In the Winery - Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!

 
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People who know me well know I have a passion for sparkling wine.  To me, sparkling wine is not something you only drink on New Year's Eve or at your best friend's wedding.  Every day can and should be celebrated, and sparkling wine deserves a place at the proverbial and literal table.  So back in 2010, we set out to make sparkling wine from Wisconsin grown fruit by the traditional method...methode champenoise...which is the way all true French Champagne is made.  But first, a bit of folklore...  

The French monk Dom Pierre Perignon is often given credit for the invention of Champagne.  Whether or not the story rings true, it is still a good story.  Legend has it the monk was having a problem with bubbles forming in wine that was supposed to be still.  On a whim, he tried the bubbly wine and exclaimed "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!" ...which is one of my all-time favorite wine quotes.  If this did indeed happen, what was occurring was a re-fermentation after the wine had been bottled.  The process of fermentation converts sugar into alcohol and as a by-product you also get carbon dioxide.  Trapped inside a bottle, carbon dioxide creates bubbles or fizz, just like a can of soda.  Trapped carbon dioxide gives wine it's stars...or as we say today, it's sparkle.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

There are several ways to add carbon dioxide to wine, but the traditional French method is the oldest and the best.  After juice is fermented into wine, the still wine is bottled and yeast and sugar are added...to each and every bottle individually.  The result is a second fermentation where the yeast converts the sugar to a small amount of additional alcohol and creates carbon dioxide, which...you guessed it...is now trapped in the bottle.  Producing sparkling wine by this method provides a high level of carbonation and the tiniest of bubbles, both of which are desired for a well-balanced sparkling wine.

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But at some point, the yeast that's in the bottle needs to be removed.  This is a process that requires specialized equipment that not many wineries in the Midwest possess.  So, every two years, Al and I make a trip to a winery in Suttons Bay, Michigan.  There, under the guidance of sparkling guru Larry Mawby, our wine is disgorged.  This is the process by which the yeast is removed from the bottle, but the carbon dioxide is retained.  We'll talk more about this process in next week's blog, and we'll have some photos from the Mawby winery to show as well.

Have I mentioned yet that this is a very special version of our sparkling wine?  This particular batch is what we call an "extended tirage".  I'll explain that in more detail next week too, so please stay tuned.  Here's a hint...we've been waiting for this for seven years.

Cheers!

 

In the Winery - A Reserve or not a Reserve...That is the Question

 
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This past Saturday we released a new red wine under our Reserve label, an American Shiraz that was aged in a Bourbon barrel.  Our Reserve label differs tremendously from what we call our "mainline" label, and it takes a pretty special wine for us to deem it a "Reserve".  In fact, River Bend has not released a Reserve wine since 2014.  But what does the word Reserve actually mean in the world of wine?  Turns out, it can mean almost anything.  Let me explain...

The federal government of the United States has jurisdiction over wine labels, and each label has to go through an approval process by the federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) before it can be used.  TTB has agreements with other countries regarding certain reserved words, the word "Reserve" not actually being one of them.  For example, a US sparkling wine producer is not allowed to use the word Champagne.  Only sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France can be labelled Champagne.  The same thing applies to the word Port.  Port only comes from the Douro Valley of Portugal.  There are many port-style wines made around the world, but true Port only comes from Portugal.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

So what about this word "Reserve?"  In some countries, such as Spain and Italy, the word Riserva is highly regulated and is mainly an aging requirement.  For example, an Italian Barolo must be aged for a minimum of five years to be considered a Riserva.  But the US has no real regulations regarding the word Reserve.  TTB considers it a brand name, which basically means its just a title.  I would like to think that most winemakers only use the word Reserve when a wine is truly special, be it because of quality, aging, limited availability or some combination thereof.

