Harvest 2011 – Reflections of an Internship at Bethel Heights

In June Mark and I finished a year-long enology course taught by Dr. Barney Watson (one of my all-time favorite professors). Now it was time to get some practical experience i.e., a harvest internship. My first choice was to work at Bethel Heights Vineyard.

I wanted to train at Bethel Heights for three reasons: their incredible wine, their incredible vineyards, and mostly their incredible people. Bethel Heights make several varieties of amazing whites, including a “killer” oaked and un-oaked Chardonnay; and they also make several lots of ultra-premium Pinot Noir, their Casteel Reserve being my personal favorite. Great wine begins in the vineyard, in which they farm using “Certified-Sustainable” methods. In fact, Bethel Heights was instrumental in developing Oregon’s certified-sustainable viticulture/enology program (LIVE), and their people have made other significant contributions to the Oregon wine industry including: International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC), Oregon Pinot Camp (OPC), and the Oregon Wine Board (OWB).

When I met with the Winemaker Ben Casteel, and his father Terry (Winemaker Emeritus), I told them that I was interested in working in the lab for harvest. This was a good fit because Ben’s counterpart Mimi Casteel (General Manager) would be working part-time this fall, as she was just returning to work from a maternity leave. Having me in the lab freed up Ben’s time to manage. Terry spoke only once during the interview, he told me to make sure I get all my questions answered. I’m not sure whether Ben or Terry knew the full impact of that request.

I was a little nervous before crush because I hadn’t worked full-time in more than ten years, and never in a lab. I dug out my lecture notes from my chemistry and winemaking classes. I read through all the fall-quarter stuff and felt prepared.

On October 11th I reported for day-one at Bethel Heights. Most of the morning was spent gathering grape samples to evaluate for maturity and harvest dates. Collecting grape samples is simple, but it requires gathering a representative sample of the entire vineyard. Ben’s instructions were, “Every 10th row, every 10th plant, alternating east/west sides of the vine and distance from the head.” Considering that I was sampling from their 37-acre estate vineyard (they own two other vineyards totaling around 80 acres in vines), that meant a lot of walking. The sun was shining and I was in heaven. The fruit looked beautiful and the diversity of in-row plants and insects buzzing about was like a page out of an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) textbook. Walking down a row of 34-year-old vines looks very different than walking down a row of our own 5-year-olds. I wondered, how do they prune these monsters? I also wondered if an intern would be walking down the rows of my mature vineyard in another 30 years – I hoped so and I hoped our vineyard would look as good.

Upon returning to the winery, we crushed the grapes and began to test the samples for degrees brix (concentration of sugars), pH, and titratable acidity (TA). Measuring brix and pH is very easy and I learned to calibrate and use equipment quickly. However, using a pipette (glass straw) to dilute a concentrated base solution proved to be a “lip burning” experience. It turned out that the burette (a graduated glass tube with a stopcock at the bottom) I was using for titrations was cracked, and so after several ill-fated attempts, Ben mercifully sent me home for the day. At home, my parents (visiting to help out with our harvest) asked me how the day went. “Not so good this afternoon, but tomorrow’s a new day and I will conquer this,” I replied. Day-two was slightly better, and by the end of the week I had mastered the basic wet-chemistry techniques in plenty of time for harvest.

The second week was more of the same, i.e., gathering samples and analyzing for maturity and harvest dates. In the interest of time, Ted Casteel (Vineyard Manager) collected the samples using an ATV. “The trouble with Ted’s samples,” Ben confided, “is that he always picks the ripest fruit.” I completely understood this. In our vineyard, I see each vine as my child – all 14,000 of them. They are all perfect – and each bunch of grapes is nothing short of a miracle. It is really really hard to pluck an immature cluster for a sample.

Here’s how the picking decisions were determined. Ted gathered the samples from the blocks that he thought were most mature. I measured the quantitative maturity data: Brix, pH and TA. The qualitative decisions (i.e., were the flavors developed enough to pick) were made jointly with input from Ben, Mimi, Ted and Terry. Watching this family in action, I was struck by several things. First, Ben and Mimi have complementary talents and personalities (as do their fathers – Terry and Ted). Although their personalities are quite different, Mimi and Ben seem to taste and evaluate wine grape juice with exactly the same cadence: drink, swish, spit – done. They look at each other, ready?, not ready?, discuss briefly, decision made. On to the next sample. This was NOT AT ALL like the long forms I meticulously filled out and agonized over in winemaking class. Would I ever be able to make picking decisions that quickly? Of course, this is an oversimplification (and Ben did reassure me that he used to take pages and pages of copious tasting notes), but it highlights the fact that these kids literally grew-up in the winery and they were far more experienced than their age would suggest.

