Winemaker Blog

As a winemaker, the blending process is where I get to earn my stripes, composing a distinct expression of the vintage and capturing a snapshot in time. Monitoring the individual grape varieties through the growing process in the vineyard and following their progress into barrel lends to a keen understanding of how each grape is performing in the vintage.  This is essential knowledge when determining the components that are going to make up the blend in a specific vintage.

Building blends from sample bottles containing individual varieties from specific vineyard sights
So many options…

We are now making eight or more red wines each year, expressing Sonoma County Bordeaux varieties in various ways.  Our Reserve is our flagship wine, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and barrel selected from our top vineyard sites.  The vineyard designate wines showcase the unique terroir of a single vineyard.  These vineyards are primarily distinguished by their altitude and soil type, and give such a distinct expression of terroir that their quality and intrigue merit their own individual bottling.  Our appellation wines bring together several vineyard blocks to highlight the characteristics of the region.  Working with fruit from the three best AVAs (American Vinicultural Areas) in Sonoma County for growing Cabernet, I can make distinctly different wines from Knights Valley, Sonoma Valley and Alexander Valley.  One of the newest offerings at Arrowood is the Proprietary Red wine, which is a blend that expresses the vintage using any or all of the five Bordeaux varieties.  But before I tell you more, let’s review these varieties and talk about their individual qualities.

Kristina carefully measures each grape variety to ensure an accurate blend composition.
Carefully measuring out each grape variety

In California, Cabernet Sauvignon is king.  Known for its bold fruit character and heavy weight and texture, Cabernet is most commonly bottled as a single variety.  Cabernet Franc is its close relative, with some similarities in aromatics, but tends to give more savory and sometimes herbal character.  (Fun fact:  Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.)  Merlot often has a lot of blue fruit aromas, offering a soft and round texture.  When used as a blending component, it can increase the depth and length of the mouthfeel.  Malbec is aromatically very distinct, often exotic with violet and spice, along with velvety tannins.  Those of you who have had our Sonoma Valley Malbec know exactly what I’m talking about!  Lastly, Petit Verdot is known for its dark color and intense tannins.  Both Malbec and Petit Verdot can be very impactful in a blend, where a little goes a long way.

The current release of the 2013 Proprietary Red blend has the following blend composition:  63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet franc, 14% Merlot and 8% Malbec.  In this particular year, Petit Verdot didn’t make it into the blend.  After trying to use as little as 1%, I decided that it did not make a better wine.  Each year, this blend will be completely different depending on the performance of each variety and how each variety interacts with one another.

Jakey the winery dog stands by, as Kristina utilizes her senses to judge the aromatics and flavor profiles of her contending blends.
Jakey the winery dog stands by, ready to help calculate percentages

With so many different growing conditions in Sonoma County, each of these five varieties can be farmed to their full potential, giving me a diverse range of options for blending the Proprietary Red.  I love that there aren’t any rules when blending this wine.  I can use any of these five varieties to make the most intriguing and texturally complete wine possible.  However, this also makes it the most challenging wine to blend, often requiring more than ten different iterations of the blend before coming up with “the one.”  The 2015 Proprietary Red actually took me seventeen tries before I was happy with the final blend!

The new release of the 2013 Proprietary Red blend is one I am very excited about having followed this wine from barrel to bottle, and the vintage couldn’t have been a much better growing season.  Come by and see one of the friendly familiar faces at the Arrowood tasting room and give this wine a taste. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think!

After days of deliberation, Kristina finds “the one” out 16 finalists!
Kristina finds “the one”!

The final product - a glass of Arrowood proprietary red blend next to the bottle on an outdoor table

Arrowood Winemaker, Kristina Werner has worked at wineries across New Zealand, Portugal and Argentina until landing in Sonoma County. Today, she and her dedicated winegrowing team, craft artisan Cabernet Sauvignons that convey the best sites and appellations throughout Sonoma County.

