Grapes, writers have to grow up sometime

It's harvest, when babied wine grapes leave their leafy homes to start a new journey.

I know that sounds corny, but give those little berries a break. It's a time of transition, and some of us don't handle change as well as others.

Sure, people wish they were as energetic about the seasons zipping by as Brian Denner. The young winemaker is unstoppable in his quest to squeeze the goodness out of syrah and sauvignon blanc clusters. Just look at the pace he's been at for weeks.

At daybreak, he's already at Agate Ridge Vineyard in Eagle Point, evaluating different grapes for their optimal sugar levels and peak flavors. Once he gives the nod, Agate Ridge owner Kim Kinderman and her hard-working crew begin the hot, hand-picking process, block by block, across 30 acres.

By midmorning, Brian is using a forklift to move along bins brimming with grapes. He twirls them around, hoists them to the sky like Lion King Mufasa did with little Simba, then dumps them into the crusher.

Well, I guess that could have been explained more delicately. Or at least without the reference to crushing a cuddly lion cub.

Off track? You bet. As focused as Brian is, my brain is a pendulum, ticking back and forth. It's the growing season, when nature has the upper hand. No, it's the winemaking season and time to show what you know.

It's a moment of change for me, as well. After two years of writing this wine column, I'm giving it up to return to a subject I understand a little better: home design. If all goes as planned, I will be roaming around Oregon in much the way I did here. But instead of chasing down busy wine producers, I will be leisurely chatting with time-to-spare designers and architects.

It's sad to say goodbye.

I've experienced unrelenting amusements working the wine beat. I've interviewed passionate winemakers in their labs. I've commiserated with concerned growers when the frost/birds/smoke/fill-in-the-blank came close to wiping out a year's worth of work.

I've spent immeasurable hours with interesting wine appreciators of all levels. Mostly, we met leaning over a tasting-room counter or sitting at a winemaker dinner. Once, I squeezed into a crowded seafood-and-wine party in Newport filled with costumed adults posing as conga-dancing crabs.

Despite my exposure to world-respected scientists and wine experts, I have to admit there are still gaps in my eno education. Gaps so wide, in fact, that Brian could drive his forklift through them.

The confident-as-a-cucumber Brian, however, seems to know it all. He has the schooling, experience and talent to make winning wines.

He has received awards for both Agate Ridge Vineyard and his own label, Simple Machine. Wine Spectator bestowed 90 points on his 2010 Simple Machine Leverage, a Rhone-style white blend ($20).

There's something those spectacles-sporting Spectator reviewers didn't know. Brian sourced the viognier, roussanne and marsanne grapes from a very special place: Don and Traute Moore's Quail Run Crater View Vineyard outside of Jacksonville. The vineyard is otherwise known as the place to see artist Cheryl Garcia's captivating poppy sculptures.

Over the years, Brian, 40, has earned his vino stripes. He began as a cellar rat (a title always said with pride) at Peachy Canyon Winery in Paso Robles, Calif. He has a degree in enology from California State University Fresno, and he worked his way to the top.

He was cellar master at Williams Selyem winery in Healdsburg, Calif., assistant winemaker for Kingston Family Vineyards in Casablanca, Chile, and winemaker at his family's Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles.

Then he arrived here. This is his third picking season at Agate Ridge.

From my point of view, he and assistant winemaker Brian Hallin have harvest completely under control. Even the crush pad repeatedly is washed down and tidied. (Do they make house calls?)

But Brian is being honest when he says that every year is nerve-wracking in its own way. "It's a continually changing ride," he says, during one of his 100-hour September workweeks. "You improvise and roll with whatever obstacles get in your path, and you figure them out. That's your only option; you can't throw in the towel."

It's a high-stakes profession that requires cool-headed decisions all year long. How much water, leaf shade and fruit left on the vine make for the best shot at ripening? Then there are the harvest logistics of when to pick and how to manage the grape avalanche and fermentation.

"Harvest is a big shift, an end of a cycle of meticulous farming and the start of a new cycle in the winery," says Brian, little knowing that his philosophical explanation makes me suppress a tear. "You don't want to screw up all the hard work of the people in the field."

He reveals more.

"Once you're ready for it, it's just a matter of receiving the grapes, doing the best you can with them and enjoying the process," he says, revving the engine of his forklift. "I'd rather do this than anything else."

As I watch Brian easily maneuver through his domain, I pause. It does not escape me that this is my last wine-related interview.

I want to be proud of my final question. I want to show my wine worldliness — that I have been an attentive student, a receptive, wine-soaked sponge.

I dig down past my always-growling stomach, searching for inspiration, a poignant question, a fitting bon mot to my wine reporting career.

"Brian," I say to get his attention. He looks over.

"Brian, did you know there is a fancy French word to describe people jumping naked into a vat to crush grapes, which supposedly aerates the must and enhances the fermentation?"

Then I snort like Beavis and Butt-head.

"Pigeage," he says.

"God bless you," I respond. "Did you hear my question?"

"It's called 'pigeage.' I do that here," he says, straight-faced.

My bottom jaw makes a slapping sound as it drops onto the wet, cement crush pad.

Ignoring my spinning mind, Brian explains that he puts on sanitized rubber boots and clothing, then jumps into the vats after syrah, grenache and pinot noir have been squeezed through the mechanical crusher.

"It brings out an exotic spiciness and extra tannin that add dimension to less-tannic varietals," he says.

[Insert joke here.]

He says that whole clusters can't break down completely without smashing them with all your weight.

"It's more practical than stylistic," he says.

And is it fun?

He smiles.

Even though I resent the fact that I can't transition between my seasons by splashing around in wine, I do want it known that this little grape will miss you all.

My supreme thanks to the smart, generous reporters and editors I've worked with at the Tribune, and my heartfelt gratitude to a region of wise, patient wine experts, accepting readers and gregarious wine lovers.

TASTE: Weisinger's of Ashland has changed its name to Weisingers Family Winery to reflect the second-generation winemaker, Eric Weisinger, taking over for his dad, John. At an exquisite, seven-course winemaker dinner prepared Sept. 13 by chef Doug Todd of Wine Country Catering, Eric introduced luscious wines yet to be labeled with the new logo: 2011 Tempranillo ($35) and 2012 Syrah Rose ($24). Change is all around.

EVENT: It's always endearing when winery owners offer up their picturesque vineyard views and tasting rooms to help support good causes. As a member of the Rogue Valley community, I thank you all. Final drum roll: A Saturday, Oct. 5, concert at Grizzly Peak Winery in Ashland benefits the nonprofit Eyes to Burma, founded by former Ashland resident Fred Stockwell, who has spent the past six years on the Burma/Thailand border helping Burmese refuges. Read about this and other fundraising events at

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