A day in the life…

Woke up, fell out of bed,

Dragged a comb across my head.

Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,

And looking up, I noticed I was late.


Found my coat and grabbed my hat

Made the bus in seconds flat

Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,

Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.

“A Day in the Life”

–The Beatles, 1967

…and in that dream…I was a grape. That’s right, I dreamt I was a grape! Not just any grape, but Cabernet Sauvignon, growing at the very top of the Spring Mountain District. If all goes well, I’ll be picked this harvest and make my way into Schweiger Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon…or dare I dream??? Schweiger Dedication? These dreams seem so real, when I wake up there are pictures of me and my grape friends on my phone. My wife has started getting sick and tired of this nonsense (I asked her to call me Gilbert…Gilbert Grape) and is making me see someone about these dreams. My therapist thought it best I start writing about these dreams, so where to begin.

I guess it all started last spring. Yes, that’s right. Over A FULL YEAR AGO! While I dream of being a berry to be harvested in the fall of 2016, my development began in the spring of 2015. You see, the shoot that I hang off of today developed in a bud on a shoot from last year. If you were to have snipped that bud off the vine, sliced it open with a razor, and slid it under a microscope, you would have seen a very juvenile version of my shoot and me (I’m very glad you didn’t do that or I wouldn’t be here today) along with some of my buddies on the cluster. The degree days, humidity, drought and other factors that affected the 2015 vintage (which, the conscious winemaker in me is very pleased with) also affect my early development.

So, while this journey began last year, most people will acknowledge my true “birthday” being about 6 weeks ago, when the vineyard was still dormant…after some nice days of warm sun, the bud I’d been sleeping in began to swell, push, et voila…here is a tiny shoot. It was hard to see me at first but I was there. Here’s a fun picture of me from this morning…see me, I’m on the first cluster (the basal cluster) about midway up.

I’m actually not a grape yet; I’m a flower! A very sleepy flower at that. If everything continues as normal, all my friends and I will bloom. The protective caps protecting our pistil and stamen will pop off and usually within minutes, pollen from my stamen will land on my stigma, and within days, pollenated ovule will start to swell (Yes, I’m self-pollenating; in human terms, I guess I wouldn’t be welcome in North Carolina restrooms).

My big brothers and sisters had a tough go of it last year. The winter of 2014/2015 was very warm which caused an early bud break. All us flowers/baby berries wound up blooming earlier than normal and if we tired doing it during a spring rain, our caps would stick to our stamen, choking the Ovule. All those flowers died and fell to the ground. Some flowers popped their caps off just fine, but because they did it so early it would take longer to pollenate because of lower temperatures…longer pollination window, more opportunities for wind to blow away the pollen, resulting in no berry from that flower. It was a sad growing season for farmers, with many wineries production being down by as much as 45%.

I continue to be very optimistic about this season. I just got my first spray of sulfur dust to keep any mildew at bay and I look forward to many more bright sunny days to come. If you come visit the winery this season, please ask your tasting room host to bring you out and introduce yourself. The other grapes aren’t very talkative and it gets lonely out here.

To be continued…

The Portugal Cork Harvest – Part 4 in Winemaker Andy Schweigers’ Portugal journey.

Normally when you see a group of axe-wielding men enter a forest, you expect to see trees falling shortly thereafter. The cork harvest proves an exception to that rule.

On a wonderfully cool and overcast June morning, we rode in our bus as deep into the forests of southern Portugal as possible. Once the roads became too rough, we jumped into the back of pickups and drove in even further. I should point out that these forests are very different than what we are used to in North America. The soil is very loose and sandy. The area receives very little rainfall, so what weeds are in the area are very short and have turned brown by June. I was informed that all the forests are owned by different families, passed down over the generations. Even though they are privately owned, the government has passed certain restrictions on these trees.

While Portugal is by far, the world’s largest producer of cork, it is also harvested in France, Spain, Italy, Morocco, and even Sardinia.