Arrowood bottles against soil
Soil samples from left to right: Sonoma Valley AVA, Alexander Valley AVA, Knights Valley AVA

While there are a multitude of natural elements that influence Cabernet Sauvignon’s character, from sun exposure to climate to vineyard elevation, dirt is the most tangible of these ingredients. As you can see above, each of the three AVA’s we source from (Sonoma, Alexander, Knights) has its own unique, distinguishable soil composition. These different soil types—from the red volcanic soils of Sonoma Mountain to the fine-grained and almost dusty terrain of the Knights Valley—not only dictate the way we farm but, in concert with other natural forces, lend the Cabernet from each region its own distinct structure and flavor profile.

Sonoma Valley AVA

The “Valley” in the appellation title is a slight misnomer for Arrowood as we source our fruit exclusively from mountain vineyards—primarily Sonoma Mountain and Moon Mountain, which is also home to the historic Monte Rosso vineyard. These mountains are known for their red, iron-rich volcanic soils that produce wines with pronounced acidity. The well-drained, ashy soil here forces the vines' roots to dig deep in search of water. As the roots tunnel further underground, they soak up minerals, nutrients and microbes buried in the rocky layers beneath the top soil. The depth of these root systems translates into the concentrated and complex flavors of our Sonoma Valley Cabernet and makes our vines hearty enough that we can dry farm specific sites.
 
Digging the soil
Digging up red dirt in a dry farmed block of Monte Rosso vineyard
 

Alexander Valley AVA

The one word to describe the soil of the Alexander Valley is diverse. As our neighbors at Stonestreet Vineyards note on their website, the geology of Alexander Valley’s Black Mountain, where we source a portion of our fruit, contains more soil types than all of France! The varied, sparse and rocky soils of this appellation, along with cool morning fog and intense mid-day sunlight, contribute to the wines’ blue fruit flavors, elegance and savory aromas of black tea and dried herbs.
 

View from Black Mountain hillside overlooking the Alexander Valley
 

Knights Valley AVA

Our vineyard team likens the fine-grained, brown and yellow soil of the Knights Valley to "moon dust" that lingers on our boots hours after leaving the vineyards in this remote and sparsely populated region. The alluvial soils in the benchlands and the Rhylotic (volcanic) deposits on the mountainside tell the story of land that's been carved out by prehistoric rivers and built up by volcanic activity. Arrowood's Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon displays many of this region's hallmarks including distinctive notes of cocoa powder and a gravel-tinged minerality.
 
Dusty boots
Kicking around in the Knight’s Valley “Moon Dust”

Each vintage has its own personality and is remembered for different things.  From heavy rains to heat, and wildfires to earthquakes, responding to each year’s challenges often defines what goes into the bottle. The 2016 vintage, however, can be characterized by some of the most consistent weather we’ve had in California for years.

Carneros Chardonnay and Macrobins

Left: taken while walking the steep slopes of the Carneros Chardonnay block, tasting berries and deciding on when to pick.
Right: Smothers fruit lined up in macrobins at the crush pad, ready to be sorted, destemmed and then gravity fed into tank

Yields came in right around average, and grape chemistry and flavors were in extraordinary balance.  This was primarily due to the pleasant and moderate climate throughout July, August and September.  In California, we regularly experience heat spikes during the harvest months, where daytime temperatures reach into the high 90s/low 100s for several days at a time.  Depending on the vineyard and stage of ripeness, heat spikes can be detrimental to quality.  We had only one mild heat spike this harvest, which actually had positive impact on the fruit that was still on the vine, pushing some of the slower ripening vineyards along.  The harvest was brought to completion just before the three days of rain on the second week of October, replenishing the soils and phasing us into autumn.

Pink Ladies of the basket press

The pink ladies of the basket press!  Making a press cut on Kellog vineyard/Knights Valley Cabernet.  All of us happened to wear pink that day.

With just over half of the wine pressed off skins, I’m already seeing that the balance in the fruit is being reflected in the wine.  The consistent weather allowed a very precise level of ripeness to be achieved, getting the most out of each vineyard’s terroir.  The wines exude stellar concentration and elegant structure, along with a freshness that is highlighted by the beautiful aromatics.  Following their evolution from barrel to bottle over the next couple years should really be a treat.

