Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Five Pink Zeppelins

Here's the latest Pink Zeppelin, the fifth I've made;  I've been calling it 'Cranberry Chardonnay' to distinguish its style from my previous swill of similar color.  I actually didn't make a pink wine until my 20th harvest (not counting New Mexico wines) in 2003, and only a half-barrel;  it was a from a very cool climate Syrah from Aptos, and I ruthlessly chaptalized it to over 15% alcohol.  Peppery and powerful, it sadly lasted only six or eight months;  happily it was almost all gone by then.  The next year I overproduced a Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend that was only about 12% alcohol;  it won a pack of gold medals and best of classes in competition, but since I'd made four hundred cases of it at the height of the first Pink Wine Hype in the media and trade, it took over a year to sell out.  Fortunately (well, and by design) it was both crisper and more stable, and didn't diminish in quality.  I took a few years off, and then made another in the same style, which also did very well in competition.  Since I made quite a bit less, it didn't burden my conscience and my warehouse bill quite as much.  Last year, the inability of the Grenache at the 'Colossus of Rhones' vineyard to ripen enough to make red wine led me to make a very small lot (68 cases) of Grenache dominated pink that was really amazing, though not repeatable - we grafted the block over to Vermentino and Alicante Bouschet, neither of which will find their way into any plausibly pink wine in the future.  So I have returned to the mass-market model (ha) by making this wine, 102 cases of Syrah/Mourvedre/Grenache /Cinsault, which is both darker and rounder than all but the first wine.  It's pretty sexy, you should have some.  Actually, I'll have some right now.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Eighteen wheels of plonk

Northbound on highway 101 in Monterey County: six thousand gallons of wine, quality and destination unknown.
But it's a safe bet that it isn't very good.

Post-harvest winemaker lifestyle

Cayucos, California yesterday morning: Alexis is holding her hat in the near-gale and desperately trying to ignore the fact that the old wooden pier is swaying, Joe is enjoying a last puff before jumping off the pier to surf back in.  I've got my eye on the bar on the second floor of the reddish-brown building just above and to the right of her hat.  
Join me after the first of the year, and said bar (Schooner's Wharf) will offering both the Red Zeppelin Syrah and the Chateau d'Abalone Verdejo by the glass.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the winery . . .

All play and no work makes Swilly a dry boy?
Lab minions analyzing Verdejo before move to bottling winery.  That sample looks a mite large . . .
The phenomenal 2012 Colossus of Rhones Syrah, just pressed.  Once again, only one ton per acre fruit . . .


Three nights, six bands, two Elvis impersonators, zero DUIs . . . well, nobody I know, anyway!
Flip Flop Frank aka The Captain, the great Rudy Castellanos of Meth Leppard, and some old guy . . .
The Dancing Cage of Swilly:  I've got the best pants, but Alexis and Christine are somewhat hotter.
 Elvis Kokopelli the poet, Donald-Elvis the orthodox Presleyterian, and Roman Salvador, not in the band!
Alexis taunting Greglebert Torteldink of Pete The Butcher.  Notice my color coordination and branded hat!
Mini- and Maxi-Minionettes, outside Mordor Studios, listening to the awesome Berzerks practice.
Sunday morning breakfast at Schooner's, with Pete The Butcher.  We seem to be short of meat.  Why???

Thursday, October 11, 2012

My busiest week in fifteen years.

Well, fifteen years ago I worked a 150 hour week, but I was only forty then. And it was only harvest - this time it was harvest, a series of birthday parties, and a bottling for dessert.  Here's what I did yesterday:

89% Verdejo, 11% Poubelle Blanc*
Alc. 12.7%, pH 3.55, TA 8.1 g/L
97 cases bottled from 1.6 acres, 2nd year graftover from SB to Verdejo.
Tank fermented, aged one month in French oak puncheons, bottled!

     The first Verdejo** in San Luis Obispo county, and possibly the first from any coastal county in the state, this Spanish variety known for dry Rueda whites (thanks to Emile Peynaud, my first wine instructor) proved to be very low yielding and thick-skinned in my friend’s Paso Robles vineyard, so much so that an acre of vines made less than a hundred cases of wine.  Green apple, mineral, grapefruit and lemon with good acidity and a very long finish.  I always said that Paso whites were best before they were bottled, and this is my proof, six weeks from harvest to bottling! 
     It’s vanguard, true, but it’s $30 retail because it tastes awesome.

