Beyond the Back Label

As I'm sitting here finishing up my notes for the back labels of wines that will be produced later this month
I'm reminded (once again) how difficult it is to:

  1. Explain my wine, my company, and my family to a complete stranger not knowing when or where they'll be tasting it at some point in the future
  2. Create descriptors and food pairings for a product that changes in the bottle
  3. Make sure that I only say what I can and need to say without saying what I want to say
All of this has to be done within the packaging confines of what ends up being about four sentences. That's a paragraph...a short paragraph! Also, why is this form of communication so archaic? Why don't I have a better way to talk openly with my customer about these things? Technology has certainly helped me create a better perch for which I may stand upon and tell you all everything I'd like you to know about my wines. I can do that with this blog. And with Facebook and Instagram I can get the word out about this blog. With a very bipolar weather forecast today it affords me the time to write about some exciting new releases we have coming up here at LaVelle VIneyards! I'll start with the back label text on each of these and then give you some additional thoughts on the wines as well after each back label block of text.

2015 Estate Grown White Pinot Noir

Doug LaVelle and his winemaker son Matthew have made it their mission to create interesting wines of exceptional quality and character. White Pinot Noir is produced by lightly pressing the fruit at harvest, providing minimal color extraction from the grape skins. The result is a crisp, refreshing, beautifully balanced wine, with notes of strawberry, raspberry and bracing acidity. Pairings include alfredo sauce, halibut, and bleu cheese.
In dissecting the text a little bit you'll see that the first line tells you about our family and the fact that the son (me) is the winemaker. It also gives you an idea that we're striving to create great wine that's interesting and affordable while remaining a community oriented, local business.  The second sentence talks about the wine itself followed by a third and fourth sentence that gives you some food pairing ideas. The food pairings in particular for this wine have been a a good way. That is, what I'd like to say about this wine is that it will pair well with a wide range of food items. That's why when we mention creamy sauces, fatty seafood, and powerfully flavored cheeses we're all over the place but right on the mark at the same time. Another explanation that is totally missing on this label is an answer to the number one question I get asked about this wine:
Isn't this a Rose? What exactly is a White Pinot Noir?
Technically speaking White Pinot Noir is Sparkling Base wine. But, that's not all. So, we wanted to give it a name that let people know that

  • This is 100% Pinot Noir
  • This is 100% NOT a Rose
  • This is a white wine
The name seems simple and straightforward, and that's what we were aiming for so great, right? Yes. And No. The confusion comes in with the copper and/or pink color of the wine. Color is probably the single most important part of a wine (in my opinion). Like they say, there's no second chances on a first impression. We start our experience with most things in life with our eyes. Seeing is believing, and that's why the color is so important with wine. Anyway, that's a whole other blog post so I'll move on to the explanation of White Pinot Noir's processing compared to a Rose of Pinot Noir.

White Pinot Noir is made by bringing the grapes in, pressing them off right away, and thus avoiding skin and seed contact which leads to color and tanin extraction. Color and tannin are not desirable when making a White Pinot Noir. Now, when making a Rose of Pinot Noir you typically start by making the grapes in a red wine style. That is, you put the fruit in an open top tank whole berry and let it sit for a period of time while juice extracts naturally under the pressure of the fruit along with color and tanin. At a certain point, maybe 24-48 hours down the road, maybe more, the winemaker decides to bleed juice from the bottom of the tank and move it to another tank. That juice is then fermented as a Rose. There are different methods of making Rose but this one is the highest quality method. That's the main difference between a White Pinot Noir and a Rose of Pinot Noir. I'm glad I don't have to figure out how to put that on the back label!

2013 Columbia Valley Merlot

Doug and his winemaker son Matthew have made it their personal mission to produce interesting wines of exceptional quality and character while remaining a small, family-owned winery. This Merlot exhibits plum and cedar on the nose. It has dark cherry and currant flavors that evolve into earthy forest floor through the middle palate into a long finish. LaVelle Merlot pairs well with roasts or pasta dishes in rich tomato sauces.
Pretty straight forward for a Merlot. The only thing not mentioned about this particular wine was that I've been working on it for almost three years! The other thing I'd like to explain is our Columbia Valley program in general. Where is started. Where it is now. Where it's going in the future.

For about 12 of the last 22 years that we've been running this business we've had some type of big red program of wines. We started by purchasing grapes from the Wahluke Slope sub-AVA of the larger Columbia Valley AVA in Eastern Washington. We'd pick a day in August to hand pick our grapes, and then have them trucked down here to the winery overnight for processing early the following morning. There were several problems with this program:

