Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Castoro Cellars Wine Lab Tour!


Janet K. from Milwaukee, Wisconsin visited us in May and we had a blast!

Doing what? Eating. Laughing. Drinking. Driving.

(Oh, that didn't segue properly!)

I mean, Eating. Laughing. Drinking. Eating more. Laughing more.

We did drive, too! That's what you have to do to get just about anywhere when you live in the countryside of central California.

AND... we toured Castoro Cellars Wine Lab and Production Facility as well as the Tasting Room!

What a treat! Sherrie is the enologist at Castoro Winery.

She works in the lab in San Miguel, California, and she invited us out to tour the lab and production facility.

All I can say is, it's an amazing place! And being an enologist is cool. Check out this link for an official government job description.

Sherrie adds: "I would probably have to include that speaking Spanish is a must and you are also required to spend copious amounts of time attending TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) compliance seminars to learn how to file stacks of tedious forms with official titles such as: “Amended Form 5120.17 in accordance with 27 CFR 24.123."

And she is an amazing chick, both personally and professionally. Also looks great in "safety" orange!

This is Sherrie explaining the lab -- in just enough detail, which was refreshing for us because there are WAY too many tubes and beakers and vials and electrified sensor-type thingies. All under the flicker of fluorescent lighting.


In the next photo, she does go into detail about the "blind tasting" that she and the rest of the winemaking team had done that morning. Castoro collects other regional wines and tastes them blind against their own wines to create an unbiased evaluation, or as they call it, "Organoleptic Evaluation." Very official, and probably also government approved.

Remember the song "Nice Work If You Can Get It (And You Can Get It If You Try)?"

With that in mind, think about having Sherrie's job:

First, drive through the gorgeous countryside of Paso Robles and San Miguel.

Enter a lab filled with tubes and beakers and vials and
electrified sensor-type thingies that YOU ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO USE because chemistry and formulas and organizing barrels and reading the Periodic Table of Elements and working with other like-minded world-class winemakers seems to make for an fun way to pass the day.

Next, drink wine. DRINK WINE!

Then figure out how to make wine better, if possible, and certainly make it as delicious as is humanly (or angelically!) possible.

Finally, GET PAID (regularly!) to do all this! Wow. That's a pretty cool job.

As we left the meeting room, I noticed the Periodic Table of Elements on the wall.

Sherrie pointed out that the box of each element
contained a comedic note about wine or the winemakers or other Castoro team members.

Sorry, you can't really see that cleverness in the teeny image which I have provided. Which is probably just as well, as far as Sherrie and her team members are concerned.

Then I turned to Janet.

"Hey, Janet," I said, "Remember Chemistry class in our Freshman year of college and how you got an A and I got a D?" She said she didn't know that I got a D.

"No, for real, you didn't know how little I, your friend and dorm-roommate, did not study Chemistry?" She said she didn't recall......... (Wait, maybe I shouldn't have posted this! I am a good student....)

Then, just before we left "The Laboratory" (mwah-ha-ha!), Sherrie showed us "The Board."

"The Board" organizes every lot of Castoro Wine and clients' wines on the production facility premise, the tank farm.

Organize. In code. Secret code.

Super-secret COLOR code. Pretty amazing.

One time, Sherrie said, The Board got accidentally ERASED. Ahhhhhh! Oh well, it's only every detail about every barrel, tank, carboy or bottle of wine at the facility. Now it is clearly written on The Board: Don't Erase, Ever!

Then, we got our little minds blown even further by touring the barrel "rooms" (more like, indoor massive canister caves, and outdoor massive canister sunbathing areas with auto-cool function.... Read on for explanation).

Here, Sherrie tries to get us novices to understand "de-alcoholizing" wine. I still don't
get it totally, but this is the gist:

A wine, in this case, a white wine (Viognier, if I recall correctly) ends up with too much alcohol.

No, really, too much alcohol?!?! Well, yes. An excessively high volume of alcohol doesn't balance well with the character of the fruit and can ruin the hard work of the winemaking team.

So the wine is sent away to a special laboratory that employs reverse osmosis to remove almost all of the alcohol, usually down to about 4% by volume. The wine is then shipped back to its home lab to be RE-BLENDED. Seriously, just keep reading!

We tasted the de-alcoholized Viognier and it was absolutely awful! Sort of like grapefruit juice mixed with sterno or perhaps pineapple scented hydrogen peroxide with a spritz of Aqua Net hairspray and a hydrochloric acid finish!

