Bottle or Barrel? You decide at RainSong Vineyard
by Julia Crowley for EDN
So I’ve completed the first mission of my 2011 new year’s resolution of experiencing the unique offerings of each of the South Willamette Valley’s wineries. I started with RainSong Vineyard. RainSong Vineyard & Winery is tucked into the foothills of Oregon’s coastal range just northwest of Eugene in the small town of Cheshire. I’ve heard about RainSong’s unique barrel bottling program and I’ve tasted their signature sparkling wine; in fact, I’ve kept the bottle over the years because it was signed and numbered by owner and winemaker, Mike Fix . So, when Mike recently contacted me about coming out to the winery to watch the disgorging of sparkling wine, I didn’t hesitate for a second about heading his way. The disgorging of sparkling wine, also known as Methode Champenoise, is the 200 year old process used to remove the sediment from the wine bottle after refermentation, and it’s also what transforms wine into finished sparkling wine.
After a quick 30-minute drive though the rolling hills that outline Eugene, I approached the large wine barrel sign at the bottom of RainSongs driveway, so I headed up the hill and parked next to an old rustic barn. Once inside, the walls of the barn were lined with oak and stainless steel wine barrels along with boxes of wine stacked from floor to ceiling. There was a small tasting area and a half wall lined with eclectically labeled bottles that separated the main room from a working area, where I noticed a young couple, sporting safety goggles and rubber gloves and looking very much like science lab students. The wine racks in the center of the room were lined with label-less bottles, stored neck down. I greeted Mike and he introduced me to the two young ‘scientists’, Allie and Marcus.
Allie, Mike’s daughter, was holding a home-made mallet and chipping away at some dry ice while Marcus, Allie’s fiancé, stood by with one of the label-less bottles. Allie and Marcus both recently graduated from the University of Oregon’s Biology program, and they now do all the lab work at RainSong along with assisting in the winemaking process. I noticed the bottle that Marcus was holding had a crown cap top instead of a cork.
Marcus showed me that all the bottles stored on the racks had these crown cap tops, and that these would soon be removed as part of the disgorging process and would later be replaced with corks. While Marcus and Allie prepared for the disgorging process, I followed Mike over to one of the stainless steel barrels, and watched as he used a wine thief to “steal” a sample of sparkling wine base out of the barrel for me to try.
This sparkling wine was, in fact, not sparkling at all-it had not gone through the refermentation process yet. This was a 2010 chardonnay based sparkling wine; bright, slightly acidic with strong citrus notes. The grapes are from a California based chardonnay clone known as Martini, and the Martini clone struggles to get ripe in Oregon; therefore, the grapes remain longer on the vine. This lengthy time on the vine creates a more mature grape, giving it time to develop exceptional character that’s perfect for a chardonnay based sparkling wine. Once the grapes are picked, they are whole berry pressed, so there’s no crush and no de-stemming of the grapes. The juice is then put into stainless steel barrels for fermentation. After fermenting in the stainless steel barrels, the wine is bottled with yeast and sugar, then capped with the bottle top and stored, neck down, for about a year.
When this secondary fermentation period is over, the yeast and sediment have settled in the neck of the bottle and are now ready to be removed or “disgorged”. So, Marcus gave the bottle he was holding to Allie, and she stuck the bottle, top down, into the dry ice bath for about 2-3 minutes which Allie had created from crushed dry ice and isopropyl alcohol. Once the sediment in the neck of the bottle was frozen, she popped the crown cap, ran the bottle under warm water for a few seconds, and then slid the bottle under a propped up bucket just in time to catch the flying sediment. Marcus then took the bottle and used a home-made ‘corker’ to insert a large champagne cork into the bottle, twist on a wire cage, and done! Sparkling wine: ready for a label and consumption. Much to my dismay, a couple of the bottles tipped over during this process, so we had the tough job of consuming what was left. Let me just say this, they didn’t need to twist my arm to get the job done.
While my glass was full, and I was enjoying every sip of my freshly disgorged sparkling wine, I had a chance to ask Mike about their much talked about Barrel Bottling Program. In the mid 90’s, the Fix family would invite friends to come and bottle the leftover barrels of wine to take home with them.
These fun parties led to the idea of the barrel bottling program, which has become so popular that 90% of RainSongs wine is now sold directly to the consumer through this program. This unique program allows an individual or a group to purchase and bottle an entire barrel of RainSong’s wine. They can choose either Estate grown wine or other Pacific Northwest wines at or below wholesale prices. A full barrel must be purchased, which comes out to be about 25 cases of wine, with 12 bottles of wine in each case.
The person or group who purchases the barrel can pick a date for the bottling party that takes place at the winery, and RainSong provides assistance with the bottling process and all the needed supplies. Bottling takes about an hour, and the wine comes with a simple label that meets government standards. Most people create their own labels through label making companies, and I saw many of these creations on the eclectically labeled bottles that were lined up on top of the half wall. Anniversaries, weddings, birthdays, company logos…you name it, there were labels with it. Mike encourages everyone to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy after the bottling party along with a wine tasting of RainSong wines.
Before departing, Mike pointed out his 6 acres of Pinot Noir, 1 acre of Chardonnay, and two acres of Pinot Meunier and said, “It’s the perfect little sparkling wine vineyard”. I nodded in total agreement. He then handed me a bottle of sparkling wine to take home that looked a lot like the one I had kept over the years, except this one was signed by one of RainSongs next generation of winemakers, “Allie Fix 115 of 590”.
92989 Templeton Rd
Cheshire, OR 97419
Julia – Writing about Eugene’s Wine Scene