Oh boy! Winston told me yesterday that this time of year is when you wait, wait, wait for the grapes to be ready to harvest.  He said he was too busy to sit down and write today because between watching me grow and the grapes ripen that he had enough work to do this week.  You know what else he told me? He told me that one day I was going to take over this job because he was going to retire, so he could spend his days laying in the sun and waiting on Mom to bring him treats.  

Can you believe that a little boy like me is going to have a big grown up blog like this?  He said that if I wanted to practice this week I could. He even said it would be good for me to write down everything I’ve learned, so I can remember it better when I get excited. 

I’ve learned a lot about how to be a good winery dog, but these are the 10 most important rules for me to follow:

  • Say hi to all the people and all the dogs!  My job as a greeter is very important. Winston says nothing makes a person feel better than for you to tell them hello with a tail wag and a smile.  He also says dogs are the only ones lucky enough to get away with sniffing each other to say hi!
  • No barking in the tasting room.  Mom always tells me that I have so much to say, but Winston keeps reminding me that there is a time and place for everything and the tasting room is not the place for barking. He said some old man once said, “The quieter you become, the more you hear.”  The guy’s name was Ram Dogs, or something like that, but I doubt he had as much to say as I do. All I know is that when I am quiet, I just hear more things I need to investigate.  
  • I can’t eat the grapes. Winston reminds me of this whenever we go for a walk in the vineyard, and I start sniffing around too much.  He says they are toxic for me; I don’t really know what that word means yet, but I’m pretty sure it means they taste bad.
  • Stay close by! I’m just a little dog in a big, big world, but Winston says I can’t ever go too far away from home.  He said I can never go in the parking lot because cars aren’t always looking. He also told me that there are these really great stinky, smelly animals that run around sometimes.  He said they are black and white and they like to play chase, but he also said Mom gets really frustrated when he plays chase with them. I guess if I stay close to people who care about me, I won’t get into any trouble I can’t handle. 
  • No food, period.  Let me be clear here.  Winston is all about the food.  I’m all about the food. Do you know who is not all about the food?  Mom! She says that it is really important for us to have this thing called “table manners”.  She says that when we have this, we won’t ask anyone for food. She also says we are absolutely never allowed to put our heads on tables.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since that is where all the food is, but I am going to listen to her anyway because I don’t like to make her mad.  
  • “Curiosity killed the cat.”  This is one that Mom tells me all the time.  I don’t actually know what this has to do with me because I’m a dog and not a cat, but I don’t know if she’s just confused because she’s not a dog.  The problem with this is that Mom tells me this right before I’m about to make a really cool discovery, so I’m still deciding if this is the best rule for me to follow.    
  • Paw at the door to get back inside.  This is a really great trick, and it doesn’t take me long at all to teach the humans what I want when I do it!  Winston says this world is never going to know what you want unless you speak up, so he told me that whenever I really want to go inside or outside I should just paw on the door to let the world know.  The best part is when Winston plays a game I like to call “in-out-in-out”. When he’s playing that game, he waits for the people to sit down and then he paws on the door. As soon as they let him in or out and sit down again, he goes to another door and paws again.  He keeps going until he feels like they are tired, and then he just stays out and lays in the sunshine for a while.  
  • Naps are really important.  Is there anything better than curling up in a comfortable spot to snooze away?  Mom says when I don’t get enough sleep, I am not well-behaved. This is because when I get really tired I like to do lots of silly things to keep me awake, and this is always when I get put into time-out.  I usually lay down when that happens, and before I know it, I hear people talking to me and I am back to normal again!
  • Chew on toys, not humans or Winston.  I don’t know about this rule. My teeth are growing and they hurt sometimes.  The best way for me to make them feel better is to chew on something soft, but whenever I try to chew on Winston’s soft, soft ears to make them feel better, he growls at me.  When this happens, Mom tosses a toy my way. My favorite right now is a chipmunk that has ropes on it!
  • Sit down when I am asked.  You know what happens a lot when you are a winery dog?  You get your picture taken. Winston says I need to hold very still when that happens, and the best way to do this is to sit.  He told me that one day I would be big enough to sit my bottom in a chair like he does, but until then I need to learn to sit very still when I am saying hi to people or having my picture taken.  He also said I need to learn how to always stay down off of people’s laps because even if I am little now, I will be very big one day, and I will be too big to not listen when I need to.  

