Exploring the state of grape with Settembre Cellars
When we first visited Blake and Tracy Eliasson at their cozy tasting room in North Boulder, Settembre Cellars was just getting started. In truth, it’s still early days for the winery, but this fall marks the first time the couple enjoyed a full grape harvest at their current location, measuring an impressive 10 tons.
This past week, we had an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and participate in a grape must press, and though this offered tremendous insight into Settembre’s winemaking process, it sparked a question: What is the journey a grape takes after leaving the vine?
Always eager to share information about her business and passion, Owner Tracy Eliasson sat down with me—post grape press—to chat about Settembre’s winemaking process, specifically for their red varietals.
Step 1: Find a grower. “When we became serious about winemaking back in 2006, we visited local wineries and chatted with winemakers about their sources. The first wines we made were in our house, and we worked with established wineries to buy extra grapes and crush the batches using their equipment. Those connections led us to several vineyard managers out in Palisade. We were especially interested in Sangiovese, so we homed in on those vineyards. They became our go-to source for grapes after landing in our new location.”
Step 2. After finding a grower, examine the harvest. “The growers regularly take samples leading up to harvest so that they can measure the sugar and acid levels in the grapes. That determines when we want to pick. Because we aim for Old World-style wines with more acid and less sugar, we typically pick two to three weeks before most winemakers.”
Step 3. Pick and ship grapes overnight. “We typically have our bins packed lightly—only about three-quarters full—to ensure the weight of the grapes doesn’t crush low-lying fruit on the trip to Boulder.”
Step 4. Sort grapes. “Using a volunteer sorting crew of about eight to 12 people at a time, we pick through the grapes, removing any that are broken or have already started fermenting. As a rough guide, I tell people that if a grape looks good enough to eat, it’s good enough for wine. If it doesn’t, throw it out. If you’re unsure, taste it.”
Step 5. Destem. “In theory, the stems and seeds should land on one side of the machine, and grapes on the other. But the process is never perfect, so we usually have volunteers go through the grapes to make sure no stems have made it through the machine.”
Step 6. Hand-carry grape must into fermentation tanks. “Some places pay for a machine that automatically moves the grape must into tanks, but we just haul it by bucketloads—about five to eight gallons at a time—up a ladder and into the tank.”
Step 7. Rest and cool. “At this point, Blake takes a sample of the juice and sends it off to California for testing. The results of those tests tells us how to start the fermentation. We not only get a read-out of sugar and acid levels at this stage, but also nitrogen. To ensure the grapes ferment correctly, the yeast needs enough nitrogen. If the count is low, Blake will add some at key points during the fermentation.”
Step 8. Begin fermentation by pitching the yeast. “Several of our wines require very finicky yeast. It’s sometimes hard to work with—being very sensitive to temperature differences and nitrogen levels—but produces deliciously nuanced wines.”
Step 9. Punch down grape must. “To ensure all the flavor characteristics of the grape skins are incorporated into the wine, we press down the must every six hours or so. Not only does this enrich the final product, but allows Blake to monitor the health of the yeast.”
Step 10. Begin malolactic fermentation. “Most winemakers will introduce malolactic fermentation after removing the grape skins from the must, but Blake does it before because he believes extended maceration helps the wines show their place. This means that the press is performed weeks, not days, after fermentation begins.”
Step 11. Press off red wine skins and settle juice.
Step 12. Rack wine into barrels. “We use a combination of new French oak and French oak that is two to three years old. When it comes time to bottle, Blake combines these to produce just the right amount of nuance and flavor.”
Step 13. Barrel age for one year.
Step 14. Return wine to stainless steel tank for settling.
Step 15. Bottle and label.
All said and done, Tracy says it takes four to five years before Settembre’s red wines are available for sale. That may seem like a long time, but as Winemaker Blake often tells us, “When it comes to winemaking, you need the right combination of art, science, and patience to achieve balance and depth.”
Knowing now the long journey of grape to glass, we’ll sip with a newfound appreciation for Settembre’s thoughtful, nuanced winemaking.
—Jeffrey Steen | Managing Editor