Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Winemaking Articles

Racking: Decanting on a Large Scale

When most people think about how wine is made, they envision beautiful vineyards, tidy rows of oak barrels, stainless steel tanks, and a winemaker tasting out of a glass or two. If they’ve been to a winery during harvest, they may even think about bins of grapes being tilted into a hopper. But in reality, there is a lot more to making wine than meets the eye. Winemaker Nicki Pruss likens it to building a house.

“Consider the winemaker to be the architect, the one who develops the blueprint,” says Nicki. “The cellar manager is the foreman, who understands the blueprint and works with the entire winemaking production team to build a great wine. It’s a major team effort, and there are a lot of moving parts.”

One of these parts – and one the public rarely sees – is called racking. Simply put, racking is when wine is separated from its sediment or heavy lees and then transferred temporarily to another container. It’s like decanting wine, only on a large scale. It’s important because not only does it help to clarify the wine, it also briefly exposes the wine to oxygen, which aerates and opens it up, softening the young tannins. At Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, red wines are racked three or four times during the winemaking process, beginning right after the primary and malolactic fermentations are completed. White wines remain on the lees longer with periodic stirring to enhance aroma and texture.

Like anything else, racking wine takes know-how and experience. Cellar Manager Luis Contreras, who has worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for over a dozen years, understands the intricacies. “When you rack from a barrel, the trick is to draw off the maximum amount of clear wine without sediment,” says Luis. “It takes practice to get it just right.”

Good tools help as well. Luis and his team use what is called a racking “wand,” an L-shaped stainless steel tube with a valve and a sight glass. The sight glass, which is about four inches long, allows the cellar technician to see the wine that is coming up out of the barrel and through the tube, and inspect its clarity. As soon as the wine gets cloudy, the valve must immediately be shut off.

In addition, the cellar crew takes great pains to ensure that as wines come out of barrel, the vineyard lots are kept separate, and that each barrel’s wine goes to the specific tank assigned for that lot. “It’s not hard,” says Luis, “but it takes discipline, concentration and attention to detail to do the job correctly.”

A new rack system in the red barrel room allows barrels to be brought to a central work area for racking, keeping the racking process running efficiently. Likewise, efficient new barrel washing equipment, which uses a low volume, high pressure water system, enables the crew to wash two barrels at a time resulting in a cleaner, more hygienic barrel, and also helps in our efforts to conserve water.

Considering that each vintage of wine is racked three or four times before blending and bottling and that there are over a thousand barrels for any given vintage, racking is an enormous and important undertaking at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and we thank our cellar crew for their contribution.