This is an awful lot for a little dog like me to know, but I know that if I try really hard, I can be the best puppy ever.  Winston told me that one day, a long time ago, he was just as little as I am now (pictured above!). He said that when he was little, he had a big brother named Vladimir, and Vladimir taught him everything he knows.  Mom even says that Vladimir had better manners than Winston! I hope I can be just as good of a dog as those two; I know with Winston showing me the way, I will have no problems at all!

Today, Mom received a call in the tasting room that made me think twice.  Someone was calling to ask if our wines were vegan, and Mom ensured the person that all of our wines are vegan.  Then she mentioned that we don’t use egg whites for our fining agents. This was a brand new term for me – I’ve actually never heard “fining agents” mentioned in the tasting room until today.  

This seemed like a case for Winston the Wine Dog, so I decided to nose out a few facts about this part of wine making process.  That way, all of us can understand it better!  

Basically, fining agents are added to wine while still in the barrel to help remove unwanted materials.  These unwanted materials of the wine, called colloids, are not quite big enough to see. Colloids consist of elements that are already found in wine, but when they are not in the right quantity, the wine may become cloudy, bitter, or astringent.  

Colloids are positively charged, so they won’t bind together on their own.  They do eventually lose their charge, and some winemakers get around using fining agents by allowing the wine to rest and then periodically racking it to remove any colloids that have binded together.  Winemakers are able to fast forward this process by using fining agents. Because fining agents have a negative charge, they cause the colloids to bind together as soon as they are introduced to the wine.  Once binded, colloids are easy to remove.  

Bentonite, egg whites (or albumen), and casein are a few of the  “agents” most commonly used for this process. Bentonite is typically used in white wines and alumen in red wines, but our winemaker uses bentonite for nearly all of his fining (and ALL of the fining of our wines).

While some purists choose to leave colloids in their wine because they want to preserve all natural flavors and textures, removing colloids through the fining process leaves a wine that is more stable and less prone to spoilage.  

In France, where wineries go the more traditional route of using egg whites for their red wines, they usually have a favorite recipe or two that they keep on hand to use up all those extra egg yolks.  I found two that look especially delicious. (Click on the names below to link to their recipes.) If you make either of these, let us know! Better yet… bring us a taste!

Parisian Flan and Cannelés

Vidal grapes and Cabernet Franc grapes growing side by side.

Right now is an exciting time at the vineyard, and you don’t have to look far to see the changes.  No, it’s not Wyatt that I am talking about. It’s pretty exciting to watch him grow, too, but you will have to wait until Friday for me to tell you more about that!  For the last blog, I wrote about veraison, which is the color change that indicates grapes are beginning to ripen. This week I am going to talk to you about the timeline as we move from veraison to harvest season.

During the weeks following veraison, you will notice the vines getting “woodier”.  This is another indicator that they are putting all of their energy into making the grapes sweeter instead of continuing to spread. The grapes are growing plumper by the minute (this is called engustment), but this plumpness slows down airflow in the some of the clusters.  As a result, our vineyard workers Gene and Jacob have to watch closely to make sure the grapes aren’t being attacked by any fungus or bug infestations.  

During this same time, they are taking samples from all different areas in each varietal lot to determine if the grapes are ready to harvest.  Because grapes ripen at different rates even on the same vine, they have to be sure to collect samples from all different rows, from different sides of the vines, and from different heights of the vine.  These samples are sent to Michael Shaps, our winemaker, so he can run tests to determine the levels of sugars (measured in brix), tannins, acids, and flavor compounds. He is waiting on the perfect combination of all of those factors to tell us that the grapes are ready to harvest. You can watch this informative video from Jordan Winery to see the entire process.

Meanwhile, we are also watching the weather very closely so we can choose to pick early if there are any threatening meteorological events that we need to schedule around.  Often, vineyards will choose to pick before a storm hits to keep their grapes from becoming damaged. We had to make this decision last year when Hurricane Florence was scheduled to dump several inches on us.  

