The Serenity of Foudres (Sometimes)

By Chelsea Magnusson

The addition of the new tasting room and foudre rooms has been a bit of a challenge for those of us in the cellar.  Where before, we could do most of our work on the foudres in private, it now feels as though we are on display in a big glass cage (someone mentioned that we should put up a sign that said "Please Do Not Feed the Winemakers" - which I thought was a terrible idea... you're more than welcome to feed us if you feel so inclined).  On the other hand, with the foudres finally having a room built just for them, where they are organized and settled in their permanent home with beautiful warm lighting, the space can be incredibly peaceful and inviting. 


I love being in there before the tasting room has opened, when everything is still and quiet.  But it can't be still and quiet forever.  We have been through a marathon bottling schedule for the past few months, and now the foudres that once held the wines from the 2009 vintage are all empty.  We try to keep the foudres full throughout the year in order to keep the wood staves supple and healthy (when they dry, they can shrink and crack and when left open, are more prone to bacteria making itself at home in the wood).  So, for the last two weeks, Ryan and I have been working through the cellar finding lots that we can build that equal 1,200 gallons (the capacity of a foudre).  It's quite a challenge: not only does the math need to work out, but we need to find lots that are similar enough to combine while at the same time, the lots need to possess the ability to better a potential counterpart with the union.  For instance, we can combine an 873 gallon tank of Grenache VF OV V (which is translated to the fifth pick off of the French vinifera old vine block) for its brightness, vibrancy and candied strawberry quality with six barrels of Grenache VF OV III (the third pick off of the same block) to bring a little weight, density and tannin to the blend. 

Before the foudres are filled, they need to be cleaned, and we have a new toy to help us do that:  a specialty ultraviolet light that is used to sterilize the surface of the wood.  The ultraviolet bulb is carefully slid through the top of the foudre and the metal box affixed to the bulb rests on the outside.



We have read that more serious versions are installed in ambulances to sterilize the interior of the vehicles and apparently, similar models are also being used for water treatment. While it may be new, we're excited to give it a try and see how it goes. 

You can bet that I'll be enjoying the serenity that the foudre room has to offer for a few more days before it becomes a blending madhouse in there.  And sincerely, if you see us working in there and you have a snack you'd like to share, please - don't hesitate to tap on the glass.



Getting "Personal" With Tablas Creek Wines

By Chelsea Magnusson

The last time we sat down to go through the 2010 reds in the cellar, winemaker Ryan Hebert commented that the vintage was like a Batman movie.  And the funny thing?  That was a perfect descriptor for what we had tasted and I was blown away at the accuracy of the comparison.  For the most part, the reds in the cellar were dark, deep, sinister, powerful and brooding.  It doesn't hurt that Batman has always been my favorite superhero (as a result, I'm now especially partial to the 2010 vintage...)

This was not the first time we've described our wines using something akin to character traits.  In fact, that's typically how we talk about wines in our cellar - as if they are actually people.  While it may be an endless source of laughter and entertainment for us, when you really get down to it, I'm not actually sure we are joking.  For the most part, we've got most of the varietals (as well as some of the blends) pegged in terms of personification.  However, if asked to describe a wine I'm not familiar with, I'll give the standard response: breaking it down systematically and running through descriptors for mouthfeel, balance, aromatics, flavor profiles, etc.  And how is that any different than describing a good friend versus a casual acquaintance?

My younger brother, who is just getting interested in wines, asked me to describe the Cotes de Tablas Rouge.  Talking wine with someone like him, I would like to keep it on a level that he can relate to, and one thing I want to avoid at all costs when discussing wine is pretension.  So I told him something like this: imagine the Cotes de Tablas as a person.  A girl, in fact.  The perfect girl.  This is a wine that is naturally pretty - no makeup (or oak) is necessary to make it more attractive.  This wine can be effortlessly casual, but can get dressed up and fit into any situation with ease and grace.  This is a wine you'll want to introduce to your parents (and if we're lucky, you'll also introduce it to your friends and coworkers!) 