  • Quality of fruit
    • Are we getting good fruit? Without being in control of the vineyard and growing practices it's really impossible to tell but chances are that we're getting whatever is leftover
  • Transportation concerns
    • Shipping in mid-August is the hottest time of the year in both the Willamette and Columbia Valley so spoilage microbes have a much higher percentage chance of presenting themselves during shipping. This makes a winemakers job very challenging.
    • We're also really "banging up" the wine a lot. This is generally a bad idea for the quality of the wine you're intending to make
  • machine picked fruit
    • Probably the final nail in the coffin for this process, at least for us, was the fact that a lot of Columbia Valley vineyards were moving to, and to this day continue to move to machine harvesting rather than hand picking. If you've never seen it you can check it out on youTube. It's really hard on the fruit, and subsequently does lead to lower quality wine
So, how does a small Willamette Valley winery include a big red program into their wine club release schedule while keeping it high quality while upholding the integrity of the idea of making your own wines? We decided to take a look around. That is, we went out and started tasting the wines after they went through primary AF (alcoholic fermentation) and picking only the wines that we felt were top notch in quality. Once the initial fermentation process is completed, shipping the bulk wine down in the winter in storage containers becomes a much safer process that is also a lot less damaging to the wine itself. By doing this I still get the opportunity to shape the wines (that is oak, age, do blendings, and finish) over a long period of time while maintaining high quality at all times. Take this 2013 Merlot for example. I've been working on it for three years, and that's not an exaggeration. It's a lot of work. It is, therefore I feel my wine. So, over the years we've continued to move around California, Oregon, and Washington and successfully buy wine for our big red program that are every bit as much LaVelle wines as are the other varietals in our line up. The fact of the matter is that varietals like Cab, Merlot, and Syrah might only ripen in our vineyard one year out of every ten and that's just not good business for us or our consumers.

2015 Matthew's Reserve Estate Grown Riesling

These Riesling grapes had an 8 month long growing season, the longest on record here at our vineyard. Thirty days before harvest the winemaking team collected samples weekly and started a native colony of the naturally occuring yeast up in the Riesling block. We fermented this wine slowly, and under cool November temperatures to ensure strong aromatics of stone fruit, peaches, and nectarines. Then we aged the wine in tank for six months to build complexity. Matthew's Reserve is typically given to our special Pinot Noirs, but this is our first Riesling that deserves the same name. Enjoy!
Wait. You're releasing a Matthew's Reserve quality wine that's not a Pinot Noir? That's right. I actually did a
pretty good job of describing the winemaking process and why we are so excited about this particular Riesling on the back label. What I wish I could've gotten into a bit more with this wine was the reasoning behind our yeast selection. That is, using a native yeast from the vineyard versus the more conventional approach of using cultured lab yeasts. Every year I receive books from three or four popular companies with their yeast selections and descriptions of them. Cultured wine yeasts are isolated and propagated then sold for varying characteristics including

  • Strength of fermentation
    • That is, some grape juice can be difficult to get through a fermentation. So, you can select a yeast that's known to get through all of the sugar rather than stall out in the middle of the process
  • Aromatics and flavor
    • Some yeasts help promote tropical fruit aromatics and flavor rather than citrus fruit. 
  • Temperature range
    • Some yeasts are developed for a cool fermentation, and some for warmer ferments up to 90 degrees!
  • Competitive factor
    • Do you want a yeast that can be co-inoculated with another yeast that may add complexity to your wine? We can dial that in as well
  • Alcohol tolerance
    • Are you making a big Syrah that will push 15% alcohol. You can select a yeast that is proven to perform and finish well in an ethanol rich environment
All of these things can be dialed in for you by a lab tech so that as the winemaker you have a much higher degree of control over the primary fermentation. 

A native yeast has none of these aspects. Or, some of these aspects. Or all of them. That's the problem...I don't know what will happen. Ok, so as a winemaker tell me again why you'd want to do this? Now, I've been accused by some of my co-workers, my father, and even my wife from time to time as having a screw loose. So, maybe we're just crazy as winemakers to do this? I'd heard about native ferments making a comeback in recent years and after some consultation with a fellow winemaker I decided to give it a try. After all, a native yeast fermentation is basically the old world style of winemaking. It's how wine was first accident. What could go wrong?

As a good winemaker always does we set up a trial. That is, we brought the fruit in and ran one lot of it through the normal winemaking process. With the trial lot we used a native yeast selected from up in the vineyard. We picked grapes from the furthest away from the winery and let them "cook" far away from the winery as well. Why? Yeast is everywhere. It's in the air. After making wine in this facility since 1980 there's a more than strong chance that a previously used lab yeast from a past vintage would just take over the native strain and you'd have no fun at all. With the trial I can tell what the differences are between the yeasts. I run trials almost every year on yeasts but they've all be cultured lab yeasts. This was my first native inoculation versus a cultured yeast inoculation. And the results? I'm pretty convinced that while yeast selection does influence the final product that the varietal character within the fruit really is the key to the game. When tasting these two Rieslings side by side in several tasting panels we noticed that the flavors and aromatics were both similar, but that the texture of the wine seemed to be different in the native yeast inoculated wine. It has a heavier mouth feel for a Riesling, and there's also a bit of added complexity to the flavor profile.

Here's the final process as an update to this post. The bottling went well and all the back label text is set! Overall, there's so much more that I'd like to put on that back wine label than the space allows. It's great to have a platform like this to better communicate what happens when my team makes a wine, why we have so much passion for it, and what that means to you as a consumer when you make your purchasing choices. Until next time my friends, keep your glasses full of your favorite wines and next time you taste I hope you'll think differently about what all goes into that little sip!


Popular Posts