* A little joke.  Sauvignon Blanc (added to keep storage puncheons topped for one month).
** Not to be confused with Verdelho, Vermentino, Viognier or the V-1 buzz bomb.

Okay, here's what I did on Friday morning and afternoon:  picked the Colossus of Rhones Syrah at an unbelievable ripeness.  I know how to deal with ripeness, of course:

4.06 tons from 3.7 acres, 34.2 brix, 3.9 pH and 5.5 TA.  All fixable - but lack of flavor ripeness is not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tempranillo Tantrum

The hillside above the Colossus of Rhones Syrah blocks, on the west side of Paso Robles, is planted to Tempranillo, Tannat, and some other stuff that barely throws a crop.  I make this wine for my client;  when it's released I'll of course let you know about it.  First pic, from the top of the hill looking south.
Head 'trained' and extremely low yield, we'll be lucky to get three barrels this year.  Below, into the hopper:
Very, very ripe, I had to add a score of "Jesus units" to ensure complete fermentation.  Below, the must:
Oh, and this is the rock star I was hanging out with the morning we picked.  He's playing at SPEED LIMIT.
Swilly Idle's rock juice for inspiration, of course.  (Rudy Castellanos, lead guitar, Meth Leppard.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Colossus of Rhones" vineyard

Planted in 1998 to the 877 clone of Syrah, as well as a few other awesome things that don't make enough grapes for me to take my cut of, this vineyard is on the west side of Paso Robles, on Peachy Canyon Road at an altitude of 1600 feet, and so is several degrees cooler than the great majority of the appellation.  In addition, the poor, thin calcareous soil has restricted yields to a range of 1.1-2.3 tons/acre (roughly, bottles per vine) during the last decade.  After the owner asked me to consult in 2010, we immediately changed the canopy from 'California Sprawl' (0-25% direct sun exposure of clusters) to 'Swilly Idle Wingnut' which is roughly 50% exposure until I am willing to trust the weather forecasts enough to expose the clusters 100% to maximize flavors without danger of sunburn or acid-reducing extreme heat (roughly, 100F+).

Oh, and to keep your attention:
That's the north block of the vineyard, with special guests.  You should come visit;  appointment required :-)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Verdejo verified, Colossus semi-released, Pacific Pinot

Perhaps the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau, formerly part of BATF) doesn't read their own list of approved variety names, or maybe I missed something, but they approved the Chateau d'Abalone Verdejo label as is.  
The fermentation underway smells awesome, waves of green and yellow fruit:  Here it is just getting started.

People have been coming into the tasting room, trying the bottle-shocked Colossus, and buying cases.  So I suppose I should announce the Friends Family Fans and Stalkers price in my email - go back and read it?  (Retail is $60/btl.)

Finally, this is what a coastal vineyard site looks like.  777 clone Pinot Noir just above the 'town' of San Simeon just up the coast from me.  One HALF ton per acre, with absurdly tiny berries and clusters.  Pray for a wave of warm coastal weather, please.  

The netting is strictly for the birds, though yellowjackets are not welcome either.  

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Yes, Verdejo is a wine variety

     Not the first, but likely the second, third or fourth vineyard in California to plant the Spanish variety Verdejo yielded a ton and a half from one acre outside Paso Robles.  Nobody seems to have taken the time and trouble to petition the TTB (the Feds) to 'approve' it as a name yet, so it'll be a specially designated Chateau d'Abalone that I will bottle as soon as appropriate (ahem).  Exciting!
     I'm sure you've all seen vineyard and cellar pictures before, but some of these aren't the usual winery PR.

Coyote Moon vineyard with the Estrella River at the end of the rows.  Yes, there is some sunburn on the clusters - it was the second year of a graftover of decade-old Sauvignon Blanc so there wasn't all that much of a canopy.  Sugar was just want I wanted (22.7) but the acid numbers would have been appropriate for New Mexico.
Dumping whole clusters into press, note humanoids on right - forklift is twenty feet below.
Two hours to press 253 gallons from 1.6 tons, note juice color.  Okay, but have you seen this before?
Top right, juice full of solids from the bottom of the tank (trash); top left, juice with less solids (to be settled, improvisation required because of flat-bottomed tank); bottom, solid CO2, to displace oxygen from the tank until fermentation begins.
This should be obvious, shouldn't it?  Colorful captions invited.  The smaller the amount of wine made, the more fiddling and fussing required (well, if it's any good).  There's a law of diminishing returns dictated by chemistry and physics, which goes a long way to explain why home winemaking has imperfect results.