But Sherrie assured us that the wine would be RE-BLENDED into a phenomenal, non-toxic, lower alcohol wine. I trust her.

Okay, let's move on to the Bottling Bus. No, Castoro doesn't call it that, but I think it's cool. Like Magic Bus!

It's actually a semi-truck trailer, equipped with a high-tech wine bottling mechanism.

Castoro owns FIVE of these bottling buses that travel throughout the west coast.

This photo shows the bottles moving through this mind-bending machine, behind thick glass.

And although it fills 80 bottles per minute, Sherrie wants it to GO FASTER.

Yeah, just read that phrase again: 80 bottles per minute. Complete with label. FASTER!

These two women place foils over the bottle tops which get spun down and heat sealed.

The bottles are replaced into cardboard cases by the men on the other side of the conveyor belt.

While we were on this especially noisy wine
bottling bus, bottling manager Reggie
experienced a total shutdown of the machine.


A label had been applied to a bottle off-kilter.

"Le Machine" sensed "le problem" and stopped before any other incorrect labeling occurred.

Ohhhhh-kay, then. This is an amazing machine.

Full cases are printed with a government approved wine label, then sent down the final segment of conveyor track, which you see in the right side of this photograph.

Sherrie is explaining to Ron the final process:

While traversing the conveyor belt, a motion-sensing hot glue applicator sprays the box tops. The man at the end stacks each case cork-side down onto the palettes.

Someone else with a fork-lift moves each palette to its intended pick-up spot.

Now, let's explain how the grapes are processed in the outdoor stages.

Grapes come in by the truckload and are initially weighed, right outside Castoro's lab at the government approved and calibrated weighing station.

The grapes get transported by magic and pixie dust -- No! By trucks and pumps -- up to this level.

In this picture, you can see rows of 60-gallon barrels below at ground level. It's so high, they look like wine corks!

Once the grapes are verified at the weigh-in, they move to the processing area.

The grapes, still mostly in clusters, get pumped into this huge stainless steel bin.

It looks small in this photograph, but the dimensions are roughly 10' x 5'.

An sink-like opening at the bottom allows gravity to funnel the grapes downward to the next processing stage.

This photo shows a close-up of the augur-like mechanism beneath the grating and/or walkway. (Whatever that's worth for acrophobic bloggers like this one...)

This is all about red grapes. The stainless steel rod is equipped with stainless steel paddles that move the clusters of grapes forward.

The paddles help to remove the grapes from their stems, and to gently break the grape skin in a double helix cylinder.

It is imperative to accomplish this without shredding the fruit completely, with the goal being to not break any seeds.

Here is the double helix "grape de-stemmer."

Then, the fruit is rocketed to its home where it will be fermented.

The massive cylinder is made of small holes that are smooth on one side and sharp on the other.

On the other hand, white grapes are pressed differently.

An inflatable internal bladder squeezes maximum juice from the lightly broken skins and deposits the pulpy juice into another magical, mystical pumping device.

And then, the wine goes into fermentation barrels or tanks.

Or shall I say... TOWERS?!

I forgot the exact height of these receptacles from the Netherworld Of Wine.

But suffice to say, they are MASSIVE.

People, there is WINE in these towers. Or should I say...


Does that get the point across?

But, okay, I'm coming down from my hyperventilating experience.

Down, down, down to level ground!

Here, Sherrie is doing her best to try to inculcate us wine novices about the cooling band around the outdoor tanks.

Each wine has an ideal temperature.

Because the tanks are so large, a special band contains a cooling gel called Glycol that circumnavigates around the mid-section of the tank.

Here, Sherrie reaches up to pour a glass of one of Castoro's signature reserve reds.

The wine is excellent: 2008 Dam Fine Red Cuvee.

And we're impressed with her ability to not send red wine showering all over the place!

As you see, these tanks have been sprayed with a layer of insulation to assist further in temperature control.

This is San Miguel, California, where summer temps can reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit!

The wine must be protected!

We finally left Sherrie alone after she graciously answered all of our wine-related questions, then headed out to Castoro Cellars Tasting Room.

We tasted many samples of their amazing and delicious wines on the list.

Then we quickly at our picnic lunch so we could get Janet back on the road/in the air to Milwaukee.

It was a super-fun and informative day. Thanks, Sherrie! (She also provided invaluable details in the final edit before I posted).

Now, dear readers, go get some excellent wine! Castoro Cellars!

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