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Tuesday 26 April 2011

A Month in the Life of a (completely abnormal) Natural Winemaker

(Warning: this is a long one!) (and after reading it, you'll see why I haven't posted for a month!)

I was thinking of calling this post somrthing like "Crisis Management", or "I Need a Holiday", or "How Not to Run a Startup Wine Business", or even "Strategic Planning? Never Heard of That!", but in the end I thought I'd just keep it simple and to the point!

I'm really writing this for myself, so I can clarify in my mind what I've done over the last month, what I'm doing now (and why!) and what I have to do in the near future - because I've been running around like crazy doing stuff and I haven't had a single moment to sit down and think!

OK, running in the background is the pruning. We should really have started pruning back in January, but for some reason or another (which I won't bore you with here) we didn't start till March; that's a bit late, but not too late, depending on your climate and latitude (and number of vines you have to prune).

   pending: photo of sprouted unpruned vine  (My photos are in my laptop which has a 'critical hard disk error' so they'll have to wait till I get it fixed)

The optimum pruning window is after the leaves fall off the vines, and the sap retreats back down into the trunk and roots, and the vine goes dormant for the winter, and before the sap starts flowing up again when the temperature rises in the spring. We figured that we could prune the 2 vineyards (2 hectares in total) in 8 man-days, ie 4 days each me and Juan. No problemo! But then 'events' caught up with us.

The first event was the Natural Wine Fair in Barcelona (on 27th March), which of course meant no pruning that weekend, and also another day for the bottling, corking, labelling and shipping the wine.

    Me and my Table at the Natural Wine Fair, Barcelona

The Fair itself was great of course, and apart from everything I wrote about it in a previous post, I also made two really interesting contacts:

1. The first one was a possible investor who's interested in investing in Vinos Ambiz! We've reach the point now when we have to expand and increase our production in order to become a small viable business, as opposed to the part-time setup we've been running for the past 8 years. basically, it all boils down to finance: to buy/rent more vineyards, to rent a larger winery, to invest in some machinery and tanks, and to cover running costs. This is all rather difficult and time-consuming, and we're still looking at different options: a straight loan (bank or cooperative), private investors, or both. Anyway, this is all on the back-burner for the time being, because it's very complex and important, and my brain's not big enough to deal with it right now along with all everything else!

2. The second interesting contact was Ryan Opaz, and a brief chat at the Fair led me to writing a guest post about natural wines on the Catavino website. Ryan is a bit skeptical of natural wines at the moment, but the important and admirable thing is that he's genuinely curious and open-minded and willing to find out about it. It was no bother at all to write that post, as the force was with me, inspiration was flowing, and I dashed it off in about 1 hour! I'm really pleased with it. It was in fact the first 'serious' post I've ever written, ie a post about something other than my usual vineyard and bodega activities that I usually write about on my blog.

...and talking about writing posts, ... about 2 months ago Fiona Beckett (a natural wine blogger from London) asked me to write a post on sulphites for her blog, but I've been struggling horribly with it ever since then - it just won't come out!

Anyway, after Barcelona, back to Madrid and reality, and a bit more pruning during the week, hoping to get stuck in seriously at the weekend. But guess what? Another event! I'd completely forgotten that a few months previously we'd signed up for another Fair - Eco-Festi-Ball - a European Folk Dancing Festival, with organic products on the side. fotos. So another week end gone - no pruning!

Outside shot of the European Folk Dancing Festival
Again, the festival was great. Lots of weird and wonderful people from all over Europe came to it, and I discovered a whole new world of European folk dancing. Amazing but true! Actually, I have to confess that that I had no idea that it was a dance festival - I though it was just an organic product farmer's market type thing! In fact, the other producers there (olive oil, bread, fruit and veg, quinoa, etc) were all complaining about the lack of interest and custom, and some didn't even bother turning up on the second day. It was OK for wine though, and I even sold a few cases to the official festival restaurant. Wine and dancing go together well it seems!

The highlight of the day for us was when our table suddenly collapsed, spilling about 60 bottles of wine and 90 wineglasses onto the floor. The crash was so tremendous that the music stopped and there was total silence in the hall for a few seconds. An existential moment! It turned out that only 3 bottles broke, though to compensate, all except 3 glasses broke!

