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Going pro: a mid-life segue: in part I of a three-part series, a sandlot winemaker tries out for the big leagues.

I knew I was in trouble. I was a man with graying hair who had just come through a health crisis. Some people might turn to a Porsche Carrera, hair plugs, Botoxing their frown lines or taking up bungee-jumping, but all I cared about at the moment, standing in the pouring rain high on a narrow aluminum catwalk suspended across an open-top fermenter that held 10,000 pounds of mashed grapes, was summoning the strength to press down again on the solid cap of skins, seeds and fruit pulp, more than a foot thick, that formed a tight, cement-hard seal above the juice.

As a professional in the wine industry, you've probably run into me. I'm the guy who wakes up one mid-life crisis morning and decides he wants to segue into commercial winemaking and launch his own proud label. I'm the wannabe who more than likely doesn't know a Pinot clone from a cloned sheep. Not an exact fit in my case, but close enough.

For more than three decades I was a book author and working journalist making my living by writing about wine, among other things, from a safe distance at the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Wine Enthusiast and assorted print and electronic publications. I thought I knew a little about the process. In truth, I knew next to nothing, as I discovered last year when I produced the first commercial release of Segue Cellars, my '05 unfined, unfiltered Russian River Pinot Noir, hands-on all the way.

In the late spring of 2005, writing a Chronicle article on Green Valley, at the foggy southern end of Russian River area (and now its own appellation), I more or less fell head over heels into a tank of fermenting grapes. I was interviewing Greg La Follette, then newly appointed winemaker at DeLoach Vineyards, co-owner of Tandem Winery and on the short list of the most highly regarded Pinot Noir winemakers in the nation.

While driving along the winding back-country roads of West Sonoma, La Follette pulled both hands off the steering wheel of his 300,000-mile Volvo station wagon so he could sketch the flow of nonacylated anthocyanins and other phenolics through a Pinot wine grape. With great conviction as we veered and swerved, he swore to me, "Nothing caresses your mouth, Steve, like Pinot Noir." He talked about the art and science of pruning and dropping fruit "to get the vines to eat their broccoli and put all their energy into reproduction" with the intensity of a religious vow.

Like thousands of others, I'd been privately possessed for some time by a passionate urge to craft my own commercial premium wine. Pinot Noir--to me, the ultimate velvet vinous encounter, when done exactly right--was my first and only choice. Still, I knew Pinot to be a siren who nibbles on your ear while she slits your throat. I'd also been around winemaking long enough to realize I needed to be in close proximity to a microbiologist with the soul of a poet, for in the end nothing matters quite so much as knowing how to neutralize stinky yeast cells when this perfidious grape suddenly decides to foul your fondest dreams.

Without a moment's pause--and much to my surprise--LaFollette agreed to volunteer as my consultant and "safety net" when I called the following day to ask for his help, and at that moment Segue began to take shape. Joy Sterling at Iron Horse, and Jean-Charles Boisset at DeLoach, among others, graciously offered to donate fruit, equipment and expertise as needed to launch my new label; in exchange I'd be writing my next book about the experience--Big in the Mouth was the working title--and Green Valley would gain some publicity and recognition in the process.

There was only one obstacle in getting a book contract. I hadn't yet produced a drop of wine. My publisher in New York considered the book proposal "slightly underripe."

What to do? I'd planned an initial release of 300 cases; now, because I couldn't deliver my end of the deal, I'd be producing none at all. I was hurting. But La Follette had a different spin on things. "Why not make just 50 cases?" he suggested. "We'll worry about barrels and fruit and all that stuff along the way. You'll get some good experience under your belt, meanwhile."

Grape Skins in my Ears

By the middle of harvest, four months later, that translated to going to bed with grape skins up my nostrils and in my ears. I'd signed on as a winery grunt, a cellar rat at Owl Ridge Wine Services, the custom crush facility in Sebastopol where I was producing my first Segue release.

There were moments when I stopped to laugh while mucking out tanks, gassing barrels with nitrogen and argon, swabbing floors, bulldog pumping and bucketing dry ice into cold-soak bins. I was chuckling to myself at the absurdity of believing that I could have written one true sentence about commercial winemaking without having gone through this apprenticeship.

As an amateur, I'd made wine at home with friends for years. I picked my own fruit and added S[O.sub.2] at precise ppms, racked, dosed with Sparkolloid when particulates refused to settle out, and once wrapped a steel drum, previously used to store Coca-Cola, in an electric blanket for two months to heat the stuck fermentation inside. But I didn't know I'd been playing sandlot baseball all the while, until I stepped into a major league stadium.