One aspect that impressed me most about Ben is that he did not inherit his position as winemaker at Bethel Heights; he earned it. Before taking over at Bethel Heights, he worked in Burgundy, studied at UC Davis, and worked five years at Rex Hill Vineyards doing every job from cellar rat all the way up to assistant winemaker. When I asked him a question, he would rattle off the answer so fast it would startle me. He is a private person, a logical thinker, witty and even-tempered. His only flaw is his horrible taste in music, which I would turn off every time he left the office (sorry Ben).

I was also amused by the age-old hang/pick conflict played out between Ben the winemaker and Ted the grower. Basically, the grower always wants to pick the grapes as soon as the sugar levels are high enough to make viable wine. The winemaker wants the fruit to hang on the vine getting every last ray of autumn sunshine to help develop the largest array of complex flavors, delicate tannins and subtle aromas. Being my first year in the winery – I sided with Ted. I wanted those beautiful grapes safely harvested before the impending rainy season could destroy them. But, not everything could be harvested on day-one, and not everything was ready. By week’s end all the vineyard blocks had been sampled and evaluated, the picking schedule had been negotiated, and I went home with a copy of the fermentation plan to study.

October 24, 2011 – Crush begins! Since the crush equipment (sorting table, forklift dumper, de-stemmer and press) are only used one season each year, Ben wanted the first day to be a “light pick” so that we could get all the “kinks” worked out. The process went something like this: grapes come in from the field and are weighed. White grapes go directly to the press, and their juice goes to tank for settling. Red grapes travel by gravity down the sorting table into a de-stemmer. The berries are dumped into a fermentation bin with dry ice and appropriate amounts of SO2 for cold soak. There were six non-family members on the crush crew: Alex Bogetti, Jaime Guzman, Don Kowitz, Jose Luis Martinez, Stephany Pao and myself. I was the only first-timer. Alex operated the fork lift, Jaime and Jose Luis handled the sorting table, Don managed the dry ice and SO2 additions, Stephany and I tended the de-stemmer and took juice samples. When all the fruit was processed, I (happily) took the samples to the lab to measure Brix, pH and TA, while the other five got to clean up. Day-one was pretty anti-climatic. I think there were a few “kinks” in the system, but I was too busy tending the de-stemmer and analyzing my samples to notice.

After a few days however, crush got a little more complicated. In addition to processing all the fruit coming onto the crush-pad, the settled white juice needed to be moved to fermentation vessels, yeast needed to be pitched, additions made, fermentations monitored and punched down, etc. etc. etc. In spite of the fact that we were processing twice as much fruit each day, and doing twice as many tasks – everything went relatively smoothly, and I was a little surprised at how few people were needed.

One day, when we were not processing any fruit on the crush pad, Ben broke out a new toy – the spectrophotometer. This is a device which measures the amount of ultraviolet light absorbed by a substance. In winemaking the spectrophotometer can be used to measure the glucose/fructose, malic acid and yeast assimilable nitrogen (YANs) in juice/wine; all important pieces of information the winemaker analyzes to determine how to manage fermentation and wine production. Ben showed me this instrument on my first day, and the nerdy side of me couldn’t wait to try it out. Like all lab procedures, it is vital that the measurements (data) are accurate and repeatable. Attaining this usually takes practice and learning the “knack”. The problem with the spectrophotometer is that the reagent test kits are expensive, and I burned through quite a few of them before I learned the “knack”. I wouldn’t start calling me Madame Curie anytime soon. Anyway, I was really glad to learn how to use the “spec” because taking wine samples to an off-site lab is time consuming and expensive; and I plan on getting one for our winery someday.

One perk that I looked forward to each day at Bethel Heights was the delicious home made hot lunch and wine pairings they served. Marilyn Webb (co-founder, phenomenal chef and CFO) made the majority of the meals and shared many of her recipes. Pat Dudley (co-founder and President) also cooked and even Ted cooked once all the grapes were harvested.

I could go on and on, because my internship turned out to be an unforgettable experience. I will end with a few more observations of the Casteel-Dudley-Webb Family at Bethel Heights. I was so impressed at how well this diverse group of personalities and talent work together. I’ve written much about Ben and Ted, because we were working closely together in the “production end” of the winery harvesting and processing the 2011 vintage. Meanwhile, Marilyn and Pat were engaged in the “front end” of the winery overseeing the tasting room and sales operations, accounting, and of course babysitting. Yes, operations and babysitting because three new babies were born to the Bethel Heights “family” just weeks before harvest. Marilyn returned from semi-retirement to do the accounting, cook harvest lunches and most importantly, help care for the babies, including her new grandson Noah. Pat transformed her office into a nursery – complete with two baby swings, cribs, a Johnny jump-up and a nanny. It is hard to find her without her granddaughter Norah in tow. What a life for those youngsters – they are held almost constantly, and already know more about winemaking than I do! After all, winemaking is just a way to make a living, family is life.

Thank you Bethel Heights for an incredible internship, and a very special thanks to my parents, Marlys and Tom Knight, who traveled from Minnesota for our harvest, and worked tirelessly for us so that I could learn new skills at Bethel Heights.