Last Tuesday my friend and day job manager, Walter and I had the privilege of a private harvest tour of a bustling Crushpad, courtesy of Leon Glover, owner and winemaker for the upstart Lionheart Wines. Leon and I have maintained a continued correspondence since my first tour and our subsequent joint tasting at Artisan this past summer. He was gracious enough to extend an invitation for a harvest tour back in September, but I was swamped with other activities and it wasn’t until this latest surge in fruit that I was able to partake of his kind offer.
Walter and I finished our lab work and then headed out that evening towards the Dogpatch in SF and our meetup with Leon. We found him arms’ deep in a 1 ton fermenter of Pinot, working through the 6pm punchdowns. He greeted us with a sort of apologetic and newly sanitized air fist bump and suggested that we cruise around and bide our time while he finished the hour’s activities. After perusing the hundreds of bottles of wines that have been vinted on-site, we happened to run into a former co-worker of mine that has since taken the leap and changed careers into winemaking, Chris Nelson. He and I used to damage lab equipment, TGIF’s and opposing pitchers in the mighty South San Francisco Biotech Softball League while developing small molecule drugs for cancer indications at the original kinase inhibitor biotech company, SUGEN.
Chris made his leap after we were all laid off in 2003 and got masters at Fresno State in their well-regarded Viticulture and Enology program. Following that and a couple position in the Russian River Valley and New Zealand, he is now winemaker at Crushpad, heading their Pinot Noir Program. He is one of the busiest winemakers that I’ve ever met, handling ~80-90 different lots of wine at peak harvest and so consumed with brix levels, temperature gradients and SO2 titrations that his shirt is covered with fermentation bin labels and labeling tapes of nutrient calculations. Despite all of this, he and his twin brother Matt, were still able to take a little time out to show us their sorter/destemmer, which was running virtually 24 hours a day during this crazy period.
As Chris and Matt went their respective Crush-time ways, Leon walked over, now finished with the evening’s wine chores. He then proceeded to give us a full tour of the frenetic facilities, starting with their massive cold room, currently storing and (sometimes) cold-soaking 39 tons of newly picked fruit that was awaiting crushing/destemming. Much of the fruit was being cold-soaked after crush for a few hours or days. Cold-soaking the grapes allows the fruit to increase the bright fruit characteristics in a wine and also increase the amount of color and amounts of various phenolics that can add to a wine’s complexity.
Following the cold room, we headed over, somewhat in reverse order, to the destemmer again and got a good view of the fruit sorting in action.Â Depending on the type of grape variety and your personal wine preference, you might be sorting ripe fruit from raisined fruit, or pulling out leaves and other organic detritus that came through during the grape picking process. Next to the destemmer we find the actual wine press, an air bladder model that slowly and evenly presses the fruit sometimes before fermentation and sometimes after fermentation, depending on the type of wine.
Lastly we went over to the numerous wine fermentation bins and looked over some of the various lots of wines and varieties of grapes that were at each step of the fermentation process.Â Later on that evening, after the barrel tasting, we would taste some of the still-fermenting wine and be amazed at how different the unfinished juice tasted in our mouths.
To finish the tour, we headed into the barrel room where, perhaps, the best fun was to be had…the barrel tasting!Â Leon first led us over to his 2007 Sangiovese which is currently featuring very bright wild cherry with a balancing acidity to back up that bright fruit.Â Following the Sangio, we then tasted two different fermentation lots of some of his unblended 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.Â One of the lots fermented very cool and the other rather hot.Â Typically a cool fermentation can retain very fresh, bright fruit characteristics, while a hot fermentation can leave a wine with more muted aromas and flavors.Â This was definitely shown in these two barrels, with the cool 2007 Cab showing a bright fruit nose with a good mid-palate and blueberry in the finish.Â The hot 2007 Cab was meaty and had a muted nose that was almost Syrah-like, with red maraschino cherry at the end.Â The third and last 2007 Cab lot was from vaunted winegrower Andy Beckstoffer’s latest cult grape project X Vineyard, just South of his famous To Kalon Vineyard.Â This lot was showing some pepperÂ and fruit on the nose, but the palate was much brighter than expected with red and black fruit both making an appearance.
We then headed over to his Ermitage barrel of ’07 Syrah.Â This had a big and heady nose of mocha, but was closed shut on the fruit front, with a palate that featured tannins that were already nicely rounded.Â The 2007s were now done, but we still had some wines to explore.Â The 2008 Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir was undergoing secondary or malolactic fermentation in the warmer and smaller second barrel room, but we still dipped in to check on its process.Â This one has a very dark color, with a muted nose of red fruit featuring dusty raspberry and the palate has a very strong grip at the moment.Â Leon warned us to spit this wine out, no matter how tasty, as the bacteria that was currently converting the wine’s lactic acid to the softer malolactic acid would also convert our guts to something akin to a few days of water from South of the border!
The last item of the evening was to taste some of the developing 2008 wines that were still fermenting.Â We had already seen the 80 some-odd fermentation bins earlier in the tour, but this was the first time that we got up close and intimate.Â I had seen some of the cellar workers (“cellar rats”)Â tossing in dry ice and Leon explained earlier that fermentation temperature can determine a lot about a wine’s characteristics.Â When you have a minimum of 750 lbs fermenting juice and grape guts, manually getting a high temp lower needs to be fast and effective…a few kilos of dry ice or solid CO2 is really their only option! We walked up to a couple fermentors of Cab that were early in the process, still with a high brix level in the low 20’s.Â The first was very sweet and so one-dimensional that it was like half a dimension, almost like grape-flavored cough syrup.Â The second, at the same brix, was already a more complete wine with complex fruit and noticeable acidity.Â We walked a little further and tasted our last wine of the evening, one that was closer to the end of fermentation at about 3 brix.Â This was a Petite Sirah and was highly tannic and inky black,Â with a bit of hoppiness and blue steely fruit, that becomes rather round and plush at the end with the still fermenting sugar.
Unfortunately our fascinating tour was at its end, but at least we could go home.Â Leon and Chris still had a few hours of further punchdowns and nutrient adds before they could finish out the night!Â Leon, continuing the gracious gestures, gave us a parting gift of his highly anticipated ’07 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.Â We I open mine somewhere around Thanksgiving, it will be the first time that I’ll have tasted the finished wine!Â Walter and I bid a farewell and some very heartfelt thank you’s and we headed out into the urban night.