So what is it that a winemaker does in the vineyard, especially when he is buying his grapes from farmers and not growing them himself?
That’s what I was looking to find out on my first day behind the scenes as a winemaker’s assistant with Javier Alfonso of Pomum Cellars.
Javier was gracious enough to allow me to follow along and take part as he visited the six vineyards where his grapes are grown.
We started our day with an amazing homemade country breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, fruit and oatmeal, thanks to Javier’s mom, Cathy. This caused me to decide right away that I already enjoyed the life of a winemaker.
After that we spent the entire day driving all over the Yakima Valley between the vineyards, checking on the vines, collecting grapes, returning bins and chatting with the farmers about their fruit.
Before you think this was a little jaunt, I should tell you that there are about 100 miles between the two farthest properties, and he even added a bonus drive so I could see the Columbia River.
I had a lot of time to ask questions, and Javier was a great teacher and ambassador not just of his wines, but of Washington agriculture as a whole. I could tell he really enjoys what he is doing and that he has a passion for Washington produce and the area in general.
He also loves his Spanish roots and encouraged me to begin to calling some grapes by their Spanish names. Mouvedre became Monastrell and Granache became pronounced Gruh-NATCH-uh instead of Gruh-NOSH.
About half of Pomum’s fruit was still hanging, but it was growing closer to the time all of it would be picked. In visiting the grapes, Javier would decide when the time would be right to harvest.
Unlike many other winemakers who buy their fruit rather than grow it themselves, Javier is very hands-on with his grapes, buying by the acre, rather than by weight, allowing him to make the call on growing decisions and harvest.
“They start growing in April, and by August you know what impact the weather will have on the crop,” Javier said. “In July and August I visit to discuss our options.”
“This year we dropped one-quarter to one-half of the crop,” he said.
That means the grapes were literally cut and dropped off the vines to allow the rest of the crop to reach its potential.
By the time I arrived, much of the fruit had already been picked. At the places where the grapes were still growing, we tasted the grapes and also brought back samples so Javier could test the brix or sugar content, the acidity and the pH levels of the grapes.
pH is an indirect measurement of a wine’s acidity. He explained that the higher the pH a grape has, the flabbier, bigger and juicer a wine tastes. Lower pH lends itself toward the more European, sharper flavors.
In the vineyards, we walked down each row of the vines, pulling a few grapes from clusters throughout the row, tasting and then collecting in these ‘high tech’ containers:
Having not done this before, I was surprised to taste the differences in grapes growing just a few feet from each other. Javier explained that was exactly why we needed to take samples from the whole row and not just a cluster or two.
Then he showed me what he was looking for in tasting the grapes.
If you take a grape off the vine and squish it into the roof of your mouth, you might notice a gel coating around the seed. Once that gel to turns into liquid and the seeds to turn from green to brown, the grapes are usually ready.
“Just like in tasting wine, we do a lot of spitting in the vineyards, too,” he told me as he explained that grapes often have a higher sugar content than candy.
One of the grapes we tasted, the Tempranillo, he said was ready by taste but wanted to confirm with the lab tests.
The lab results play a big role in determining when to pick.
At Dineen VIneyards, where he buys his Cabernet Franc and two different Tempranillos, I listened as he and Pat Dineen compared their logs of the different grapes’ levels this season and discussed when the grapes might be harvested.
Because he is so involved in the growing of the grapes, Javier makes the three hour drive (each way) twice a week during harvest to check on the grapes and bring back what is ready. Fortunately he has a family home in the area to use during the trips so he doesn’t have to do it all in one day or spend a lot of time in hotels.
Most wineries in the area buy by the weight and trust the farmers to make appropriate decisions on growing and harvest. It’s just too difficult and time-consuming for then to be as involved as Javier is. While we were checking on Pomum’s fruit, Javier also gathered samples of one of his friend’s grapes so he could check on them without making the trip.
So now that you know how involved Javier is in growing his grapes, you might be wondering how he chooses the vineyards he uses. We’ll talk about that next…