It's always fun blending or moving wine, too, when the cellar fills with the aromatics of a varietal, which prompts a discussion about "who" that varietal is.  The following is a rundown of some of our most recognizable characters in the cellar:

Grenache Noir

For me, the Grenache in our cellar is the kid in high school who struggled when asked to do the following: sit completely still, focus on what was going on, or understand that sometimes you need to get things done in a timely manner - and yet, that kid was adored because they were extraordinarily affable and full of charisma.  And that's how it goes here, too.  Grenache tends to take its sweet time finishing fermentation (sorry, no pun intended) and has a character that, when young, can be flighty and unfocused.  However when that wine is given time to mature a little (or is blended with the proper mate), the piquancy and friendliness remain, and audacity, depth, soundness and sureness of self emerge that are dazzling and unforgettable.  Imagine meeting that wine at your ten year high school reunion; my, how things can change, eh?

Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge

This wine conjures an image of masculine old Hollywood glamour - always impeccably dressed and charmingly debonair with an air of implied importance, distinction, and eminence.  Yet, there's a glimmer in its eye that hints of something unknown.  The Esprit carries a shadow of divergence from its polished and lush exterior.  This is a wine with secrets - there is not cut and dry, no black and white with this wine.  There's something about this wine that draws me back to it again and again in an effort to unearth whatever that mystery may be.

Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc

This wine, like its red counterpart, conveys a timeless elegance.  The Esprit Blanc personification comes from old money.  Probably from a well-known and established European family, which means it has grace, refinement, and allure running through its veins (and perhaps an enthralling accent?).  I always imagine this wine in a classic Chanel suit and pearls - beautiful, aristocratic, clever and infallible.  And again, like the Esprit Rouge, this wine has the ability to surprise me with something new each time I meet it, giving me an infinite number of reasons to love this wine.

This presentation of our "family" of wines just grazes the surface - the stories and personalities behind the wines are ever evolving and changing.  My only hope is that I was general enough so as not to seem completely crazy.  But keep in mind, winemaking is a creative process.  So I guess this is our normal.  And now you're privy to it; so... welcome to our world.

Notes from the Cellar: Harvest 2010 Begins! (AKA Fruit and Football; It Must be Fall)

By Chelsea Magnusson

Experts claim that the (official) first day of autumn is September 22nd.  Typically, I hate to disagree with expert opinion, but my first day of fall was yesterday.  Supporting evidence includes the fact that Sundays and Mondays are now spent watching football, but the primary reason for my autumnal confusion is that we brought in our first pick of fruit yesterday.  For me, that’s fall. 

Vermentino was given the red-carpet treatment yesterday as bin after bin was harvested, unloaded from the vineyard truck, weighed, and pressed.  The feeling of excitement was palpable as everyone settled into their harvest roles. 

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The fruit is harvested by hand and unloaded onto a trailer that will deliver the fruit to the winery

A full bin of fruit ready to go to the winery.

We’ve been waiting at the ready for the last two weeks, drumming our fingers in anticipation for the 2010 harvest to begin.  Everything had been scrubbed, rinsed, pressure washed, polished, organized… and then, it sat.  Finally, Ryan decided he had spent enough time waiting and set out with a mission to find something that was ready to pick.  Sure enough, he found a block of Vermentino that showed a brix (or sugar) reading of 21.0°.  While that may seem awfully low, it’s just right for Vermentino.  We typically harvest this varietal around 21-22°Brix to maintain its characteristic vibrancy, brightness, and playful acidity.  For a point of reference, we tend to harvest whites between 21-24°B and reds anywhere from 22-26°B.  It’s important to keep in mind that a decision to pick is based not just on the brix level of the grapes, but on three main things: the sugar reading, the pH level, and the total acidity.  Together, these three elements determine the ripeness of the berry.

Today, we’re harvesting Viognier.  It may be a slow start, but it’s nice to have some practice getting back into the swing of things.  Since our fall has begun, we’ll be seeing bins of fruit in our sleep.  And on Sunday night, I’ll be watching the Giants play the Colts.  Holy smokes, do I love fall…

The vineyard truck takes its first load of fruit to the winery to be processed.

Notes from the Cellar: Assembling the 2009 reds, and getting ready for harvest 2010...

By Chelsea Magnusson

The cellar has been an absolute mess this week.  And for good reason - veraison has begun in the vineyard, and we are slowly wrapping our heads around the fact that another harvest season is right around the corner. 


