And just like that, we’re about to kick off harvest. When I last posted in June, bud break (the start of the vineyard growing season) was only a month behind us and we were just entering the full summer swing. Our tasting rooms were bustling with summer visitors and our wholesale business was nearing its early summer peak. Fast forward to today and the signs of fall are all around us. We’re expecting mild temps in the 70’s this weekend and into next week. Kids are about to go back to school and that means weekday tasting room traffic will soon slow. Despite being about a week behind our normal growth schedule, our vineyards are boasting plump, colorful grape bunches and we’ll start picking Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir for our sparkling wines in 2-3 weeks. In winery terms, fall is here.
So, what have we been up to in preparation?
Where to start.
Our vineyard crew has been hustling. Due the farm labor shortage on the North Fork, we’re down a man this season. Our six remaining crew members have been putting in overtime to keep up with the demands of the vineyard. At this stage, most of the arduous tasks – mowing, weeding, leaf pulling hedging and fruit thinning – are thankfully behind us. Since the grapes have developed sugar content, they’ve now become attractive to birds. To prevent birds from snacking on our precious crop, we’re laying down nets over the grapes for protection. Once the nets are laid, there will be a short lull in activity. Next week, our guys will take a breather and brace themselves for the “big show” – the final stage in the growing process, the stage we eagerly anticipate all year long. This will be my 5th harvest at Lieb and I feel more excited with each one.
This year, I’ll be bit more personally involved in harvest than I have been in years past. While I’ve helped pick and observed a lot of what was going on at the winery, this year I’m actually “working harvest” at the winery. One day per week on Wednesdays, for 3 months, I’ll be with Russell and our cellar crew doing what I can to help out. It won’t be glamorous. I’ll be shoveling and cleaning and running hoses and getting wet and cleaning some more. But I’ll be able to follow our grapes every step of the way – from the time they enter the crush pad to the time they’re transferred, as finished wine, into designated tanks and barrels. I’ve studied a lot, spent time with Russell and know all about winemaking and our equipment in theory. This season I’ll be seeing it all in action.
It’s a lifelong goal of a lot of people who work in our industry to experience harvest this way, and few find the means or opportunity to do it. It’ll be tough for me to balance my normal responsibilities with this added work, but Russell is offering and I’m in. Wish me luck over there!
On the business side, preparation for harvest also obviously means planning out what we’re going to make with the fruit that’s going to be picked. Just last week the team and I completed our final pre-production planning meeting. We took a look at our sales data and trends from the last few years and projected out how much of each wine, in each format, we’ll sell in 2018. Then we looked at our existing inventory and estimated how much of the previous vintages of each wine will be left at the end of this year in order to determine the number of cases (or kegs or boxes or cans!) that we’ll need of the new stuff in order to satisfy our projected demand.
If we make too much, we’ll have overstock and old vintages left over. If we sell some of our grapes (to other wineries) and make too little, we’ll sell out early and our customers and distributors won’t be happy. There’s a lot of math, some guessing and quite a few debates involved, but we land on numbers we’re all comfortable with and hope for the best.
Between our Lieb and Bridge Lane wines, our 2018 total production will be approximately 24,000 cases worth of wine. As a point of reference, when I started at Lieb in 2013 we made 7,000 cases. In 5 years, we’re more than tripling our production. It’s exciting but also daunting to realize that we’re growing as fast as we are. What I think I’m most proud of is that our quality seems to be getting better and better. While scaling up usually comes at the expense of quality and attention to detail, the wines we’re making now are a stark comparison to the wines we made in 2014, for the better. Over the past few years, our team has worked tirelessly to up our game in marketing, hospitality and selling. Russell has likewise upped his game in winemaking. We’re all making each other better.
At the same time, what I think I’m most nervous about next year is not screwing anything up in terms of packaging.
With both labels and the introduction of a fourth format for our Bridge Lane wines (hello, cans!!), we now have to produce, package and manage 30+ SKU’s. That’s whole lot products to order for, make/fill and keep track of. We have a few years under our belt with bottles, boxes and kegs. We have trusted vendors for our glass, caps, labels, cardboard, kegs, etc. Cans have added a layer of complexity that could prove to be a challenge next year.
If you’ve been following us on social media or have stopped by our tasting room to pick some up, then you know that we completed our “test batch” of Bridge Lane Rosé cans last month. Don’t get me wrong, THEY ROCK. I’ve already been out on my family’s boat sipping out of an ice cold can of our rosé and couldn’t have enjoyed it more. But what you may not know is that we experienced quite a few packaging issues behind the scenes. The cans we’re difficult to procure because they’re a unique (government-approved) size, the labels on the can printed too dark and were not opaque enough and our mobile canning company had some problems with their new nitrogen doser.
The test batch wasn’t flawless. BUT, lessons learned. And now we’re aware of the pitfalls and lining up ways to avoid them for our full run in January. In a few months from now, our warehouse will be filled with not only bottles, boxes and kegs but CANS of White Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé (yes way!) and Red Blend.
Next year will be challenging and exciting. There will be some screw-ups, I’m sure, but if we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not taking risks. And if we’re not taking risks, then what’s the point.
No matter what, I know it’ll be fun. I hope you’ll stay along for the ride.
(me with a can of Bridge Lane Rosé)
General Manager & Certified Sommelier
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