Those who like wine tasting are accustomed to the routine: six or eight bottles are lined up on a counter; the tasting room associate (aka pour person) explains a bit about each wine as you’re sampling. The wines you taste are available for purchase and are often sold in stores and restaurants. The winemaker, on the other hand, has a different experience. After the wine has gone into the barrel (or a stainless steel vat if it is to be “unoaked”) the progress is gauged by taking barrel samples. There’s simply no other way to know how the wine is progressing and when it has aged enough to bottle.
Occasionally, a winemaker will invite a few friends and customers to stop by for barrel tasting, as did Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks Vineyards on October 30. Upon arrival, I bypassed the other guests, who were “bottle tasting” and grazing on Corralitos Market venison sausages, and snuck into the barrel room. Frequent readers of this column know that this is my way of getting some good photos and a little inside information. As luck would have it, Jim was drawing a liter of his best estate Pinot Noir from a French oak barrel.
When a winemaker is drawing a sample for himself, he normally employs a long glass tube with a rubber bulb at the end that resembles an oversized turkey baster. When you need enough for guests, you siphon the wine into a flask using a long, clear tube. The apparatus resembles something college kids might use at a party; at least that’s what I’ve heard.
Barrel tasting gives you a good idea what the wine will taste like after the aging process is complete, but also provides the experience of tasting something a bit “unfinished”. Windy Oaks produces exemplary estate Pinot Noirs, and I’m pleased to report that this one is coming along nicely.
If you visit Windy Oaks, be sure to take a walk through the vineyards to the top of the hill where you’ll enjoy a commanding view of the Monterey Bay. It’s the next best thing to Dijon, and a lot closer. If you come in October, the vines may even be sporting Halloween outfits.
That’s netting, of course, to keep the birds from stealing the fruit. If you’re thinking that the harvest should have been in September or early October, you are correct. Because we had a cool, foggy summer in 2011, the Chardonnay grapes were still on the vines. Jim assured me that these are the last unpicked Chardonnay grapes in California.
If you get a chance to do some barrel tasting, I highly recommend it for the “inside experience” it provides. And if the opportunity is accompanied by a trek through the vineyard and a hilltop view, it will be a memorable experience.