It looks like a disaster, but I promise, it's actually progress!

In preparation, we sat down to take a look at the 2009 reds we had in the cellar.  At this point, they were all in barrel, still separated by varietal and lot (where they came from in the vineyard, when they were harvested, etc.).  Ryan and I pulled samples from each of the individual lots and put them in bottle so we could taste through the entire vintage blind and take tasting notes (while we’re being straight here, I might mention that I’m still blown away by the fact that I actually got paid to taste through 28 spectacular wines!  What an unbelievably cool job.) 

The cellar crew, consisting of Ryan Hebert, Neil Collins and myself, was joined by General Manager Jason Haas and National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre.  After tasting through the vintage and sharing our thoughts, we were able to make decisions on where we thought each wine fit in best.  The lots that carried themselves with power and grace were positioned into the Panoplie program, wines with elegance and depth were paired with like-style lots for the Esprit de Beaucastel, and wines with a unique juiciness and affability were placed with the Cotes de Tablas family.  Obviously, that is an extremely simple generalization, but when tasting though each lot, everyone had a pretty clear idea of where they thought the wine should be used.  We also set aside lots for a varietal Grenache (sadly, there will be no Syrah or Mourvedre from the tiny 2009 harvest).  After finalizing the decisions, Ryan marked each barrel with an “E” for Esprit, “P” for Panoplie, “C” for Cotes, or “G” for Grenache.  Our last 2009 red, the En Gobelet, had already been assembled as a blend and put into foudre for aging.  


A barrel destined for Esprit, with two Panoplie barrels in line behind it.

One thing I would like to mention (especially for those of you who attended the Harvest Seminar last year, or are planning to attend this year) is that the three barrels of Grenache that you harvested and processed went into the Panoplie – kudos! 


From there, the wines were racked off their lees and put into stainless steel tanks as finished blends. They'll settle here for a week or two and then we'll move them to foudre for a year of aging.


The barrels have been cleaned (they are steamed, rinsed with ozone, and hit with a dose of sulfur dioxide) and are now stacked and lined up, ready for harvest.


Ryan cleans the lees out of barrels before they are washed.

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Clean, happy barrels ready to be filled with the 2010 vintage.

So far, we're anticipating that our harvest season will start around mid-September.  It is important to remember, however, that agriculture is unpredictable.  We're steadily getting the cellar in harvest shape so we're ready when it begins - because when harvest hits, it hits hard.

Notes from the Cellar: Pomp and Circumstance

By Chelsea Magnusson

The clanging and hammering coming from the construction crew outside the winery seems to echo the pandemonium going on inside the winery.  Construction officially began last week, which is both exciting and stressful.  Stressful because we have our big bottling session lined up for the the end of this month (we'll be bottling Cotes Blanc, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Esprit Blanc, Antithesis, Tannat, Esprit Rouge and Panoplie... whew!) and there is much to be done before the bottling truck pulls up to the winery.


So far, the only labor the contractors have been able to start on is simple face work.  Once they get the go-ahead, the real work will commence.  The first projects on the docket include rerouting the water and sewer lines and reconfiguring our electrical lines.  We're keeping our fingers crossed that their work doesn't interfere with our prepping the wines for bottling.  Unfortunately, if they begin and discover that they can't get the work done in time, we're toast in the cellar.  With no water or electricity, there's not a whole lot that we can get done on the production end of the winery.

Currently, we're working on the stabilization of our whites, or more specifically, cold stabilization.  If the wine's not cold stable, we run the risk of the wine throwing tartrate crystals when it's chilled.  This, of course, does not affect the taste or quality of the wine, but it's an aesthetic concern.  To cold stabilize, we racked the wines off their lees and transferred them into stainless steel tanks with temperature jackets.  We can control the temperature on these jackets, so the wines are now being chilled down to about 28°F.  Next, we seeded each tank with potassium bitartrate (used in cooking under the name "cream of tartar") to encourage the excess tartrates to drop out.