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So let's get back to River Bend's latest Reserve wine, the Shiraz.  As I mentioned, we have not released a Reserve wine in four years.  There is a simple reason for this.  Reserve wines must be special.  Each time we pull reds from barrel, we HOPE one stands out as a Reserve.  Truth is...in my opinion as a winemaker...this is rare.  Does that mean I don't think our red wines are good?  Quite the contrary.  We would never pull a barrel if we didn't think it was good.  However, it is not that often that I think we have a barrel that is EXCEPTIONAL.  When we tasted this Shiraz, I was blown away.  Not by its bigness or its boldness...no single characteristic jumped out at me.  This Shiraz was balanced...and smooth...and subtle.  And special.  That's what makes it a Reserve to me.  So if you have a chance, stop in a give it a try.  I'd be happy to hear what you think.

Join us again next week as we talk about sparkling wine.  Every other year, Al and I make a trip to Michigan to have our traditional method sparkling wine finished at the LMawby Winery in Suttons Bay.  River Bend sparkling wine is one of my passions, and I am excited to share it's story with you.

Cheers!

 

In the Distillery - We're pretty Old Fashioned

 
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This past weekend in the distillery we released two craft whiskies...batch number three of our coveted Craftsman Bourbon and a brand new whiskey blend we've dubbed Wisconsin Whiskey.  Here in Wisconsin, we like our whiskies smooth and our cocktails strong, and we have a drinking heritage that is not always something for which we are proud.  But we are extremely proud of two facets of our current cocktail culture...one quite new and one quite old...the first being the emergence of high quality craft distilling, and the second being the tradition of the Wisconsin Supper Club.

Somewhat hard to describe but easy to love, if you are not from the upper Midwest, the supper club may not be something you have had the pleasure to experience.  Today's supper clubs are a gem in the landscape of Wisconsin's dining culture.  Maybe it's the coziness during a long winter, maybe it's the fish fry, or maybe it's the tradition of being family-owned for decades.  There's just something about the supper club that we Wisconsinites can't get enough of.  Oh wait...maybe it's the Old Fashioned.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

If Wisconsin had a state cocktail, it would undoubtedtly be the Old Fashioned.  While the Old Fashioned largely fell out of favor years ago in other parts of the country, here in the Badger State our love for it has continued unabashed and unabated.  Traditionally, Old Fashioneds were crafted from whiskey, but in Wisconsin, it has long been a brandy concoction.  We are, after all, the state which consumes roughly one third of all the brandy Korbel makes.  But now that we are seeing a home grown boom in the craft distilling scene...much of which is being led by whiskey production...our mixologists are going back to their Old Fashioned roots and blending this signature cocktail with Bourbon.

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Bourbon at its finest is strong but smooth, and connoisseurs drink it neat or on the rocks.  Being a relatively new whiskey enthusiast, my taste for Bourbon pairs well with the style of Old Fashioned most often poured in Wisconsin.  A nice bold spirit is complemented by a dash of bitters and a muddle of orange and cherry...just the right balance of boozy sweetness.  This is how we pour an Old Fashioned in the River Bend distillery, and I think our Wisconsin supper clubs would approve.  Now if we only had a Friday night fish fry...

Join us again next week as we head back inside the winery.  We'll be talking about our newly released reserve wine, a Bourbon barrel-aged Shiraz, and what the term "reserve" does...and does not...mean when it comes to wine.

Cheers!

 

In the Vineyard - Summertime...and the livin' is easy

 
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George Gershwin composed the song Summertime in the 1930's for the opera Porgy and Bess, and one of my favorite versions was recorded in 1968...the year I was born...by the late great Ella Fitzgerald.  I do love summertime, and when the sun burns bright and the heat kicks on, so does the vineyard at River Bend.

Warm temperatures in late May and early June bring rapid development to northern vineyards.  While vineyards in places like southern California can break dormancy as early as March, vineyards in Wisconsin do not break until May.  With fall frost as early as October 1st, the growing season is short and fruit maturation must happen quickly.

When the University of Minnesota started developing wine grapes for northern climates, the heat of the growing season was of utmost concern.  In Wisconsin, we have an average of 2500 degree days in a calendar year.  Degree days are the number of degrees Fahrenheit over 50, based on average daily temperature, summed up for the period.  But don't get hung up on the definition.  Here's the gist...grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon need 3000 degree days from April to October to ripen.  We don't get that in a full year!  Cab would never ripen here, much less survive January.  So the U of M crossed native grapes (that ripen quickly) with European grapes (that make great wine) and ta-dah!  Now there are vineyards in Wisconsin. 

