Green Drop

Quality over Quantity.

This is not your grocery store wine. Don’t get me wrong, mass produced vino has its place, and it knows its place – quantity over quality to create a less expensive product. It’s what most of us call, “every day wine”. We’ve all been to the local supermarket chain and purchased a $12 bottle of “reserve” Cabernet from a 100,000 case lot, brought it to a friend’s dinner party or paired it with a slice of pizza. Even the most snobby of wine connoisseurs have done it and there is no shame in it. What we are talking about today is one specific facet of grape growing that separates great wine from the rest of the pack – “Green Drop”.

One of the most frequent questions I get from visitors to the Napa Valley is this: “Why are the wines here so expensive?” they ask, “when I can go to the store and get a bottle at $5 – $20!”. It is a valid question and I’m always glad they ask. Now, I can’t speak for our peers, but I can speak for Schweiger Vineyards, and the reason is this: we focus on growing the highest quality wine grapes in the world and, in-fact, purposely attempt to grow less fruit. We have Mother Nature to thank for low yields with our high elevation and volcanic soils, but in addition to her gifts, we employ certain vineyard practices such as what’s called Green Drop.

Recently, our winemaker and viticulturist, Andy Schweiger, brought me to the estate Malbec vineyard where he and our vineyard crew were literally taking half of the fruit off the vines and dropping them to the ground. There, these clusters will eventually become organic matter in the soil. Green Drop is done before the process of veraison begins when the grapes change from green to red and are pumped full of sugar. This enables the vine to focus its wine-creating energy on fewer berries resulting in more intense flavor, color and tannic structure.

If we were a mass producer, we wouldn’t do this. It’s labor intensive, costly, and sure; we could use the superfluous fruit if we wanted to. But we don’t. What we want is a more complex, age worthy, full bodied wine. “Green drop” is just one of the many ways we get there.


Sort, Wash, Sort (Part 8 in Andy’s Portugal journey)

When I first explained to Jerry (age 15 at the time) and Megan (age 12) that I was going to observe sorting while in Portugal, I’m very certain they visualized something much like this:

While cork sorting may not be that “magical”, the combination of science and hard work make the process seem even more magic than anything Hogwarts could ever dream up.

Even though the cork slabs were presorted before punching, there can now be some variability within a given lot of cork. All the freshly polished corks now go through one of several optical sorting machines that M.A. Silva has at this facility. This machine very rapidly takes a photo of both ends of every cork as long as a panorama of the barrel of the cork. A computer program measures the amount of “dark space” on a cork which represents a lenticel (or pore) on the cork. The

more dark spaces, the lower the grade. It then ejects that cork into one of several bins, further refining the quality of that lot.

Now that the cork has been sorted into “almost there” lots based on quality, it comes time to wash the cork. The intent is to provide a sanitary wash. This is done in a mild solution of Hydrogen Peroxide. Not only does this eliminate the majority of any potential harmful bacteria, yeast, or mold on the surface of the cork, it also removes the most of the dust from the processing up to this point.

The cork has one more sort before heading out of the factory now. Now is the time for the essential hand sort. While the optical sorter established a targeted quality grade, there is no machine that can compete with the skilled human eye. The entire batch of cork rolls on conveyers in front of highly trained women looking for nicks, mineral stains, and other imperfections in the cork. Each shift starts with, and at periodic breaks, they review, reference samples of what each grade should look like. If a cork doesn’t make the grade, it’s put into one of several bins where it may be reclassified, ground up for alternative cork products, or ground up for fuel for the cork boilers. Corks which pass muster proceed to the end of the conveyor where they are bundled up and, for the purpose of my cork world, shipped off to M.A. Silva, U.S.A.

 Samples are sent to wineries, and once a lot is purchased, M.A. Silva, U.S.A. will brand it with the customers logo and give the cork a fine coating (usually paraffin based) to help ensure the sealing of the cork. Sometimes a customer may request an additional upsort where a crew of hand sorters in the American Facility will run the sort again, removing 5-10% of a lot, improving the overall cosmetics of the lot.I do want to take a moment and point out something that really impressed me…the kind of odd thing that not many people would notice. I was really struck by the cleanliness of all the Silva facilities. Maybe it’s the fact that I do my best to maintain a clean facility here at Schweiger…one of the greatest compliments I can receive is when someone notices how clean our winery is. As you can see from the photos of the Silva facility, the concrete is clean and swept, trucks are unloaded under cover, and all cork material is stored inside. On our way out of the Silva facility, I noticed other facilities…these are smaller, independent facilities who source bark from other producers and will, in turn, sell their punched corks to any of a number of cork sales company here in the states. Look at the drive by photos of the gravel/dirt roads, the dirty buildings, the cork stored outside, sometimes under cover, but not protected from the elements. The degree of care and pride in their facility really impressed me.

