Winemaking: The Continuation of Terroir by Other Means.®

Welcome to the Amalie Robert Estate Farming Blog, aka FLOG. By subscribing, you will receive regular FLOGGINGS throughout the growing season. The FLOGGING will begin with the Spring Cellar Report in April. FLOGGINGS will continue each month and detail how the vintage is shaping up. You may also be FLOGGED directly after the big Cluster Pluck with the yearly Harvest After Action Report. Subscribe now and let the FLOGGINGS begin!


"This is one of the Willamette Valley’s most distinguished wineries, but not one that is widely known."

- Rusty Gaffney, PinotFile - September 2016


"Dena Drews and Ernie Pink have been quietly producing some of Oregon's most elegant and perfumed Pinots since the 2004 vintage. Their 30-acre vineyard outside the town of Dallas, abutting the famed Freedom Hill vineyard where Drews and Pink live, is painstakingly farmed and yields are kept low so production of these wines is limited. Winemaking includes abundant use of whole clusters, which is no doubt responsible for the wines' exotic bouquets and sneaky structure…"

- Josh Raynolds, Vinous - October 2015


"...Dallas growers Dena Drews and Ernie Pink... showed me this July three of their reserve bottlings and thereby altered my perception of their endeavors. Since these are produced in only one- or two-barrel quantities, they offer an extreme instance of a phenomenon encountered at numerous Willamette addresses, whose really exciting releases are extremely limited. But they also testify, importantly, to what is possible; and what’s possible from this site in these hands revealed itself to be extraordinary!... And what a Syrah!"

- David Schildknecht, The Wine Advocate - October 2013

Wine & Spirits

"Finding that their whole-cluster tannins take some time to integrate, Pink and Drews hold their wines in barrel for up to 18 months - so Amalie Robert is just releasing its 2008s. And what a stellar group of wines: Bright and tart, they possess both transparency and substance, emphasizing notes of rosehips and sandalwood as much as red berries. The pinot noirs alone would likely have earned Amalie Robert a top 100 nod this year. But the winery also produces cool-climate syrah that rivals the best examples from the Sonoma Coast. And the 2009 Heirloom Cameo, their first attempt at a barrel-fermented chardonnay, turned out to be one of our favorite Oregon chardonnays of the year. Ten vintages in, Amalie Robert has hit its stride."

- Luke Sykora, Wine & Spirits Magazine – September 2011


© 2005 – 2021 Amalie Robert Estate, LLC

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Amalie Robert Estate Vintage Update: 2015 Harvest After Action Report (AAR)

Hello and Welcome,

This is the Amalie Robert Estate 2015 Harvest After Action Report (AAR.)

If you are reading this communiqué, you have most likely reached the age where you accept that the facts, however interesting they may be, are irrelevant. So to spare you from having to read all of the remaining drivel, you can relax and watch an Amalie Robert Estate Harvest here.

We will fondly refer to this growing season as “Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather” and rightly so. And not just because Frank would have been 100 this year, no that‘s not it. It’s because it was too damn hot! Wait, is that the girl from Ipanema!?

When she walks she's like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle

All through the vintages of 2007-2011 we were subjugated to the global warming dogma. And yet, collectively and exhaustively, those were the coldest farming vintages in recent memory. We understand we are aging gracefully, and mental recall is not what it once was, but that’s why we write it down, and can back it up.

That, and we can still read a chart. Now consider the vintages from 2012 to 2015. “Hotter than the hubs of Hell!” Ernie’s grandmother, “Bert” used to say. You want some global warming? Well, we’ve got your global warming right farming here! Nope. We have moved on to “climate change.” And when you are farming wine it is pointless to dispute the fact that the climate changes during the growing season.

The vines notice climate change and act accordingly to ripen their seeds and reproduce before they run out of growing season. The humans notice the ripening grapes that they can ferment into wine and use in mating rituals. That is why we have a harvest, to make wine and (potentially) mate – think about that. No climate change means no harvest and no harvest means no wine. And everyone knows what that means… So, logically, we could contend that climate change is good for the human race.

However the fundamental, and often passed by, question remains: Is the current period of climate change making good or bad wine? Ask many of the local resident humans and they will tell you we had a great summer! The tomatoes were early and tasted wonderful, shorts and tank tops started to appear in June. And the winegrowing community experienced one of the earliest harvests in recorded history – mid-August for some vineyards. If you asked Frank, he might say:

“It was just, one of those years… just one of those crazy years.
If we'd thought a bit about the end of it,
we'd have been aware that it was just too hot… to cool down.”

