Category Archives: Wine

Anything to do with wine

Paso Robles: Top Wine Country Travel Destination

One of the older established online travel sites, Orbitz, has a list of places their editors say are the top destinations. This year, they have 17 different regions to visit and only one is in a wine country vicinity: Paso Robles. In fact Orbitz listed Paso as the number four most exciting and amazing places to travel to … in the world.

bon-niche-cellars_PasoRobles

Yes, the sleepy little town I fell in love with decades earlier is now a wine enthusiast’s nirvana. Located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso’s small town feel has largely been kept intact. Nestled in the eastern hillsides of California’s Coastal Range, this Central Coast diamond has become a highly sought after travel destination. Orbitz states the over 400 wineries now spread all over the northern reaches of San Luis Obispo County:

“Produce some damn fine varietals”

From it’s many tasting rooms to Victorian style buildings to “a perfectly walkable downtown”, there’s certainly plenty to enjoy in this remarkable vacation destination. Rolling hills may obscure the many wineries, but being in close proximity to town yet offering a faraway feeling, are some of the many reasons to visit Paso Robles, according to Orbitz’s expertise.

Hotels range from luxury accommodations to the more typical arrangements. Also, foodies shouldn’t be alarmed because this town has more than its fair share of great restaurants. So the next time you’re looking for that unique cozy charm of a small town, yet the extra amenities of a larger city, Paso Robles should be number one on your list of amazing places to travel.

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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Old Bank Barn As Winery

Driving about here on the Central Coast in wine country, there’s plenty of new and old blended into the scenery along the rolling hills of Paso Robles. Yes, the booming vineyard business has greeted us with new modern and fancy buildings and tasting rooms. And yet there are unique and distinctive farms and barns that have given me new appreciation for the old history of the region.

sleeping_lady_winery-bank_barn

Diamond in the rough

This brings me to an interesting story of a barn up in Napa Valley (near Yountville) that may be the only one of its kind. The historic building was built in the late 1800’s and could end up being the only bank barn as a winery.

Built into the side of a hill, bank barns are peculiar in that they have two levels reached from ground level, making it easily accessible. Construction of these unusual buildings is more expensive than a normal flat building, but they offer multi-level advantages including entry to an ‘upper’ floor from the ground. The descriptive word ‘bank’ stands for a slope.

What’s old is new

This particular barn will be restored by Napa Valley’s Sleeping Lady Winery, who is a successful vineyard in their own right.  The 3651 square foot barn will be a winery and includes a tasting room, fermentation area and barrel storage. A covered outdoor crush pad will be added as well.

sleeping-lady-vineyard

In helping to give significance and preserve this old barn, a local councilwoman, Juliana Inman, did some research that discovered this is one of only two bank barns listed with the state of California. They have to follow state guidelines for preservation and restoration of this historic site.

Napa certainly has a nugget to check out, when Sleeping Lady Winery is finished with their restoration here in the Golden State.

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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Wood Bung Plug

Wood bung plugIf you’re not familiar with this term used in the world of wine, the bung hole is simply the hole on the top of a barrel. It-turn, the bung hole is covered with a bung or bung plug – similar to what a cork does. Other names like stopper, cork or taper can be used to describe a bung.  The bung plug typically can be made out of almost anything including plastic, rubber, glass, silicone and of course wood.

There are advantages to each product such as the fact that rubber is easy to manipulate and move, while plastic is cheaper, glass looks the best and silicone might breath the best. These different attributes are important, and maybe there’s a little bit of all of them in wood bungs.

Wooden Bung Plug

The wood bung plug that is offered here is two inches in diameter on the outside or top of the bung, and roughly one and three quarters inch on the end or inside. Though each is handmade and therefore unique from each other, they are about an inch and a half long. Paso wine Barrels came up with the size based on the typical wine barrel bung hole, which is an inch and seven eighths to just a hair shy of two inches in diameter. The inch and a half is long enough to be able to grab hold of to pull off, yet not too short that you can’t get a hold of it to take off. Note, a typical wine barrel capacity is 58-60 gallons or about 225 liters.