So, while “my cork” journey is complete…there are more stories to come… I may even share some images from a tour of a facility making “FrankenCork”!

2016 Harvest Recap

Another harvest is now behind us. The picking bins have been put away and covered. The tractors are all lubed and greased and resting inside the barn. Seed for a cover crop has been spread and since the last of the grapes came in, we’ve received over nine inches of rain. I thought it would be fitting to take a moment and share some of the fun and excitement of the harvest just ended.

Justin and I like to be READY when harvest starts. As early as the first week of August we were pulling lids off of tanks, cleaning picking bins, servicing equipment, and cleaning, cleaning cleaning! Fred and I removed the spray rig and got all the tractors set for their most important time of year. Yeast ordered? Check! Barrels delivered? Check! Beer refrigerator stocked? Check!

One thing I love about making Sauvignon Blanc is it gives us a chance to make sure everything is ready. Almost every year, Sauvignon Blanc is the first varietal we bring in. This year we harvested the SB on September 2nd (by great coincidence, the exact same date as the 2015 harvest). The nature of processing Sauvignon Blanc involves almost every single piece of equipment we own; destemmer, press, sorting table, glycol refrigeration, argon system, bungie cords, and sometimes even electrical tape!

After bringing in the Sauvignon Blanc, the weather really cooled down, giving us two weeks to focus on racking the Sauvignon Blanc juice and monitoring its fermentation in barrel. We kept getting itchy, waiting to really start up harvest; you can’t hurry nature and we were patient. We sampled, we waited. We sampled more, we waited more.

September 15 is when we really started to open the harvest gates. Over the next 15 days we harvested almost every day, bringing in over 65 ton. When you have this many consecutive fruit days you need to manage your time carefully. The day isn’t only about farming. We would start the day getting the crew out picking at first light, then back inside to punch down and monitor fermentations. Some days we’re also draining and shoveling a tank to press off. By 10 a.m. most days, enough grapes had been picked that it was time processing fruit. This is our second harvest with a sorting table. While it is incredible to have greater control over the quality of fruit coming in the winery, it does come at an expense…finding people willing to work the table for hours on end, watching fruit come bouncing by.

Not only did our office, sales, and tasting room staff do an amazing job at jumping in whenever possible, but staff spouses, children, and friends were here. Our volunteer crew did an amazing job at pulling wayward leaves and underdeveloped fruit before it found its way into the winery.

Adding to the normal excitement of harvest, a clutch of rattlesnake eggs hatched late September. Over a 6 day period we became hyperaware as each day it seemed we were spotting a few more of these 9 inch long varmint-terminators (so small that they had not developed rattles or the distinctive head shape). You definitely are on your toes for a few hours when you bend down to grab a water hose and find a small baby rattler right next to it. Our final count was 14 of these snakes. Thankfully, nobody (human or canine) was bitten…even better, it was an injury free harvest; sore muscles, tired brains, bruises and scratches requiring fewer than 9 stitches (electrical tape works wonders) do not count as accidents, right?

Every day, the quality of the fruit we were bringing in was amazing. Justin, Fred, and I are all very excited to see how this vintage develops. We have a few experiments with new barrels and even a few new products to be bringing to your dinner table in the years to come.

So, here we are today. Both the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have fermented dry and are aging in barrel. The red varietals are all going through malolactic fermentation; the earliest lots just completed last week and it looks like we are on target to be completely finished by the end of 2016. The vineyard is slowly going to sleep for the winter. If you have a moment, we’d love for you to come up and take a look; the leaves slowly changing yellow to orange to brown are not to be missed!