Now that we have covered the basic construct of why we grow wine (Note that poppy cultivation is still illegal and there are no poppy fields to run through), let’s delve into how we responded to this year’s climate change. The first thing to acknowledge is how little we know about what is going on inside the vine, and the corollary of how little it matters.

Case in point: Driving a car in Ballard, Washington is something you should witness (from the curb) but never do. If you wait a few minutes, you will soon see a so-called “vehicle” proceeding in a less than prudent manner with a turn signal on. That turn signal has been on since 1972 and will remain on indefinitely. You don’t need to know why; you just need to know what you are going to do. How you will respond to that signal?

As a wine consumer, you assume the position of the curbside observer. You see the brand names, the vintage year and Pinot Noir. Great – Waft The Fruit. You have very little idea of how these wines were grown or by whom. And the chance that you are going to be picking up stakes and growing your own 35 acres of wine in your next career is almost zero, but not zero. Trust us, we are here and have done that math.

So what you really want to know is does that car ever turn? Yes, but just like relying on the weather forecaster, you are just as surprised as they are.

Back in the day when there were books that were actually printed on paper made from trees, and bread cost $1 for a baguette, there were motivational business books. One lesson Ernie squirreled away was to start with the end in mind. This may in fact be the pre-thought behind the term “asshat” but you never know.

If you have one of those newfangled phones with speech recognition say “asset” very slowly and see what it comes back with. Today and toady are also a bit tricky for the speech recognition software. Either that or they are programmed to get it wrong from time to time as in: “I hope you sell a lot of wine toady.”

Right. Back on point. So we know that when harvest visits upon us, we will be bringing in about 65 tons of hand harvested, pre-fermented nectar suitable for just about any mating ritual you can devise. Did we ever say great Pinot Noir is like sex in a glass? Don’t forget the candles.

Farmer graffiti – tagging the harvest wall

Logistically, we need a few things to make that happen, like tractors and harvest bins and buckets, clippers and harvesters with hands to harvest. We do have other harvesters and they are adorned with things like wings and hooves and antlers. Not that conducive to winemaking, but they certainly do their part – blighters…

Qualitatively, we need wonderfully expressive aroma and flavor packets filled with a perfect blend of acid, sugar, pulp, water and seeds attached to a woody structure known as a stem. The vine does nearly all of the work here and we would be remiss if we said otherwise. But left out to fend for themselves they would be sprawled out all over the ground with unripe and rotted fruit. So, it appears, the winegrower plays more of an instrumental role and is not just a tool.

Hey Nelson, riddle me this: Who’s your Winegrower?

Critical success factors are things winegrowers purposefully do, or do not do, to maximize wine quality potential. The decision points surrounding these factors (excluding harvest) are, in reverse order, crop thinning, leaf plucking, hedging, shoot positioning and catch wires. We will cover these topics just now in excruciating detail. Marketing can also help to maximize/monetize wine quality potential, but usually only after the fact.

Things like vineyard layout and vine spacing along with the correct clone and rootstock selections are fairly long term and strategic decisions that cannot be overemphasized. Wine growing is not like commodities farming where you rotate from soybeans to corn to winter wheat, sometimes all in the same year. No, you want those vines to put down deep roots, because you knew when you bought that hillside piece of dirt that you were going to rely on Mother Nature for the irrigation program. How did that out work out for us this year Frank?

“I got plenty of nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me.”

Crop thinning is a fancy way to say we are going to go out and cut some fruit off of those vines. Crop thinning can occur for a variety of reasons to maximize wine quality potential. It can also occur if there is a misunderstanding in the vineyard and that typically does not improve wine quality, but it certainly can impact wine quantity. That’s farmin’, where accuracy and precision are acknowledged concepts, but are given a very wide implementation berth.

As Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather was drawing to its foregone conclusion we decided to delay our crop thinning to maximize wine quality potential. All through July and August the heat was intense and we were building sugars very quickly. By removing crop during those months, the vine would have taken all of the energy from the leaves and concentrated it into fewer berries resulting in unbalanced and high alcohol potential wine.

However, when the first bout of showers blew through in late August, Ernie said it was now or never and it was to be now. We took the wings first. These are berries that are formed on the late to bloom, and ripen, tendril adjacent to the main cluster. We left them on to help absorb the excess sugars the vines were producing in hopes of having less sugar in the main cluster, and more uniform ripeness in our wines. The wings were sacrificed to buy time for the main clusters to develop aroma and flavor and moderate sugar concentration. Sometimes farmin’ just ain’t pretty.

