Journey: Thoughts and Reflections along the path.
Lightheart Cellars has been a journey, as the title of this blog suggests, and all journeys have a start, and eventually an end. Late last year, Jane and I decided that we were ready to wind up the winery and move on to other challenges, that did not require as much time and effort as this one has. We notified our vineyard management customers December 1st that we would no longer be doing vineyards or custom winemaking, and told our staff in February that we had a target of closing on April 2nd.
As with most journeys there are significant moments, things you learned, prices you paid and memories you will keep as well as the people you met along the way. We have all of those, and some minor scars as well, as any great experience involving Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat should leave. After working essentially two full time jobs for the last 6 plus years, we've certainly accumulated them. With young grandchildren and awareness of our own increasing age, we are choosing to "spend more time with our family" to cite the oft used phrase given to explain a resignation. In this case its truth, as we are also remodeling and selling our home, and downsizing to a townhouse in Morgan Hill to enable us to have time for "Lioness" and the soon to be 4 younger grandkids, and traveling to visit the East Coast.
We owe appreciation and thanks to our staff, our vendors, suppliers, colleagues and competitors and most of all our customers.
We will be open the weekends of March and on Saturday April 2nd, we will wrap it up with a bang, smiling all the way.
We wish you and yours adventures, smooth sailing and just enough wind to keep it interesting, and we'll see you among the vines of the Santa Clara Valley.
With the mult-year drought that has been ongoing, we have been very careful to irrigate only as we needed to. Last year we noticed that the Athena's Vineyard irrigation was not reaching as far out the rows of the 4 acre blocks as we had previously experienced and thinking that the well was not accessing as much ground water, we turned to only watering alternate rows, so that we could get water all the way out. With the valve all the way open at the well pad, we had less than 5 psi pressure, which is barely enough to crack the drippers and would only lift water 10 ft. This necessitated switching 88 valves each week a rather tedious procedure. In an attempt to ameliorate that, this year, we decided to sub-divide the blocks of Merlot and Cab Franc into 2 2 Acre zones, hoping that the well could keep up.
So we procured 300 ft of 2" pipe, the necessary fittings, rented a trencher and arranged for 3 of our field guys to dig the ends on Sunday. We laid the pipe and finished in just about 7 hours, letting the joints cure overnight before pressure testing and backfilling.
The good news is that the 2 acre block fed by the new piping was holding at 30 psi with good flow. The not so good news was that the rest of the 8 acres had a leak that apparently was coming from the old 4" main line, which fed the original zone valves. Fortunately we were able to get help, to bail out the trench and dig down to find the leak. getting that fixed should be the cure to the original problem of low pressure, and the new lateral piping will allow us to better tune the irrigation as well.
We are approaching four years of being open, and will celebrate with a party on June 20th. Its hard to write the highlights of four years, the time spent in pursuing an undergraduate degree, in a few short paragraphs but these are the highlights.
It has gone quickly from about 150 cases when we first opened on the third Saturday in June of 2011 under a 10x10 canopy out between the vineyard blocks. Jane and I sat out behind a small bar and waited to see who would stop in. One of our first customers was Steve Beck who was gracious and complementary and lead to our first commercial placement. We got over our nervousness, learned to give good customer service and to welcome feedback. The first time Dan Rocca stopped by, we knew we had "made it" and having our wines on the shelf at Rocca's Market has been a point of pride. Attending the Gilroy Garlic Festival as a wine tent participant was memorable.
With the spring of 2012, we had our tasting patio poured to match our driveway, and hosted our first WSCV mixer at our new bar. We were involved in the local wine walks and had our wines at Rosie's at the Beach. Our vineyard management program picked up with the Athena's Vineyard and Soli Deo Gloria vineyards. Traveling in Provence we decided to make a Rose for 2012, and crafted our Enchante from Rose we harvested from the Athena's vineyard. Noah and Joan made the first meads and we introduced them to our customers.
Over the next years, we cellared and vinted our vintages, learning from each one and expanding our volume and the varietals along the way as we expanded our vineyard portfolio. We decided to be open both first and third weekends, and have built a loyal following, leading to this spring being open every weekend.
We've met many good people, have developed staff and colleagues who have helped us and have continued to upgrae our facility with recent renovations to our patio cover and expanded bar. We look forward to the future.
2014 was a good year, we grew, learned and enjoyed ourselves. Looking into 2015, we have stable acreage, a more skilled and experienced crew, with some better tools to make it all more feasible. We had a good visit with some neighbors from the intersection of Colony and California, where they want to establish a winery, and there's also interest in setting one up at the intersection of California and Monterey, where the BBQ truck is at the Christmas tree farm. It would be great to have more wineries in the neighborhood, to attract more traffic to our branch of the wine trail. Our neighbors the Englehardt's are going to open "Lion Ranch" at the intersection of San Martin and Santa Theresa soon, their construction is nearly done. Four wineries in two blocks will be a big change from a few years back.
We had a bit of a family holiday in January, Jane visited Virginia to hug here grandson Cameron, and then Madelyn Bree my granddaughter, Carl my son and his wife Katie came to visit. Carl helped to fix the tractor's shift linkage, and Katie and he enjoyed visiting our neighboring wineries to get a sense of the business, before returning to central Maine.
The last week of January, Jane and I attended the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento. We sat through the technical and marketing sessions, and roamed the large trade show, which is always an eye opener. Jane found a new digital refractometer, and ph Meter and I found an ozone generator that was under $500, which will allow us to do a better job of cleaning our barrels. Joan and Noah, our cellar and Mead crew found some pewter medallions that caught their eye, and may feature them on new bottles.
