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  • Neil & Sue Shay

Don’t Mess With Mother Nature!


In our last blog, back in September, we talked about getting ready for harvest. The beautiful summer weather continued into mid-September, and then Mother Nature threw us a pretty nasty, big-breaking curveball. Mostly in the second half of the month, we received over five inches of rain compared to the typical, monthly average of 1.3 inches for the month of September in the southern half of the Willamette Valley. What this meant to grape growers and winemakers, was all of a sudden, we needed to keep an even closer eye on the flavors of our grapes hanging on the vines, and the level of the sugars in the grapes. The first significant rain we had in September was very welcome, refreshing the vines perhaps just a bit parched from our typical dry summer. Most of our friends and guests understand, here in the Willamette Valley, we dry farm, meaning there is no watering or no irrigation of mature, fruit-bearing vines. So typically, by the end of the dry season, a little water from a day or two of rain is perhaps not too bad a thing. However, by the time we waited through the second and third rains, it was clear that the sugars concentrating in the grapes had slowed, as the vines transferred some of that rainwater from their roots to the fruit.

Fortunately, there was enough ‘on again/off again’ to the rain pattern that we were able to find a lot of dry days to pick our estate fruit. The first pick was actually our first-ever Estate Chardonnay, these young vines ripened their fruit precociously, and we harvested 1,000 pounds of grapes back on Saturday morning, September 14th. This was followed a week later, on the 21st, with the harvest of nearly 1.5 tons of Pinot noir for our Rosé.

Oh, and did we mention, should we mention? The rains, which had now started, seemed to help accelerate the arrival of birds – fruit eating birds, to the valley! They started showing up the weekend of the 21st. This year, our feathered friend guests were Cedar Waxwings and Robins. The Waxwings are a beautiful bird, but are really cold hearted, ruthless grape eaters. The Robins, unfortunately, moved in on the fruit as well, with equal zeal. We tried to patrol the vineyard that weekend with noise, to drive the birds away, with some partial success. Cellars assistant Clay Williams drove up to McMinnville, before dawn on Monday the 23rd, to pick up rolls of 42” wide plastic bird netting from our local vineyard supply company. `During the day on the 23rd, and on to the 24th, we unrolled and fixed six miles of netting onto about 80 rows of vines, in both the north and south blocks. Sincere thanks to all of our winery friends who volunteered their time to get this protection established in a timely manner! You guys know who you are!

Even with the netting, the birds never really gave up. We continued to patrol on occasion, shooting off a very loud noisemaker, a 0.16 gauge varmint shooter, every once in a while, to chase birds away looking for cracks and spaces in the netting, to get to the luscious, ripening fruit. On the 28th, we picked another 1.25 tons, of Pinot noir clone 667 from the south block. Also, that day, we received a delivery of about 1.5 tons of Pinot gris from our friends and colleagues Jim and Wendy from Walnut Ridge Vineyard. So we processed nearly three tons, in total, on this day!

Maybe this is a good time to mention, while we’re processing fruit, we’re now using our EnoItalia ‘new’ destemmer that we have mentioned in our prior blog post. This baby worked SO well for us this fall, we are now processing fruit, destemming first, with or without crushing afterwards, with essentially no inclusion of fragments of green stems, sometimes called ‘jacks’. Bottom line, what this means, is a reduction of flavors coming from the inclusion of stem fragments into the fermentation, meaning we are likely now to get lower green or vegetal flavors in our ferments. So maybe this will even be only just a very slight improvement, but certainly something we hope will indeed be an improvement in our 2019 and future wines!

Dancing around some wet weather, we had another great day to pick on Tuesday October 1. We harvested a short ton (1650 lbs) of Pinot noir 115 from the south block, 1.3 tons of PN 777, also from the south side. This was followed by another pick of 1.3 tons, of Pommard clone PN from Mom’s block. What a day! We wound up picking about 3.4 tons of estate fruit, one of our largest one-day picks ever. Processing the fruit went into the evening, and we wound up filling two large (1.5 ton) fermenters and one smaller one-ton fermenter. On Friday, October 4, Tim Ramey from Zenith delivered two full tons of Zenith Vineyard Pinot noir, equal amounts of Pommard and 115 clones. We got that fruit destemmed moved into two one-ton fermenters that afternoon and evening.

