Herrmann York Is Growing Up
Our boys are two years old now. When they run out of view, by the time they return, it seems their hair has grown. Being a father, like being a winemaker, reminds you constantly of the passage of time and the transition of the seasons. I now feel the way about the sun setting as I do about a half-drunk glass of wine: even though there’s plenty left, it’s really already gone.
Time passes, and as it does, it’s easy not to learn, which is a process that, for me, means taking small steps, tracking your heading, and being willing to change when necessary. It’s never finished, and contentment or complacency can wrap you up like an avalanche easily.
This piece is about how Herrmann York is learning. Our winery is a project of discovery. We’ve had some failures, some successes, and are constantly looking for ways to challenge our assumptions, our philosophies, and our manner of working. The ultimate goal is to produce the best wine we can that speaks of the place in which it’s grown.
Here’s what we changed for 2023: where we make our wines, how we make them, how we package them, and how we release them.
Where We Make Our Wine
We moved from a shared facility to our own space in Redlands in 2022, but the impact will truly be felt in 2023. During the harvests of ‘20 and ‘21, we commuted 2 hours, one way, to a space in the Antelope Valley, which meant some days were 20 hours long. Trips up the hill throughout the year were precious. Sometimes we couldn’t punch a ferment or rack a wine when we would have preferred to. Sometimes we had to rush to bottle so we could get back to our families and day jobs. We lost barrels. We pulled corks and went back to tank. Some mornings, we weren’t on speaking terms when we finally got back in the truck at 2am to head back down the 138, bleary eyed and ravenous.
These challenges had us questioning our approach, thinking of ways that would have made the distance a little easier to manage. But Taylor encouraged us to slow down while Dusty asked if we were making the best choice or the easy one. Cooler heads generally prevailed, but no one was happy with the additional work it gave us.
When we moved into our own space, our travel time shrunk to 10 minutes, door-to-door. We spent hundreds of hours preparing the space, the barrels, the bins, the plumbing, and our new press. After the boys were in bed, we’d ride down, organize, clean, and steam. When fruit came in, our families popped in with pizza and beer. We made twice the wine we did the previous year in half the time and (because we didn’t have the benefit of shared equipment in our shared space) we used half the equipment to do it. We could punch down when we wanted. We could press when we wanted. We could rack when we wanted. We could take our time and barrel down when the time was right.
As a result, the wines of the 2022 vintage represent, with much greater fidelity, the wine we intend to make. I suppose you can be the judge of their ultimate quality, but we’re excited.
The Way We Make Our Wine
First, our winery is one of exploration. And of limited funds, equipment, and labor. We have a lot to learn, and the world has a lot to learn about what this region is capable of producing. With that, we aim to make wine in a way that gives it the highest likelihood of expressing the place in which it was grown. This means we avoid things that distract from that: overripe harvesting that makes all grapes taste the same. Faults. Heavy oak flavor. Additives that change the wine’s chemistry. Heavy fruit processing. On and on. The reason for this is that we don’t know what this region and these vineyards taste like yet. Our goal is to understand what they have to offer in as essential a form as possible. We’ve had the pleasure of drinking wines made in this way from truly extraordinary places around the world, and we want to see how our region stacks up, apples to apples (as it were).
For example, we’ve chosen not to select the yeast that ferments our wine: a decision that thousands of wineries around the world have made before us. When grapes are crushed or pressed and left alone, they tend to either attract or are already covered in strains of yeast including Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Kloeckera, Candida genera, and Brettanomyces, to name a few. Many wineries, including our own, see the unique types, strains, and quantities of yeast in a given vineyard (and on the walls and equipment of a given cellar) as part of the unique fingerprint the microbiology of a place leaves on the finished wine. If we decided, instead, to select strains because we want to give individual wines different qualities, it would be difficult to know where our selection ended and the systems of microbiology resulting from natural selection picked up. Also, the addition of yeast often means the addition of yeast nutrients to support a synthetically large population. One intervention begs another, and so on.
To “populate” the winery with the yeast from our region, we collected small samples of fruit from many vineyards around the area before they were ready for harvest and crushed them in buckets around the space. Some samples took off. Others struggled, requiring air, stirring, and warmth. After a few weeks, we were confident some strains had found a happy home. Some may have floated in from a nearby bakery or brewery. Some may have been on the equipment we’ve used previously to make wine. So doesn’t that mean we’re just using a second-hand batch of cultured yeast from someone else’s ferment? That is a reasonable perspective. But the way we see it, we’re trying to create a system that produces resilient, complex wines with unique compounds produced by a range of yeasts and bacteria endemic to a place. Resilience, if modeled after systems occurring in nature, requires diversity. We want to give lots of different bacteria and fungi from this region the opportunity to offer something to the wine. They do the same for beer in Belgium, for bread in San Francisco, and for wine at Domaine de la Romanee Conti.
There is always a risk to this kind of winemaking. We have, of course, lost wines that have developed faults. That’s the trade off. The (great) majority of wine that has successfully completed alcoholic fermentation goes on to become wine of character. It’s too early to tell if this is the character of these particular vineyards, but we’re hoping to spend the next 30-40 years finding out.