To make this unique bung plugs, a two inch pine dowel is cut about an inch and a half long. Then its sanded until the taper will fit a test bung hole. Roughly an inch of the bung length has a taper. The edges and ends are sanded, then stain and sealed with a dark cedar tone. This offers a longer lasting and better looking bung plug. Unlike glass, wood does have a little bit of breathing ability and yet is more natural than plastic, rubber or silicone. If you’re interested in a truly working bung plug to make beer, wine or spirits, there is the ultimate plug called the LUX bung. Click here to check out a story done on it a couple years ago.

Other than staves, the wood bung plug is the single most popular item sold at PasoWineBarrels.com. Every state in the union has one and its popularity continues to grow.

LUX bung plug

Decorative barrel with LUX bung

I’m sure some of you including millennials have been snickering while reading, thinking the whole time about the term bung hole; but, this discussion is only talking about barrels and not butts.

Many holes in containers like barrels, are universally made to two inches, therefore Paso Wine Barrels bung plug can used in many different applications, including the larger alcohol related barrels like puncheons, casks and tun. So, whether you’re looking for a bung stopper, cork, taper or whatever you may call it, this is the bung plug for you.

“I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man’s milk and restorative cordial.” – Thomas Jefferson

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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And The Newly Crowned Largest Wine Barrel Is?

With time, records will fall, so as far as the largest wine barrel is concerned, a newly crafted 300,000 liter oak barrel made in the south of France, holds the peculiar notoriety of now being the largest oak wine barrel of its kind in the world.

A very large barrel

Worlds_largest_wine_barrel

To be specific, the barrel was made – and finished this month – in the province of Languedoc in Saint-Drezery, France for the Chateau Puech-Haut estate’s owner Gerard Bru. The barrel weighs a total of 44 tons or 88,000 pounds. It’s about 40 feet long and 20 feet high. I don’t think we can get it in the back of our Durango. Sadly, Mr Bru says the colossal barrel won’t be used for wine, but instead will be an attraction and likely events could be held inside. I’m certain of that.

Over five tons of steel were used as hoop bands and I believe half a forest was cut down to make this enormous contraption. Actually, it was estimated that 40 tons of oak were used to create this massive hulk of wood and metal.

Chateau de Puech-Haut

Chateau Puech-Haut

Based in the huge grape producing region of Languedoc, the winery itself sits in an important winemaking center that dates back over a couple millenniums ago. The vines here are considered the oldest in France and probably were planted by the Greeks during their Classical Period in fifth century BC.

Beats the Tun

If you were wondering, the largest wine barrel was formerly the infamous Heidelberg Tun, which is cellared several hundred miles north at Heidelberg Castle in, you guessed it, Heidelberg, Germany. It held 58,500 gallons, when it was new in 1751, but because of shrinkage, now is about 57,800 gallons. It was originally used for actual wine storage, but now resides as another tourist attraction. There’s a stairway that leads to a dance floor on top of the Heidelberg Tun barrel. Can you just imagine those crazy Germans doing their Schuhplattler in lederhosen … on top of a wine barrel?!

The Chateau Puech-Haut has many other larger than life wine barrels and some of them have been adorned with art and exhibited globally. Seguin Moreau and surely other cooperages, make giant barrels and casks on a regular basis.

Chateau Puech-Haut - barrel-storage

Inside Chateau Puech-Haut wine barrel storage facility.

It is said that no poem was ever written by a drinker of water; so, in the land where troubadours first emitted their poetic songs, I leave you with this great poem called: ‘We Have a Huge Barrel of Wine But No Cups’ – which doesn’t sound like a problem. Here’s to you Gerard Bru.

“We have a huge barrel of wine but no cups, that’s fine with us. Every morning we glow, and in the evening we glow again. They say there is no future for us. They are right; which is fine with us.” – Rumi (13th Century Persian poet)

Additional source: The Cooper and His Trade

Salootie Patootie,

Daryle W. Hier

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California Wine Production Drops Again, But …

The Golden State generates over 90% of all wine produced in the United States. So sometimes numbers have to be put in prospective. Still, the wine grape tonnage created in California for the 2015 season dropped a second year in a row, according to the just released California Grape Crush Report.California_Grape_Crush_Report-2015

We at Paso Wine Barrels keep tabs on statistics like this because it can affect our business, whether the winery crop production is high or low. Until just recently, it was difficult to find used wine barrels, because crush reports over the past few years have been high. After two back-to-back record breaking years in 2012 and 2013, wineries were leery and caused vintners to essentially hoard their used wine barrels in case the next year was the same as the last.