It takes a cork tree 25 years to grow before the bark can be stripped for the first time. This first harvest is not useful for cork stoppers, so it primarily goes into flooring or other cork products. After that harvest, the tree must be left alone for a minimum of 9 years before it can be harvested again. There is no mechanical stripping allowed. Rather, a highly specialized axe called a “machada” is used to slit the outer bark just far enough, leaving the inner bark behind. The men wielding these axes are highly trained and their skill is often passed down through the generations. Swing too hard and you risk damaging the inner layer of bark, potentially killing the tree. Swing too lightly and the slabs harvested are jagged, resulting in more waste. Each swing is precisely aimed. Once the axe is in, it’s given a small twist yielding a beautiful “squeak” sound of healthy cork. After creating uniform vertical cuts, the harvester works their way around the tree horizontally. They then use their axe to gently peel the bark away from the tree.

The harvesters start at the ground, working their way up, harvesting slabs approximately 5’ tall by about 2’ across, but this varies depending on the diameter of the tree. They will continue working up the tree, typically stopping well below the branch line. I did notice that some more mature trees with larger, trunk-like branches getting harvested but was told that the cork from these branches usually gets sorted out and gets ground down for other products.

The forest we visited was one of several that are contracted directly to M.A. Silva. Silva works closely with the family managing the forest to maintain a zero herbicide/pesticide program. They also work with the family on a replant program to ensure that there will be plenty of trees to be harvested in the future. These new trees require minimal irrigation and after the first few seasons, are completely dry farmed. M.A. Silva has their own crew of harvesters come in and conduct the harvest. These harvesters enjoy the security of being employed year round by Silva, performing other functions within the company in the off season. All cork harvested is picked up that same day and driven about an hour to “M.A. Silva 3”, a storage and processing facility for the next step.

These steps really are the beginning of the huge difference M.A. Silva offers me as a customer as opposed to most other cork suppliers. Most cork suppliers are purchasing finished cork from small companies who share crop portions of the forest. They lack the authority to prevent herbicide or pesticide use and do not have the capital to have the acres of concrete required to properly allow the cork to further process. Once the cork comes in for boiling and punching, there is no way to verify which section of which forest the material came from. This traceability becomes much more important down the road of the cork. Speaking of which…after about an hour in the forest, it was time to get back on the bus and head down the road…to the resting and processing facility.

Sally Schweiger’s Cabernet Marinade

If you’ve been to one of our Wine Club Parties (What? You haven’t been? Well join us for the next one!) you’ve seen Fred Schweiger manning the BBQ, grilling his now legendary flat iron. When people RSVP, people literally ask me “Will Fred be grilling again??” and if you’ve had it, you know what I’m talking about. It’s classic: tender, juicy, and flavorful~ grilled just right, and he credits the marinade. What’s in it, you wonder? Well, ask no more! Mrs. Sally Schweiger has given me the recipe to her incredible marinade. Of course we suggest you pair whatever you make with a glass of Schweiger Cabernet. Enjoy.

This will be enough marinde for *UP TO* 1.5 lbs of steak, whichever cut you prefer.

1/3 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup Schweiger Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
2 tablespoons Sally’s Steak Seasoning*

*Sally’s Steak Seasoning:
1.5 tablespoons kosher salt**
2 tablespoons crushed black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated onion
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon dill
1 tablespoon crushed coriander
**Remember with the salt that 1.5 tablespoons of Kosher salt provides less salt than two tablespoons of regular salt. It’s flaky; takes less to fill a spoon. If you use regular salt, this would definitely be too salty~ adjust accordingly!

Fred likes a nice Flat Iron cut but this marinade is also delicious on any cut- Tri Tip, Flank, even kabobs. Sprinkle Sally’s Steak Seasoning on both sides of your steak and let it rest. In the meantime, pour youself a glass of Schweiger wine. Add the soy and Cabernet into a gallon ziplock bag, and then put your meat in as well. Seal the bag and let it rest in the fridge for at least an hour, before grilling to your preference. Cheers!

Burgers stuffed with Brie and Spicy Scallion Pesto, paired with Schweiger Merlot

Remember that friend of yours who seems to get along with every crowd, in any situation?