Harvest season is often considered to be the most exciting time at a vineyard.  It is a time when the vineyard workers are able to see the fruits of their labors, when vintners are able to start their visions for next year’s wines, and when vineyard visitors are given a brief glimpse of all the work that goes on behind the scenes to produce their delicious favorites.  

I don’t know if you’ve seen my new little brother, but Wyatt has some pretty big paws to grow into and not just physically.  As I slow down, I am making sure to teach Wyatt everything I know about grapes, vineyards, wines, and (most importantly) how to walk up and greet each of you as you come to visit us at the vineyard.  Don’t worry, Mom, I am not teaching him how to ask for food. 

Winston whispering all of the secrets of being a wine dog!

Part of Wyatt’s training has taken us on many walks through the vineyard, and we noticed something really interesting happening this week.  Our grapes have reached the veraison phase of the season! This phase is when grapes start changing color and is most visible in red grapes as they turn from their bright green to purple hues.  You can also see it happen in the white grapes if you look closely; the color of those change from bright green to a more translucent golden color. Once this happens, the grapes will fully ripen over the course of the next month or two. 

Veraison presenting in our Viognier grapes.

This milestone in the grape’s development occurs when the vines begin to focus on nourishing the grapes with their energy instead of just creating more energy.  As a result the grapes double in size, their sugar levels increase, their acidity falls, and the aroma compounds that make wines fruity and complex begin to develop.  

Petit Verdot Grapes

During this time, the grapes also develop polyphenols in their skin.  This helps to protect the grapes from environmental elements like the sun and wind.  Unfortunately, these polyphenols don’t protect the newly sweet grapes from all of the creatures who want to eat them, and you will see us wrapping our vines in the protective netting in the next few weeks.  

Cabernet Franc in all of its “hue”ty!

Make sure you take a trip to see the vines before the beautiful colors are covered up, and if you are lucky, you might just see me showing Wyatt the ropes of being a winery dog!

Now, I know I am no expert in this world of wine. My specialty is more along the lines of being able to sniff out who has the good food stashed in their coolers, but I have done a lot of research and a lot of listening around the tasting room.  One term that seems to have everyone scratching their heads – including me – is minerality. Even after all my research, I don’t have any real conclusive information to share with you.

A lot of people think that minerality comes from the vines soaking up the minerals in the soil in which they grow.  From my understanding, that would technically be impossible since the trace amounts of minerals present in the grapes are so small that they could never be detected by human taste buds.  Besides that, many minerals are added to and taken from the wine during the wine-making process. What is curious about this theory is that some regions produce more wines with noticeable minerality than other regions.    

Although sometimes described as a taste, minerality really describes an experience, instead.  The term helps describe the combination of the smell, taste, and mouthfeel of the wine. One article I read called minerality the umami aspect of wine.  When I read that, I knew I had heard the term before, and I quickly recalled that it was mentioned during a meeting with Mikey from Mashita, he explained the umami taste and why it is important to lend savory qualities to foods.  

Minerality works in the same way with wine.  It helps the wine drinker notice all of the other characteristics of the wine by activating the salt receptors in the taste buds.  While it is difficult to put this experience into words, some words that you might hear used to describe a wine that has a minerality quality present are chalk, graphite, oyster shell, wet sidewalk, or crushed rock.  When you are tasting wine at Brix & Columns, you may notice the quality or minerality in our rosé and cabernet franc wines.  

Even though it hasn’t made its way onto the Davis Wine Aroma Wheel, minerality is a term making rounds more and more frequently in the wine world, so you are sure to hear it as you make your rounds to all the great vineyards in Virginia and beyond.  While not everyone understands completely what it means, I hope this blog gave you a bit more grasp of it next time you hear it in the tasting room. I’ll keep nosing around for more information, and hopefully I will find some tasty treats my mom has stashed away for me along the way!

If you’ve stopped by the vineyard and met me, I don’t think there is any denying that I am the sweetest thing all around, but after me, there are a few other sweet items in our tasting room.  Our name itself gives you a hint of the sweetness that can be found in some of our wines. Brix & Columns is named, in part, after the unit of measurement in which sugar is measured in wine. I actually wrote my first blog about brix (read “What are These Brix, Anyway?” here) and we named our first semi-sweet wine, White Brix, as a nod to those brix.  