Drought tough to beat

Drought has gripped California for five years and that finally slowed down grape-growers who saw a dip in 2014, but still it was a very strong output. So some wine-makers relinquished their barrels, but most held steady figuring to wait one more year. That year was this past season and the grape crush is the lowest it’s been since 2011.

However, the amount of wine produced last year was average by comparison to past seasons during the 21st Century. Therefore, even though production was down 5% year-or-year, California is still the fourth largest wine producer in the world behind France, Italy and Spain – and we’re neck-and-neck with Espana. In other words, the wine is still flowing big time in sunny California.

If California was its own country, it would rank fourth in the world - maybe third - in wine production.

If California was its own country, it would rank fourth in the world – maybe third – in wine production.

Those in the industry will say that they needed a breather because there was too much bulk wine available, which can drive prices down. Yet, the world as a whole is drinking more wine, but not producing enough of what the demand wants. Hard to know for sure how that works out considering the elongated Recession is gathering up steam for another big hit economic-wise.

Chardonnay down, but not out

Although the cost of grapes in California is down a bit overall, for some varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, prices have already increased, due to very low tonnage in 2015. So yours truly tries to pinpoint wineries who concentrate on those varietals. Locally, we had bouts of shatter on the Central Coast, which significantly reduced overall grape production. Simply stated, shatter is when the young grape cluster flowers are stressed to the point they fall off the vine. We knew it wasn’t going to be a good year and last harvest offered a glimpse into the troubles we were heading towards.

Chardonnay still leads the way as the number one varietal in California.

Chardonnay still leads the way as the number one varietal in California.

A few stats of interest from this harvest report show the leader with more than one-in-six grapes is Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon is still king, at least among reds, and second place in the state. By the way, Thomson Seedless was the leading varietal regarding raisin production. Well over half a million acres in the Golden State have grapes growing on them.

A final report will be out in about a month with the complete rundown of all that is known of last years grape crush. Only five other years in state’s history of wine production had higher tonnage. So yes, the crush is lighter than the previous three years, but perspective will tell you that the wine industry is doing just fine in California.

Additional source: Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia

Salute!

Daryle W. Hier

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Wine: Where It All Began, Sort Of

Mount Ararat - Armenia

Casual conversations among wine drinkers sometimes leads to where did it all begin. Okay, maybe my interest in history leads to that conversation. Still, where it all began is interesting thought regarding wine.

When, then where

Maybe the better question could be when did winemaking start. I’m not going to get into the exacts of this because there are unbounded vagaries as to the who, what, when, where and how of wine and winemaking. It’s arguable, and archaeologically speaking, the history of winemaking is a bit blurred. However, sometime during the end of the Stone Age, or upwards of 10,000 years ago, may be where early man discovered the pleasurable magic of vino. The Bronze Age some 5,000 years later is when wine production probably began. It should be noted that theoretically, man discovered alcohol from watching birds eat fermented fruit and then becoming odd in their actions afterward.

Armenia-pottery-ancient

Ancient pottery from archaeological site in Armenia

While wild grapes can be found from Western Europe to China, the domestication of wine looks to have begun in the steppe region of Armenia (also known as the Upper Middle East). In these highlands, with the advent of pottery, wine production likely began. Less than 30 years ago, there were archaeological digs in this region that found 5,000 year old pottery remnants with a red hue, thought to be wine residue.

The trek that wine took went from Armenia and migrated south to Mesopotamia (Iraq) and west to Eastern Europe.

Its biblical background

From a biblical perspective, it’s suggested this Upper Middle Eastern plateau expanse could be where the Garden of Eden was located. Another tidbit is this area might have been where the first production of apricot brandy occurred. It’s well known that brandy was first regularly produced in large supply in Eastern Europe including the Black Sea Region, not far from Armenia. Geographically speaking, Ancient Armenia stretched from the Mediterranean to the Black and Caspian Seas.