In the world of fine wine, that friend is MERLOT. A lot of people quote that one *unfortunate* line in Sideways, a movie otherwise loved by wine drinkers. The truth is Merlot is a classic varietal that pairs well with all sorts of fare thanks to her fruit forward, easy drinking character. In fact, the most widely planted grape in France’s Bordeaux region isn’t Cabernet Sauvignon; it’s Merlot. The warm, gradual summers of the Napa Valley are ideal for this grape. Below is a recipe to pair with our Winemaker Andy’s rendition of this classic varietal that grows so beautifully in this mineralistic Spring Mountain terroir.

Burgers stuffed with Brie and Spicy Scallion Pesto

1 1/2 pounds ground beef
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces Brie, rind removed, cheese cut into 4 slices (We love Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam Triple Cream)
1/4 cup Spicy Scallion Pesto (see below)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
4 hamburger buns, split (Up the ante! Use pretzel buns!)
Tomato slices and lettuce, for serving

Spicy Scallion Pesto
4 scallions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh hot chile (or jalapeno), seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

First, get your grill ready while having a glass of Schweiger wine.

Prepare the Spicy Scallion Pesto:

In a small bowl, combine scallions, garlic, chile, lemon zest, cayenne, olive oil and salt using a miniblender )or mortar and pestle if you’re fancy). Mashing or a rigorous stir will also do.

Next, the burgers:

Season the ground beef with salt and pepper.
Form into eight 4-inch patties that are slightly thicker in the center.
Top 4 of the patties with a slice of Brie and a spoonful of the Spicy Scallion Pesto; then top with the 4 remaining patties, pinching the edges to seal.
Brush the burgers with oil and grill over high heat, turning once or twice, about 8 minutes for medium-rare meat.

Meanwhile, mix the mayonnaise with the remaining Spicy Scallion Pesto. Grill the buns until toasted.

Spread the mayonnaise/pesto mixture on the bottoms of the buns and top with the burgers, tomatoes and lettuce. Close the burgers and serve with a glass of Schweiger Vineyards Merlot! Cheers!

Some touristy fun before a walk into the forest… (or…Andy’s Portugal trip Part Three)

Some touristy fun before a walk into the forest…

Part three in Winemaker Andy Schweiger’s eight-part blog series about a trip to Portugal, where he learned everything one could know about corks, and furthering perhaps the most lively debate in wine: corks or screw tops?

After a brief meet up with my fellow travelers at SFO, a long flight to Frankfurt, a shorter flight to Lisbon, and a brief bus ride to Evora, our tour was officially off and running (I’ll discuss Lisbon more in a later post as I wound up having more time in that city at the end of the tour). To be honest, I was not expecting the beauty that Evora had in store for us.

This ancient city is still partially enclosed by medieval walls and has been occupied by Romans, Moors, and the Spanish. After a brief refreshing poolside Mojito…you can see some of the ancient walls from our hotel (photo) it was off for a brief walking tour of the city.

The streets were a beautiful mix of cobblestone, granite, and marble.


After a brief stop at a Roman temple, we went into the Capela dos Ossos…Chapel of Bones! This is a small interior chapel located inside the Church of St. Francis. Every interior surface is constructed of or covered with human skulls and bones. The motivation of this décor was to illustrate the transitory nature of this human existence…to focus on the afterlife and not this present life. Normally there are mummified remains also on display, but they had been removed for refurbishment…guess they were a little too dusty

A brief shower and another walk and what became a staple of this trip…amazing food. Our group took over a restaurant one evening for what is their house specialty: braised pork and clams. The pork was actually not from domesticated animals, rather wild boars.

A great meal to wrap up our first full day in Portugal as we all went to bed that night ready for the real trip to begin. Tomorrow we are off to the forest to watch the harvest…


From NASA to NAPA: a Spaced Out Winemaker

In 2002, I was approached by a KES Science and the University of Wisconsin about performing a clinical trial at our winery. They had developed a product for NASA to facilitate growing gardens in space. You see, the problem they had with their gardens in the International Space Station was that the air was static. You can’t really open up the window for fresh air in space. During the ripening of plants, ethylene gas is produced. Unfortunately, ethylene gas also causes the fruit or vegetable to rot before being consumed. The resulting product, The Airocide, eliminated the ethylene gas in the environment. Also was an exciting side effect, the significant elimination of airborne mold spores. This is where I came into play.