Pinot Noir cluster with wing

The Pinot Meunier has always presented an open-ended proposition that Ernie had never accepted, until this year. It is no secret that we planted Pinot Meunier to satisfy Dena’s addiction to great Champagne. So when it was time to take the underripe wings, Ernie said “Harvest ‘em in buckets and I will ferment them.” And so we did. That and a block of Pommard had its wings clipped as well.

There’s wings in them thar bins!

It’s too soon to say for sure, but Ernie has crafted a nice little “blanc de noir” rosé base wine that could be bottled as a still wine, or perhaps not. The blend is unique in that it is about 50/50 Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Unique for a still wine, but not necessarily for Champagne. We will know more, but have less of this wine, when we pen the Spring Cellar Report. The underlying principle here is called “destructive sampling.” It’s a quality control thing.

We also thinned off clusters of fruit that were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Clusters that grow together and do not allow for air circulation are the primary targets. If you were a cluster of grapes hanging out on the vine, then that old Microsoft adage ‘It’s better to be lucky than good” came into play. Imagine that, hi-tech meets winegrowing!

Now another reason for crop thinning has a quantitative impact on wine quality potential and that centers around the concept of fermentation capacity. If you can’t ferment them, then there is no wine quality to worry about. Around July, Ernie had a feeling that we were going to see this heat continue and that might mean a larger harvest. So he banked a few more fermenters just in case.

After the first week of harvest it became exceeding obvious that we would need those new fermenters “and then some.” Note: This is a technical farming term that means you are “on the short end of the stick” which is also a technical farming term that means “it’s your turn in the barrel” which is derived (allegedly) from the logging and mining camps of old.

Of course the chance of finding new fermenters to buy during harvest approaches zero, but it is not zero. Ernie mapped out the fermentation floor and said “I can take 10 more, but that’s it. We will be wall to wall.” So the next morning he made the call and low and behold there were 14 available. Miracles are not something we pray for, we depend on them.

He said “I’ll take 10.” The response was “Are you sure you don’t want the rest? They will be gone within the hour.” “No. I only have enough floor space for 10 more and you can’t punch them down if you stack ‘em.” But he did get the quantity discount and that covered the delivery fee. Farmer first, winemaker second.

That brought us up to 65 fermenters and we filled them all, plus a couple odd balls we dusted off from the back room. This would eventually lead to a serious amount of punchdown, but you cannot punchdown what you do not ferment. And the first rule of punchdown is that nobody talks about punchdown.

Before we thin the crop, we pluck a few leaves out of the fruit zone. Arguably, this is the most important factor affecting the way a wine feels on your palate. The texture, to a great degree, is determined by the amount of sun the wee little wine berries are exposed to and when.

Soon after flowering, depending on the weather, the vines may set fruit. That means that a portion of the flowers on any given vine were successfully pollinated and will produce a wine berry. Since wine berries are self pollinating, it is not that great of an intellectual leap to deduce it is Mother Nature’s desire that we make wine each and every year. And not just for medicinal purposes as was the case under the Volstead Act.

This year saw that a disproportionately large percentage of flowers successfully pollinated – which is better than the opposite outcome. This may be considered the human equivalent of getting to “first base.” But just because the flowers have been pollinated it does not mean they will “go all the way” to harvest.

So we wait a couple of weeks or so after the flowers have been pollinated and we see the wee little green wine berries beginning to form. This is the time to pluck off a few leaves. The reasons for plucking around the wine berries are many and can include:

  • Better airflow and sun exposure to dry off the morning dew or rainfall that can enable rot to compromise the fruit.

  • Improved sun exposure on the fruit to develop aroma, flavor and tannin in the skins as a natural response to said sun exposure.

  • To make it easier to thin the crop and subsequently get them ready for their big day – The Great Cluster Pluck!

As winegrowers, we are most concerned with the second point. First up is timing – Frank had impeccable timing. We pluck off the leaves after the wine berries have formed all the cells they are going to form. They need the energy from the nearby leaves to help the cells form, so we wait about 2 weeks for that to happen.

Next we have to decide how many leaves we are going to remove. Conversely from the vines point of view, we are determining how much sun exposure we are going to allow. The primary factor in determining the leaf pluck program is wine style and mid-palate texture. Elegant, perfumed ethereal Pinot Noir wines keep their leaves on, leaving a bit to the imagination. Aromas and flavors develop a bit more slowly and avoid the harsh consequences of overexposure.

