A few months ago I did a Farming in Focus on hops, so I felt it was only fair to also pay homage to an equally worthy beverage, especially since I live in a region of the country very well known for its production of Pinot Noir. While I really enjoy the craft brew culture Portland provides, I do drink my fair share of wine and find wine production intriguing. In our early married years my husband and I dabbled in home beer brewing, but wine always seemed a little too scary to take on, so I was really interested to visit with Dave Coelho at Coelho Winery in Amity when they were processing Pinot Noir grapes last month.
Dave Coelho is a first generation grape grower who moved to the Willamette Valley 25 years ago from California with his wife and four kids. While he’s the first in his family to start a winery, Coelho’s family has history in agriculture. His father was a dairy farmer, and before he moved to Oregon, Coelho farmed tomatoes, sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and dried beans in the San Joaquin Valley, about 60 miles east of San Francisco. When I asked him what he liked better, he told me he likes making wine better because he gets to interact with the end user. He currently farms 40 acres of grapes with his wife and sons David and Samuel. They primarily grow Pinot Noir but they also grow some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. His son experiments with Riesling and botrytized wines, a method of allowing a fungus to infect the grapes to a point before making them into a desert wine.
Aside from growing their own grapes and creating estate wines (which I learned means wine made from grapes grown by the winemaker), Coelho also incorporates his Portuguese heritage by making a number of Portuguese-style wines with grapes he drives to California in a refrigerated truck to buy. The winery also provides warehouse storage and custom grape crushing for other winemakers. The day I visited they were making a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which is a blend of Pinot Noir grapes from several vineyards, including Pinot Noir grapes from Scharf Farms nearby. I tagged along with Jason Scharf back to his vineyard after he delivered grapes to Coelho to take the above picture because Coelho had already harvested all the grapes off the vine. Pinot Noir grapes can be very fickle, they like a cool climate with well-drained soil making the Willamette Valley a superb region for growing them. They’re also prone to rot because the grapes are so tightly clustered and their preferred cool, wet growing conditions are ideal for bacterial growth. Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is considered some of the best in the Americas.
Scharf told me that grapes can be harvested by hand, or by machine, but Pinot Noir is difficult to harvest. That might be because of their tightly clustered pine cone shape – the name Pinot Noir actually comes from the french words for “pine” and “black.” A machine can do the harvesting work of 40 men, but the grapes have to be processed right away, unlike when they’re hand picked, which is what Coelho prefers and uses for his wines. Either way, the first step in the process is to crush the grapes through this machine that separates the grapes from the stems.
See that ladder there? Yeah, I climbed that ladder to take the previous photograph. Then I actually got up on a cherry picker to take this picture, which is saying a lot because I’m kind of squeamish about heights. But, it was worth it because you can see a really good overview of the crushing process, from the dumping of the grapes all the way through to the leftover stems. The crusher removes the stems but it also releases juices and leaves the juice in contact with the skins where it travels out through that white tube at the bottom.
We have Concord grapes growing in our backyard, so I know just how difficult it is to separate the grapes from the stems by hand. You can’t really make good wine from Concord grapes, but if I could, I’d seriously consider taking my grapes to Coelho to use that efficient crusher! Just look at all those stems! Coelho told me they compost the stems and skins (called pumice) and spread it back on the fields as fertilizer.
The main reason I got up on the cherry picker was to look in this vat. After the grapes are crushed they’re funneled into this vat where they add wine making yeast. The vat can hold 20 tons of juice, which translates to 3,000 gallons of wine!
Next the juice is chilled or “cold soaked” for several days if time allows to get the color out of the skins and add complexity and flavor to the wine. This is particularly important for Pinot Noir because the grapes are thin skinned and don’t provide a lot of color to the wine. A cold soak does increase the risk of spoilage and spontaneous fermentation, so to avoid that, Coelho adds sulfur to prevent unwanted microbial activity. Cold soaking also provides an opportunity to get a good base reading on the sugar content of the juice. After that the juice is heated to ferment.
During the fermentation process the skins float to the top and eventually the wine is drained off and the skins are gently pressed over two and a half hours to release all remaining juice which is added back to the wine.
After the yeast has converted all the sugar to alcohol, the wine is aged in barrels for 11 months before it is bottled. Then it lives in a bottle for six to eight months before being sold. In his first year, Coelho produced about 4-500 cases of wine. Now in his 11th vintage (which I learned means he’s been making wine for 11 years) he produces about 20,000 cases of wine.
Of course I couldn’t leave without sampling! Obviously. 🙂 I asked Coelho why he likes Pinot Noir and he said it’s because it’s versatile and pairs well with so many meals. He views wine as a food, and drinks it to compliment other flavors in the meal. I sheepishly admitted to him that I don’t actually like Pinot Noir (shhh, don’t tell anyone) because I think it tastes kind of thin. I like the fuller-bodied reds and red blends. So I am happy to report that I found a wine that I really enjoyed in his tasting room – the traditional Portuguese red wine blend. I ran out of time at the end of my visit because I had to dash back to get my kids off the bus, but next time my husband and I are in Amity I’m planning to stop by and get a bottle. I learned a lot about wine production, and I hope you did, too. Leave a comment if you learned something new!