We get a lot of questions about what constitutes a sweet wine, specifically what is the particular point where a wine goes from dry to sweet. There is not a black and white answer (a Winston, if you will) to that question, but there are several well-defined gray areas to follow:

If a wine is 0% residual sugar, it is considered “bone dry”.  Our Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, and McGahey all fall into this category.  

If a wine has between .1% and 1.7% residual sugar, it is considered “dry”.  Our Viognier, Petit Manseng, Rosé, and Cabernet Franc fall into this category.   

If a wine has between 1.8% and 3.5% residual sugar, it is considered “off-dry”.  These wines often start sweet and finish dry. Both our White Brix and Kerus fall into this category.  

If a wine has between 3.6% and 12% residual sugar, it is considered “sweet”.  Our Lil Em falls into this category.

Finally, if a wine has more than 12% residual sugar, it is considered “dessert”.  We don’t currently have any wines that fall into this category.

Inevitably, the question will lead to what determines the level of sugar in wine.  That is actually determined by the quality and ripeness of the grapes when harvested and the goals of the winemaker.   During the fermentation process, the yeast in the pressed juice eats the sugar (fructose and glucose) and turns it into alcohol.  In dry wines, all of the sugar was eaten which is why dry wines have a slightly higher alcohol level than sweet wines. In sweet wines, the winemaker stopped the fermentation process in order to have a sweeter wine.  

Sometimes wines can taste sweeter than their residual sugar suggests they would taste.  This is because humans (much like dogs) rely on their sense of smell to influence their taste.  If a wine smells sweet, it is perceived as sweeter by the drinker. This happened frequently with our 2016 Viognier.  Also, the more tannins a wine has in it, the less sweet it appears to be. This can be seen when you taste our White Brix and Kerus side by side.  The White Brix tastes sweeter even though it has less residual sugar than the Kerus.

Speaking of tannins – did you know that you can reduce the presence of tannins by drinking the wine with food that is salty and/or fatty (you know, every cheese board my mom has NEVER let me eat)?  You know what would be really sweet? If you talked my mom into letting me have a hunk of cheddar with some slices of salami, but since we know that will never happen, continue happily drinking your wines every time you come to see the sweetest aspect of Brix & Columns Vineyards: ME!


I may be an old fellow and slowing down a bit, but there is one thing I will never get tired of: springtime! Sure, I let those bunnies hop through my yard without barking at them as much, and I haven’t chased too many skunks this year (Mom is really appreciative of this change), but I am still sure to take her on a walk every morning through the vines, so she can get her exercise, and I can sniff out the new changes in my vineyard.

I’m not the only one to perk up in the springtime; this is also the time of year that vines start waking up from their winter slumber.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we prune at the start of the season, but that is just one of many changes that is happening around here.  When the spring sunshine starts to hit the vines, the starches that were stored over the winter are converted into sugars and sap starts moving through the vines.  This wakes all of the sleeping parts of the grapevine, and the dormant buds become noticeably larger. The buds swell and eventually break open to unfurl the beautiful gold-green leaves that have been forming since last year’s growing season.  The shoots that grow from these newly broken buds grow quickly, and vineyard managers strip the vines of their excess leafage at this time in order to focus the energy of growth into the two shoots that have been selected to cultivate this year.   

After a few weeks, clusters of inflorescence develop.  These look like miniature grape clusters on the vine, but if you look closely, they are actually tightly formed flower buds.  After opening, the flowers will last for as short a time as two days in warm sunny weather or as long as a month in cool, damp areas.  If the weather is cool and damp during the flowering period, the number of berries per bunch will be fewer, and each grape will have less seeds – resulting in smaller fruit at full ripeness. After this self-pollination period is over, the flowers fall off and the berries start to form.  At the same time that these visual changes are happening, the buds that will vine and fruit next year are beginning to form beneath the surface of the grapevines. Sunny days now will result in more fruit-bearing next year.

Anywhere from a month to two months after the flowers have dropped off and the fruit has appeared on the vines, the berries will begin the veraison process.  During this stage, the red grapes change color from green to red and other signs of maturity begin to surface. For the next month and a half, the grapes will continue to increase in sugar, color, and flavor compounds.  As veraison slows to a halt, the green outer coverings on the vines will turn brown and bark-like (called lignification), and harvesting will begin as soon as the grapes have reached their desired brix and acidity levels.  

