Wild wine from Sea Breeze

Sea Breeze Farm, on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, is a hive of activity that produces an impressive array of products, including cheese, cow milk, chicken eggs, chickens, duck eggs, lamb, and wine. We visited the farm as part of King County's Harvest Celebration Tour.

I wouldn't be surprised if Sea Breeze added honey to their output, or if they do produce honey and I've missed that, since they are busier than most beehives. The bees could learn a few things from their intern, Jeff, who makes cheese and tends to the vats of fermenting grape must.

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Grape must eventually becomes wine. I have seen the cellars of a number of wineries and untold bottles of wine, including a bottle Sea Breeze's Pinot Noir. Their Pinot is a brambly, stinky, fruitful critter made on the island with grapes from Columbia Valley. When Jeff mentioned that he needed to perform his twice daily chore of tending the fermenting grapes, we jumped at the opportunity.

Growing and crushing
Wine-making is a tricky task, complicated by a number of factors. Terroir, the French term for the qualities imparted by soil to what is grown on the soil, is the most consistent factor, followed by the vines, though vines can succumb to parasites and pests. The wildcard is the weather, which can be perfect or awful right up through harvest time. Pick too soon and the berries won't have enough flavors. Wait too long, and rain or frost might ruin the crops. And that's just growing the grapes. Making wine is a separate challenge.

Most winemakers use machines to remove stems and leaves and then crush grapes. Sea Breeze crushes their grapes the old fashioned way - with clean, bare feet. If that disturbs you, fair reader, then I should mention that a noted Willamette Valley winemaker uses a full-body crushing method.

"What about body hair?" I asked the Butter Bitch.

"It all gets filtered out in the end," she assured me.

After the crush, the grapes, juice, and stems are put in containers and yeast is added. The wild thing about Sea Breeze is their yeast. They rely on wild yeast, which is a first in our experience. Considering the quality of their wine, Vashon Island must have very good yeast strains floating in the air.

Must mix the must

The crushed grape mixture is known as must, perhaps for the musty smells produced. Fermentation produces carbon gases, a kind of yeast burp. Alcohol is yeast poop, by the way. After he uncovered the plastic vats, Jeff warned us not to stick our heads into the vats. Sniffing over the wine must was fine, but carbon gases accumulated in the vats could overwhelm us. He told us that people have lost consciousness over wine vats, fallen face first into the must, and drowned. We kept our distance until the gases had blown off.

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In addition to the brambly flavor lent by the stems, the must receives tannins and color from the grape skins. Jeff pushes down the cap of berries and stems, which floats on top of the grape must, to oxygenate the mixture and aid fermentation. Each vat was the size of a kiddy swimming pool. Since he performs this task on all six vats twice per day, he was happy to have our help.

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Four of us rolled up our sleeves, washed our hands and forearms, and gathered around the first vat. Jeff leaned in with gusto and we followed suit. I felt a shock of cold go up my arms as I shoved a clump of grape vines into the Cabernet must. The vats are sheltered inside a barn that doesn't get very warm.

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When we started, the top layer of each vat was a drying clump of vines. Jeff's only advice was to push and mix the vines until they were mostly under the purple liquid. When we finished, we scraped the sides of the vat and slicked off the grape juice from our arms into the frothy vat.
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I quickly acclimated to the cold, and with five people the task went quickly. The sixth vat presented a different shock. These grapes, Pinot Noir, were further in the fermentation process and the must was pleasantly warm.

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Why should grapes travel a short distance between vineyard and winery? Travel increases exposure to the elements, but in the case of the Pinot Noir grapes another problem had occurred. Normally, grapes are stacked in flats such that they aren't crushed in transit. The grapes arrive whole at the winery. The plastic flats of Pinot Noir grapes had been stacked incorrectly and the grapes arrived already crushed by the weight of the stack. Jeff worried aloud that they grapes had started fermenting by the time they arrived at the farm.

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Jeff took samples from each vat to test back at the farm and we covered the vats. Our work finished, we followed him up the hill to the farm proper. Sea Breeze rents a barn down the hill for wine crushing and fermentation. On the way up the hill, Jeff explained that the farm's owner, George Page, started making wine in a wine club. Over time, he assumed more responsibility for winemaking until he was being paid by the other members to make wine and managing the entire process. Sea Breeze now sells wine at farmers' markets.

Back on the farm, Jeff sat on the porch steps and measured the wine using some tools that are familiar to home brewers. Each sample was poured into a cylinder and the gravity was measured with a manual hydrometer (public domain picture courtesy of WikiPedia). From this measurement, a brewer or winemaker can determine the amount of sugar in the liquid. By comparing the original gravity and final gravity, an estimate of alcohol content can be made. The alcohol percentage listed on a bottle is an estimate of strength, and that percentage may vary by plus or minus 1 percent. He also had a small electronic device to test the acidity of the wine.

