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2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Recap: Part 1 – Technical Conference and BBQ by Jennifer

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Technical Conference May 20, 2011 (Photo: J. Waits)

I clearly remember being at a wine event back in 2005, several months before we starting making wine, and snickering when during a Q&A session someone inquired about the name of the particular forest in France that a barrel was crafted from. To me, it seemed to be an extreme example of wine geekery and it reminded me of arcane conversations about stereo equipment or car parts. I also felt it was kind of a showy comment, perhaps meant to reveal the extreme wine knowledge of the questioner.

Well, now it’s 6 years later and Brian and I have become that geeky wine guy. As I sat through the Technical Conference at this year’s 14th Annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival last Friday, I was amazed to think about how far we’ve come. I can now understand why forests might matter to some winemakers, as there are so many factors that can influence the taste of a glass of wine, from the grape clone to the soil type (and numerous other farming practices including canopy management, watering, and pest management) to one’s philosophy about organic to the date that the grape was picked to sorting practices (hand sorting, whole cluster, etc.), to pressing strategies (free run? how hard of a press?), to fermentation practices (time, yeast strain or native yeast, cold soak, etc.), to the barrel type (forest, cooper, percentage new oak, type of toast, etc.), to the amount of time in barrel, to blending the wine, to the amount of time in bottle, and on and on.

This year’s Technical Conference featured presentations on “Fertility Management Strategies” (which dissected the types of soils in Anderson Valley and how that relates to winemaking practices and Pinot Noir), “Fermentation Issues and Strategies” (which looked at the science of color and fermentation issues that arise from “chasing color”), “Winemaking Techniques and Color Enhancement,” as well as a panel discussion about the use of whole grape clusters in making Pinot Noir.

A View of the Technical Conference (Photo: J. Waits)

I was particularly interested in the panel about whole clusters, as that’s something we’ve only done once in our winemaking career.

In our first vintage, when we made a pinot noir from the Amber Ridge Vineyard in Russian River Valley in 2005, we decided to throw in about 20% whole clusters of grapes (grapes with the stems attached) to see what kind of effect that would have. Since then we haven’t used any whole clusters, in part because we were under the impression that green stems were a “no no.” We’d assumed that green stems would lead to a more herbal or vegetal flavor. During the panel Jeff Brinkman of Rhys Vineyards said that he actually uses “neon green stems” in his winemaking practices and explained that what’s more important than stem color is the dryness of the stem and whether or not it is still running sap. He said that he will use whole clusters of grapes if the stems are dry when chewed on and have a walnut quality to them.

Examining the Clusters (Our Oppenlander Vineyard sort in Fall 2010. Photo: J. Waits)

Jeff also pointed out that doing 100% whole cluster wine is dependent upon vineyard practices and that the types of grape clones used (he said that the Swan clone works well for whole cluster Pinot Noir) can have an impact. Additionally, he said that picking the grapes early is best when doing whole clusters and added that hand sorting of the fruit after picking is also critical.

He explained that it can take him 3 to 5 hours to sort through a ton of fruit because they are doing it so methodically. There have been years when they have thrown away 50% of the fruit because they are searching for the ideal clusters to use and they are not picking off berries from a cluster. If part of a cluster looks bad, they will toss the entire cluster. Jeff said that the care taken with sorting also gets extended into the processing of the fruit.

When fermenting the wine, Jeff does punchdowns by foot because he is doing 100% whole cluster fermentation. He said that it’s impossible to use a punchdown tool because during fermentation the fruit is like concrete. He admitted that making 100% whole cluster Pinot Noir is “hard to do casually.”

Joe Webb, the winemaker at Foursight Wines, also talked about using whole clusters in his winemaking practices. He said that it’s really important to use gentler techniques during fermentation and he does hand punchdowns in order to take care with the stems. He said that he starts out with whole clusters on the bottom of the bin and never lets the punchdown tool touch the bottom of the bin.

View of Navarro Vineyards as Dusk Fell on the BBQ (Photo: J. Waits)

As was the case last year, the conference featured a more consumer-oriented series of sessions in the afternoon. Author and wine educator Karen MacNeil rhapsodized about the appeal of Pinot Noir, another session provided a comparison among wines crafted from fruit from Ferrington Vineyards, and the last session including a tasting of rose style Pinot Noir from Roederer and Toulouse.

Throughout the day some memorable statements were made about Pinot Noir, beginning with UC Cooperative Extension viticulture and plant science advisor Glenn McGourty’s comment that pinot noir is “kind of like a princess.” Karen MacNeil dissected Pinot Noir even further, suggesting that there’s a “non-obviousness about great Pinot Noir,” explaining that it is not someone with a “big fur coat.” She added that Pinot Noir is “essentially unknowable in one sip” and that in fact its texture may be more important than its flavor. Karen described the essential character of Pinot Noir as being “more primordial than other grape varieties” with its “good corruption of rotting leaves and sweaty men.”

Wine Options at the BBQ (Photo: B. Mast)

Following the technical conference we headed over to Navarro Vineyards for the official after-party BBQ. On a chilly May evening in Anderson Valley, we noshed on empanadas, paella, and a variety of donated Pinot Noir options, while chatting with wine writer Greg Walter, the man behind PinotReport (and also the MC for this year’s Technical Conference).

A band played classic rock tunes while winemakers and wine lovers danced, ate, and drank. At the end of the evening, with a warm cup of coffee in hand, we said goodnight to the winery sheep and turned in for some rest before the big day ahead at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival Grand Tasting.

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[…] we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the technical conference. For years, the technical conference has been a great way for us to get more immersed in the […]

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