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

Grapes, like all fruit, begin as flowers, and they are tiny.  But not for long.  Shoots can grow several inches a day, and the flowers elongate quickly.  Bloom is short and before you know it, the flowers are little buck-shot berries.  By late July we'll see clusters at full size, and they will begin to change color.  By late August, sugar levels will be rising, organic acid levels will be falling, and we'll be looking at harvest dates in September.  And just like that, it's over!  (Insert sad face emoji.)  But it's always a great ride, so remember, from the lyrics of Summertime, "Your daddy's rich and your mamma's good lookin', so hush little baby, don't you cry."

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Join us again next week as we head back inside the distillery.   Batch #3 of our Craftsman Bourbon will be released the first weekend of June, and we've also been hard at work on a brand new whiskey that is uniquely Wisconsin.  You won't want to miss it!

Cheers!

 

In the Winery - Art versus Science in the Wine Lab

 
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How wine is made is a mystery to many people.  When looking into our processing facility, we often hear comments like "that's where the magic happens."  In reality, wine processing is more like "where the science happens."  But to my dismay, it's not all science.  There is art involved in wine-making, and as a mathematician by training, art is not my forte.  Thankfully, I am able to apply science right up to the final stages of processing, but that's where for me, things get a little dicey.  Let's take a look at two white wines which will be released this summer...Riesling and Summer White...to see how they are similar and how they are different.

 Frontenac gris grapes at peak ripeness

Grapes harvested at the peak of ripeness are the perfect fruit from which to make wine.  There is enough natural sugar and enough water that neither of these need to be added.  Pitch some wine yeast along with some nutrients, and voila...fermentation produces wine from grape juice.  In the wine lab, three of the components we test in ripe grapes are pH, titratable acidity, and sugar level.  To a winemaker, sugar level is not an indication of sweet wine vs dry wine.  Sugar level is all about potential alcohol.  Yeast converts sugar to ethanol, and a large percentage of sugar is needed to produce ethanol in the 12-14% range.  This is generally an easy number to hit provided grapes are harvested when they are ripe.

Titratable acidity and pH, however, are more of a moving target.  As mentioned above, we are currently putting the finishing touches on our Riesling and Summer White wines.  The grapes that produce these wines have some things very much in common, like sugar level.  But their pH and acidity levels differ dramatically.  Because our Riesling grapes tend to have a moderate pH and low acidity, we can produce a dry or semi-dry wine from them.  Why is this?  Because a dry wine that is high in acidity will taste sour.  Wines that are high in acidity need some residual sugar for balance.  A crisp finish is nice in a drier wine, but a tart, sour finish is not.  Since our Riesling tends to have low acidity, we are comfortable keeping this wine on the drier side.

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The grapes for Summer White, however, tend to have much higher acidity and very low pH.  The grapes varieties in Summer White are Brianna and Frontenac Gris, both grown right here at River Bend.  Our cool climate produces grapes with higher acidity than say, grapes from the Napa Valley.  It is because of this that wines made from cool climate grapes are often sweeter.  The higher acidity must be balanced with residual sugar so the wine is not too tart but has a pleasant, fruity finish.  The challenge...and the art...is just how sweet is perfectly sweet for a given amount of acidity.  Too much residual sugar is just as bad as too little, making the wine flat or cloying.  We strive for a moderate level of sweetness that still leaves a clean finish on the palette.

For me, this is the tricky part, and we make this decision based solely on taste (art) and not on numbers (science).  It sounds pretty fun to taste wine all day to get the sweetness level just right, doesn't it?  We actually agonize over this process, because we want all of our wines to be approachable and balanced.  At the end of the day, the palette of our customer is the final judge on whether or not we hit our mark.  

Once we finish up in the wine lab, we'll be heading back outside to check on the vineyard.  Bud break has occurred, and we are about to see tiny little flowers and grape clusters emerging.  Exciting!  Do stay tuned.

Cheers!

