Waiting is part of winemaking from the very beginning. Most people start in winemaking as an intern; entering a winery for harvest when they need the most help. It’s an exciting and energetic time filled with movement, potential, physical exertion and long hours. Punctuating all of this excitement is a lot of waiting. Waiting for grapes, waiting for the press to finish, waiting for dinner.
Becoming a winemaker is very different. It is no longer about waiting. You move beyond that into what is an exercise in patience. You learn to relish the bursts of activity in between the months, sometimes years, of attending to the wine-- making space for it to decide what it wants to become. You cultivate a willingness to endure your wine’s process- think of this as exponential patience.
Early on, a veteran winemaker said to me, “Don’t try your wine very often, it will drive you crazy. One month you have made the greatest wine ever. The next you are contemplating leaving the industry and pouring everything down the drain.” The madness he described is absolutely real but with practice, you develop restraint and at times you find comfort in knowing that the wine moves at its own pace.
Eventually, after months or maybe years, when you decide that your wine has fully expressed itself, and is ready to go into bottle—the finish line comes into focus. Alas, there is one more hurdle between your wine and the world: bottle shock.
Bottle shock is not only a pretty-decent-if-you-like-Alan-Rickman movie about the 1976 Competition in Paris; it is an actual “condition” in the life of every wine. The act of bottling wine stresses it. Some say this is caused by filtering, some say it is additional oxygen intake from the bottling line or the pumping, others insist that it’s the addition of sulfur at bottling. I love that we don’t really know what causes it, and bluntly I don’t want to know. Regardless of my feelings about it, the wine I taste the morning of bottling changes once it is in bottle and tastes, well, terrible… for a while.
The first wine I made on my own was a Pinot Noir from Mistletoe Vineyards in 2009. Two weeks after bottling, I opened one. It tasted like a pine tree. Not the scent of pine, it tasted like the actual bark and sap of pine-- like licking a Christmas tree. It was not nice and nostalgic, it was awful. I began to respect and understand the words of that veteran winemaker.
Most of the time a wine going through bottle shock just gets dumb: the flavor you loved the most before bottling goes quiet. It resembles a sullen teenager: moody, dismissive and easily wounded. Adding insult to injury, you never know how long bottle shock will last. Only the wine knows. There are rules of thumb-- 6-8 weeks, 3 months, 6 months-- but these are just guesses.
Bottle shock is where your exponential patience skills are put to the test.
Despite the inconvenience, bottle shock is one of my favorite phases of winemaking. I know, from experience, that the wine will return (wines in bottle shock eventually return to what they tasted like before going in bottle) but the ride is crazy. I love to share with people because it demonstrates what fascinates me about wine; the fact that a bunch of grapes, with a sprinkling of yeast and some time, can create such a vast range of flavors and textures. During those early weeks after bottling, the wine goes through many personalities and while none are very good, they reveal all that is packed in there and that is pure magic. It’s what patience rewards.
There are ways to cut down on winemaking wait times, the first is to make white wine. Whites are normally bottled within a few months, not years, and bottle shock is often shorter in duration. You can also make lighter, brighter reds as they too typically take less time to get bottled and into the market.
As luck would have it, the wines I want to make take time. I’m looking for that intersection of fruit and secondary notes where cherry flavors recede, cedar and mushroom notes climb. What I’m beginning to understand is that the kind of wine I like to drink, the kind of wine I want to make, is all about coming to terms with waiting. Patience is something that I have worked on, and frankly struggled with, most of my life so perhaps this is how it was always meant to be.
Right now I have over 4,000 bottles of Clay Pigeon wine that are in some stage of shock. So I wait...and continue to taste for that moment that each one decides it’s ready to come out and play.
Just in case you’re curious, the wines in waiting are:
2015 Pinot Gris
2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
2013 Rogue Syrah
2012 Reserve Syrah
2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
Believe me- we will let you know as soon as they’re ready for drinking!