Greek wall painting showing grape-vines trained over a trellis, then crushed in a vat. The Bible credits Noah with inventing wine.

Greek wall painting showing grape-vines trained over a trellis, then crushed in a vat.
The Bible credits Noah with inventing wine.

Noah was said to have planted a vineyard in this same area and made wine from it. This is the first written account of grape growing and winemaking. Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark landed, was in the middle of Armenia (edge of modern day Turkey). Although wine was produced mainly for royalty and dignitaries, some partook for sacramental, religious or spiritual occasions.

The Levant – a name that only recently starting making the news with ISIS (aka ISIL or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) – is a region just south of Armenia and Turkey which is brought up as the earliest times of food … and of course wine production.

Other places

Others state that wine had its start in China some 9,000 years ago. However, this recipe was made from rice and not grapes. Archaeological sites from Iran, to Georgia and Greece show signs of domestic wine production dating back some 7,000 years ago. The earliest exporting of wine from the Levant was shipped to Ancient Egypt over 5,000 years ago. The Egyptians were thought to be the first vine pruners. Note that Ancient Palestine had wine, but it was date wine, made from date palms.

Oldest winery - Armenia

Oldest winery – Armenia

The oldest winery dates back 6,000 years to Armenia – a central and recurring place of reference when researching wine’s history. Yet, truly the Romans brought wine to the fore about 1,000 BC, creating a science and viniculture that is with us today. It is said the Romans created the wooden cask to carry products easily while keeping foods and drink protected, which also kept them from spoiling. Eventually the wooden cask for wine – or wine barrel – would be used as a regular container for vino.

The birthplace of wine might not be clear, and many cultures delved into making different forms of alcohol. Still it could be said that the highlands of Armenia are as good a place as any for where it all began when considering the beginnings of wine.

Sources: Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of VinicultureAlcohol: A History, University of Pennsylvania

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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Wine And China

The great experiment of Capitalism combined with Communism in China may be struggling. And with it, the sudden slowdown of wine consumption in China has followed.

Vineyard at Huadong-Parry winery, Shandong Province, China.

Wine and China intrigued me when I was contacted over the last couple years by some wine barrel import/exporters interested in buying up any and all wine barrels I could get my hands on. Part of the interest was coming from China. Of course, many others were also interested in used wine barrels, including furniture manufacturers, spirit makers and a sundry of beer producers – just to name a few.

Boom or bust?

The drought has brought a slow down here in wine country as grape crops have fallen off their high volumes of a couple years ago. Barrels are still in demand, but the market isn’t quite as tight as it was. And there has come a deafening silence from China.

Many folks including those in the wine industry thought that China would be a major boon to grape growers – and it was for a time – but now bottles of wine by the boatloads are languishing in warehouses or being sold off at fire-sale prices. The multi-billion dollar Chinese wine market has hit a big bump in the road.

Growth

Wineries and cooperages were popping up all over China with the idea being they could reproduce what the rest of the world was making to ease the extremely tight market their economy was creating. However, where once lay the Silk Road, now is lined with vineyards growing grapes that no one wants.

To be sure, the wine industry in China hasn’t stopped, but when heading fast and furious as the growth skyrocketed, now a more slower and moderate pace has taken hold. Award-winning wines have been produced from Chinese grapes and certainly a new influential and potentially dominant player in the vino industry is at hand. Still in its infancy, the once almost limitless development and expansion in China of wine has backtracked somewhat. Remember, wine is still a luxury in China.

In addition, the attitudes of foreign countries to China and their wine are still hard to get around. Although wine isn’t new to the Chinese people, this Asian region of the world was known for rice and not grape-based wines. This has made selling Chinese wines abroad more difficult.

A little side note. China’s first grape vines were planted in the late 19th century and came from none other than right here in California. The Chinese Civil War stunted any growth and then along with the Communist overthrow, the wine industry stagnated for decades.

Bigger or …

China is one of the Top 10 largest wine producing countries, and with its immense population and land size, will likely be in the top five before long – it may already be. The over-enthusiastic growth of wine in China will likely find a more moderate pace in the years to come – if we don’t plunge into a worldwide depression.

