diacetyl, causing smells in the winery that are buttery popcorn, floral, and butterscotch. It doesn’t matter what varietals of wine you are making, when it’s going through ML you can smell it throughout the whole winery. You can’t really taste the changes that ML is producing during this time in the wine, but you know it is going through it because of the smell it’s producing and of course tracking the fermentation in the lab. Within 2-3 weeks the ML will be done and the Syrah can be put to bed for about 22 months. Depending on how the wine tastes we might rack the barrels during its lifetime.

VV: What is going on with the two tanks of Devil’s Gulch Pinot Noir?
WB: That is in the same situation as the Syrah. It too is raging through ML. It already tastes so good! I am so excited about it! The other thing is that it doesn’t taste anything like the ’07 did at this point in its life cycle. Mother Nature doing her thing, reminding us that She’s in control.

VV: I guess the last grape that we haven’t talked about is the Zinfandel. How is that doing and where in the process is it?
WB: Oh, the Morelli (Morelli Lane Vineyard). It tastes fantastic! You will flip out when you taste this wine. It is from a 1 ½ acre plot of 100+-year-old vine Zinfandel growing out in the West part of the Green Valley. We will have 10 barrels of it. It too is currently going through ML. It has a tropical, strawberry candy smell to it. That should get bottled next August right before the next harvest.

VV: Do you still have any interns left?
WB: All the interns are gone except for the lab assistant. And she will be here only three more days. I’m sad to see her go, because that means I will be going back in the lab more.

VV: Do you feel that your interns learned a lot while at Dutton Goldfield?
WB: Yes, I feel that our interns did learn a great deal. They have a sweet deal here. Since we share the facilities with Balletto Winery, the interns are exposed to and helping the different winemakers and other staff that all have their own ideas and ways. They end up learning a lot, and it gives them different options for their future winemaking career.

VV: We are curious about how the winemaker and the assistant winemaker work together.
WB: First of all, we both work together on the picking decisions out in the vineyards. Before harvest we have seen each vineyard a few times. Then, as harvest gets closer, we go out and start to taste the grapes to check for ripeness and flavors that we want. Second, we discuss the different additions we will be using, such as the ML bacteria and acids. We also discuss what barrel choices will be using for what wine. Third, a very big part of our job that we do together is the blending decisions for the wines. We go offsite to a very sterile environment where we can taste and concentrate without distractions. I bring samples that I’ve taken from the different barrels or tanks. We do this between 1-3 times a week until we feel we have the right combination. And last, we work together if something comes up during the winemaking process. We discuss how to remedy it and it works out great.

Then there is the relationship between the winery and me. For example, I like to do the additions (nutrients or acids) myself. This way I know that it is done right, and I can see the wine and how it is doing. Every morning I smell every open top, and I make sure it smells good. If not then I make a note to myself to work on that today and figure out what needs to be done to get it back on track.

VV: How would you compare the harvest this year to the ones in the past?
WB: Really quick! It just seemed to fly by so fast. First we didn’t know when it was going to start, because it was late coming. But then we got that heat wave. Harvest was on! Then we had Pinot coming in, in, in, in. Then every step along the way was a big hurdle. We were pressing everything on the same day; we had all our tanks completely filled while doing all the barreling down. All this happened all at once. It was intense, and pushed the limits of our facility, but the time just flew by. It reminded me of the harvest of 2005, which also had everything happening at once, and pushed the limits of our facility. (I was assistant winemaker at Peachy Canyon Winery in Paso Robles during that harvest.)

VV: What is going on in the vineyards now?
WB: Right now everyone is planting their cover crops. The timing for planting the cover crop is pretty tricky. We want to do it as close as we can to the first rain. This allows the crop to get going for the Winter/Spring without us having to water. We plant alfalfa, which helps with nitrogen and helps the clay soil come together more. Anything like alfalfa or legumes increases nitrogen in the soil; they’re nature’s fertilizers.

VV: When does the crop get mowed down?
WB: You don’t want it around after the first frost after bud break. If you don’t mow before the first frost it can be damaging to the vines. The crop gets disked in, so then it becomes compost/mulch.

Diamond Creek Fall leafVV: When do you prune the vines?
WB: What is happening right now to the vines is that the grape leaves are going through foliage. They will turn from the green they have been all season to a beautiful orange/red and yellow depending on the varietals. Then the leaves will fall off and the vines will be left bare for the winter. The rule is to prune at the first onset of bud break. But if you prune a week before bud break it will delay it a week. So, you need to be patient and wait for that right moment. It is usually in February or March. All pruning is done by hand so it takes a lot of time.

VV: Congratulations surviving yet another harvest! The good thing is that you still love your job!
WB: Thanks. Yes, I feel that I have chosen the best career in the world. That is what I said everyday when I was leaning over a barrel of wine and tasting it. This is my 7th harvest (Testerosa Winery, R.H. Phillips, Montana in New Zealand, Peachy Canyon x2 and Dutton Goldfield x2), and each year it’s getting a little bit easier. I’m building up more confidence, and I’m having more fun. I keep learning more and more each year, and that is the best part.
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