Time to Punch Out! (Part 7 in Andy’s on-going Portugal travels)

As we pick up the journey of our intrepid hero, our cork bark slabs had been aged to stabilize, boiled and sorted. They now hop a northbound truck to the processing facility in Porto. Many times, slabs that were boiled and sorted on a Monday may be punched as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

The slabs were all pre-sorted before their journey. For punching, the factory pulls just one grade of slabs to work with on a given time. Men wearing Kevlar gloves grab one slab at a time and run it along a preset jig depending on the length of cork they are producing that day. At Schweiger Vineyards, we traditionally use a 49 mm cork, however in recent years, we started using a 54 mm length cork. Both corks do an equal job of sealing the bottle, but there is a prevailing belief to produce longer corks, you need to source from the better slabs. You rarely see low quality 54 mm corks. Conversely, you rarely see high quality 44 mm corks. These are primarily used for inexpensive, bulk production, factory farm wines.

Ah, but where was I…the freshly cut strips now travel up a conveyer, where they drop into one of several hoppers. Each hopper feeds to an individual M.A. Silva employee who takes one strip at a time, placing it against a stainless steel back stop. Their foot controls the forward/backward motion of a special hollowed out drill. As they work, the drill continuously spins, being driven by a series of belts. When they are ready to punch, they push down their foot, bringing the drill bit into the block, ejecting a freshly cut cork. The placement of the punch has to be very precise. Too close to the belly (inside of the bark) or the bark (outside of the bark) results in an uneven cork that will not seal correctly. Once the worker has punched the maximum corks possible out of a strip, the strip is thrown into a conveyer hopper where it is taken away to be ground up.

I have to stop here for a moment. One really cool thing I learned on this trip is how little waste there is in cork production. These “Holy” strips, once ground up, are placed into bales and loaded onto the trucks that just brought them north. These trucks don’t deadhead back down south; they get filed with this granular cork and head back to the boiling facility where the granules are used to fire the boilers for the next batch of cork slabs.

The final part of the punching process is a polish. The individual corks get a quick brushing with a sanding wheel to ensure that the outer surface is as smooth and even as possible. From here, the corks will move on to sorting, washing, and sorting…to be covered in an upcoming post!

Portugal Journeys Part Six: A fun visit to Porto

After our adventurous day of watching the harvest and checking out the resting and first processing, it was time for our crew to pile into the bus for the long trip North to Porto. What is probably a two and a half our ride by car or a three hour ride by bus; scratch that! It was a bus full of winemakers. With beer stops, four hours later, we pulled into Porto.

We got to appreciate several different aspects of Porto. First off was our welcome dinner in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the ocean. This was a fun treat for me as I realized it was my first time to look west into the Atlantic Ocean. The evening was a bit overcast, but the ocean promenade was beautiful and the after dinner cigars didn’t hurt.

The next day was occupied with more M.A. Silva tours (more on the ne

xt post) and one of the most fantastic lunches of the trip. I’ve usually been a bit squeamish when it came to chicken “innards”, but prepared in an amazing broth; I went for seconds. By this meal, stews of shellfish were becoming very common, but this one stood out above the rest. The remainder of the afternoon was spent at the home of Manuel Silva relaxing, sharing stories, sharing wine, and of course, sharing more food. My jaw dropped when late in the afternoon, very much in the style of pizza delivery, a man showed up with two suckling pigs!

A few days later, we returned to Porto, this time, to tour Graham’s aging facility for a visit and tasting. Having produced a Cabernet Sauvignon “Port-style wine” for fifteen years, this was truly a highlight for me. Many of our group paid a bit extra to taste various vintages of older port wines. This region does quite a bit to regulate and control quality year to year. For example, “Vintage Ports” can only come from years where the majority of producers agree that it was a standout year. If so, Portugal’s Port Wine Institute “declares the vintage”. While both my fathers’ (1942) and my (1970) birth years are classified vintages, they were unavailable to purchase or taste. However, I was successful in walking out with birth year wines for both of my children, Jerry (2000) and Megan (2003). The other big education for me was concerning tawny ports. I had always (wrongly) assumed that a twenty-year port was Port from a single vintage which had aged in barrel for twenty years. It turns out that it is an average of multiple vintages; a blend of freshly made port wines to forty year plus. It becomes a blending game of creating a consistent house style for their twenty, forty, and older tawny ports. With that education under my belt, I’m still pursuing my Schweiger “20 year” Port made from the 2009 vintage. If I haven’t previously invited you, it will be released July 11, 2030. Yes, that’s my sixtieth birthday; how’s that for planning ahead?