 

Spring in the Vineyard - Rainy Days and Mondays Don't Get Me Down

 
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Tasks in the vineyard vary considerably from one season to the next.  Spring is a two month frenzy, summer is longer and more evenly paced, and fall is a mad dash to the finish.  As we find ourselves in mid-May, we are thankful to be putting a wrap on spring with the vineyard looking healthy going into summer.  Despite a late spring snowstorm and some recent days of rain, the pruning, mowing and first round of in-ground fertility are complete.  As I look out on a gloomy, rainy day, I remind myself that as a farmer, rain is pretty much always a good thing.  I think Luke Bryan mentions that in a country song.

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Vineyards are not always thought of as farms.  Maybe that's because in some geographic areas...ours included...they are just not very common.  But even though vineyards are rarely referred to as grape farms, that is truly what they are.  And while it might sound romantic to call "a person who cultivates grapes for a living" a vigneron (vin'-yer-on), that person is a farmer.  And as a farmer, he (or she) is at the mercy of Mother Nature 24/7.  The day of the week does not matter when it comes to weed control, and the hour of the day does not matter when it comes time to spray.  Mother Nature sets the schedule and expects you to punch in on time.  If you don't, she is a brutal mistress.  But if I had to choose between being a grape farmer and any of my previous careers, of which there were several, I'd take farming hands down, every time.  I am more fit than I was in my twenties, and I sleep like a well fed baby.  Fresh air and sunshine does a body good, and so does hard, physical labor.  So when Monday rolls around, I no longer get the blues because its just another day on the farm.

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As we move into early summer in the vineyard, we turn our attention to bud break, and we anxiously watch the weather.  At this point in their development, grape buds are very tender, and a low temperature of 30 degrees for just a few hours can devastate the entire season's crop.  With the full moon at the very end of May, we are crossing our fingers that the coldest mornings are behind us.  With forecasted highs in the 70's and 80's on the near horizon, it won't be long before buds become flowers.  And flowers become grapes.  And grapes become wine.  Ain't Mother Nature grand?

Join us again next week as we head inside the winery to put the finishing touches on two white wines releasing soon.  We'll talk about how they are similar, how they are different, and in the wine lab, whether art or science ultimately wins the day.

Cheers!

 

The Vineyard at River Bend - A Brief History

 
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Over the past several years, people have often asked what made Al and I want to start a vineyard in Wisconsin.  Back in 2004, when this crazy idea took hold, northern vineyards were very uncommon, and most wineries in the Upper Midwest were producing wine made from fruit other than grapes.  Apples, cherries, and raspberries...these were the fruits traditionally grown in the area and hence the fruit from which wines were made.  But in the late 1990's and early 2000's, the University of Minnesota's fruit breeding program began releasing hybrid wine grapes...grapes with part of their heritage right here in the north country, but another part rooted in the soils of California and Western Europe.  It was this program that literally changed the landscape in the Midwest, allowing wine grapes to be planted in a climate where it was unheard of until that time.

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So back in 2004, Al and I were working in the Twin Cities, Al as a custom cabinet maker and I as a computer programmer.  The national retailer I worked for was headed for bankruptcy, and after a lot of soul searching, we decided when I got laid off, we were leaving the city for a more rural lifestyle...one we envisioned would include a vineyard.  We began scouting possible areas and quickly felt a connection to Chippewa Falls.  We purchased a 16 acre parcel of farm land and waited for my lay off.  It took two years, but when I finally lost my job in 2006, we packed up and moved into a travel trailer that we dropped in the middle of that 16 acre field...the field that would one day become River Bend Vineyard.

By this time, the University of Minnesota had released four wine grape varieties, all of which we would ultimately plant.  Frontenac was the first, released in 1996 and the most cold hardy variety to date.  Then came LaCrescent, Frontenac Gris and Marquette.  Just recently, a new variety called Itasca has become available, though we are letting other grape growers experiment with that one.  Over four years we would plant more than four thousand vines...and later remove a thousand of them.  But that is a story for another day.

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The challenges of operating a vineyard in Wisconsin have been many.  Having not been farmers prior, the learning curve was steep.  We had to figure out what fertility program was best, what pests would need to be dealt with, what you could do to mitigate late spring frost.  The work was physically demanding and seemingly endless.  But after several years, when that first harvest came and we produced wine from our very own grapes...wow, just wow.