Pinot Noir clusters after having their wings thinned off

It’s like humans getting a beautiful tan. If done properly, it happens a little bit each day until you achieve the perfect patina. Then do your hair and take the picture to send to all your friends! Wines that are more forward and brash are prone to being overexposed in their fruit zone like that hussy Cabernet. While we don’t drink it anymore, you usually have a pretty good idea what you are getting yourself into. Frank had a thing for a Gardner once and he knew a bit about this:

And each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin…
‘cause I’ve got you, under my skin

An integral part of this discussion is whole cluster fermentation. This means we leave some of the wine berries on the stem when we ferment. The result is that we extract some tannin from the stems and that tannin along with the tannin from the skins forms the mid-palate texture of our wines. Stem tannins also provide a long crescendo culminating in a very satisfying and enduring finish.

If you want to experience this first hand at home try this. Go to the store and pluck a cluster of red grapes. When you get home, take some grapes off the stem as gently as possible. Hint: Don’t buy the biggest cluster you can find. Size doesn’t really matter.

Now remove the skin from the pulp and seeds of about 10 grapes. Put the skins in your mouth and chew them while you observe the person in the mirror. That look on your face is skin tannin and it is a direct response to how much sun the grapes were, or were not, exposed to before they were plucked by someone before you plucked them. Note: You can rest assured that at Amalie Robert Estate nobody is plucking our grapes before we do. A little sampling maybe, but no plucking.

Now try something you most likely have not done before. Start by removing the remaining grapes from the stem. Stand in front of someone with a camera to record this because you will want to watch this. Chew the stem vigorously and feel the astringent drying that is now encasing your palate. You have just experienced stem tannin in your own unique idiom. Post it on-line if you like.

What this trial hopefully demonstrated is that if you are going to use some stem tannin in your wine, be sure to dial back the skin tannin intensity. And you do that by shading the skins from excessive sun exposure. Of course the more stems you add, the more tannin you will get, so there is a whole cluster balance to be found there as well.

All of this tannin business comes together and begins to work itself out about 5 to 7 years after the vintage. Patient cellar aging will integrate skin tannins and transform stem tannins into a cascading and expansive spice finish that will curl your toes and leave you with a little Alpenglow. You can experience this phenomenon now with a great bottle of 2007 vintage “Amalie’s Cuvée.” Or maybe just settle in with a book, a really good book.

Now as we all know, and it really goes without saying, the ratio of leaf pull to stem inclusion is an ever moving target with climate change.

Off with their heads! Aka Hedging is up next, or actually just before leaf plucking. Hedging is the act of removing green, leafy material from the canopy. As vines grow, they are always trying to escape the bondage known as the trellis. Sure some shoots like the restraint and control, but others are growing out into the “no fly zone” and that is where the hedger enforces discipline.

Other than keeping the vines neatly trimmed, the hedging pass has the effect of redirecting and focusing the vine’s energy from growing more foliage to ripening seeds to reproduce. Is that second base coming into view?

As the story goes, when monks were growing vines to make wine there was a wayward goat that kept nibbling the succulent shoot tips in a corner of the yard where the vines grew. It turns out that the vines in that part of the yard ripened before the other vines in the rest of the yard. Hence and Soforth were sent out into the vine yard to pluck the clusters and it was determined that the earlier ripening vines made better wine. This inductive reasoning was quite similar to how the Bordelais came up with their classification system in 1855 – and it is still used today. That’s the fact, Jacques!

June and July are the months where we typically do the most hedging. But with all the heat accumulation and lack of rain to date we were thinking about ways to slow things down. So instead of making 4 hedging passes to accelerate ripening, we choose to do just 2. This had the effect of growing more of a bushy canopy, and we don’t have a goat, so the result was slower ripening leading to longer hang time.

Back in July we couldn’t see all the way to harvest, but we knew we were going to get some rain. It was going to happen, but we didn’t know when, how much or how long it was going last. But we figured if we could slow the vines down enough to hold out for some rain, we would see the vines rehydrate and ”go all the way” to finish the job of developing expressive aromas and flavors while diluting the high sugar concentration. Yeah, that would be a humdinger.

But we had to hold out. Some vine yards couldn’t wait that long. Some of those deep Jory soils demonstrated what we knew – they can’t hold their water. Jory soils are relatively new volcanic soils that are hued red due to the high iron content. They are deep, homogenous soils that have large pores to hold a lot of water per inch of soil profile. In some cases, those large pores turned out to be their Achilles heel as they also allowed the vines to take up water unabated and deplete the soils. A fast horse doesn’t run long, allegedly.

Our sedimentary soils are some of the oldest soils in the Willamette Valley, geologically speaking. We have about 3 feet of effective rooting depth and a deep repository of fractured sandstone beneath that. Our pores may be small, but we have a lot of them – and they are miserly with water helping to keep the vines hydrated late into the growing season.