2011 Colossus of Rhones Syrah

Well, here it is, though it's going to be a little bottle shocked for a few weeks.  I've mentioned the yield-lowering spring frost we had last year a few times before, and the blocks of Syrah 877 at Gill Vineyard were no exception - from two tons per acre (roughly, two bottles per vine) in 2010 we dropped to one ton/acre aka bottle/vine.  This is extraordinarily low for healthy vines, even on mountain soils - and the global average yield for Syrah/Shiraz is probably ten times that, if you didn't already guess why Yellow Tail is so cheap.

Alcohol is down a little, at 16.5%, but there were rains approaching so we picked roughly a week earlier.  Unlike the 2010, which was rather dumb and closed from the end of fermentation until the following spring, this wine has been a dense raspberry bomb with full mouthfeel and a very long finish from the very beginning.  The reassurance of a couple of young hotshots I won't name pushed me to follow my instincts and bottle early.  One new French barrel, one once-used French barrel, and a keg - that's all I got.  $60 retail, but while it lasts, I can probably make a deal for friends, family, fans and stalkers; you know how to find me.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New Zeppelin wine . . . whatever it is!

   What?  No vintage, no varietal, broadest possible appellation?  (Except for California, or American, of course.)  Well, that's just the label - the wine is 2011 Paso Robles Merlot, but in the face of justified and unjustified prejudice (overcropping and planting in the wrong areas, and that idiotic film respectively) and in the interest of mystifying consumers and snobs (especially sommeliers, who are trained to deduce variety and origin of unknown wines, but Elvis forbid you set 99% of them free in a winery without adult supervision) I decided to release this wonderful swill without admitting on the label what was in it.  (It's in a  burgundy bottle, to make it even funnier.)  83% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 5% Syrah/Petite Sirah/Souzao topping wine.

    Why bother making a Merlot at all, you sharply ax?  Well, the spring freeze that hit Paso last year dramatically reduced the yields in many vineyards, and the Merlot and Cab. Franc blocks that are in this wine were barely two tons per acre.  That's half their average yield, and a much smaller fraction of what goes into the supermarket plonk that gave Merlot a bad name even before that witless film came out.  (No, I haven't seen it, I was warned away by friends concerned for my sanity.)  Two brand new 69 gallon French oak barrels worth, a little less than a ton, 56 cases made.  $50 in the tasting room, which is why you should join the no-obligation Friends, Family, Fans and Stalkers wine club by giving me your email address . . . it'll save you a pile.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

SPEED LIMIT: Not a quickie birthday party.

"Swilly Idle" turns 55, without the world's smallest violin playing for him. There will be other music, though: Meth Leppard, Pete the Butcher, Barbaric Thugs, Donald-Elvis, Berzerks, and more, and additional events and rendezvous throughout the weekend in Cayucos and Baja Cayucos.  Friday, October 5 and Saturday, October 6 - music will be at the Old Cayucos Tavern both nights, from 8sh to closing.  We will also be swilling and snacking at Hoppe's Garden Bistro, the Full Moon Wine Bar, and Schooner's Wharf, and Swilly will be staffing the Zeppelin Wine Hangar in Morro Bay during afternoon hours.  Advil and earplugs are not mandatory - just pace yourself!
You can find your own place to stay, right?  You may want to get busy booking a place if you're coming from over the hills and far away.

Old Cayucos Tavern, 130 N. Ocean Ave, Cayucos CA 93430
Hoppe's Garden Bistro, 78 N. Ocean Ave, Cayucos
Full Moon Wine Bar, 10 N. Ocean Ave, Cayucos  
Schooner's Wharf, 171 N. Ocean Ave, Cayucos  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Judging wine competitions

I've judged scores of major wine competitions over a couple of decades, and it's been an interesting experience.  In the first couple of years, I was quite gratified to learn that my opinions and tastes seemed to be in line with those judges I thought the most knowledgeable, generally but not exclusively other winemakers.  A consensus judging, where the judges compare scores and notes with each other before awarding medals as a panel, is certainly more interesting on a personal level, though it's painful when a judge is clearly out of his depth, or hammered from swallowing.  (The latter is less common.)  I recently judged on a panel with three other winemakers at a competition where the individual scores are taken into the back room and averaged, rather than allowing the judges to reach their own consensus.  The awards given to the individual wines judged by the panel can be requested by writing the class and number of the wine and giving the administrators the information on a special sheet of paper.  I was just mailed the results: of the three Souzaos and two Tannats I scored as gold medals, only one wine won a gold; there were three bronzes and one goose egg.  Peculiar, but as we were supposed to sit there like four dummies in a row, sipping spitting and scribbling, I'll never know what my amiable peers were thinking.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vine density, cluster height, and quality