Fast forward to today.  We have now been in the vineyard business for twelve years, the wine business for ten, and the distillery business for two.  We honestly had no idea what we were getting into back at the start...which is probably a very good thing.  But today, when we watch our guests relaxing on the River Bend lawn, enjoying a glass of wine made from grapes grown right in front of them, that is an amazing reward.

To all of you, we lift our glass...Cheers!

 

Spring in the Vineyard - Pruning and Raking and Mowing, Oh My!

 
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So the snow is FINALLY gone, and we are back out in the vineyard.  Until just recently, the spring of 2018 has felt more like winter, with over a foot of snow falling on April 15th.  What that means to a vineyard manager is the window of opportunity before the vines break dormancy is shorter than normal, but the list of tasks that must be completed is just as long.

Pruning is the most time-intensive spring vineyard task, and it takes us a strong six weeks to complete.  Our goal is to finish pruning our 3,000 vines by the end of April, and despite the late snow storm, we have managed to get it done.  We must give a huge shout-out and thank you to our good friend Tim who showed up on his days off to prune in pretty much any weather imaginable...we truly appreciate the help!

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So now there are literally thousands of pruned canes lying around on the ground that must be cleaned up.  Enter the flail mower...a beast of a machine that without hesitation will grind up wood with a two inch diameter.  The flail mower is mounted on the back of our tractor and runs off the PTO (power take off), chewing up and spitting out anything in its wake.  It may take three or four passes per row, but canes as long as six feet have now been reduced almost to powder.  The flail mower also mows the grass while it is grinding up the sticks, so two jobs get done at the same time.  The only thing the flail mower can't get to is the pruned wood that has fallen in the dirt between the plants.  Enter Al...also a beast, who rakes out every row by hand to move all remaining debris into the path of the flail mower.  The rake out is key to managing any disease that may have over-wintered on the vineyard floor.  Once the rake out is complete and the pruned canes have been pulverized, a copper spray is applied while the vines are still dormant to ensure a clean start to the growing season.

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By now the days are getting longer, the nights slightly warmer, and the vines are beginning to stir.  While our vineyard generally does not see buds opening until late-May, the first sign of breaking dormancy is what we call the sap run.  Similar to what happens in maple trees in the spring, the liquid inside the vine begins to move up, and it runs out the pruned ends of the canes.  This is a sign of a healthy vine, and it means winter is finally (hopefully) behind us.  Summer...here we come!

Join us again next week as we take a step back in time to discuss what made us want to start a vineyard in Wisconsin in the first place, and how a program at the University of Minnesota made it all possible.

Cheers!

 

In the Distillery - Bourbon Distillation

 
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So last week, we cooked up a batch of Bourbon Whiskey, and now that fermentation is complete, we can run it through the distillation process.  The purpose of distillation is to separate and concentrate the ethanol produced during fermentation. So how does this work?

Distillation is the process by which a liquid is heated, becomes a vapor, and is condensed back into a liquid.  The key to separating ethanol from other components in our freshly fermented grain mash, now called the wash, is temperature.  Ethanol boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit.  Water boils at...you know this one...212 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you are able to heat a liquid containing both water and ethanol to 173 degrees but not 212 degrees, you can boil off the ethanol and leave the water behind.  That is distillation theory in a nutshell.

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But our Bourbon wash has a lot more in it than just ethanol and water, and it is here where you begin to find the "craft" in craft distilling.  When we distill a Bourbon wash, we want to keep certain components and eliminate other components.  Ethanol is the most important component we keep.  But when making Bourbon, we also want flavor.  To retain flavor, we distill our Bourbon wash to approximately 60% ethanol.  For comparison, vodka is distilled to 95% ethanol.  Vodka is considered a neutral spirit and should have very little aroma or flavor.  Bourbon Whiskey, on the other hand, should have richness and flavor, and controlling ethanol content also retains flavor.  The column on our whiskey still has four windows...which is basically the same as saying our whiskey is four times distilled.  A vodka column may have as many as thirteen windows.  More windows, less flavor.  Fewer windows, more flavor.