The one constant we have from growing season to growing season is our vines. We are all estate grown meaning we are not scrambling from one vineyard source to another every year. And our vines just keep getting older with each passing year. In a year like Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather, vine age and deep rooted rootstocks were the key to holding out for some mid-September rain.

Rainfall is the key to understanding Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather. Nothing happens in farming without some rainfall and the resulting available soil moisture. Rainfall is the business equivalent to the budget sphincter and the resulting available funds.

We received 0.96 inches of rain in the second half of September and that was one of the signals we needed to see, along with the walnut tree showing full color change, before engaging the Great Cluster Pluck of 2015. 

Adding the 0.23 inches of rainfall for the first half of the month provides a total September rainfall of 1.19 inches and a growing season total of 5.72 inches through September. Almost 20% of the entire growing season rainfall through September fell in the last half of September. Hey Frank, what if you plucked before then?

It was great fun, but it was just one of those years…

Chardonnay - "going all the way"

Shoot positioning, putting up catch wires and whipping the vineyard floor into shape in April is when the time critical vineyard work starts. Throughout the summer heat, we continued our canopy management and vineyard floor practices to minimize the loss of available soil moisture. Alas, these tasks, while time consuming and expensive, can have only a moderate impact. But they are the fundamental vineyard practices that paid great dividends at the end of a hot, dry vintage.

So we are back to where we began. The Great Cluster Pluck of Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather began, as it always does, in earnest but with some new friends – 159 of them to be exact. Say hello to our newest variety – Gewürztraminer. Ernie grew 159 clusters of this little rascal and that bucket and a half of grapes fermented out to just about 11 bottles of wine. To all of you home winemakers out there, he feels your pain.

The big debate that seems to take a lot of air out of the room this time of year is plucking on flavors v plucking by the numbers. We always pluck by the numbers because we numbered our blocks. How else would the analytical “A Type” layout his farm? Numerically, block by farming block. Of course we taste the fruit first to decide which blocks to pluck.

Once we decide which blocks are ready to go, our thoughts turn to cluster pluckers. To achieve the maximum impact in the field we are looking for 20 to 25 people a day to bring in the harvest. Anything less than that and, really, you are just farmin’ around.

By the first week of October we had gotten a couple more showers and a fair chunk of land plucked, but there was another “Special Project” hanging out there. The Syrah is always late and, by definition, harvested right on time.

One of Ernie’s micro-projects is his cool climate Syrah. He has 4 clones planted with a few vines of Viognier scattered throughout the block. Syrah likes heat and plenty of it. But to keep its cool climate vibrancy it also wants a cool end to the growing season. Well, sometimes it is better to want than to have.

Syrah wine berries in the raw

And the Syrah block, like every other block, is always plucked on aromas and flavors. Ernie thinks about plucking it frequently throughout harvest:

And each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin

So he waits. The good news is Syrah doesn’t really rot. It has thick skins and can take a bit of rain. Not like that other noir grape, Pinot, who can dish the dirt, but can’t take the damp. So we are sitting back and thinking with this warm and dry year, maybe our cool climate Syrah vines are basking in the vintage of their lifetime. With just 1,188 vines, this is a cluster pluck he needed to get right.

At this point, it’s all over but the numbers. Note: Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather numbers will be presented in a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive manner with a multi-year, graphic summation for your connivance. We just don’t want to know about it.

During the second half of September we accumulated 138 degree days. Our high temperature was 91.4 degrees and our low temperature was a nippy 34.9 degrees. Adding that to the 168 degree days from the first half of September yields 306 degree days. Growing season degree day accumulation through September stands at 2,303 degree days. September rainfall was 1.19 inches for a growing season to date total of 5.72 inches.

But it’s not over until Kate Smith sings “God Bless America.” This, allegedly, was Yogi Berra’s reference to knowing when it was, allegedly, over. Our Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather Cluster Pluck was one for the record books. Extra tons and encores had us in the field for what seemed like here to eternity. We plucked the last bucket of Syrah grapes on October 15th and, after a full and bountiful 30 days, left the harvest stage.

But we returned on the 28th
For that we are certain
We plucked the Late Harvest Viognier
Without coercion

And that fact leads us to yet another set of numbers that may be uniquely our own. We accumulated an additional 112 degree days through the first half of October bringing our Vintage 2015: Hell-bent for Leather total to 2,415 degree days. Our high temperature was 91.8 and our low temperature was 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit. We received 0.32 inches of rain through the 11th of October bringing our growing season to date total to 6.04 inches.

To think we did all that;
And may we say - not in a shy way,
More, much more than this
We did it our way.

Thank you Frank for letting us hang out on your star.

Kindest Regards,

Dena & Ernie

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