Despite the fact that we're running from one project to the next, (Ryan refers to busy days like these as a "three ring circus") all of this work will be well worth it when it's finished.  To know that so many of the wines will be completely finished on our end is a feeling that's quite difficult to describe.  After attending graduation celebrations for friends this past weekend, I realized a bottling is like a parent watching their child receive a diploma.  After all the work, time and attention we've put into these wines, we can finally say "I'm so proud of what you've become - good luck out there."

Notes from the Cellar: Biodynamics and crystallization? Yeah, it's new to me too.

by Chelsea Magnusson

When I was a student at Cal Poly, my Advanced Viticulture class spent a few lecture sessions on alternative farming methods.  In less than five minutes, we were finished with our lesson on biodynamics - it was clear that the professor was not trying to sell the idea.  Most of the class chuckled through his talk on the subject, which seemed to be his aim.  It's funny to look back now, only three years later, and see vineyards and wineries everywhere embracing or at least experimenting with the idea of biodynamics.

Including us. 

Back in March, Robert Haas took a trip to Napa with winemakers Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert to tour vineyards and wineries that practiced biodynamic farming.  While there, they discussed the merits of biodynamics, the processes employed, and the results experienced.  You can read his post containing his thoughts about the experience.

We are currently applying biodynamic farming principles to approximately 20 acres of our vineyard, with a wide selection of affected varietals including Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Tannat.  We've also hired a biodynamic consultant, Philippe Coderey, to help with timing, preparations, and probably more than anything, being there with explanations when we get confused or skeptical.  So far, I've loved our biodynamic experience.  And to be perfectly candid, I find it easy to believe that a vineyard would show improvement upon implementation of biodynamic techniques (or any new farming efforts, for that matter).  With the increased time we've spent in our 20 acre parcel of biodynamic vines, we are just a touch more attentive and involved.  On one of the days we were applying a preparation, a coworker pointed out that we (the cellar crew) seemed to be a bit more animated on our "biodynamic days".  Upon reflection, I think she's right.  It's something new and different, and it's something we (or at least, I) don't totally understand.

Ryan (foreground) and Neil add preparations to our compost pile

Philippe was explaining to us not too long ago that everything carries with it an energy.  When I think of energy, I conjure a mental image of a person who's able to get up early to go to the gym before work, put in a full day at the office, go home to start laundry, take the dog for a brisk walk, etc, etc.  But it's much more than that.  This type of energy we're talking about is not something you can get from a cup of coffee.  We're talking about the energy flow, (or, if you prefer, the vibe, the aura, or the chi) of an object.  We've learned that wine, like everything else, possesses this energy.  And really, that's something I can believe.  Consider how much effort is put into each bottle of wine - from the vine that produces the fruit, to the harvest and the crush, to the fermentation, and every small step in between.  And apparently, you can see this distribution of energy by crystallizing a sample of wine and analyzing the picture that it forms.

In order to produce an accurate and consistent energy crystallization, a scientific method must be employed.  I was curious about the process, so I sat down with Philippe to ask him how he performed the task and what he looked for in the results.

To process a crystallization, wine is added to a Petri dish along with water and a copper chloride solution.  After the sample is prepped, the Petri dish is placed in a dehydrator that's kept at 90°F.  After 8-12 hours, the sample is pulled from the dehydrator and photographed.  We gave Philippe two samples of wine - 2005 and 2006 vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel.  He was asked to run the samples and then allow us to look at the results without knowing which crystallization belonged to each wine (a blind crystallization, so to speak) and try our hand at matching the picture of the crystallization to the vintage.  As it turned out, we had no idea what we were looking at or looking for - I think it was Neil who said we would have similar luck trying to read tea leaves.

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Left: Photos of the crystallization of the 2005 and 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel. 
Right: Ryan and Neil try their hand at crystallization interpretation... to no avail.