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Once the distillation process is complete, our Bourbon will be laid down to age in new 15-gallon American oak barrels.  Did you know that the distillation process always produces crystal clear liquid?  The deep, rich color of finished Bourbon is all created in the barrel.  Barrel aging also adds complexity, and it is during aging that rich components like caramel, mocha and vanilla are developed.  How that occurs is a topic for another day!

Join us again next week as we head back outside to see how this snowy spring has affected progress in the vineyard.  With green grass FINALLY making an appearance again, we are hard at work prepping the vines for the upcoming growing season.

Cheers!

 

In the Distillery - Cooking Up a Batch of Bourbon

 
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Did you know that all Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Bourbon?  What??  Can you run that by me again, please?

Bourbon is a uniquely American word and product and is officially labeled as Bourbon Whiskey.  But what makes Bourbon, well...Bourbon?  And how does it differ from other types of whiskey?  There are two main criteria.  First, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, whereas whiskey in general can be made from any type of grain...rye, corn, wheat, millet.  If it's made from grain, you can call it whiskey.  But if you want to call it Bourbon, your mash must be at least 51% corn.  The second criteria is how it is aged.  All Bourbon must be aged in a NEW oak barrel, whereas a general whiskey product can be aged in a new or used barrel.  There is no time requirement for the aging of Bourbon, just that the aging occurs in a brand new barrel.

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So how do you turn corn into Bourbon?  That's a great question.  Magic!  Just kidding.  It's actually science and begins with the oh-so-scientific processes of liquefaction and saccharification.  These are fancy terms that mean taking a complex carbohydrate...in this case starch...and converting it into its monosaccharide components, basically sugar.  These steps are required when making spirits like Bourbon, but not when making wine.  Any why is this?  Because the raw materials used in wine making...grapes...have sugar readily available to use for fermentation, which is the conversion of sugar into ethanol.  To conduct a grain fermentation, we must first "crack" the starch to get at the sugar.

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So how do we crack the starch?  First we mill the raw grain, which we do right here in the distillery with a machine called a hammermill.  Once we have milled grain, which has a flour-like consistency, we add it to heated water to produce the mash.  This step is the liquefaction and is conducted at a precise temperature and pH with the addition of certain enzymes.  Once liquefaction is complete, the saccharification process begins by way of different enzymes added to the mash at a (different) precise temperature and pH.  Now we have sugar available, which we can ferment into ethanol by the addition of yeast.  Wow...that's a whole lot of science!

Once the yeast has been added, our grain mash will ferment away for five or six days, producing a low level of ethanol.  But don't spirits have a high level of ethanol?  Indeed they do.  We'll talk about that next week when our fermentation is complete, and our Bourbon mash enters the process of distillation.  Do stay tuned!

Cheers!

 

Spring in the Wine Cellar - Bottling

 
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Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for his beloved adventure novel Treasure Island, but he also penned one of my favorite quotes, “Wine is bottled poetry.”  As an author, he likely did not bottle much wine, however, and the task itself is not that poetic.  It is, however, the task that gets our wine into your hands, so off to the bottling line we go!

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Here at River Bend, we fire up the bottling line approximately fifteen times a year starting in the spring.  Reds that have aged for the past twelve to twenty-four months are ready, as are the wines from last year’s harvest that do not benefit from extended aging.

Set-up of the system falls into Al’s hands, and on bottling day he is in the winery by 6:30 a.m.  It takes four hours to completely prep the system, which involves attaching inert gas cylinders and final filters, cleaning and sanitizing the pump and bottler, and testing each stage of the line, of which there are several.

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Now we are ready to begin!  After being loaded on a conveyor, each empty wine bottle is inverted and blown out with nitrogen.  After being turned back upright, each bottle is purged a second time to displace any air (the enemy of wine).  After the nitrogen purge, the bottle advances to the filling carousel.  After filling, each bottle passes under the leveler, which ensures every one is filled to exactly the same height.  From here, the bottle is vacuumed and corked and makes its way to the finish carousel from where it is loaded into a case.  Sixty cases are loaded onto a pallet and are sent off to the warehouse to await labeling.  With three staff members working the line, we can bottle approximately 250 gallons per hour.  Once we are done, the whole system is cleaned again.  Ten hours later (half of which were spent prepping or cleaning), we have approximately 5,000 bottles of finished wine.  Whew…now it’s time to relax with one! 