Tasting grape must was an interesting experience. Consumers can go to winery open houses and taste barrel samples, but those samples typically have finished fermentation and are aging in wood or steel. The final product will depend on how the wine is blended, but you can tell that you are drinking wine.

winecellar.JPGGrape must tastes more like grape juice with a little zing and some interesting flavors. The first Cabernet tasted a lot like Tart N Tinys, but not quite like pixie sticks. The second Cabernet was more like a watermelon Jolly Rancher. The Merlots tasted like raspberry-blackberry jam and were enjoyable as grape drinks, with lots of promise to be good wines. The Pinot Noir, which was advanced in its fermentation, was harsh and had a plastic taste. We hope that it will turn out well, but it is too early to tell. The wine may develop nicely, may end up blended into other wines, or may go off.

Earlier, in the combination cheese and wine cellar, Jeff had mentioned the use of wild yeast. The Butter Bitch asked him how many batches of wine they had lost, and the answer was none. Here's hoping the string of luck holds.

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3 Responsesto “Wild wine from Sea Breeze”

  1. Rookie says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for this article. I have never seen the process up close, and seeing your pics and reading your description grounds me further to my own process. I am just getting into the learning of this process as a home wine maker. I actually have started my batch with large black seedless grapes, from a local(CA), farmers market. The "must" is starting ferment very well. I think:-), but my question is, is it must :-0) , to for me to add yeast? I did wash and dry the grapes thoroughly. And now they are in a well protected plastic drum, which I open to air for a minute everyday. If I do have to use yeast, what kind of yeast is the best ? Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

    RM

  2. Man of La Muncha says:

    Hi Rookie,

    I recommend that you go to a local brewing supply store, which should have information about wine making as well as beer making. They can advise you on what wine yeast to use. I've only brewed beer.

    The risk of using open air fermentation is that you are taking a gamble on the local yeast. Maybe the will cause your wine to be tasty, but my money would be on bad tastes. It would be a fun experiment to see how the wine turns out with wild yeasts, and I hope you have good luck with the airborne critters!

  3. carey says:

    This is a philosophical argument. Not a wine quality arguement. Wild vs. inoculated is about money, predictablity, and marketing a sellable flavor profile.

    As a consumer, do you want the reliability of a single inoculated yeast strain? Or do you want to drink the complexity and variation that a progression of wild, spontaneous yeast strains impart?

    First of all, the yeast itself isn't the problem. It's how the process is different that matters. There are financial reasons for inoculating with commercial yeast that really become a big deal when you're dealing with millions of barrels. Secondly, there are people who would argue that there's no such thing as a wild yeast any more than there are wild Border Collies. Yeasts have been (mostly unintentionally) domesticated and selected by humans specifically for wine production for 2000+ years. When you buy a commercial yeast you aren't buying synthetic plastic yeast...you're buying yeast that were incubated "in the wild" from a vineyard somewhere, and marketed for the characteristics that region promises.

    There are a lot of producers all over the world, who rely on wild yeast. It's not a new thing. It's just the marketing of it that's new. What it comes down to in the end is if you want to support buying wines that are mass produced and the taste same all the time, or do you want to support wineries who are going to make something with complexity and variation from season to season?

    "Wild wine yeast" are kind of mysterious anyways. They're almost undetectable on grapes in any vineyard. Sacchromyces Cervisae is the "true wine yeast" and it's more commonly found on the walls of the winery and even on the clothing of the winemaker than on grapes. But their small numbers don't mean they can't pull of a fermentation. It works like this: most organisms, yeast included, can't survive in highly acidic, low pH, high alcoholic environments. But Sacchromyces Cervisae is unique that it can handle alcohol levels up to 13% and beyond. If you inculate, you douse the grapes with SO2 to kill off any indigenous yeast, and then introduce the yeast you bought into an environment without competition. You get pretty reliable results. What happens when you don't inoculate is that several yeasts get to participate. It's a progression of wild yeast culminating with Sacchromyces Cervisae. Each yeast has a distinct metabolism giving off specific aromas. They all start to die off as fermentation progresses and alcohol levels rise, setting the table for sacchromyces cervisae.

    So, if you're a big producer, or even a relatively big producer, and you want to make sure fermentation is reliable and not "stuck", you'll kill off all the other flora in the wine and then inoculate with a yeast that may or may not have anything to do with the region where the grapes actually came from. Terroir anyone?

    Big producers with large quantities of wine can't risk slow fermentation (or any variation at all in the fermentation). They trade the complexity of tastes and aromas that progression of wild yeasts produce for the security of what inoculated yeast promises.

    Of course, the whole argument is pretty meaningless if you're drinking Yellow Tail, which is like the BigMac of wines. Nobody buys Yellow Tail wondering what it's gonna taste like this year. It's the same every bottle every year. It's a recipe, and consistent yeast are part of the formula. And it makes a boat-load of money.

    Estancia making a premium "wild yeast" wine? Great, but kind oif an insult to the smaller producers who have been making this style of wine for a long time and losing their shirts to people who can make it cheaper on a massive scale.

    But like I said, it's a philosophical argument.