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NM: So, the vines naturally struggle up here, which itself helps to produce more concentrated and nuanced fruit. But tell me about what you're doing in the vineyard to maximize the potential of that fruit.
LM: We do really detailed work throughout the year in an effort to keep the vines at an optimal balance between the fruit and the canopy, so we get vines that have some vigor but not too much. The result, ideally, is that by August, when veraison occurs, the fruit has good aeration — by removing the laterals and some leaves on the east side, we get a nice movement of air that lessens pest pressure and allows us to use fewer pesticides. With that, we also get fruit that ripens more evenly, so won't see one cluster that's still green yet another that's red or even ready to be picked. We work to be very consistent from vine to vine, and also within each vine itself. When it comes time to harvest, we pick based on taste, exclusively. We also do so entirely by hand, by individual blocks and in waves. So, within a single block there might be three or four different pickings. The fruit is placed in small 30-pound lugs [as opposed to the more common 1/2 ton macro bins], which we stack on plastic palettes that are then brought back on special trailers. And we bring the fruit into the winery right away after picking very early in the morning.
"When we unload those lugs, full of grapes, onto the sorting table, we don't see a single drop of juice! It's entirely whole berries, whole clusters."
Counting on Details in the Cellar
NM: I'm guessing that, by virtue of their smaller size and lighter weight, these lugs that you're using are not only easier on the harvest workers, but gentler on the grapes?
WS: Absolutely. Using them is as if you went out into the vineyard, cut a cluster off, and then hand-delivered it to the winery.
LM: When we unload those lugs, full of grapes, onto the sorting table, we don't see a single drop of juice! It's entirely whole berries, whole clusters.
WS: And that's how they are when they go into the fermentation tank — with the berries still whole. We'll have selected out all bits of the stems or impurities plus any underripe or overripe fruit. That gives the ability to achieve in the wine the true flavor of the ripest and best tasting fruit. We might leave in just a little bit of the shriveled fruit, to give us some complexity and some of the ripe black fruit qualities…
LM: …but, of course, get rid of the raisins. Because those increase first the sugar and then the alcohol, and they have a baked flavor. I think overall, as a winemaker, the challenge — the welcome challenge, I have to say — has been to make wines that can age beautifully for decades, yet are approachable within a year or two of their release. I think that by having the luxury and taking the effort of removing all the little things that would impart a greenness or bitterness or harshness to the wines, we can make those wines really shine right away — yet they maintain the concentration, depth, and texture that will allow them to age beautifully.
NM: So, it sounds like you're very stringent and conscientious in the procedures you take at the very beginning of the winemaking process, even before fermentation begins. But how about towards the end of the process, in putting together the final blends, when I'm guessing there's less protocol involved and more artisanal interpretation?
WS: Luc and I sit down multiple times a year to taste the wines, at a table setting so we're removed from the cave to really properly evaluate the wine. When we sit down for a blending session, it's broken down not only by lot (by the tank that it was in), but by barrel producer as well. So, we'll have as many as 30 to 40 samples of wine on the table to give us a true evaluation of the wines. It's a process of trial and error that we'll go through a number of times, trying the different wines together and gradually deciding what will eventually make up the blends that we create for both the Estate Cabernet and the [non-estate] "7" Cabernet. Anything that doesn't make it a final blend, we declassify and sell to the secondary market.