Thinking About Making Your Own Wine – Here’s A Personal Story from One of Our Women & Wine Fans

February 8th, 2012

Several years ago my husband and I made a trip to Napa Valley with two of our good friends and were introduced to the Finkelstein family, owners of Judd’s Hill Winery. At the time they were located up on beautiful Howell Mountain. We had a lovely tasting and visit with the owners, Art and Bunny. We met Judd, their son and assistant winemaker at the time, and his lovely new bride Holly.

They told us about their custom micro crush business and how anyone could make a barrel (or several) of wine and we were instantly intrigued.
This is an expensive process and also yields quite a bit of wine, so we recruited more friends to be in on this adventure and they readily agreed. We had four partners and were ready to go!

So, in 2005 we signed on to get our barrel made. The valley had an excellent growing season that year, with almost perfect conditions and we of course were thrilled to hear this news. Our grapes were sourced for us by Judd’s Hill from a vineyard on Silverado Trail at Steltzner Winery in the Stag’s Leap District. We opted to go for 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was pressed and put into new French oak, and already we were feeling like the expert winemakers! Well, expert at writing the checks, anyway!

In the spring we organized a visit to barrel taste and Judd himself climbed up with the wine thief in hand and we had a great time sipping our own wine, thinking life didn’t get any better than this. Each one of us signed our barrel with a sharpie! As they say here in the South, we were in ‘high cotton.’ After about 14 months in barrel, our wine was ready for bottling!

Again the partners made a trip out and organized for shipping to take place. Since we had four partners involved in this experience, we all agreed that we would only place a label on the back (which is required by the feds) to put the proper warnings and alcohol content and everything needed to get the wine out of the state of CA, and also since our intent was for our own consumption and gifts to other friends we all made up our own labels for the front. The wine came in at 15.4% alcohol.

We were so excited that we grabbed a bottle and all went out that evening for a dinner at the Rutherford Grill to taste our newly bottled wine. I need to add here that we did this against the wise advice of Al Finkelstein. He warned us about ‘bottle shock’ and while we now know why, we were so giddy we decided to try it anyway. The wine was TERRIBLE!

We were horrified and very worried that something must have gone wrong. After being reassured by Al that we just needed to be more patient and give the wine time that it would settle down and indeed again, he was right. After about 3 months we dared to taste it again, and could not believe how different it was. It was so much fun giving it to friends and family, that we decided to do another barrel when the timing was right for us all.

That time came about with the 2009 vintage. This time around we wanted to be more involved, without getting in the way of things, but wanted to be more ‘hands on’ in the process. We had made some connections with folks in the valley, asked lots of questions of winemakers, vineyard managers and gathered up the courage to actually ask one of our favorite vineyards to sell us some grapes.

Now mind you, it takes 1/2 ton of grapes to make a barrel, and a barrel yields about 25 cases of wine. We were small potatoes here, and our good friends at Lewelling Vineyard finally agreed to sell us their grapes. 2009 was a tough year for everyone after the economy had it’s dip, and from what we heard many winemakers weren’t even taking their full allotment of grapes, and vineyards were practically giving away grapes. The Wights have contracts with many prominent high end producers and we felt quite special to be allowed to purchase from them.

By this time, Judd’s Hill was growing their micro crush business and had hired a new winemaker, Ken Vigoda. Ken had been the winemaker at Raymond Vineyard and is a very sweet, gentle man, whose lovely dog Nutmeg always comes to work with him. We talked with Ken about the style we wanted and he was so accommodating. If one ever does visit this winery, you will see the magnitude of his job and personally, I don’t know how he keeps it all straight, but he does. That being said, he has tremendous support from the Finkelstein family.

So, this time around with now 6 partners in the barrel three of us arrived in Napa Valley on September 29 2009 (Keith and my 25th wedding anniversary) and went the next morning to walk the vineyard rows where our friend Dave said we would harvest the grapes. The weather was perfect, sunny skies and beautiful temperatures the whole ten days that Keith and I were there. We picked a few and tasted them, then checked the brix levels and with Dave’s sage advice decided on the harvest day. We were feeling pretty much like winemakers by now! I believe the harvest date was October 2. **Note: The weather turned rainy the day we left to go home and the rain continued heavily for a while, making those who left their grapes to ripen longer a bit nervous.

We were happy we harvested when we did. We harvested at a brix of 25.. 2009 was a more challenging growing season.** We arrived at the vineyard at 6:30 a.m. and watched and stayed out of the way as the pickers came and literally picked our grapes in 20 minutes flat. We then followed the truck down to Judd’s Hill and watched them go up the conveyor to the crusher and then pumped through the hose back into the bin. We had discussed our desire with Ken to have an extended maceration time with these grapes to extract the maximum color and tannin (don’t forget, we are experts now!) and so we delayed the fermentation by about a week. We came by each day and helped do punch downs, and watched as Ken added dry ice to keep the grapes cool, and my job was to stay out of the way and be the chief photographer!

Our third partner went home after about a week, and my husband and I could finally have a little time to ourselves. The day before we had to say goodbye Ken inoculated our grapes and the fermentation began!

The wine was put into neutral oak after pressing, in late October 2009, and then into new French oak in January 2010. In June 2011, after consulting with Ken we decided to do a blend instead of a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Judd’s Hill offers blending sessions to visitors and after our blending, I would recommend it to anyone who loves wine. It is a great way to understand and appreciate the process! So, with three out of the six partners, once again we trekked out to Napa in June 2011 and Ken guided us through the blending. Bottling took place in late August 2011 and in November of 2011 Keith and I went out to sort out the shipping details, since three of our partners live in other states. We took a bottle with us out to dinner once again, and the wine once again was still in the bottle shock stage. Being the experienced winemakers that we are (snicker), we knew better than to panic. We still did a little….

This wine I am sending to you today (editor’s note: we received a bottle of wine with this story from Susan) is a blend of: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon (Lewelling Vineyard St. Helena) 15% Hagafen Vineyard (Stag’s Leap District), 2% Merlot (Coombsville) and 5% Cab Franc (**2008 Juliana Vineyard in Pope Valley) Now, if you notice the Cab Franc is from 2008, however the percentage is such that this wine can still be labeled 2009 vintage. Another cool fun fact we learned as professional winemakers!
As you can see, the back label says ‘Friends’ which was agreed upon by all partners, and is apropos as we all are good friends.
Keith and I decided on the Sinclair Family Clan Crest for our front label to honor our Scottish heritage.

The motto of Clan Sinclair is ‘Commit Thy Work To God.’
We are both of Scottish descent. My maiden name is Macdonald. One can only imagine how two feisty Scots have remained married now for almost 28 years! Our other partners never have made a label for their wine from 2005, with the exception of my dear friend and ex-sister-in law (I kept her in the divorce) Deb, who put her company name and logo on her label with a story on the back about how she became involved in our wine making project. She even had wine bags to go with her gifts. What can I say…she’s a classy chick. Our label remains the same as 2005, only with the vintage being changed.
We hope you enjoy this bottle in the company of your good friends and or family, and would recommend consumption within 3-5 years if you plan to hold it, although it tastes pretty good right now!

Cheers and to your good health, Susan and Keith Sinclair

Editor’s Note: Susan Sinclair was invited to submit this story. We can’t wait to share the wine with friends here – to share the spirit of the project and this story with them. A big thank you to Susan.

One Response to “Thinking About Making Your Own Wine – Here’s A Personal Story from One of Our Women & Wine Fans”

  1. This is our story and our journey on how we find the perfect place to make wine in Bordeaux, France. Follow our blog at

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