The leaves will stay on the vine collecting energy to be stored over the winter in order to start the whole process again next spring.

Stay tuned on our social media pages for pictures of the grape flowers as they come into bloom, and keep your fingers crossed for dry and sunny days ahead!  

Tasting sheet. Photo taken by E Baugher

It’s that time of year again for lazy sunny days spent cruising the countryside, driving from one vineyard to another, drinking delicious wine, and petting incredibly handsome dogs (ahem!).   Sometimes people are visiting a winery for their first time and don’t know all the steps of the tasting process, and sometimes they just forget to take time for one of the most important steps: the sniffing.  Not us dogs! We never forget to sniff!

I actually wrote a blog on the 5 S’s of the tasting process last year (read that here), and a quick recap is that the 5 S’s are See, Swirl, Smell, Sip, and Savor.  Today, I wanted to make sure you focus on my area of expertise next time you come in.

The third S of the process is the smelling.  When you smell the wine, you should be taking both small sips of air through your nose and long deep breaths.  Doing this will help you experience the three layers of smells that you encounter. The first layer tells you the characteristics of the grape, the second layer tells you about the winemaking process, and the third layer tells you about any aging that occurs.  Knowing about these three layers of smelling are especially helpful if you are a sommelier doing a blind tasting, but the tasting room associates already tell you quite a bit of these details during the actual tasting process.

All of those wonderful smells that you smell when you stick your nose in a glass of wine are there because of some key compounds that impact the aroma.  I want to tell you about the six most common compounds, so you can see if you can sniff them out of that glass of wine you are drinking.

Pyrazines:  Think of those herbaceous notes you sometimes smell in wine, you know, the hints of green pepper and grass.  Sometimes this compound can even provide smells that are reminiscent of bitter chocolate. Even though they are off-putting to some people now, these smells will actually mellow out and morph into notes of cherry and chocolate as they age.  These compounds are most usually found in wines like Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Rotundone: Think of those spicy notes like black pepper, old leather, and earthiness.  This compound exists mainly in the skins of grapes, so winemakers can choose to increase or decrease the presence by adjusting maceration times.  (Remember: Maceration is the term that refers to soaking the juice on the skins). This compound is most often found in wines known for their spiciness such as Syrah, Zinfandel, and Grüner Veltliner.

Monotrepenes: Think of those floral and sweet fruit smells that so many people love.  The really neat thing about these particular compounds is that they are the only one that you can actually taste in the grape prior to processing.  These are commonly found in wines like Gewürztraminer, Traminette, Viognier, and Riesling.

Sotolon: Think of the sweet, nutty smells you encounter like maple syrup, walnut, and tobacco.  These smells come about as a byproduct of oxidation, so they are typically found in wines that are fortified or whites that have been aged for a long time.  You might encounter them in an aged Chardonnay, a sherry, or a port style wine.

TDN (Trimethyl Dihydronapthalene):  As terrible as it might sound, and it makes my nose hurt just thinking about it, think about how common fuels smell.  Do you know what I’m talking about? Kerosene, diesel, gasoline? Yep! Those smells are usually found in wines that are grown in warmer climates.  You might find them in Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, or Riesling.

Diacetyl:  As a cream cheese head, this compound might be my favorite.  Think about dairy smells like cream and butter. These smells tell you that the wine has undergone malolactic fermentation (when malic acid is converted into lactic acid) and this process and the resulting compound actually make the wine creamier and more velvety.  This is most common in red wines and whites that undergo malolactic such as Chardonnay, Viognier, and our Petit Manseng.

All of our sniffing abilities are different and all wines are different, so don’t get down on yourself if you can’t smell any of these.  If anything, it would just make me feel better to know you were trying to sniff out the wine world like I am!

View of back patio. Photo taken by E Baugher

P.S.  The 6th S that I added (as your resident wine expert) is “sitting” and there is not better time than now to do it!  We recently added a back patio and a picnic table, and the views are incredible, so come sit, SNIFF, sip, and enjoy!

