It's early March, and Winemaker Ryan Schmaltz and Assistant Winemaker Devin Zajac have rows of barrels placed throughout the wine caves. They are meticulously tasting barrel-by barrel to check on the wines' progress, and ensure the wines are free of flaws, including Brettanomyces. Ryan uses a very long stainless steel thief (pictured above) to sample from the bottom of the barrel, where more viable yeast cells and microbes are present.
As we make our way from one barrel to the next (stopping periodically to walk to the entrance of the caves, spit, and take notes), I ask Ryan more about the evolution of the wines and the final process of selecting barrels for the Barrel 32 zinfandel. “After first racking is when we begin to judge the wine. It’s been in barrel, gone through secondary fermentation, and is just beginning to settle. Five or six months in, second time judging the wine. We take notes as we go through them ... is there a barrel we need to keep our eye on? Is there one we want to grab a sample of to share with the tasting team? Usually about 14-16 months in, that’s when we start to truly taste for the barrel select wines. We taste 300-400 barrels depending on the vintage. We’ll whittle things down, identify how many barrels are candidates … taste them again a second then a third time, marking the candidate barrels with a big chalk “x”. Eventually, we end up with roughly 30 barrels for blending trials.”
We stop here to taste a barrel from Lily Hill containing Block 1 syrah and block 3 zinfandel. Ryan is very excited: This is the first year he has co-fermented and aged these two varietals in the same barrel. The results are a powerhouse of a wine, where the tannic Block 1 syrah matches perfectly with the Damy American oak barrels. Ryan notes that this one is a barrel 32 contender.
When asked how he comes up with the final wine, Ryan says, "blending trials is just about matching the different personalities of the barrels together to find the perfect, harmonious blend. We're not trying to make the exact same wine year after year, or even the same amount. We're trying to showcase the best barrels of the vintage. And that's what makes Barrel 32 so exciting."