Cheers,

Kristina

It’s close to a month before we expect to see the first grapes, and I’m still trying to answer the question, “How is this year’s harvest looking?”  The growing season got started with the long anticipated El Niño rains, which certainly helped replenish the reservoirs and ground water after four consecutive dry years.  The extra moisture also helped jumpstart bud break and shoot growth, promoting a nice lush canopy, and the moderately warm spring weather led to a nice fruit set in just about every vineyard.  However, due to the carryover effect of last year’s drought-affected poor set, the crop load is still likely to be lighter than average.  

 
So everything is going pretty well, right?  Absolutely.  I’d say low yields and a healthy canopy is certainly a great place to be, but the truth is that the next few weeks are just as critical in determining how this harvest will unfold.
 
We are now at the point in the season where the vines have stopped putting energy into the canopy (the green parts of the plant – leaves, shoots, etc.), and have started to devote all their energy into ripening the fruit.  This stage is marked by veraison, which in white grapes is the softening of the berries and in red grape varieties is the change in coloring from green to purple.  This is also when the flavor aromas are developed as well as the tannin and structural components of the grape skins.
 
Veraison on Merlot at Arrowood Estate Vineyard.
Veraison on Merlot at Arrowood Estate Vineyard.
 
In the coming weeks, the vines will get one last manicure to remove any secondary shoots or leaves that cause excess shading.  At this point in the game, it is a balancing act to make sure that every grape cluster gets enough sunlight, but not too much that we run the risk of sunburn or shrivel.  This is also the last chance to remove any excess crop (“green drop”) to make sure that all the fruit on the vine will fully ripen.
 
The 2016 vintage has started off checking all the right boxes, but in witnessing over a decade of harvests, I know it is always wise to temper your expectations against Mother Nature.  We will continue to carefully monitor our work in the vineyard and the cellar and I could not be more excited to witness the evolution of this vintage from vine to bottle. 
 
Thanks for tuning in, and check back in a couple months when we wrap up the season with the 2016 End of Harvest Report.
 
Cheers,
Kristina
 

Kristina Werner, Winemaker

I’ve been asked more than once, “After harvest is over and the wine is in barrel, what do you do for the rest of the year?” As much as I would like to say that I spend the eight months outside harvest lying on sandy beaches with a cocktail in hand, there is actually quite a bit of action during the “off-season.”
 
The months of March and April at Arrowood are all about blending our reds.  This is one of the final and most important stages of the winemaking process.  It is the creative part where, as a winemaker, I have to rely exclusively on my senses to guide decisions.  Imagine that you are a painter and have a color palate with the six primary colors.  The number of colors you can create by mixing these colors is infinite.  On top of that, how the paint is layered and the brush stroke that is used can create many different types of textures.  Keep this image in mind as you think about how wine gets blended.
 
The 2014 vintage has been aging in barrel for a little over a year, which is just enough time to see how the wine has evolved and the oak barrels have integrated.  Although the Reserve and vineyard designate Cabernets will stay in barrel for an additional sixteen months (32 months total), I like to make blending decisions earlier so that the wine has time to marry in barrel before bottling.
 
Each vineyard block is barreled down into a barrel group, and kept separate during the aging process until blending decisions are made.  To avoid any biases, I taste each barrel group blind so that I cannot see which vineyard each wine is coming from.  I have to consider overall quality, but also what type of characteristics each wine can bring to a blend.  For example, the Monte Rosso vineyard tends to give a lot of concentration and minerality while the Smothers-Remick Ridge Cabernet offers intense red fruit aromatics and bright acidity.  Sellitto vineyard is defined by its fleshy fruit aromas and velvety palate while Knights Cross Cabernet is more masculine and densely structured.  Understanding each of these components allows me to use each building block to create the most complete and expressive wine possible.
 
Winemakers create “trial blends” to play around with different percentages of each component to formulate the blend.  Subtle changes of even 1% can change the blend entirely, and sometimes it takes many attempts before the final blend decision is reached.  Like the artist’s pallet, these combinations are key to achieving the work of art that you have envisioned.  
 
Once a blend is finalized, the next phase for Arrowood wines is the barrel selection process.  Within the barrel group, each barrel is tracked on an individual basis and is tasted like it is its own wine.  This is because each barrel influences the wine differently depending on its age (new v. seasoned), origin (French v. American forest), toasting level, barrel maker (cooper), among other factors.  The Reserve Speciale barrels are the first to be selected, consisting of the best barrels of the highest quality vineyard blocks of the vintage.  Eventually, every barrel is tasted and selected for a particular program.  To avoid palate fatigue (and to keep the enamel on my teeth!), this process can take up to two months.
 