We bought a "samurai saber" cutter from a company in Winnipeg, and have modified it to allow efficient pre-pruning, which beats carrying a hedge trimmer for miles and miles. Pruning started Superbowl weekend, and will continue through February, as we try to set a budbreak that is likely to be after the last frost. Hopefully the "Pineapple Express" comes to town and stays for a while, reprising the December visit.
Cellaring activities are ongoing with topping, racking and the start of fining trials to determine the best treatment to clarify our white and rose wines.
Events this spring include Barrel Tasting, Passport and many wine walks.
It was a long crush season, from the first pick of Merlot at Athena's Vineyard in early September to the last Petite Sirah from Chirala Estates was 8 weeks. The spread was caused by a combination of climate differences and irrigation issues, where the central location of Athena's and system problems gave us early harvesting, and the cooler location of Chirala's along with later watering due to a well issue gave us later.
We brought in a bit less than 40 tons this year, with some lower yields due to the drought and aggressive pruning/shoot thinning to keep the canopy smaller. Overall fruit quality was good and the flavors will be concentrated in the smaller berries. Our staff was able to complete crushing and pressing without supervision this year, which was a bonus as Jane's daughter Amy gave birth in the 2nd week of October, so we were short when Jane went to Virginia to help.
As our home winemaker sized destemmer had been working overtime last year to process the fruit, we bought a used Jolly 50 which allowed us to feed it from a bin tipper on a forklift. Much less labor than the hand shoveling, and much better destemming, as this has counter rotating cage and paddles. Alex and Christian built a platform to stand on, so that the grapes could be raked into the destemmer and it gravity fed the must into our macro bin fermenters.
Its been a busy season, with harvesting completed in three vineyards, and Petite Sirah, Colombard, Mourvedre, Rousanne left to go.
We've had great support from our permanent part time staff: Joan, Alex, and Chris, our intern Filipe and of course the field crew Miguel, Lassndro, Valentine, Dino and Victoria. Having a woman join the field crew has been an experience, the bright pink and purple colors standing out in the vines, and her good english skills facilitating better communication. Instead of pidgin and pointing, she translates and there's feedback beyond the nodding and "si senor" of old.
The harvest has been less focused due to irrigation spreading out the ripening, with our first pick on Sept 6th and our last probably coming in mid October. Choices made in the early part of the year show up as the pruning, shoot thinning and watering decisions play against the late heat and short water. The destemming which last year was a major effort has this year been dramatically improved with our new Jolly 35 Destemmer and a forklift with bin tipper. Two people can destem a 1000 lbs in about 10 minutes.
Pressing continues to be our bottle neck with the two vertical bladders cycling roughly once an hour with manual loading and unloading. We are looking into higher capacity automated units for next year.
We're nearly into harvest, the Brix samples are coming in about 21 degrees for the Merlot and Viognier, and the pickers are texting every few days. Its been a different year with the drought, and irrigation issues from low well levels to breaks in 4" lines. Fortunately the fruit seems to be doing very well, a good sized crop and flavors developing nicely. We're hoping to start harvesting in 2 weeks which would be consistent with last year's 9/7 kickoff.
Our plan this year is a bit more modest, we're only managing 20 acres and have a 45 ton plan to cover our needs, an affiliated startup we manage and the fruit sales we have on the books. Last year we did 36 acres and 60 tons, which was quite a stretch. An upsized destemmer replaces the last of our "hobby" equipment and we have now have forklift & flatbed truck which will reduce the efforts substantially. The only issue has been that due to family issues, bottling was delayed, and we are scrambling a bit to get our tanks and barrels empty in time for the new juice. This year we have about 1000 cases to bottle, including several new blends and varietals, and we've definitely seen the speed of our process improve, with peaks of a case per minute and averaging 30 cases an hour for the shift. Tha'ts all done with hand labor, the stacks of full cases in the cold room are quite impressive to behold.
Look for releases of new wines in the next months, as the Sangiovese, Tuscan Blend "Fascino" and Dijon Clone Pinot Noir come through bottle shock. The 2013 Chardonnay and Colombard will be un-oaked and we will have both as an alternative to the 2012 vintage.
Jane's planning at least one rose, and possibly two, and its going to be a busy 6-10 weeks from here out.
Its been about 6 weeks since the last blog entry, time seems to have gotten behind us a bit. Between events, vineyards, cellaring, a wedding and a new grandchild life's been busy and we've been traveling. We are putting our bottling plan together and plan to bottle June or July, to make room in our cellar for new wines this fall. Stop by the tasting patio and share the Stanley cup games, or let me show you my granddaughter Madelyn's photos.
The current exceptional drought has been mitigated slightly by late rains, the estate gauge showing just about 9 inch since New Years. The typical range is 10-15 in, so that's not as bad as we had been looking at during February. We made choices to prune severely and have been doing shoot thinning earlier to limit canopy size, so that we need less water to grow a smaller crop. We've put quite a bit of time into checking for leaks, and fixing the ravages of coyotes, freezing and hard water deposits as we don't want to waste any.
In Athena's vineyard, we found that our irrigation pump can pressurize 1/4 of the acreage at a time, so we'll need to manually turn off half of the rows in alternation of each block to keep within a level where we get uniform dripping. We've mowed everywhere to reduce the evapotranspiration losses, and will continue to keep a low cover to reduce water needs and losses.
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