Just about the last lap of the harvest race was Saturday October 5. We harvested three different clones on this day, all from the north block: Pommard, 777, and 115, almost three tons. All that remaining after today was a few rows of clone 667 PN in the north block, and six rows of Pinot gris, still ripening. We’re also pleased to present, for the public record, a video presentation that Neil put together – from about 15 or so different short video clips taken throughout the day, from sunrise to sundown, we have compiled a 15 minute video showing what the happenings are on a harvest day, starting from greeting the pickers, the picking and filling of buckets and bins, the destemming process, and the filling of fermenters. So find that video, it’s now posted on our website. What else could have complicated this day? Oh yes, the arrival of almost three tons of Chardonnay, delivered from La Chouette Vineyard outside of Salem. We worked late into the evening to get everything done to a place where we could adjourn for the night. It was a big, and really demanding day.

On the next day, Sunday the 6th, we were up and at it early. We had a small but enthusiastic crew pick out the last of our estate Pinot noir, the north block clone 667. So now at this point, all of our estate pinot, plus the Zenith vineyard PN was all secured and fermenting away.

The Chardonnay received the day before, as we have done before, was partitioned two ways. After destemming, crushing, and pressing to make grape juice on day 1, we split the juice into barrels and steel tank, nearly 50-50. The plan with this Chardonnay is to make about half in an oaked and malolactic converted softer Chardonnay, in the barrels, and a more tart and fruity Chardonnay in the tank. Then we blend the two, to make a single wine carrying good amounts of both characteristics.

So now at this point, early October, we have multiple fermenters going, and performing morning and evening punch downs, at first daylight and early evening. This, we find, is one of the intense times of the whole year, requiring physical effort and long hours. We will say, a bit of a smile on our face, that many of those mornings, we took great delight in doing that early morning punchdown, pre-dawn, and opening the large overhead doors while we worked, to allow us a view to the east, as the morning sky moved from black, to pink, to other incredible morning sunrise colors. We have a few shots, as well, of the bins spewing a bit of fog, as the heated moist air from the fermenting bins would hit the cold air of the morning air! We have a few of these pics now posted to the website gallery.

Finally, we concluded all harvest activities the weekend of October 14. Our estate Pinot gris was harvested, along with the arrival of one bin of Sunrise Vineyard Chardonnay, from nearby Cheshire. From beginning to end, the harvest lasted just about five full weeks. We think we managed Mother Nature ok, and conclude the harvest update by letting you know that we picked 10.5 tons of estate fruit, and received about 6.5 tons of fruit purchased from Zenith, Walnut Ridge, La Chouette, and Sunrise. Our harvest of 10.5 tons compared to 7.5 tons harvested last fall, we are grateful for the successful harvest, because the weather and bird difficulties caused a reduced harvest in almost all of the Willamette Valley vineyards we have heard from. In part, our increased harvest was due to the fact that our vineyard is still maturing, but also, because of the effort we expended to protect our fruit with netting and patrolling. What did NOT happen, was the delivery of Viognier from southern Oregon. The weather conspired with us down there, and the two tons of Vio we were expecting to receive was chomped away by birds. We’ll figure out how we will make our Duology this year (Anyone have any spare Viognier??). The total, of estate and purchased fruit this year was about 17 tons, about 60-65% estate, and 30-35% purchased. This compares to a harvest of ~15 tons last fall, almost equal amounts of estate and purchased fruit.

Taking into account that the harvest lasted about five weeks, and the typical fermentation of one ton of Pinot noir takes about two weeks to drop from 23 or 24 percent sugar to just about zero, it becomes clear that as we were finishing harvest, It was already time to take our first-finished Pinot noirs from fermentation tank to barrel. We typically do a 24-48 hour transition: starting with the pressing of the fermentation, to separate brand-new wine from grape skins and seeds, followed by a day or two of settling of this brand-new, young wine. After the settling interval, we collect the cleaner wine sitting above settled solids, and transfer this partially clarified wine into barrel. We may have mentioned this before, this settling process is sometimes referred to by winemakers as going ‘clean’ into barrels, vs. the other way, would be to take the direct pressed wine into barrels, without settling out any of the solids. This would then be, by definition, going in ‘dirty’. There are advantages and advocates of both ways, we think there are still plenty of solids in the partially clarified, settled wine, and now for a period of months, we will stir our barreled Pinot noir, to mix the settling out yeast and other solids with the wine, to allow the wine to be softened to some degree, by extended contact with yeast proteins and other molecules that leak out of the broken yeast cells.