After our tour of Graham’s, we had some free time to explore the “other side” of Porto. The vast majority of businesses, churches, and government buildings are all located on one bank of the river (this is where our hotel was earlier in the week).

This side of the river today has historically been reserved for Wineries, Aging Cellars, Tasting Rooms, and of course Restaurants. Wines made in the Douro Valley age just under a year at the winery in the Douro. Before the next harvest comes in, they are transported down to Porto for aging. In days gone by, they were shipped on the deck of large barges. Today, this is done by tanker truck, but remnants of those days gone by remain. Each Port house has a historic barge still on the water today, displaying the flag of that producer.

As this beautiful sunny day came to a close, it was time for a short train ride back to Lisbon for (what we thought at the time) was to be the last night of our trip. More on that later when I discuss Lisbon.

My I’m Large

My, I’m Large
My, I’m Large
My, I’m large
Just before I fell asleep last night
I lost track of my size
I think I’m huge now

I don’t know why
I still seem to fit inside my car
‘Cause I’m not the same size
I know I’m huge now

Ever since I was a kid I’d lay in bed at night
And it would seem like my body got bigger
Always in the morning I’d be back to normal
but look at me now, I’m so enormous

Little persons all around me
Sweep the streets and mow the lawn
It’s so lonely being different
I’m afraid I might hurt them

-“My, I’m Large” – The Bobs

Since I last checked in, I have been pollenated and am slowly getting closer to being a real life Napa Cabernet Sauvignon wine! In reality, I’m not really “ripening” yet. I am slowly gowing through a growth spurt of cellular division. Since I last posted photos, I have grown at an exponential rate…My stamen have fallen off and my pistil has expanded over ten times it’s original size. Look at that picture on the left. I had the “winemaker” pull a neighboring berry and bring it into the lab. That little brown spot dead center of the berry; that’s the original tip of my stamen where I was pollenated.What’s going on inside right now? Well, as you can see on the right, two seeds are slowly developing. Otherwise my interior is mostly a gelatinous mixture of plant cells, chlorophyll, and malic acid. All my neighbors and I are a good centimeter in diameter. Compare that to the begining of the month when I was less than a millimeter across and you can see how far I’ve come, yet a long way to go. In a few weeks verasion will begin…that’s when the real changes begin…more on that next time!

Until next time,

Gilbert Grape

Cork Resting and Processing – Part 5 in Winemaker Andy Schweigers’ Portugal Journey

After our morning in the forest, we followed (well not literally) the cork road an hour north to M.A. Silva 3; the yard and processing plant which is the next step on a corks’ journey. While most companies allow the cork to sit on the forest floor for an indeterminate amount of time, Silva brings it to this facility on the day it is harvested.

Trucks loaded down with cork are unloaded and restacked by hand.  Pieces that have burls, knots, are very misshapen, or that are otherwise unsuitable for cork may be sorted out at this time. Samples are taken for the lab for a second glance at TCA levels in the bark material. The piles are all numbered. These numbers will follow the cork all the way through to finished product. Now begins the rest. At harvest, moisture is spread unevenly throughout the slabs…some are drier than others, some have dry spots.  These slabs of cork will be allowed to rest on the concrete slabs from 6 months to a year. Samples will be drawn periodically to determine if the moisture level is consistent throughout each individual slab as well as that stack as a whole.

After it has been determined that the cork is ready to be moved on, the cork is stacked onto large stainless steel racks. The racks are then lowered into a steamer. Chlorine free water is brought to a boil and these slabs “cook” under pressure and steam for about twenty minutes. When it is done, the cork is much more sanitary and has flattened out substantially, making it much easier to handle. The steamers are powered by burning cork pieces that are recovered later in the processing. From here, the slabs are brought inside for some preliminary sorting.

Next to the steam vats is a large warehouse, almost the size of a Costco. In here are about twenty sorting stations. At each one, a man with a very strong dominant arm holds court. Piece by piece, he removes a freshly steamed slab from the pile and cuts a thin slice off of two sides from each piece with a long, thin scythe like knife. In that instant, he evaluates the porosity of the cork and sorts it in to one of several different piles based upon grade. Now, I’ve always been a hands on kind of guy…so in my broken Portuguese, I asked one of the men if I could try, he smiled and handed the knife over. Anxious to try a new opportunity, yet also not wanting to hospitalize myself, I gave a tentative pull. It was a lot harder than it looked. My new friend smiled, adjusted my stance and how I was pulling. It became EVER so slightly easier.