If the truth be known, the world has never really risen from the Great Recession and although China seems to have it’s own economy, its involvement with capitalism has brought it closer to the rest of the world. Yet, its burgeoning middle class is hungry for more – and that includes wine.

The future of wine and China is in balance just as the world economy teeters with a global depression. The fledgling Chinese wine market is here to stay as a major force; but, will it continue to grow and eventually dominate the industry as some expect?

Sources: International Business Times, Thirsty Dragon

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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Wine Region Of The Year Is Lodi

From a growing Central California Coast superstar to small but international star in New York to … Lodi? “Stuck in Lodi” might have a whole new meaning.

Lodi California

Paso Robles won as the top wine region of the world two years ago and New York, including the beautiful Finger Lakes District was the reigning winner, and now Lodi of the California Central Valley has been acknowledged as the current number one wine region by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. They beat such renowned locations as the Russian River Valley California, Sicily Italy, Marlborough New Zealand and Walla Walla Washington.

History

Lodi is more known to the public for a Creedence Clearwater Revival song from the late ’60s; however, going back to before Prohibition, grapes have been a part of the history of this low lying flat land at the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley for a couple centuries.

Although it lies roughly two hours east of the Pacific Ocean in what normally is a hot almost semi-arid valley, actually Lodi’s weather is influenced by the Bay Area’s immense northern back bay and the many tributaries that run into it from the San Joaquin Delta. This allows for more cooling in the evenings along with the winds that drive that air east – in-turn giving wine grapes a larger diurnal with a needed respite from the hot summer days.

Mondavi's Woodbridge Winery helped put Lodi on the wine map

Mondavi’s Woodbridge Winery helped put Lodi on the wine map

Mondavi & more

Lodi is home to famed grape grower, Robert Mondavi, who is one of the more prominent and influential winemakers in the United States. The town now is known in part for popular events like the Taste of Lodi and Zinfest.

With over 100,000 acres and 750 growers, Lodi supplied many of the grapes, including Zinfandel, for other wineries outside of the region, but now has made a name for itself. And Lodi received this honor and acclaim in a year of continued drought and awful weather that included a devastating hailstorm this past April.

Lodi may have been previously known for their lower end and production wines. However, without any airs – similar to Paso Robles – the Lodi area has many rogue wineries where rules are thrown out and experimentation offers up great wines. The region also grabbed the attention of the wine bloggers conference, which will be in Lodi next August. So regardless of whether or not the area is as scenic as many of their California brethren, Lodi is becoming a destination stop for wine lovers. With this worldwide recognition by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, expect that draw to continue for years to come.

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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Grape Slowdown In 2015

We wondered aloud last year if the wine-grape harvest would be smaller, but it was another good crop like the last few bumper crop years. However, this season was different in many ways, and turned 2015 into a good quality, but poor volume year. And really bad in some locations.

Shriveled_up_grapes

There are many differing ideas as to why this year fell off so much, but the logical assumption is drought, and without going into the scientific minutiae, that rational conjecture would be correct.

Looks bad

The fall off looks probably worse than it otherwise would, due to the record-breaking pace California grapes produced this current decade. 2014 actually had dropped a bit from 2013 when California had a record-breaking year. Still, last seasons harvest still produced solid numbers heading into 2015.

Conversely, this year started off with a warmer than normal end of winter and first part of spring, which brought on early budbreak for most vintners. In-turn, May was an about face, as cool windy weather locked in, making for strained and unusual fruit-set – that’s where the grape turns from being a flower into fruit. Some fruit bloomed quickly into big berries, while others barely looked like a grape and more like tiny balls.

California wine crush reports aren’t all in yet, but it is becoming obvious that the volume of grapes is way down and some instances, only a fraction of what farmers were generating the last few years. Associates and friends of mine in the industry say that although the yields were down quite substantially, quality was good and in some instances, excellent.

Vineyard-dry-fall

Volume vs Quality

And thus is the ongoing battle between having high volumes versus high quality wine production. Due to the early pollination, the grapes didn’t sit through an entire summer of blistering weather, which gave them time to produce excellent quality grapes, even if there weren’t nearly as many as usual. Harvest was early last season, but this year was even earlier, which essentially eliminated any worry regarding premature frost concerns – although El Nino has kept an early fall warmer than normal. More will be known once the grapes are fermenting.

