From Vine to Bottle

YOU LOVE WINE. You collect favorites, share notes with friends, follow critics’ scores. But have you ever really thought about how wine is made? The countless actions (and reactions) called for in vineyard and cellar, from even before a vintage takes form to when the FedEx delivery hits your doorstep three years later? The first thing you should know about Faust is that we’re traditionalists. As the age-old adage says, “The most important thing a farmer can apply to the soil is his or her shadow.” We haunt our vineyard through the growing season, monitoring rainfall, temperatures, canopy growth, and fruit development, to be able to make choices—some easy, others very hard, counterintuitive even—to create the balance in soils, canopies, and clusters needed to produce pure, precise wine. And once the fruit is in the winery, more choices are required— fermentation temperatures, barrels (new or used)—to coax out the quality and style we’re looking for in the finished wine.

The Season Starts Underground


The first thing we do after harvest is nourish the roots of our vines. We irrigate the vineyard, flushing the roots to bring them nutrients harbored in the soil. We layer in more nutrients with compost. And we plant cover crops between rows—grasses and flowers that hold down weeds (no garden-sprayer Roundup for us). We deliberately plant cover crops that fix nitrogen in the soil to give the vines more power. Then we keep an eye on the winter rains— too little, and those cover crops steal the precious resource. While we like to let the likes of clover and legumes grow as long as possible between rows, in drought years we till them into the soil early to let as much water as possible filter down to the roots.

Time To Prune

January – February

Even before we know how much rain we’ll ultimately get, and how the season’s temperatures will play out, we make a pruning plan. In other words, we decide how tightly to cut back last season’s now bare, spindly shoots. We want to leave just the right number of buds, in the best position, to balance the grape crop we anticipate coming. It’s far from a vineyard-wide plan. The land is divided into “blocks” (from an aerial view, these look like so many rectangles and amoebas). Each might vary from another with distinctly different soils, aspects, elevations, and row orientations. As such, pruning ends up being a row-by-row, vine-by-vine decision.

On Alert For Freezing Temperatures

March – early April

Come spring, we get to watch the vines come to life, as the first vibrant green growth appears on the bare shoots (“bud break,” in vineyard lingo). Our excitement is tempered by prayers we won’t get any late, deep frost that might prevent those buds from exploding into the shoots and clusters they are meant to be. If that happens, we hightail it into the vineyard and activate the overhead sprinklers that provide frost protection. They keep the temperature on the buds just above freezing even as ice forms around the water.

The Grand Period of Growth

Late April – May

As temperatures rise and vines spring into photosynthetic action, tiny blossoms appear. They in turn pollinate the shoots, and miniature clusters of tiny green berries follow, looking like so many Lilliputian Thompson seedless clusters on a dollhouse table. It’s time to take stock of the crop load, with an eye to the resources (moisture, canopy potential) each vine will have to draw on to ripen those clusters in perfect balance of sugar and acidity levels, phenolic maturity, and complex flavors. If the load already looks too large for the vine, our foreman Alberto Cuevas (pictured) and his colleagues remove weaker shoots, so healthier ones can fully develop—a process called “suckering.”

Managing Canopies


As canopies leaf out, nature’s plan is to protect the fruit from the summer sun. Our plan is to fine-tune that protection: open up the canopy to expose the fruit to some sunlight. Too little light gives aromas of bell pepper, too much sun intensity and overripe, pruney flavors dominate. Dappled sunlight nails that balance, so we pull individual leaves to achieve the effect. If we get it right, we get intense, pure, fresh flavors.

The Moment of Truth

July – August

In late summer, berries begin turning from green to dark purple and vines shift their work from growing to maturing the fruit. It’s a stage called “veraison,” and it’s a moment of truth for our vineyard team, who would love to nurture every last cluster through harvest. Instead, we often have to grit our teeth and do precise “green-thinning”—that is, cut off clusters that are clearly behind on the ripening curve and leave them on the ground. But our commitment to quality demands the sacrifice, and the reward is a much better chance that the remaining fruit will cruise to ripeness—perfect sugar, acidity levels and mature tannins together at once. In our Coombsville vineyard, where temperatures are often 10 degrees cooler than farther north in Napa Valley, we don’t have the luxury of late-season heat to surge ripening, and if we fail to mature the fruit to the style and quality we need for The Pact, we lose more than the clusters on the ground.

The Decision to Pick

September – October

There isn’t a more critical point in the cycle than the moment we decide to pull the trigger and begin harvesting the grapes. The wine’s flavors, textures, tannins, and complexity all depend on getting it right. But it’s not a one-and-done call. With our vineyard blocks spanning diverse soils and wrapping around a myriad of aspects at different elevations, the decisions are made block by block, row by row. We might even pick the first 30 vines of a row and come back through in several days to pick the rest if that stretch needs a little longer to ripen. Call it both science and art. The team pulls samples from every part of the vineyard, and measures sugar and acidity levels in the lab. Meanwhile, winemaker David Jelinek walks the vineyards constantly, tasting for skin and seed maturity. It’s texture he’s looking for. The seeds turn from green to brown, and the grapes are softer, less crunchy, when he bites into them.

The Fruit Might Be Ready, But The Weather Not So Much


When to pick might be intuitive, but it’s not simple. If the canopy is still green, there’s still power nurturing the fruit to optimum maturity; if it’s fully yellow, there will be no further ripening that year. And then there’s the weather: What will the next 7 to 10 days bring? Is the rain going to hold off? Will we get a late season frost? At the confluence of all that, throughout harvest, David makes the calls and schedules the harvest. To ensure that the grapes come in cold–and not hot from the sun–the team arrives at 8pm to prep and stretch, then picks all night until about 6am.

Meanwhile, Back At The Winery…


The berries are arriving cold, and as pristine as possible in small, half-ton bins. But even so, they’re not all worthy of The Pact. Invariably, some will be “shot” (small and green because they were never fertilized), some shriveled where there was less canopy to protect. We sort as thoroughly as possible, as the clusters are destemmed. And finally, to ensure only the best, ripe berries make it into the tank, we send them through an optical sorter capable of detecting and shooting out exactly what we instruct it to. In winery use for about a decade, this rather expensive piece of equipment which came to the wine industry courtesy of tree-fruit processors, can be programmed with “ideal grape” parameters for size, color, ripeness, flaws, etc. It literally photographs individual berries and making nano-second decisions—shoots out any that don’t conform with blasts of air.

Back to Pact Journal | Volume III | Spring 2023