We’re also nurturing the PNs (22 barrels) and four barrels of Chardonnay through the malolactic conversion. This last step of the fermentation process involves the conversion of more acidic malic acid into softer lactic acid. At this point in the fall, we monitor each individual barrel of wine, to find out when almost all of the malic acid has been converted into lactic acid, and then we know we are ready to move that barrel to the cooler barrel room and get it ready to ‘sleep’ and mature over the winter.

NEW AWARDS: Our 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is tasting so well right now in the tasting room, and apparently the judges agree: this wine was chosen as a November 2019 Cellar Select by the Oregon Wine Press. In a second judging event, our 2016 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and our 2016 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir received Double Platinum Medals from Wine Press Northwest! This was a special competition, by invite only, for wines that had received gold medals in previous competitions over the past 12 months in the Pacific Northwest. WP-NW tells us that there were only 48 double-platinum awards out of 759 gold medal wines reviewed by our 3 panels. Bluebird Hill Cellar’s Double Platinum awards mean it was a unanimous Platinum pick throughout the 3 panels of judging. These two 2016 wines are available from our library in small lots only.

Now, in the vineyard, we are basically hands off for a month or two. After the holidays, we will we back at it, outside, getting the vines pruned and trained for 2020. In the winery, other things are happening: in between harvest activities, from mid-summer into the fall, we have bottled our newest releases of three delicious reserve wines: our 2017 Estate Reserve Pinot noir, the 2017 Willamette Valley Reserve, and the 2017 Barrel Select Reserve. The Estate Reserve is a blend of Pommard Clone from

Mom’s Block (33%) with a mix of clones from the rest of the south block (50%) and the remainder from the north block. This wine was aged for 22 month with the influence of ~ 12.5% new oak. The Willamette Valley Reserve is 50% from Zenith and 50% from Walnut Ridge, same level of new oak and 24 months in barrel. Finally, the Barrel Select Reserve is 75% Bluebird Hill fruit plus 25% Walnut Ridge, and is a big Pinot, with 50% new oak influence! So if you like a more robust pinot,

this might be the wine for you... All three wines are just lovely right now, we are going to be featuring these wines during the Thanksgiving holiday weekends, and we are also pleased to relay to you these three wines are all ‘unfiltered and unfined’, meaning that what we’ve been tasting in the barrels, is exactly what we have in the bottle, without removing anything good in the way of flavor or aroma because of potential losses due to fining or filtration.

The other winery update is that we have finally figured out how we are going to combine all of our individual 2018 Pinot noir barrels into new release wines for 2020. We have done blending trials and are extremely excited to announce that we will be releasing two new reserve PNs in 2020 – the first is 100% estate fruit, 100% from the South Block, and the second is 100% estate fruit, 100% from the North Block. Both have a unique blend of our PN clones. We’re going to showcase these new 2020 release wines as barrel tastings during the pre- and post-Thanksgiving weekends, we plan to offer barrel tastings of these two reserves, the soon to be released 2017 Syrah, and the 2018 Reserve Chardonnay (Yes, we are bringing back the Reserve Chardonnay, after an absence of one year). We are also going to try to offer some private tastings in the comfort of the indoors at the Bluebird Hill Estate. These can be arranged by advance appointment, for parties of four, minimum, to eight maximum. Call or email for details, including cost and scheduling.

Upcoming Events

December 4 Women & Wine Wednesday/Holiday Sign Painting

Adrienne and Leslie of Wildly Rustic Designs will be back to lead us in a holiday sign making class. $30 covers the class and all materials. Wine will be available for purchase by the glass & bottle. Click here for details and to RSVP.

We also have lots of offsite wine tastings scheduled between now and the end of the year. Visit our Events page for details.

We hope to see you during our Pre and Post Thanksgiving Open houses. Also keep in mind that the tasting room open noon to 5 on Saturdays and Sundays during the month of December. We expect things to be relatively quiet and we will provide guests a relaxed, unhurried wine tasting experience. Need a gift idea for the Holidays? We are offering made to order gift baskets with your favorite Bluebird Hill wines and/or gift cards available in any amount and rechargable, they can be purchased at the winery or ordered by phone at (541) 424-2478. After December, as always, we are open by appointment and will be able to host your group, from two to eighteen people, with a bit of advance notice.

​Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

Cheers,

Neil & Sue

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