In the course of being dragged around Paso Robles by some out-of-town wine tourists, I visited a rather new, very well financed and designed winery that had recently planted a hillside vineyard with relatively high density and low stakes and wires.  I'd previously thought that high density and low trellising were an interesting way to increase acreage yield and ripeness in very expensive, cool climate areas: Burgundy, Willamette PN, and extreme coastal California (region zero, so to speak).  But even west Paso property ain't that expensive, and these weren't Burgundian varietals - it seems to me a great way to spend a pile of money, and cook grapes.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Zeppelin Winery offerings

Ladies, gentlemen and fruit flies; friends, family, fans, and stalkers, here is a list of current and near-future Zeppelin Winery swill . . . no, this does not include Red Zeppelin Winery wines, for which you should email me at StillmanB@aol.com, as the shopping cart for those wines is Still Under Construction (and not by me).

2011 Zeppelin Dry Rose, Paso Robles (aka Pink Zeppelin) 70% Grenache Noir, 20% Syrah, 10% Other Rhone Varietals. 57% Gill Vineyard, under 1 ton/acre, 43% Hall Ranch.
$180/12 plus shipping

2011 Chateau d'Abalone Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles. Dry, not sweetened like a certain well-known Santa Barbara wine. 20% Viognier. 100% Hall Ranch, avg 2 tons/acre.
$180/12 plus shipping

2010 Zeppelin Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petite Sirah. My first Cabernet in three years, bigger but less tannic than its predecessor. To be released soon, though not April 1 as you would suspect me of some amateur prank. Kind of expensive, though not horridly so.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Under the Influence

This is how Meth Leppard songs are played: under the influence of Black Zeppelin.

Love the blur.

Photo by Nathan Appel, of lead guitarist and songwriter Rudy Castellanos.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Spokesmodels

The emergence, and partial release, of the latest Black Zeppelin wines, was more than enough unreason to arrange a photo shoot and recording just around the corner from the Zeppelin Wine Hangar, at Mordor Studios - a location about to be undisclosed. Behold our spokesmodels, the fine gentlemen of the greatest rock and roll band you will ever hang out in the parking lot with . . .

Oh wait, wrong picture. I meant these guys!

Friday, March 2, 2012


Photographic evidence of last week's Southwestern trek: Luke attempting to get wi-fi near Moab. (Just kidding, he did a daily self-portrait from his computer with different backgrounds).

In Telluride, with Supergirl.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

An objective evaluation of the new Pink Zeppelin.

Minions and bouncer agree, it's the best pink swill ever!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Is this a Pink Zeppelin? Sort of.

Ladies, gentlemen and fruit flies; friends, family, fans and stalkers, this is quite possibly the best pink wine I've made since the last one. How's that for hype?

One pallet of wine (56 cases) of Grenache, with minor amounts of Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault; most of the Grenache is from the Colossus of Rhones vineyard, which yielded less than one ton per acre. Fresh strawberries and cherries, bone dry, crisp acidity, lively palate that almost fizzes. I'd call this the perfect summer wine, but of course I'll be out of it - the wine, that is - long before it gets hot. So you should probably order it now, before it's bottled.

Oh wait, I haven't priced it yet!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wine preservation systems.

What do I think of wine dispensing equipment that claims to preserve a partial bottle of wine for weeks? Slightly better than the risible pump vacuum stopper system, which removes one or two psi of pressure, leaving the other 85%+ of air inside the bottle. Pouring half a bottle of wine into a 375ml bottle immediately is plausible (though the bottle should be sparged with N2 first or better yet done inside a flushed cabinet) but this isn't what happens in the machines I see employed at wine bars.
One might as well open a bottle, pour it into ice cube trays, freeze the cubes, then microwave them individually when ordered. I'm sure some ass could invent the machine, and sell it to the credulous - of course, the biodynamic microwave costs extra.

Band practice

Band practice