Straw Wine: A New Adventure for Capitello Wines
I recently spent some time in a south Willamette Valley vineyard clipping beautiful clusters of Pinot Gris grapes. It was on a day that we had our first rainfall of the season, and about thirty people showed up in hats, boots and raincoats to harvest some three tons of luscious, juicy, sweet Pinot Gris. After all the grapes were loaded onto a truck to be transported to a nearby winery, we celebrated the 2012 harvest with a pig roast, wine and beer.
On my way home, I stopped in at one of my favorite local wineries, Domaine Meriwether - home to some of Oregon’s finest sparkling and still wines. With lively year round events and live music on Friday nights, I spend a lot of time having fun with friends and family at Domaine Meriwether.
During this visit, however, I noticed something in the winery that I had never seen before: stacks of straw matting holding clusters of freshly picked grapes lined the back wall of the winery. Portable heaters were close-by and generating heat, keeping the clusters warm and dry. Buzz Kawders, owner of Domaine Meriwether, was quick to explain that these mats of grapes were the project of local winemaker and owner of Capitello Wines, Ray Walsh, and Walsh was planning to make the Pacific Northwests first straw wine. Kawders said, “these Sauvignon Blanc grapes are here to dry up like raisins, which will take about three months, then the concentrated juice will be pressed out to make wine.”
I had never heard of straw wine before, and I had to find out more. Soon after, I was on the phone with Ray Walsh to see what this Straw Wine was all about.
WJ: Please tell me about this Straw Wine you’re making.
Walsh: I found this technique [of making wine] and I just wanted to try it, to give it a go and the straw is used as ventilation. The grapes lie on the straw which gives them ventilation so they don’t actually mold. You see, if you just put fruit in a bowl and let it sit, it will mold, but if it gets lots of ventilation, it will just start raisin-ing up, so that’s what I’m trying to achieve. So, I’ve got these sample bottles from South Africa, New Zealand and Austria that are all labeled as Straw Wine, and I thought, this is so cool, no one in the Northwest has done this, so I thought I’d give it a go.
WJ: How much are you making?
Walsh: There’s about a half a ton there, and this is just a trial, so we’ll see how it goes.
WJ: So you’re using Sauvignon Blanc grapes?
Walsh: Typically, it’s done with Muscat or Semillon, but I do have one sample at home that’s actually Sauvignon Blanc, and that came out pretty well, so I just wanted to try that [Sauvignon Blanc].
WJ: How long does it take them to dry out?
Walsh: From what I can see from research, you’re meant to leave them for three months, or you can take them in two months if they’ve lost thirty percent of their body weight. I wasn’t originally planning on doing anything that long. I was thinking four or five weeks, so now that I’ve done more research, I’ll probably re-evaluate my plan then and see whether I say, nope that’s it, or whether I keep going. But, I pulled some grapes yesterday, and I was finding grapes that were already over thirty brix, so they’re already dehydrating.
WJ: I’m amazed that after they dry out like that, that juice can still be extracted from them.
Walsh: There’s not a lot of juice in the end. I can’t believe how labor intensive this is really, you actually harvest the grapes twice – once from the vine and then re-harvested from the straw matting, so you go through two harvests. But, I just really want to do this, you know, you’ve gotta have fun with wine making and stop yourself from being complacent, so trying things like this is just cool.
WJ: When will this Straw Wine be released?
Walsh: I hope to have it released in May or June.
WJ: Will the flavors be what we’re used to with Sauvignon Blanc?
Walsh: Well, the flavors will be really, really rich, really intense. Kind of like a Sauvignon Blanc, but more rich and intense.
Simply put, straw wine is made from harvested ripe grapes that have been dried in the heat and kept from molding by the ventilation provided by the straw matting. After approximately 120 days (or less) of drying, the grapes are re-harvested and gently pressed to capture the concentrated juice. The juice is then fermented and placed in oak barrels before bottling. Months of aging vary on the winemaker, and the result is a rich, intense, sweet wine. Because of the low yields and labor intensive production method, straw wines are usually quite expensive.
Considering Ray Walsh’s hands-on approach to winemaking and his deep respect for the grape, the Capitello Wines have consistently showcased pure varietal expression. From his stellar Willamette Valley Sauvignon Blancs to his uniquely delicious Marlborough, New Zealand Pinot Noirs, I have no doubt that this new adventure in producing the Northwest’s first Straw Wine will be another high quality, hand crafted wine that can be added into the incredible line-up of award-winning Capitello Wines. I hope all goes as planned – I am really looking forward to sipping the first straw wine to ever be produced in Oregon.