This may all sound very tedious, but it is the detail and decision around blending that gives a wine that final fingerprint. As a winemaker, it helps me to develop a deeper understanding of the vineyards that I work with and how as wines, they evolve and interact.  Blending is an art of the senses, and finding the harmony amongst the vineyards is what passionate winemaking is all about.
 
-Kristina
 

Kristina Werner, Winemaker

The hills are green and the vineyards are striped with yellow mustard here in Sonoma County, thanks to the early (and welcomed) El Niño rains.  Although there’s still a long road ahead to complete drought relief, we are starting off the 2016 growing season with flowing streams and replenished soils.

Sonoma County typically receives the majority of its rainfall between the months of October and March.  The rest of the year remains dry, reducing the risk of rot and fungal disease in the vineyard during the most critical times of the growing season.  During these dry months, we are able to control the amount of water that the vines get through drip irrigation.  In the past few years, the wine industry has made a huge effort in water conservation and more technology has become available to determine how much water a vine needs at a given time.  At Arrowood, we use several of these technologies to help make our irrigation decisions.  In fact, a few of our vineyards are even “dry farmed,” meaning that they do not receive any water from irrigation.  What determines if a vineyard can be dry farmed or not?  Well, it’s very site-dependent: soil, climate, vine age, crop load and grape variety all impact the amount of water a particular vineyard needs.

Discussing pruning on a rainy day on Sonoma Mountain.

For Cabernet Sauvignon, the amount and timing for irrigation is especially important because of its impact on berry size.  Smaller berries produce more skin than watery pulp, which means more flavors coming from the skin and more concentration.  So when you hear that wine is made in the vineyard, there is quite a bit of truth to that.  From rainy winter walks in the vineyard to tasting the berries ripen in the fall, I’m always thinking about how to get the characteristics in the fruit that I ultimately want in the wine. 

And as for what Mother Nature has planned next for the rest of 2016, we’ll have to wait and see! 

--Kristina 

Kristina Werner, Winemaker

One of the things I love most about winemaking is following nature through its seasons.  Now that the grapes are harvested, leaves are turning to show the beautiful fall colors and the vines are preparing themselves to start the cycle all over again.  This period of time in the vine’s cycle is called senescence, which much like harvest, came early this year.  We had a record breaking start date for harvest this year at Arrowood, with Sauvignon blanc being picked on the 14th of August.  Chardonnay closely followed, and then red varieties started trickling in.  It’s no secret that this year brought a very light crop load. 

Due to a cold spring season, the young clusters failed to pollenate and set every grape berry, therefore producing looser and lighter clusters.  However, these lower yields along with the nice warm weather during the summer and early fall produced extremely high quality fruit.  Fewer tons allowed for great attention to detail in the winery, where no matter how small, every vineyard block was kept separate.  This picture below demonstrates small lot winemaking at its finest!  Even with our top notch destemmer machine, shorter stems can remain attached to the berries.  For our top vineyards, we sort each berry after destemming in macrobins to ensure that nothing but perfect berries end up in the fermenter.

Small lot winemaking

The quality of Cabernet from all three AVAs (Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, and Sonoma Valley) was especially stunning.  As my first year working with Sonoma Valley fruit, I spent a considerable amount of early mornings in the vineyards.  I absolutely fell in love with the Smothers and Monte Rosso vineyards, working closely with the vineyard team to harvest each section of the vineyard at its peak.  The vineyard managers are so key to a successful harvest, working around the clock to ensure that the grapes seamlessly get from the thousands of vines out in the elements and into the winery.  Below is a photo of the sunrise at Smothers vineyard after crews had picked by hand on the steep terraces.

Sunrise at Smothers Vineyard

As the harvest season comes to a close, it’s also time for us at Arrowood to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  While the 2015 vintage is sleeping in barrel, I look forward to sharing the holidays with friends, family, and of course with a few bottles of Arrowood Cabernet.  Cheers to another great vintage – I look forward to sharing these wines with you in the coming years!

--Kristina