Our new barrel room, which we moved into in 2001, had fairly stagnant air in the winter time, resulting in significant airborne mold. My goal in wine making is to make the wine reflect the fruit as it comes in from the vineyard, not cellar defects. Given time, this airborne mold could adversely change the wine. I engaged in a trial with KES, installing their air filters (the Airocide as it became known) throughout the barrel room. We developed a testing strategy by which air from the room would be sampled and plated. The resulting plates were incubated and mold spores counted by an independent lab. Within 8 hours, we had a 50% reduction of airborne mold spores. By 24 hours we were down by 95% and after 72 hours, over 99.9% of the spores were removed.

KES went on to market this device and it has been widely installed throughout the Napa Valley. Most notably, wineries with TCA issues in their cellar have gone crazy over this product. TCA, like ethylene gas is a Volatile Organic Compound, so the reaction chamber eliminates that as well as the mold spores.

Earlier this year, a NASA film crew came by the winery asking me to take part in a project showing how research in space benefits all of us here on the planet. Being a kid at heart who grew up with the excitement of the space shuttle program, I was tickled to participate. I hope you enjoy the end result.

What’s a nice chlorine molecule like you doing in a mold spore like this? (or…Andy’s Portugal trip Part Two)

“What’s a nice chlorine molecule like you doing in a mold spore like this?”

Before we jump into the Portugal trip, I thought it might be worth stepping back and looking at the greatest issue leading to winemakers choosing alternative closures over natural cork; the issue of cork taint. Simply put, when chlorine comes into contact with the lignin of the cork or with certain molds, an aromatic compound known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA to its friends)(a similar compound utilizing bromine can also occur, but we’ll stick with Chlorine for this posting). TCA has a very characteristic odor ranging from moldy newspaper to damp cellar. Even at lower levels where you can’t detect the characteristic odor, the presence of TCA can mute the natural fruit aromas normally present.

So…where does the mold come from, and where does the chlorine come into play?

When the cork is harvested, it is possible that there are already mold spores present on the tree (and plenty of lignin to go around). After harvesting, the slabs of cork traditionally were left on the forest floor to “age”, anywhere from 6 months to a year, before further processing…ample opportunity for mold to grow further. Once the bark is brought to a facility for processing, the bark would be boiled in water, with the intent of sterilizing the cork. One big problem; at the time, most facilities utilized chlorinated water.

So, many suppliers stepped up and realized this issue and stopped using chlorinated water. Cork taint persisted. This time, winemakers became introspective and looked at their own facilities. Some wineries had greater incidence of cork taint than others. Up until the early 1990’s, the sanitizer of choice inside the wineries was…good old Chlorine…and boy do some wineries have mold laying around. I remember when I was 18 working at WINERY NAME REDACTED; we would clean the barrel room at the end of every Friday by wetting the floor with a fire hose, putting on respirators, and sprinkling granular Chlorine all over the place, then scrubbing with brooms. We would then charge the firehose, sending it all down the drain and a fair amount splashing on walls and barrels…sure it all got down the drain eventually.

By the mid-90’s most wineries eliminated all chlorine from their cellar practices. Still some wineries had wood construction that was permeated with TCA. That infected wood would vent off the aromatic gas and it would penetrate barrels. These wineries were faced with gutting their facility, reconstructing, or in some situations, just putting out an inconsistent smelly product…and you wonder where $2 bottles of wine came from? Other facilities just keep polyethylene beads in their wine tanks to absorb the TCA that their winery adds to the wine.

Here we are today. No more boiling cork in chlorinated water. Wineries aren’t using chlorine. So where does that taint come from? Lately, it’s been discovered that many pesticides and weed killers used by the owners of the forests contain chlorine. When UV light breaks down the chemicals, you wind up with trace amounts of chlorine (or our friend bromine) finding its way onto the bark.

