Winemaker Spencer Spetnagel sits at a simple table in a conference room just off the laboratory at King Estate Winery. In front of him is a yellow legal pad. Beyond that dozens of small bottles of red wine samples are arrayed in neat rows, ready for the winemaker to get to work. This is the best part of his job, Spencer says – when he smells, tastes and spits his way through a variety of lots to decide which ones to blend together and what needs more time in which barrels.
Tasting is a year-round responsibility for King Estate’s winemakers. The exception is the busy harvest season, when for a few weeks in September and October winemakers’ attentions are diverted from tasting wine to tasting fruit.
Spencer has been especially looking forward to tasting the samples before him. They are two of his favorite clones – the 777 clone out of Dijon, Burgundy, in Block 21H at King Estate, and the Pommard clone from the eponymous region of Burgundy in Block 16C. For the first time in five years, King Estate is producing block-specific wines from these two clones.
The samples do not disappoint. And as good as they are now, Spencer knows that, with a little more (or less) oak, a lot more time and careful handling, a first-rate Pinot Noir will be bottled within the year to delight a future King Estate customer.
Each vial before Spencer corresponds with a particular barrel. Since the blocks aren’t being blended with other grapes, Spencer is focused solely on the barrels. His task is to determine which wines need to sit a while longer in their current barrel or be transferred to a different one. Top consideration is the barrel’s age: “new oak,” or new barrels, imparts more flavor than old oak from older barrels does. As Spencer tastes he’s thinking ahead to the finished product, determining how he wants to blend the wines to strike the perfect balance between new and old oak to optimize the wine’s flavor profile.
Management of barrels is a key part of winemaking. Every year the winery buys nearly 600 new barrels, at a cost of about $1,000 apiece. The lifespan of a barrel is four to five years before it is decommissioned and sold. While a few go to individuals for decorative purposes, the majority are sold to a brewery, cider house or distillery – all producers that don’t require the oak flavor in their beverages.