Alcoholic fermentation is only one part of vinification. Since we began, we also made the decision to avoid inoculating wine with bacteria to carry out malolactic conversion. We also allow all of our wines to go through the conversion process (both red and white) spontaneously. The reason for this is that inhibiting the process requires high levels of sulfur, extremely tight filtration, or extreme cold temperatures to ensure that the wine remains stable after it’s bottled. These are actions that, in the name of stability, take something important from it. The benefit of stopping the conversion is higher levels of malic acid (for one) which can give the wine a higher level of perceived total acidity (something important in hot climates like ours). But realizing these benefits means the wine has to undergo a pretty substantial change, which feels further away from its essential state. And we’re aiming at the essential. This means the varieties and pick dates for our wines become vital to maintaining a balanced amount of acidity in the wines.
Making wines that are more “essential” often means looking back in time for guidance. One example is A Manual For The Winemaker And The Cellar Man, written by Emmet Hawkins Rixford in 1883, the year of our neighbor Brookside Winery’s first vintage in Redlands. The techniques presented in this text are practical. They assume people making wine in the state of California do not have access to a great deal of advanced technology, energy-intensive equipment, or proprietary remedies. The goal of the book is to usher winemakers through the safe harvesting, vinification, and aging of fine wine. Proper racking, protection from oxygen, the timing and use of sulfur, light fining, and bottling at the right time are examples its guidance. In 2022, the biggest lesson we learned from this book was to focus on careful and well-timed racking. Some of our wines from previous vintages have left sediment at the bottom of the bottle. While many wine drinkers have come to expect this (and prefer it) we’ve focused this year on reducing the amount of sediment through proper settling and racking, which is something we now have the luxury of doing, given our location. The result is wines with a lower likelihood of re-fermentation or similar ailments.
We now also have the ability to let our grapes cool down overnight after harvest so they can begin fermentation at a temperature that produces a less aggressive fermentation. This means less stressed-out yeast, which means a more nuanced aromatic character in the resulting wine.
Finally, we now have the incredible luxury of bottling one wine at a time, focusing our effort on avoiding sentiment, protecting the wine from additional oxygen exposure, and evaluating each wine on its readiness to go to bottle.
How We Package The Wine
There are three components to our packaging: corks, bottles, and labels.
Since our first vintage, our closures have been manufactured by Diam, which produces corks that are made of small pieces bound by a natural binding agent and treated with supercritical CO2 to avoid contamination or cork taint. This year we’ve graduated from the Diam2 (rated to last 2 years) to the Diam5. We’ve also gone with a slightly longer cork, but mostly for aesthetic reasons.
When sourcing our bottles, we’ve prioritized American manufacturing and lightweight materials, but last year, a friend told us the clear color of our glass meant no post-consumer glass could be used in manufacturing them. Clear (or flint) glass has to be made directly from silica every time. There is also significant research that shows clear glass leads to the degradation of flavor in white wines, which is clearly no good. For this reason, for the wine we are bottling, we’re making the switch to Antique Green glass. We’re also changing the shape of our bottles. Our aim has been to select a bottle that doesn’t make a statement itself. We wanted people to focus on what was in it, hence our initial selection of a rather conventional Bordeaux bottle in clear glass. The color (or lack thereof) was an issue, but so too was the shape. After an evening of studying many wines, we looked at the table and saw that 90% of the bottles were Burgundy-shaped. If we didn’t want to make a statement, we needed to pick something that blended in a little more.
Our labels have always featured the artwork of @santaritya, and we hope they always will. Our layout has evolved over the first two vintages, but with the switch to Burgundy bottles, we needed to modify the layout once again. We’ve worked in the new design toward bridging the gap between the youthful energy of our first two vintages and a more mature, coherent style.
In the first two vintages, Rita created the labels based on stories from harvest and details of each vineyard’s historical importance. The 2021 vintage in particular bursts with color, imagery, and significance. Maximalism. For 2022, we’ve been searching for a way to give drinkers a sense of continuity between the wines of a vintage, a region, and a vineyard while also telling a story that always feels like Herrmann York. The new line of labels for this vintage is inspired by these aims.
Our wine is also sold in regions (like our own) where tasting notes and a bit of a story on the label can give a peek inside the bottle to people who aren’t familiar with buying place-focused wine without requiring too much internet research. Thus, we gathered our families together to taste through the wines with the aim of adding geographical information and tasting notes to the labels. We’re generally skeptical of tasting notes (all palates are different, and people use the same words to express different tastes). If you feel the same way, please read them as an expression of how the wines tasted to us one night in March in the company of friends.
How We Release Our Wines
We’ve done a middling job of consistent releases, communication, and fulfillment with our customers in the past two vintages. We’re committing to a more sustainable model of direct sales, starting with when we release our wine each year.
For the 2022 vintage and going forward, we will release wines you want to drink when it’s hot outside every April, and we’ll release wines you want to drink when it’s cold outside every October. This will keep us diligent, and it will give us the time to set clear expectations for everyone interested in purchasing our wine.
The previous two wine clubs are going away. Because we didn’t properly design them, there are two levels that are confusing and, in some ways, redundant. We’re replacing both with The Herrmann York Wine Club. We pick 3 wines, twice a year. You get 20% off. If you want to select your own wines and the number of bottles of each, be our guest.
I hope every year we can say, “these are the best wines we’ve made.” There are, of course, vintage variations that make wine so compelling. For us to best express those, however, we must continue improving our practices in the winery. We also have to think critically about the factors that make wine possible: water, farming, distribution, labor, packaging, waste, and culture. Our aim is to learn every year to make wine that helps you mark the passage of time meaningfully. We want you to be as proud of this region as we are when you open a bottle.