There is probably not another career that has been more romanticized over the years than that of winemaker. It is easy to get lost in the mystique that surrounds the creation of fine wines, but I am here to tell you that these folks, just like you, put their pants on one leg at a time, only once their pants are on they make kick-ass wines. Last week I met John Bookwalter of J Bookwalter Winery, purveyor of some of Washington state's kick-ass wines, and he was kind enough to invite me to get some hands-on experience with the winemaking process.
J Bookwalter has been making wine in Washington since 1983. The founder of the winery, Jerry Bookwalter, is one of the pioneer growers in Washington state, and continues to supply the winery with some of it's best fruit. Jerry's son John joined the business in 1997, and has been the driving force behind a successful revamp of the brand. Included in the brand changes were the literary themed titles of the Bookwalter wines, such as Protagonist, Foreshadow and Conflict. The winery's production averages around 12,000 cases a year, the majority of which are dry reds.
When I first arrived at the winery, I discovered that not only does it take a lot of beer to make a good wine, it also takes a lot of coffee. As the harvest interns all trickled in, they converged on the first morning cup and discussed the results of the Monday Night Football game, complete with the now mandatory Brett Favre jokes. The football chatter fades into discussions of the harvest thus far. A couple of the interns start arguing about who will cry first. "I might as well just do it now and get it over with." one of them jokes. After a while the crew moves as a unit into the cellar, and the day's wine work begins.
The first thing that I would say about winemaking is, it is messy business. My day at the winery was already several days into harvest, with the whites having already all been crushed, and quite a bit of Merlot also already in the tanks. During the morning wine work at J Bookwalter, sprays of fermenting grape juice issue from the tanks, making the entire area a big purple mess waiting to happen. This is, however, the cleanest mess you will ever find. Every piece of equipment is meticulously sanitized prior to the day's work. The Cellar Master for J Bookwalter, Travis Maple, holds his crew to a high standard when it comes to sanitation. "These guys work really hard, and the fastest way to mess everything up would be to ignore proper sanitation."
Once the sanitation and other preparation is completed, the crew jumps into their work with the wine. The primary method that you will find employed at J Bookwalter for fermentation and maceration is known as rack-and-return, or Delestage. The process separates the wine juice from the grape solids by racking, and then returns it to the tank to continue soaking the solids. This aerates the wine and helps to provide maximum extraction from the grapes. In addition to this method, the winery also uses the punch-down method that might be more familiar to many people. This method involves breaking up the solid cap by punching it down into the juices. The same basic principles apply to both methods, but Travis tells me that they choose the rack-and-return method most often in the interest of getting greater extraction prior to the temperature and alcohol increasing.
I know what you are thinking. "Isn't there something that comes before this part of the process?" Indeed there is, and tomorrow I will fill you in on my afternoon, which consisted of some actual work on my part and some purple hands.