The more we learn about TCA, the more we find ways of lessening its occurrence, yet it still happens at times. That’s where selecting the right manufacturer of cork can come into play…and that’s where our story continues…

BONUS BLOG POST FEATURE: Andy’s stupid party trick #58. Remember I mentioned polyethylene beads earlier? If you get a corked bottle of wine, pour the entire bottle into a Ziploc bag, evacuate the air, and seal it up. After about 15 minutes, most of the TCA will be absorbed into the plastic. Another method…plug your nose…latex gloves do this job quite nicely!

Taming of the Screw (or…Andy’s Portugal Trip Part One)

Preface: My relationship with wine began at a very young age. Growing up, my parents and grandparents would enjoy many meals with a glass of wine. I do not remember a time in my life when wine was not present at the dinner table; sometimes the kids even got to taste the wines, thus began my life long romance with wine.

The challenge was, sometimes into this romance would come problems. A bottle of wine wouldn’t taste as good as one had hoped. Perhaps the bottle leaked, sometimes it had been stored too warm, but worst of all would be a chemical aroma of something just not right. Wet cardboard, chlorine, and muted fruit. Not until later in my life did I realize what cork taint was but trust me, that was it.

When I got to the point of my career when I was responsible for purchasing cork closures for wine, I was both honored and horrified. Honored that my employer trusted me to make a purchase in the scale of tens of thousands of dollars. Horrified because if I chose the wrong lot from the wrong manufacturer, hundreds of cases may be ruined, all due to cork taint. I relentlessly pursued as much information I could about different suppliers, their sourcing, their QC practices. Sometimes I’d split orders between multiple suppliers to minimize the exposure.

Of all the varietals I make, Sauvignon Blanc has the most delicate aromatics which can easily be adsorbed into the woody matrix of a cork closure. After 4 years of watching the high tone components responsible for bright citrus and tropicals get sucked away after twenty months in bottle, I was quite frustrated. Add to this equation that the lighter style of the Sauvignon Blanc would show off cork taint quite readily, and I was ready to do something severe. It was time to switch the Sauvignon Blanc to screw cap.

I conducted lots of research and talked with many winemakers, most notably Randal Grahm who was very generous of his time, to adjust my winemaking style ever so slightly so as to ensure the beauty of the wines under screw cap. With the release of our 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, I jumped on board the screw cap train and never looked back. Our customers LOVED the change, even though there was the occasional phone call of someone ruining a good knife trying to cut the “foil” only to find out there was no cork present.

Over the years, I continued to do the best I could to source only the best corks for my reds…but cork taint still happened occasionally. My various cork suppliers would brand my corks and include an identifying mark to their company. Over time, I realized that one supplier out preformed all others. In 2012 I made two serious decisions. Decision one: based on my experience with my Sauvignon Blanc, I could make changes to my winemaking protocols to make my Chardonnay be a bright, citrusy wine reflective of terroir and close it in screwcap. Decision two: For the first time in my career, I purchased all my corks from one supplier; my most reliable one, M.A. Silva. Every year thereafter, I would look at samples from all my past suppliers and entertain new companies. Every year, I purchased 100% from Silva…except for that screw cap portion. I have stated in the past that I believe that the screw cap is the best possible closure for these wines.

Then, the unexpected happened. In February 2015, my cork sales rep emailed me with this cryptic message, “Make sure your passport is current and you have June 19-26 free.”

M.A. Silva was sending me to Portugal! This is the kind of perk normally reserved for big producers and heavy hitters…I’m just a small producer of premium Napa Cabs. Besides, I’m a vocal proponent of the use of screw caps. I’ve even helped other winemakers transition out of cork into screw cap. Regardless, I jumped at the opportunity and chose to approach this trip with a very open mind. I wanted to learn more, see more, and experience first hand the cork harvest; and maybe even drink some great wines along the way.

What will be following over the next several months is the culmination of my experiences of that magical week. Along with a brief explanation of what causes cork taint (my name isn’t Google), I’ll be sharing stories, images, and videos of the cork harvest, processing, and unique steps that no cork supplier other than M.A. Silva takes to ensure maximum quality. It’s been an amazing journey, and I can’t wait to share it with you.