     Collapsed Table

For the second day of the festival, Juan and I split forces - he did the festival while I welcomed a 'Grupo de Consumo' (a group of people who get together to buy organic products directly from the producers). They were from Galapagar, a town near Madrid, and they came en masse to visit the vineyard, to see the bodega and to get to know their winemaker. So in the morning, I put them to work in the vineyard (pre-pruning) and answered all their questions about organic grape-growing; then we went to the bodega for lunch, wine-tasting and answering more question about organic/natural winemaking.

Galapagar 'Grupo de Consumo' in the vineyard

Galapagar 'Grupo de Consumo' in the Winery
A few days later my 'partner' (in love, not in business!) got appendicitis all of a sudden and had to have an emergency operation, and is in fact still in hospital as I write (she's recovering well, and is bored and complaining about her diet of consomé!)

Next, there was an unexpected invitation to a winemakers' dinner - 3 organic winemakers came up to Madrid from Andalucía, so there was no way I could refuse to go to that, was there? They were: Barranco Oscuro (Lorenzo), Cauzón (Ramón), Marenas (Jose Miguel), and Almate (Alfredo) from Valladolid and a wine distributor (Luisa of Vinosautenticos). And the next evening, I went to their presentation and tasting at the Viñeta de Montecarmelo, for some post-winetasting beers that night.

    insert photos dinner and tasting

Then what? (yes, there’s more!) Next, my importer from the USA (JosePastorSelections) called up and confirmed that he wants a mixed pallet of wine, but that he needs it fast, so that he can have the wines for his annual presentation in May.

So, ...

- Do I have enough bottles? Luckily, yes! Not only had we ordered a pallet of new bottles a few months ago, but I've also accumulated over 1000 used bottles that my local customers return to me.

- Do I have corks? No! urgent calls and emails to my supplier (Salmantina de Corchos) begging him to please send them fast. (They arrived last Thursday).

- Do I have labels? No! Urgent calls and emails to my designer/printer (Hola Por Que), but she's on holiday, so we're meeting this week.

- Do I have AVIN numbers and those QY code thingies for the back-labels? No! Urgent email to André Ribeirihno (of Adegga) - he works really fast and he's created them and sent them to me already, so all I need to do is cut 'n' paste them onto the back-labels.

- Do have boxes? No! urgent emails to my supplier (Cartonajes Hurtado) who say they'll send them asap next week sometime

- Do I have a special, plastic, homologated, US Customs approved pallet? Amazingly, yes! We picked one up last year by chance from a neighbouring winery who didn't need it. Lucky we did, otherwise it would have been really difficult and time-consuming to get hold of one.

So that's what I'm doing now and what I'll be doing over the next week or so: bottling, corking, labelling, boxing and building the pallet.

But, that's still not all! Last Saturday I was asked to do an interview on video for a slow-food, slow-life (slow-viticulture) campaign, and which I also couldn't refuse to do! I had no time to prepare anything so I just turned up not knowing what to expect. It was really interesting. A couple were spending 40 days in a bed, a bit like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and every day they invite someone to come and chat to them on their bed. They invite all sorts of people, from different walks of life, but somehow relayed to the concept of "slow". You can see my session on slow viticulture and slow wine here. (Ah, it's in Spanish only)

And I think that's about it. All of the above is of course in addition to the usual daily routine of taking the kids to school, and holding down a day-job as a translator!

Oh, I almost forgot: a few weeks ago yet another wine blogger (Chris Penwarden aka @Singapoured) from Singapour interviewed me by email for a post he wanted to do for Earth Day. It was no bother at all to do as I did it all by email in my 'spare time'! Here's the link to his post.

Maybe one day, if I can find the time, after I've sent off the pallet of wine to the States, and after I've written Fiona's post, I'll have a quick nervous breakdown or just go catatonic for a while - but only until the next task or event, which is no doubt approaching fast even as I write! :)

Post post-writing thought: writing this post really has helped me to put things into perspective! Basically, what's happened is that without realizing it I've done a lot of promotion and sales related activities, and almost no vineyard and bodega activities. We've always based Vinos Ambiz on three (3) equally important pillars: growing quality grapes, making quality wine and promoting and selling those wines. The last pillar is often overlooked or under-valued by many bodegas, but to me it's very important - because there's no point filling up a bodega or a warehouse with wine, is there? So, I reckon that enough promotion activities for a while. It's time to get back into the vineyard and slow down!

Final horrifying thought: I've just realized that I haven't even seen our new vineyard in Villarejo this year, let alone gone to prune it! In the end Juan pruned it all himself!
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