During the months leading to harvest, La Follette asked me to make the final call in harvesting 1.5 acres of young (5- to 7-year-old) Pinot Noir vines in Sonoma's Benedict Canyon, working with Linda Hale of Madrone Vineyard Management in Sonoma. Guided by La Follette and Virginia Lambrix at DeLoach, I studied the petioles and vascular bundles of the Pinot Noir clusters as they ripened. I inspected shoots regularly to gauge how much they'd lignified; I paid close attention to lateral cluster shouldering and leaf yellowing, and I bit down on hundreds of seeds across the vineyard to taste for tannic ripeness.

After veraison, I learned, the gelatinous vascular bundle--commonly known as a Roman sword owing to its sheath-and-blade shape--the remnant that remains behind when berry is pulled from stem, begins to take on a deeper burgundy hue and firmer texture. Its color and firmness, along with berry and seed taste, mark the ripeness of the Pinot Noir cluster more reliably than refractometer readings or Brix-TA ratios, La Follette explained.

Thin-skinned and phenolically challenged, Pinot Noir offers a relatively narrow window of opportunity for harvesting at peak performance, even during a consistently temperate season like '05, with no major heat spikes. When I determined the vineyard was ready, despite the inevitable ripening differences between swale and hillock, I called Linda Hale, who coordinated the picking crew. Within 90 minutes of daybreak, all shoots were stripped clean. In my naivete I asked the foreman to have his pickers leave small patches of raisined or underripe fruit behind. But these workers are paid by weight, and they're not about to leave any of their earnings on the vines.

They didn't, yet through sorting we were able to eliminate the potential troublemakers. Eight bins, bearing slightly less than 3.75 tons of fruit, arrived at Owl Ridge before noon, to be immediately cold-soaked.

During fermentation, I added 2.9 kg. of tartaric. Using a complex Pearson's square mathematical blending formula based on a 24.2[degrees] Brix target, La Follette showed me how to adjust sugar levels to arrive at 13.5%. When he looked at the chem lab panel after fermentation, he pursed his lips and nodded to himself, as if to say, "This guy might actually have a future in this line of work."

I felt like a Boy Scout who'd just been awarded a merit badge--for one shining moment. In the next, La Follette was asking my opinion about the most appropriate new French oak for this wine, based on its levels of acid, fruit and tannin, as we prepared to barrel down. I had none; I was just learning to distinguish the pronounced differences between one cooperage and another, and went along with his choice of Remond for power, Seguin Moreau for finesse. Most of that wine would become a Tandem single vineyard (Chris Lee) designate. About 10% of it I blended into my '05 Segue.

All through these months, I was also tasting wines at every stage of development, and sitting in on lengthy technical discussions. After that memorable evening in the rain, when I punched down by hand until I felt my shoulders about to be wrenched out of their sockets, we dried off in the conference room at Owl Ridge, where La Follette delivered a spontaneous whiteboard lecture on battonage, stressed yeasts, and why stirring the lees reduces reductive stratification and releases mannoproteins.

Heady stuff. I asked the question that had become my mantra: "In the glass, what's the effect of all that?"

"A thicker body and softer mouthfeel."

Just what I wanted to know.

Hanging out with other garagiste and boutique winemakers during this period, I noticed that among us the usual laws of competition applied--and didn't. We knew that one winemaker's crisis this year--equipment breakdown, too much fruit for the capacity of the available fermentation tank, a sudden attack of Brett--might well be ours next year. So with few exceptions, we pitched in without complaint when help was needed, in the oldest tradition of a farming community. I was doing work as physically demanding and compatible with my nature as any I've encountered. Also, the place smelled good. There are no vapors on earth as tantalizing and sumptuous, as deeply fruity and loamy and primal and herbaceous as the vinous air you breathe in a winery.

As for my own wine, my '05 Segue Pinot Noir, it sat in separate barrels from the Balletto, Sangiacomo Roberts Road, van der Kamp and Chris Lee vineyards waiting to be tasted, tasted again, and eventually blended.

From the start I knew exactly what I was after--a Pinot with the forest-floor earthiness, cola and dark berry lushness of a classic Russian River, yet with the bracing acidity of a leaner Green Valley. I wanted to

craft a Pinot that elevates the food you consume it with, and is elevated in return.

But it remained to be seen if I knew how to get there, even with a little help from my friends.

RELATED ARTICLE: HIGHLIGHTS

* Author and home winemaker Stephen Yafa tells how he made the transition to professional winemaker by starting Segue Cellars, a small-production Pinot Noir brand in Sonoma County, Calif.

* What started as an idea for a book became a hands-on education in winemaking, with the help of wineries that donated fruit and equipment, and Pinot Noir specialist Greg La Follette, who became Yafa's instructor.

* Yafa learns that although winemakers compete with each other, they also help out in crises, in the tradition of farming communities. He also learns to love the physically demanding nature of the work, along with its intellectual appeal.
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Comment:Going pro: a mid-life segue: in part I of a three-part series, a sandlot winemaker tries out for the big leagues.
Author:Yafa, Stephen
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:1855
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