Thursday, July 10, 2008

Working for Paul Romero: Part 1

Those of you on the WS and WLTV forums may have followed my recent search for a summer job (screenname "barrelmonkey"). As I learned, there is little work in small wineries for a chemical engineer. "For every hour of labwork" said vintner Paul Romero, "there are one hundred hours of spraying vines, pruning, hauling nets, and cleaning barrels." In the end, I took a research job here at Princeton on nano-structured silica templation.

As my schedule solidified, I realized I'd be home in Menlo Park, CA, for a month before returning to Princeton. I contacted Paul again, asking if I could work for him short-term. "How much can you lift? How's your Spanish? Are you good at cleaning things?" were his questions. We agreed that I would join Geraldo and Daniel with the vineyard work.

The First Day:

I drove up to Chaine d'Or vineyard, a hill-side plot near Fogarty in Woodside, and met Daniel and the foreman, Jerry (Geraldo). With some rusty Spanish I learned how to "tuck" the chardonnay and cabernet vines into the wire trellis, and remove "suckers" that shoot out from the trunk and rootstock. The sun was intense, enhancing the beautiful contrast between the vibrant green vines and the dusty brown soil.

Paul showed up later that day, and showed me around the cool, damp, barrel cave. I still distinctly remember the perfume of damp earth, cool stones, wine, and wood that hit me upon entering the cave. What a bouquet - I wanted to drink that cave!

While we topped off the barrels, I learned a lot of specifics from Paul regarding the vineyard and the winemaking process (see below for my complete notes). I met his wife and lable-namesake, Stefania, and was able to taste along with a few visitors as Paul gave a cellar tour. My palate wasn't really in gear, being somewhat full of dust and already saturated with the smell of wine in the cellar. However I was impressed by the balance of Paul's 14.9% pinot (he was right- I never would have guessed from tasting it that the pinot was his most alcoholic wine). The two cabernets showed great flavor concentration and soft tannins, with pleasant hints of methoxypyrazines on the nose. All of the wines had excellent acidity and full body. Not a bad way to end the day!

Here are my specific notes:

Vine care:

Sucker, or small shoots that portrude laterally from the lower trunk and rootstock, must be removed because they take away nutrients from the fruit zone. Also, one usually doesn't want fruit from the rootstock. Some of the cabernets had succumbed to a virulent disease a couple years ago, so they chopped the vine below the affected region and allowed it to shoot a lateral from the stump, which eventually became a full vine. Aside from suckering, however, it's not advisable to trim the vine at this stage (late flower, early fruit formation). Jerry, the owner of Chaine d'Or, noted that Daniel was trimming the apical meristem of some of the chards. The stem would then shoot short laterals, which would be difficult to tuck.

Vineyard Climate:

The climate at Chaine d'Or is uniquely suited to winemaking. Fog rolls in in the evening, causing the desired nighttime cooling of the grapes. Because of the slope, convection keeps the air moving, preventing frost buildup during the winter.

Ripening the grapes:

Besides sugar-ripeness (measured in degrees brix), the grapes go through stages of flavor ripeness. For example, cab sauv can take on extreme asparagus and bell pepper flavors when unripe. Olive/cedar/tobacco/earth follows, then some red fruit, then the black cassis tones. Overripe grapes can taste raisiny. Paul remarked:

I've tasted many wines from this area [Woodside hills, overlooking Stanford University] from vintners who don't know to taste the grapes, and so pick too early. You get scared because you just heard Napa's already picking, but here you need to hold off for flavor ripeness. Even if brix is right [23-25 degrees], the flavors may not be ripe yet. You have to taste the grapes.

Use of oak:

Barrel-aging is a partial-oxidation process that polymerizes the tannins into riper-tasting longer-chain tannins. The oak contributes its own long-chain tannins, as well as unique flavors - vanilla, cinnamon, pain grille, etc., depending on wood type and degree of toast. The '07 cab, for example, had unusually short-chain, unripe tannins, so Paul aged it in barrels longer to compensate.

"American Oak or French Oak?" I asked. "French," said Paul. "American oak is sluttier." He finds that American oak gives up its flavors to the wine more readily, contributing bold vanilla and cream, but less tannic structure. French oak gives more sophisticated flavors of cinnamon and subtle vanilla. The amount of flavor/tannins the barrel contributes also depends on the barrel age.

Paul uses French oak, sometimes a little Hungarian. I saw Nevers, but I'm not sure what other types he uses. On research, he commented:

There's been very little conclusive academic research on the effects of different varieties of oak (e.g. American vs French) largely because for a long time the prices were the same. Now that French oak is more expensive, there will probably be more research.

Topping off:

To correct the loss of the "Angels' share," or the wine that evaporates from the barrels, additional wine is added regularly. A beverage canister full of wine, pressurized and "mummified" with nitrogen is used to top off barrels. Topping-off wine may come from another vintage (hence the 5% other-vintage allowance in CA), but usually is used up in the same year.

If there's no N2 or topping off wine, a barrel that needs topping off can be preserved with argon, and then a barrel can be sacrificed to top up the others.

The canisters are washed with sulfur compounds (~30 ppm) to disinfect.


To remove sediment, several barrels are mixed in large steel tanks (also used for bottling to reduce bottle variation). The empty barrels are placed on a rack with rollers, washed thoroughly, and then refilled. This causes a little beneficial oxidation, and mixes all the barrels of wine. SO2 is added to the racking tank to disinfect the wine, particularly as a guard against brettanomyces.


Dave said...

Nice post. It's almost like I'm out there with you. I hope you'll continue to document your experiences and I look forward to blogging about your first vintage!

Rajiv said...

Thanks for reading! Unfortunately I won't be around for the harvest, but I'll post what I learned in the short month I was there. Bear with me as I type up my rather disorganized notes.