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The Good and Bad of Stuck in Lodi

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Posted: Monday, November 8, 2010 3:21 pm | Updated: 3:38 pm, Mon Nov 8, 2010.

This coming weekend, November 13-14, is going to be a great time to be stuck in Lodi. Back for its 4th year, The First Sip, put on by a band of local wineries known as Lodi Wine Country, will literally be the first opportunity to taste the stupendous 2010 vintage of newborn wines.

The entire weekend is $35 in advance through FirstSipLodi.com or $45 at the door of over 40 wineries popping the bungs off select barrels, most accompanied by live music and specialty foods from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

You can knit together a lunch over several progressive stops, such as d'Art Wines for Helen Dart's famous Rustic Tuscan Soup, LangeTwins for Fiscalini cheese Panini sandwiches, and Heritage Oak Winery for Carmela Hoffman's Chicken Enchilada Soup.

(There's an excellent summary of all the festive event plans, deftly written by Randy Caparoso at LodiWine.com/blog/your-game-plan-for-lodis-first-sip. In addition, I'll be pouring at Van Ruiten with TheVinoLife.com guys all Saturday.)

With all these exciting things going on, what could be bad about being stuck in Lodi?

For the answer, you have to get behind the cellar door to face a winemaker's nightmare: "stuck" fermentations.

Heritage Oak's winemaker/owner Tom Hoffman offered a witty definition on Facebook:

"The stuck fermentation is the little single celled yeast's way of telling a winemaker that while the winemaker may be strong, powerful, resourceful, intelligent and really, really, REALLY big, he still isn't a god and he can't control everything."

He's facing two batches of wine where the yeast are petering out before they've finished all the sugar on their plates.

One of the time-consuming, but very important daily duties of the cellar crew is to fetch samples of each and every wine lot that is bubbling away.

Each sample of grape juice is poured into a narrow container and a blown glass thermometer look-alike with a bunch of lead beads at the bottom and a strip of calibrated paper on the top, known as an hydrometer, is dropped in. After a twirl and perhaps some earwax to get rid of interfering bubbles, the hydrometer stops bobbing up and down, floating steady so a sugar reading can be taken.

The first reading on a Zin may be up around 27˚ Brix of sugar, but once the yeast get going, this will drop pretty quickly down into the teens, before slowing down near 3˚ Brix or so.

Ideally, you'll get the wine down to minus 2˚, meaning the wine is dry, but sometimes the sugar just "sticks" at maybe a degree or two for days on end.

Tom figured a sharp drop in outdoor temperature may have stressed-out his nearly-done yeast enough to give up on some of his Cabernet and Charbono.

Like a stalled car, you can get the fermentation engine going again, but you need someone to babysit the wine around the clock for a multi-day process, starting with the addition of expensive specially-bred über-yeast to a healthy batch of wine around 5˚ Brix sugar.

Once it is bubbling wildly, an equal amount of the stuck wine is blended in so the new happy yeast can keep feeding. After the sugar drops a certain amount - which can happen at 4 in the morning - another batch of the stuck wine is added. This process continues until hopefully the entire stuck batch goes dry.

But just because a wine gets stuck doesn't mean it is going to be a bad wine. When I was at Jessie's Grove, one of the consistently best Zins was from Kenny Schmierer's old vines, and you could almost predict that it would get stuck every year no matter what you did.

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