Photos of the crystallization of the 2005 and 2006 Esprit

When analyzing a crystallization, the idea is to look at how the "life forces" and "organization forces" are arranged.  When I was told this, I couldn't help but to cock my head in confusion.  From what I hear, most people are more familiar with the term "energy field".  The manner in which the life forces are organized can tell a little bit about the energy and vitality of the wine.  As a compliment to the life force composition, the organization forces illustrate the depth and complexity a wine possesses.  So, for instance, a really lovely wine with perfect balance will have a very clean and organized crystallization.  Philippe told us that a wine crystallization can provide information both about the wine itself as well as the vineyard it came from.  Since we were primarily interested in the reading for the wine, I learned what the three most basic elements of the picture represent:

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  1. The Center: The center represents the fruit component of the wine.  A tightly organized center will mean that the wine has less of a fruit forward character, while a center that covers more area will come from a wine with massive fruit.  Please note that the "center" is not necessarily located in the actual center of the Petri dish.  Rather, it's the area where everything meets.
  2. The Outer Ring: The outer ring represents the mineral component of the wine. Wine with a prevalent mineral character will have a pronounced and strong outer ring.  Earthy characteristics in the wine are represented through the outer circumference of the mineral ring.  I was told that if one was trying to gather information regarding a vineyard, a strong outer ring would relate to vines with deep, healthy root systems.  As such, as vine with deep roots will be more connected to the soils and therefore have a more profound communication of terroir.
  3. Middle Zone: The middle zone of the Petri dish (the space that falls between the outer ring and the center) represents the vegetal, herbaceous, and/or floral character of the wine.

And there was a consistent character to different samples of the 2006 that was distinct from the character of the different (but internally consistent) samples of the 2005.  Could we have told you what this means?  Perhaps not.  But maybe in six months?  While we may not be crystallizing every single barrel in the cellar, it is interesting for us to look at our wines from a new perspective in an effort to evolve and improve.  And I wonder; are university lectures on the subject still brushed off so easily?

Note from the Cellar: "We're finished!" (...bringing in the 2009 fruit...)

Considering what a huge deal it is to complete a harvest, the end is shockingly anticlimactic.  It's not as though we all watch as the last bin of fruit is unloaded from the truck, smiling proudly as it is poured onto the sorting table.  Rather, we meant to take some photos of the end of harvest this year, and only after everything was clean and put away did we realize that we had forgotten to bring out the camera.  On the plus side, the last of the fruit came in at a steady pace (we didn't get bombarded by bins) and we were able to play around with some of the smaller lots we produce here.

One of those small lots is our Pinot Noir, of which we have produced one barrel of each year since 2007.  Because it is such a minute amount, it's more of a "passion project" than anything.  This year, like the previous two years, we brought a small amount into the cellar (0.31 tons, to be exact).  With such a tiny amount of fruit, it was difficult to decide what to do with it - even a macro-bin was too large for a proper fermentation to take place.  Many of the small artisanal wineries in the area pull the heads out of their barrels to ferment small lots, so we decided to give it a try.  We prowled through the cellar until we found a puncheon (a large format barrel that hold 132 gallons) that had a leaky head, steamed it, rinsed it, and set to work making a fermentation vessel.  None of us have ever attempted this, but Ryan set to work like he'd done it a hundred times before.  The photo here is the least blurry photo I was able to capture - apparently, the auto focus doesn't work quite as fast as Ryan does.


The fermentation went smoothly after the wine was transferred to the barrel, and before we knew it, it was time to press.  With lots as small as this one, it's both senseless and a little dangerous to press the wine using our bladder press.  Considering how long it takes to clean out the red press, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to press such a small amount of wine.  It's also a bit risky - the bladder would have to inflate far more than it would with a normal press load and we would run the risk af tearing a hole in the bladder due to over-inflation.  So instead, we borrowed a mini basket press from Steve Goldman, a fellow winemaker and friend of Neil's. 


After pressing the Pinot, we ended up with about 45-50 gallons of wine that was transferred to barrel and topped up with some leftover Tannat we had on hand.  Given the fact that we only have enough fruit to produce one barrel of this wine, most of the wine is distributed to the partners of Tablas Creek, but it's a fun project in any case.

Now that harvest is officially over (all the fruit is in and all the reds have been pressed off), it's time to get the cellar cleaned up and organized to continue topping and begin pulling samples to monitor the progress of our secondary (malolactic) fermentations.  There is still much work to be done before we can put this vintage to rest, but it is a truly exciting thing to watch as each and every barrel begins to show its own unique personality.