So now that we have some wine in the bottle, it’s time to make spirits.  Next week we’ll be checking in with Al in the distillery as he cooks up a batch of Bourbon whiskey.  If you are a Bourbon fan, you won’t want to miss it.

Cheers!

 

Spring in the Wine Cellar - Prepping Reds for Bottling

 
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Grapes harvested in the fall go through many stages of processing before becoming finished wine.  Fermentation is complete a few weeks after harvest, but several additional processing steps are needed before a wine is either laid down in barrels to age or made ready to bottle.

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Spring is when we sample our aged red wines to determine if they are ready to be bottled.  Our reds are stored for up to twenty-four months in either French or American oak barrels, and each barrel that is a candidate for bottling is sampled individually to determine its readiness.  We recently sampled fifteen barrels in preparation to blend two wines...River Bend Blend and Summer Red.  As luck would have it, we found a stand out barrel that will become a Reserve wine later this year...exciting!  More on that in another post…

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Once we have determined which barrels are ready, the wine is transferred to stainless steel tanks for the next stage of processing.  Filtration is a crucial step in winemaking, and our wines go through five filtrations before reaching the bottling line.  Filtration to this level of polish ensures both quality and longevity, allowing our red wines to age gracefully in the bottle for several years.

Interested in learning more?  Next week we will be on the bottling line, so stay tuned.

 Cheers!

 

Spring in the Vineyard - Pruning

 
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It is often said that great wine is made in the vineyard.  For a winemaker, that means the vintage year starts long before any fruit is harvested in the fall.

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As we all know, seasons in Wisconsin vary greatly from year to year.  In the spring, there can be deep, heavy snow on the ground or temps can soar into the 70’s.  So far, the spring of 2018 has been more about snow than above average temperatures, but green grass is starting to peek through and warmer days are on the horizon.

Here at River Bend, pruning begins in early March and is finished by the end of April.  Each vine is pruned by hand, and it is now when the bud count is determined for the year.  Bud count is important because it determines the number of grape clusters that will be available to harvest in the fall.

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Each healthy bud will produce two clusters of grapes.  Depending on the age and health of the vines, we prune to between forty and eighty buds per plant.  That makes for easy math…forty buds mean eighty clusters per plant come harvest time.  Eighty buds mean one hundred sixty clusters per plant.  While that sounds like a tremendous amount, each cluster’s individual weight is relatively low.  As a rule, each plant in our vineyard produces between ten and twenty pounds of fruit per year.

Interested in learning more?  We’ll revisit the vineyard later this spring as pruning nears completion.  For next week, we’re heading back inside to see what’s happening in the wine cellar.

Cheers!

 

The Vintner Lifestyle

 
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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a winemaker or distiller?  Have you ever dreamed of living the vintner lifestyle?  Does such a lifestyle ACTUALLY exist, and if it does, is it as glamorous as it sounds?  My name is Donna Sachs, and for the last ten years my husband Al and I have owned and operated River Bend Vineyard and Winery in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.  Two years ago, we also opened River Bend Distilling, a craft distillery producing spirits from both grapes and grain.  And this year, we are letting you in behind the scenes of our operation…

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Al and I are often asked how we spend our working days.  For the past few years, we have had to shift our focus from the parts of the business that a tasting room visitor sees to all that goes on in the background.  While the administrative side of the business is probably not so mysterious, the field work and production side of a winery/distillery is often referred to as “where the magic happens”.  It’s a romantic notion this magic, but the truth of the matter is that running a vineyard and two alcohol production facilities is just good old fashioned hard work.  Remember the episode of Dirty Jobs where Mike Rowe works at a winery?  That's what I'm talkin' about.

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So sit back, grab your glass, and join us each Monday as we pull back the curtain and set off on our journey through a year in the life of a midwestern winery and distillery.  We’re glad you are here!

Cheers!