Behind Cellar Doors

Keli is currently working on her second manuscript, a contemporary romance set in the Sonoma County Wine industry.

Excerpt, Behind Cellar Doors (work in progress)
©2017, Keli Vice


# 48) What is the role of malolactic fermentation in the production of California Chardonnay?

The clock on the wall reads 10:42. Eighteen minutes left — three questions to go. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I struggle to picture the sheet of notes I reviewed over and over last night until, bleary-eyed and exhausted, I crashed out on the couch at 3am, hoping to snatch a few hours’ sleep before my phone buzzed to wake me.

On cue, the backpack on the ground at my feet starts vibrating. I glance around, hoping no one can hear the low buzz of my phone. Thank God I switched the ringer off. Who the hell would be calling me right now? None of my friends ever call me. Ever. We’re a strictly text-Snapchat-and-Facetime generation. Dad knows I’m in a final.

Whatever. Probably a wrong number.

The vibrating finally stops and I concentrate on the paper in front of me. The answer to #48 is fairly straightforward, and my scratching pencil joins the sounds of forty-one others, dashing across the paper …

Malolactic fermentation (or ML) is a secondary fermentation that converts harsh malic acids to rounder, softer lactic acids.

ML produces diacytel as a side product of the fermentation, which gives a buttery character to Chardonnay. ML is generally performed on a percentage of the wine, though some Chardonnays are taken through 100% malolactic …

If you want them to be buttery, fat, flabby Chard-bombs.

I snicker, and the guy in front of me glances back, frowning. I wave a silent apology. I’ve never been a big Chard fan — hated it from the first sip of well-watered-down Napa Valley Chardonnay my mother let me try when I was eleven. I can’t help but add:

100% ML performed on warmer climate Chardonnay that lacks sufficient acidity will produce an overly fat, flabby wine. However, <50% ML on cooler climate fruit with ample acidity creates a mouth-filling balance.

Hopefully Professor Smith isn’t a fan of buttery Chards, either.

Moving on, I flex my fingers, trying to work the cramp out. We’re in one of the smaller lecture halls at UC Davis. I remember walking into my very first class here, with nearly 400 students milling around the huge auditorium, most looking as nervous and jittery as I felt. It was a big change from my tiny Sonoma County high school. It wasn’t until junior year that classes for my major started getting smaller. And harder. A lot harder.

#49) How is saignée employed to make rosé, and how does it differ from the traditional rosé techniques of Provence?

France is going to be so beautiful this time of year. I wish our trip was starting there. I’ve been lobbying Jason for an extra few days in Burgundy, but he hasn’t agreed … yet. He can’t get his focus off Amsterdam, which honestly I’m not that excited about. I’m going to end up taking care of five stoned people for four days.

Focus, Taylor. Time’s almost up.

Dammit. My phone is ringing again, buzzing against my right ankle. Ignoring it, I launch into my answer. Eleven minutes to finish.

Saignée translates to “bleed” in French. After a red varietal is crushed, “saignée” is when a portion of the pink juice is “bled off” to intensify the color, phenolics and flavor of the red wine being produced. In Bordeaux or Burgundy, this juice is most often discarded. Sometimes in the US, though, the juice that is syphoned off is taken through a separate fermentation to produce a rosé.

My mother – French to the core – often criticized saignée as a cheap way to produce rosé … a method topped only by her disdain for the sweet American debacle White Zinfandel. Under her direction, Lansing Vineyards was one of the first Russian River Valley wineries to produce a dry French-style rosé — from Pinot Noir — years before other wineries followed suit.

My wandering mind snaps back to the present, hearing the furtive rustling of backpacks being hauled out from beneath seats and writing tables squeaking as they are lowered. Trying to ignore the dark shapes of students starting to file down the aisles, I hunker down and keep writing:

To craft dry Provencal-style rosés red grapes are destemmed, then crushed. To create a pale pink wine, the juice is pressed directly off the berries then fermented in stainless steel and …

Details continue to pour onto the page, hand aching as my writing gets worse and worse. I try to slow down. If my answers aren’t legible it doesn’t really matter if they are correct or not.

… To yield a darker-colored wine, the juice is left in contact with the skins and seeds for anywhere from 2-20 hours, then gently drained off and delivered to fermentation tanks. The temperature-controlled fermentation (64 degrees) lasts from 8 to 15 days.

The last word is practically a scrawl. That will have to do. Finally — last question.

#50) Name four ways to determine optimal fruit maturity.

I smile, picturing my dad walking beside me in the vineyard, the leafy green canopy of the vines stretching far over my head. He had me out tasting the grapes as harvest approached by the time I was seven, explaining the ripening stages of veraison. I always loved the sweet burst as the berries broke open between my teeth, followed by the bitter taste of skins and seeds.

The end of veraison is determined by Brix levels, berry metabolites, berry proteins and taste — primarily seed maturity. To measure the Brix of the fruit …

A few minutes later I’m scribbling out the last few words of my answer when my backpack starts buzzing … again. Jesus! It’s all I can do to hold in my grunt of frustration. Leave me alone, already!

I finish with four minutes left on the clock. I’ve always been a slow test taker, too methodical to rush. A hasty scan confirms I answered all the questions.

“Time’s up,” Professor Smith calls from the bottom of the hall.

A shock floods through me.

I just finished college. Holy shit!

I scramble to shove my pencil into my backpack and stand in the same motion, filing out of the row and joining the line of students shuffling down the steps to drop their blue test booklets into the wire basket on the long metal desk at the front of the classroom. I nod to several classmates, the pressure of finals keeping the chatter to a minimum, even though it’s all over now.

With a little flutter of excitement, I toss my booklet into the pile with the others and head towards the side door. Pausing, I consider waiting to thank Professor Smith, but there’s already a line of students in front of her. I’ll email her.

As the door swings open, bright sunlight blinds me, a glaring contrast to the dim fluorescent light inside the hall. Setting my backpack on the ground at my feet, I shrug off the wrinkled flannel I’d worn in the chilly classroom and wrap it around my waist. I pause, enjoying the tingling sensation as the as the late May sun warms my bare arms. Still squinting, I bend down to rummage in the front pocket for my sunglasses when my phone starts buzzing. AGAIN.

Monstrously irritated now, I rip open the side pocket, ready to give my wrong-number-caller a piece of my mind. The vibrating has stopped by the time I wrestle the phone out of my bag. But the message on the screen stops me short.

(4) Missed calls from Martin Sandcastle

That’s weird.

Walking over to a shaded bench along the path where I’m supposed to meet Carlee, I sit and press the screen to return the call.

Martin answers on the first ring.

“Taylor,” he says in a rush, his voice a mixture of anxiety and relief.

“Hey Martin, I was surprised to see your calls.” Martin Sandcastle has been the winemaker at my family’s winery for more than ten years. Since the day my mother died in a car accident, in fact, two days after I turned twelve. My heart clenches in the familiar pain that a decade has not managed to soften. “What’s up—”

Martin’s voice cuts me off.

“Taylor, something’s happened to your Dad.”

* * *