As the sorted piles grow, they get palletized, labeled, and loaded on to trucks…from here, it’s a three hour drive north to Porto which it was time for our busload of winemakers to do as well.

There are two important things that happen in this sort. First of all, they are getting a pre-sort on the quality of the bark. Secondly, there is now a very smooth surface on two sides of the cork…but that wouldn’t become evident until the next day, when we got to see the cork being punched…

Flower Power

Far out man…it’s time to flower! Let’s set the mood.

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
-Age of Aquarius, 5Th Dimension

Today I am a flower!

No, not your typical flower. Nobody ever goes to the florist and orders a bouquet of Vitis Vinifera for Mother’s Day and there’s probably a few good reasons why. First of all…I’m not that pretty of a flower. Compared to me a mixed brocolli and cauliflower arrangement is more pleasing to the eye, but to the man on the tractor, I’m plenty attractive. Ok, enough of being coy…here’s how I look now.

As you can see, the cap (calyptra) has now popped off revealing my pistel and stamen. My flower has no petals and I also have no distinctive aroma.I’m all self contained; no bees required.Since I contain both the male and female flower parts, I can self polinate with the help of wind and gravity. In the coming weeks, the now unneeded male part of my anatomy falls off, leaving just the polinated pistil.

Sometimes, high winds can blow the pollen away, rain water can wash the pollen off, or excess heat can stress the pistil. When this happens, the pistil doesn’t ripen. In most normal situations, the pistil will fall off the cluster. This is called shatter.

If you were to walk out into a vineyard in late June and tap a cluster, you would see a mixture of stamen and unpolinated pistils fall off in your hand.

For now, I just need to keep my fingers crossed that we don’t have any unseasonal rains. Meanwhile, my caretakers will be keeping a careful eye out for mildew so I can grow nice, clean, and healthy.

That’s all for now! I’ll check in after my next growth spurt.

Growing Fast and Checking In

Oh, Hello again…bottling nightmares have taken over my sleep the past few nights, which makes me long for the peace and tranquility of being out in the vineyard. Last week brought some unseasonably cool weather with some soft sprinkles…just enough to keep the dust down.

This week however has been beautiful! While all the grapes in the valley floor wake up to foggy bottoms, I’m living large in brilliant sunshine. Nice warm mornings, catching rays, listening to the Beach Boys (ok, not really, but if you listen carefully to the breeze blowing between the leaves, you’ll catch some Good Vibrations) and just growing away.

All my neighboring flower buds on the cluster have grown a little and we’re starting to space out a bit more. We’re also almost over the top trellis wire.

That’s it for now, I have to go back to the bottling line and face reality.

A Special Invitation: Schweiger’s Inaugural European River Cruise

Next March we are doing something special and exciting, the first Schweiger Vineyards trip abroad for our wine club members, friends and family. Sally and I cordially invite you to join us on a 7 night Rhine River cruise followed by a 4 night tour of Switzerland.

We’ll board the lovely ship M/S AmaSonata for two nights in Amsterdam, that wonderful city of canals, Rembrandt, windmills and bicycles. Then begin a voyage up the mighty Rhine River, visiting the German cities of Cologne, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Mannheim, Rudesheim and Breisach. We’ll spend a day in Strasbourg, France and tour the lovely Alsace Wine Route, sampling world class Rieslings. Upon disembarkation in Basel there is an optional land tour visiting the Swiss cities of Lucerne and Zurich, traveling high in the Alps and along the scenic lakes of stunning Switzerland. Western Europe in early spring will be cool, uncrowded and delightful, with low airfares.

On board I will hold three tastings and a paired dinner, pouring our own Schweiger Vineyards wines alongside those of the Rhine and Alsace. There are special inclusions exclusively for those traveling in our group block, booked through our tour operator Expanding Horizons.

For complete information, please visit this link:

This web site shows all the cabins with expandable pictures, details and dates. Feel free to recommend this special holiday to any friends or relations who would enjoy this kind of elegant vacation dedicated to culture and fine wine.

There is a special discount of $1,500 per cabin ($750 per person) for those depositing by September 30th, 2016. To book or to answer your questions please email or call Ruth Jelsma at our tour operator, Expanding Horizons:  Tel: 1-714-975-9063, email: look forward to seeing you aboard!


Fred & Sally Schweiger