Oh boy, oh boy!  Spring is my favorite time of year.  The country air is always full of good smells: flowers, freshly cut grass, manure being spread over the fields, and burger being grilled for dinner.  I could tell you which one of those is my favorite, but you probably already know! What more could a dog ask for then a freshly grilled burger to be followed by a good nap in the freshly mowed grass?  Phew. Tell that to my Mom. Please! Luckily for me, fun in the vineyard doesn’t just end with delicious smells; instead, it is a time of excitement when the vines are coming back to life and plans are being put into place for the next year.

Buds forming on dormant vines at Brix & Columns Vineyards. Photo by Erin Baugher

Gene, along with Felix’s crew, has been working hard the last month to prune all of our vines back from last year and train them to the trellis for this year’s crop.  Pruning grape vines should be done pretty aggressively by cutting up to 90% of the previous year’s growth off. Then, adequate pruning is imperative to ensure a bountiful harvest. Grapes only grow on new growth, and the new growth comes from the previous year’s vine that has been wired onto the trellis.  Each plant, when finished being pruned, should have about 20-30 buds remaining on the entire plant.

Close up of cane pruning at Brix & Columns Vineyards. Photo by Erin Baugher

Achieving the proper balance of buds is so important to having a large crop.  Too many buds and there will be too much canopy and not enough sunlight reaching the vines; too few buds and the crop load will be less than desired projections. The lack of fruit can encourage excessive greenery growth that also leads to too much canopy.  It is a delicate balance that can only be achieved with foresight, intuition, and a knowledge of growth patterns of the different vinifera and hybrids. Vineyard managers are a huge asset to the winemaking process and their work often goes unnoticed if you aren’t looking closely.

Gene, our vineyard manager, in the Vidal vines. Photo taken by Erin Baugher

Luckily for us, we appreciate Gene and all of the work he does: Thank you, Gene, for looking out for our vines and for giving me ear rubs whenever you come around. As you all come into the vineyard over the next few weeks, keep your eyes peeled for bud break.  This exciting day is when the growing buds bust through their winter blankets and start to show their green-gold selves to this world! We will share that breaking news when it happens!

Wine labels from Brix & Columns wine.

Photo by E Baugher

Last week I heard someone asking Mom why there were sulfites in our wine.  They were lamenting that the European wine they had recently enjoyed on vacation said nothing about sulfites on that label, but all American wines list “contains sulfites” on their labels.  Now, I know I’m just a dog, and there may be one or two things about the wine world that I don’t know yet, so I figured this opportunity was ripe for me learning more.

It turns out that sulfites appear in wine one of two ways.  They are a natural byproduct of the yeast fermentation process, and winemakers often add them to the wine to stop further fermentation and to prevent the wine from spoiling while it is in the bottle waiting for you to drink it.  The reason they help with both of these issues is because sulfites (otherwise known as sulfur dioxide or SO2) are both antimicrobial and antioxidant, so they help keep the wine from receiving too much exposure to spoilants or oxygen.

They are used in higher quantities in wines that are sweet, that are low in acidity, or that are white.  If you are looking for a wine that is lowest in sulfites, your best bet is to grab a bottle of dry red wine since white wines typically have twice as many sulfites than reds.  Sulfites don’t just help preserve wine, though, they are also present in foods like dried fruits, soda, candy, french fries, potato chips, and so many others. If sulfites equal french fries or potato chips, you can count me in – just don’t tell Mom you invited me to join the junk food party!

It turns out that the only difference in sulfites in wines between here in the US and in Europe is in the labeling. In the United States, wines that contain more than 10 ppm (parts per million) require the label “contains sulfites”, whereas European standards don’t have the same requirement.  The upper limit allowed in the United States (350 ppm) and Europe (210 ppm) do differ, but you can expect most dry red wines to have about 50 ppm no matter where you are in the world!

Sulfites have been used in the wine world since the Romans first discovered their preservation benefits, and now that “added sulfite”-free wines are making their way to the wine markets, it is easy to see why winemakers over the past few centuries have decided to continue adding them – they allow wine to keep and age well. Now that I think about it, I must have plenty of sulfites floating around inside me, because I think everyone can agree that I am aging like a fine wine!