Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Red Rooster Harvest Party

Looks like this post is going to be more of a photo essay for a "day in the life of a wine lover." Despite spending the entire day immersed in wine-based activities, I'm not adding a single bottle to The List. There was pretty much endless Red Rooster wine to be had and enjoyed, but we didn't really have an entire bottle that we can say we polished off ourselves. Plenty o' wine - but it was more tastes of this and a glass of that. I could easily "bend the rules" and find a way to add a bottle, but most of the wines we were enjoying will make it to The List another time.

The occasion at hand was the Fall Harvest party at Red Rooster winery for the Adopt-a-Row gang. And for once, Boo was able to join in. We've been adoptive parents of a row of Malbec grapes at the vineyard for a good five or six years now but we can't always make it to the semi-annual parties - and rarely together.

The Fall party is an invitation to actually get our hands dirty and participate in a harvest - even if we are coddled and given a much easier ride than a real vineyard worker would see. The party actually started the night before when the winery hosted a reception with some marvelous nibblies and a full range of their wines for sample. Seeing as it was the start of Halloween weekend, there was a bit of a costume contest to boot to get everyone in the spirit of the event. Boo and I wore our robes from the UAE and pretended that we were rich oilmen visiting to look into investing in the winery. More than a couple people believed the ruse - to the point that they asked why we'd want to invest when they thought that Arabs didn't drink.

We ended up being chosen as having the best costumes; however, wouldn't you know it that Boo and I had been running behind and we forgot to bring the camera to the reception. Luckily, Tyrant and Taylor are adoptive parents as well and had joined us for the weekend. Tyrant had his camera handy and at least he got a shot of us.

My favourite part of the event is heading into the vineyards to pick the grapes. The timing of the weekend isn't always the easiest of tasks. The logistics of planning the event need time and advance notice; the grapes rarely cooperate by ripening on a set schedule however. 2011 wasn't the greatest of growing seasons either. Spring was late arriving and the vines and fruit never did get a real chance to catch up. The fruit we were to pick was still good but it was mostly because the vineyard workers were rather ruthless when it came to green harvesting - or culling out the grapes that weren't progressing enough. By reducing the overall amount of fruit on the vines, it allows the vines to concentrate its efforts on ripening the grapes that are still hanging.

There was a banner turnout for the harvest party this year and, as a result, there weren't enough grapes left in the vineyard immediately next to the winery. A group of us, therefore, made our way up to the other end of the Naramata Bench to pick the Merlot vines tended to by one of Red Rooster's regular growers. As mentioned, I love actually picking the grapes - there never seem to be enough for our quick little escapade - but, this year, the effort was even more fulfilling. Our hosts were a lovely couple who were still tending the vineyard even though they were in their early 80's. Being a small family operation, they don't have access to immediate and affordable labour; so they still pick the grapes themselves. We were told that we accomplished - in less than an hour and a half - what might normally take them a couple of full days' work. The genuineness of the thanks still warms me all over when I think back. Little did they know that they were making my day - not the other way around.

Following a big group lunch, we were also given the chance to see first hand what some of the initial steps in making the wine entail.

We'd asked about throwing the grapes into a vat, so that we could jump in feet first stomp away but the powers that be weren't quite ready to let us get that hands on in the process.

Our planned activities started with watching the grapes get loaded into and run through the crusher-destemmer. Anyone wanting the opportunity to participate was given the chance to transfer the grapes to hopper where they are crushed before the juice is transferred to the tank for fermentation.

In addition to the crush, various workers were explaining the different stages that the wine will initially go through before it is transferred to barrel for ageing or is actually bottled. It was intriguing to try some of the juice that had been fermenting for about a week. The sweetness and the fruit stood out so much. It was drastically different from the finished product - and not just because of the pulp and residue that is a good portion of the macerating juice. Tasting the predominant sugars - that are eventually going to be turned into alcohol - was a taste treat.

I'd have quite liked to try punching down the cap on the wine that was fermenting in the open top tanks. The cap is the solid mass of grape skins, stems and seeds that is still in the juice after crushing and it floats to the top of the tank during the fermentation process. Winemakers want to keep the juice in contact with this mass as much as possible as that continued contact helps increase richer colour, flavours and astringency (tannins). Punching down the cap also helps to mix the yeasts into the juice must, introduces oxygen to help promote the fermentation and helps prevent the cap from massing together such that conditions are more favourable for bacteria or moulds to form. Much of the fermentation procedure can all be mechanized nowadays - with rotating and pulsating tanks - but the romance of actual interaction with the wine can be lost a bit with all the mechanization. Easy for me to say though - never having punched down a single cap in my life. My guess is that it likely gets rather tiresome after the punching down the umpteenth tank for the second or third time that day. However, this was the first time I've actually had a chance to watch a punch down and it was all quite inspiring.

I think Karen and Blair - that's winemaker, Karen Gillis and manager, Blair Dufty, were prepared to let us get involved in the actual punch down process. The staff, however, weren't quite so enthusiastic. Perhaps, rightly so. I'd have hated becoming that person that fell off the skinny plank and plopped righ into the wine. I'm not so convinced that anything I left behind would add to the cachet of the wine. I can only imagine the tasting notes that might follow.

I did find it quite fascinating to see what happens to the grapes once picked though. After grabbing some bottles for the road, the boys and I made a couple quick stops to two of our other favourites on the Bench - La Frenz and Poplar Grove. But, then, it was time for a quick nap before the winemaker's dinner that followed at Bogner's.

The dinner could be an entire post on its own but, since the wines were all by the glass and I don't have a bottle to add to The List, I'll simply say that we had a thoroughly enjoyable meal - particularly the Moroccan-spiced tomato and saffron soup and the lamb shank entrée.

Naturally, I can't find the evening's menu but the wine's included two special treats. Karen and crew are currently ageing a limited amount of Red Rooster's first sparkling wine and they popped a few corks for us all to try upon our arrival. I'll definitely look forward to grabbing a bottle, when it's finished and available, so that I can add it to The List. The other special treat was that Blair managed to rustle up a late harvest from many vintages back. The winery hasn't produced a dessert wine for years, but he was contacted by a local wine shop that found a box of an old vintage in storage. He snapped them up and we were the beneficiaries.

It was a full and great day, but, rather than carrying on into the evening with even more personal tasting, Boo and I hustled back to the hotel for a reasonable bedtime. The unfortunate part of the weekend was that we had to be back in Vancouver to curl at noon. That meant hitting the road by about 6 a.m. the next morning. What kind of a holiday break is that?!

Thanks to the folks at Red Rooster for a special time. I hope we'll be able to visit our adopted row again next Spring.

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