In the meantime, winemakers will fret over their small production hoping they can make what they have, work into a beautiful vintage – which sounds possible at this point. I wonder if low end vino will suffer while higher end wines do well in this kind of climate.

The states effects on this is also troublesome, keeping valuable water from farmers so that fish can flourish. A giant El Nino would be appear to be just around the corner and it likely will help this situation. Nevertheless, something will have to be done to change the adversarial position the government takes towards farmers.

Positive view

First-Crush-vineyard-barrels

Still, this shortage of California wine might finally mean that used wine barrels will become more available and we’ll be able to enjoy availability without the high costs associated with a very tight market. You wondered if I was going to say something about this, but actually, I can’t give an exact answer yet, but we’re hoping less wine means more barrels.

So if wine quality is up and used barrels are easier to find, this could be a win win for everyone. Let’s hope so.

Additional source: California Department of Food and Agriculture

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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Racking Wine

The beautiful rolling hills of vineyards, always looking so enchanting. The wine business can look charming but there is a lot more that goes into making vines turn grapes into that great tasting liquid that grows ever more popular. To end up with that great looking glass of wine requires quite a bit of work. One of the usually unseen deeds that go unnoticed, except by those working in a winery, is the racking of the wine.

I knew a little bit about this before I ever moved into Paso Robles wine country. Being a homebrewer for two decades, when I first was introduced to beer-making, there were three rules: clean, clean and clean. I would transfer my five gallon wort (beer) into a carboy, to rinse the yeast cake or trub (sediment) from the bottom of the vessel, so that it can clear itself and maybe mature a little more before bottling. Making wine and racking is essentially the same thing.

After primary and secondary fermentation, wine sits in a oak barrel for a few weeks and then is racked – not all winemakers do this. However, almost certainly, some months later, vintners like to rack the wine. Vintners have different philosophies for how often but consider anywhere from three to six months, or maybe even longer. Figure a wine gets racked at least two or three times during its life in a barrel. Wines need rest and the less disruptions, the better.

Racking_wine_between_barrelsRacking process

When racking, it simply is moving the wine from one barrel into another – maybe a neutral barrel – to clear the wine after it settles. A racking cane is inserted into the oak wine barrel and placed right at the bottom, trying not to retain sediment. What is called off flavors created by lees can be imparted into the wine if not racked. Lees is the sediment, which mostly is yeast that’s left behind. It needs to be cleaned out, then that barrel can be reused again and even have the original wine transferred back in that same barrel. By the way, lees can be reused into making dough.

That’s what a neutral barrel can be used for. Neutral barrels are vessels that have been used to the point that they no longer are imparting any flavors into the wine, and therefore after being cleaned, are temporary containers used for racking purposes. Note sometimes, in bigger wineries, the barrels are emptied into steel vats before transferring back into the now cleaned barrels.

Cleaning

Having done this process a time or two, I can tell you it’s difficult work. Gravity-aided siphoning isn’t so hard, but to clean a barrel once it has been emptied isn’t necessarily fun. Typically, the barrels are rinsed initially with water and then cleaned with citric acid. There are barrel washing tools that blast the inside to help clean and then rinse the cleaning agents out – and likely more than once. Both hot and cold water may be used.

Cleaning_wine_barrels-hot_water

Cleaning wine barrels isn’t glamorous, but very critical nonetheless.

You’re probably wondering what happens after racking, because a certain amount of space inside the wine barrel is now open due to some of the product having been cleaned out. The wine barrel needs to be full, so the extra area is filled with top off wine – something I talked about earlier this year.

Wineries try not to splash the wine because they don’t want to aerate it; but, racking in the end is a much needed process in winemaking with the biggest result offering a wine that is clean with the debris left behind.

This time of year, with harvest already underway in some vineyards, racking is occurring with wine ready for bottling, being emptied and those barrels to be cleaned for the next vintage.

Not all of winemaking is glamorous, but here’s to racking, which helps produce a clean and sometimes clearer wine – the end result of all that behind the scenes hard work in the winery.

Cheers,

Daryle W. Hier

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