The following are a few shots that were taken both during harvest and after harvest had been completed:


Above: A refractometer reading of Roussanne


National Sales Manager (and cellar veteran) Tommy Oldre rolls up his sleeves to help process Mourvedre


I may have missed the photo-op for the final bin of fruit, but third to last isn't so bad!  Mourvedre waiting to be processed


A parting shot of the destemmer after it had been cleaned for the last time of the vintage

Note from the Cellar: Week of October 19th

[Note: We are pleased to welcome Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson who will be contributing a regular column "Notes from the Cellar" to the Tablas Creek blog.  You can follow her posts by selecting the Notes from the Cellar category from left-hand navigation bar.]

Since the day the Central Coast was slammed with the monster rain storm, it had been quite difficult to venture out into the vineyard.  The vineyard experienced far less erosion than anticipated, primarily because the soil was so incredibly parched it just soaked up all the water we received.   However, that absorption made trips into the vineyard a bit challenging to say the least.

What a difference a rain makes!  New growth in the vineyard.

For the most part, we have had pretty nice weather following the storm, so the grapes (along with the soil)  have had a chance to dry out and continue the ripening process.  Neil, Ryan and David (our Vineyard Manager) have been cruising out into the vineyard regularly to pull samples on our fruit that’s still hanging out there.  Approximately 90% of our fruit has been processed already, but everything on-vine seems to be taking its sweet time.  As illustrated by the photo of Syrah below, you can see that there is indeed fruit worth waiting for.


While we remain optimistic about most areas of the vineyard, there are other areas that were a bit concerning.  Numbers weren't moving, and there was fear that the fruit would either rot on the vine or we would be forced to bring in fruit coming in at a paltry 18°Brix.  So, rather than shrugging their shoulders and admitting defeat by bringing in fruit that was less than stellar, Winemakers Ryan and Neil made the decision to lay the fruit on beds of straw in one of our greenhouses, a la our Vin de Paille program.  The fruit that was selected for this process was a block of Roussanne that was far behind its counterparts and an area of Counoise that was especially stubborn in its ripening (or lack thereof).

A view from the door of the greenhouse

Counoise and Roussanne, side by side

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Vin de Paille process, we lay the fruit on beds of straw to allow it to dry, thus concentrating the sugars.  The straw underneath absorbs moisture and allows air flow under the fruit in an effort to avoid any mildew or rot.  This method is preferred because we are able to concentrate the sugars without affecting the pH and acid as much as would be the case if we allowed the fruit to dry on-vine.  It's also safer: the fruit is kept in a controlled environment with fans keeping it dry and happy.

After the fruit had reached a number that we were happy with, our vineyard crew pulled in 4.5 bins of Roussanne, weighing in at 2.45 tons.  At this point in the year (especially considering what the vineyard has been through), it’s absolutely thrilling to see sugar numbers coming in at 25.3°Brix, no matter the method used to get it there.  And I, for one was elated to hear “Bring it in!” once again.  It had been a few weeks since we last brought in a crop of whites, so it felt pretty good to fire up the white press today.  White press days are among my favorites - the juice in the pan smells very similar to fresh pressed apple cider (and tastes like it, too!) and cleaning the white press is quite fun (if you're into that sort of thing).  It’s one of the more quiet places in the cellar as far as external noise is concerned, and the acoustics are great.  For those of you who can belt it out in the shower, I would say the white press is the next step for vocal styling.

On the days we’re not bringing fruit in from the vineyard, we throw ourselves into activities involving the fruit that has already been brought in.  We’re continuing to pump over and punch down the reds that are just beginning to ferment or in the process of fermenting, and pressing off the reds that have slowed in their fermentations.  After they’ve been pressed, the wines have been barreled down and tucked away for storage and aging in cellar conditions conducive to primary fermentation completion.  In a short while, we’ll start checking on the secondary fermentation (malolactic fermentation).  As far as the whites are concerned, we have topped up our Marsanne, Viognier and Vermentino that we have in the cellar.  The whites get topped after fermentation has slowed to protect them from oxidation (when the fermentation is rolling, the carbon dioxide blankets the wine and protects it).

As long as the weather reports bring good news of sunshine and warmth, we’ll continue to check the numbers on the fruit in the vineyard, allowing it the time that it needs to ripen properly.  Until then, we’ve got plenty to keep us occupied here in the cellar!