By Michael Busselen

Nearly 20 years ago, we conceived of the dream of some day owning and living on a high-end vineyard.  A second career running a winery and small tasting room.  Making it our own.

With our first (very small) vintage of Woodhawk Vineyards 2022 Cabernet Sauvignon now in the barrels (sleeping safely as our winemaker likes to say) I thought we would do a quick recap on the process of making this first vintage of Woodhawk Cabernet, and share a few lessons we learned along the way.

The ripening grapes

2022 was our second harvest as owners, and the first where have tried to make wine ourselves.  Silver Oak still happily purchases the rest of our grapes, but this year we kept one ton to give it try.  If the math works that should have come to about two barrels, or 70 cases.

Kara and I did our own cluster count for the first time in July, counting every tenth vine and every tenth row, which came out to counting the clusters on250 vines over two 85-degree days.  In the process, we began to better understand firsthand how our vineyard varies block by block, row by row.


Barrels come is without a moment to spare

In January, we ordered three of the very finest French wine barrels.This was more than 8 months before we would need them.  Plenty of time, right?

We didn’t know for sure when we would harvest, but last year the harvest had been the first couple days of September, and this year wasn’t trending any cooler.  As we got into July, I began to get a tiny bit nervous and started to follow up regularly on the barrels.  First, they were still in-route.  Then they are sitting off the port of Oakland waiting to be offloaded for weeks.  Then they were offloaded but waiting to be trucked to Napa.  Then in Napa and waiting to be delivered to Sonoma . . .

They finally arrived 24 hours before we put the first wine in them.   Geez!


So we don’t know anything about making wine. At all.

Our “Yoda” through this was our winemaker, neighbor and friend Rob Davis.  After leading winemaking at Jordan for more than 30 years he tells us he is having a blast finally getting back into all the details and doing it himself (at a much smaller scale).  On multiple occasions over the last few months, I have had to remind him that “I am so new to this, I don’t know what I don’t know.”  His patience seems to be infinite, matching his generosity as well his willingness to make yet another drive down the road to his house to get something else I didn’t know I needed (a very precise digital scale?  a wine thief?  another hose?  really????)



In August we began to track the brix, which is the measure of sugar in the ripening grapes.  The higher the brix the sweeter the grapes.  If you harvest too early you will miss all the great flavors of ripe fruit, harvest too late and the high brix will create a wine with very high alcohol, making it “fiery” and less appealing.  And of course, each day you leave the grapes out on the vine is another chance for rain, wind, smoke, sunburn or pick your own disaster.  Every grower lets a giant of sigh of relief out when “the hay is in the barn.” We watched the weather forecast anxiously.

Making wine (and sweating)

On Wednesday morning, August 31, we harvested our grapes.   One ton of grapes was delivered to our barn where we were prepared to make our first wine.  At 8am we swung into gear, and with help from our friend Alison, we ran the grape bunches through the destemmer while filing our macro bin with the grapes and juice.  The day was going to be a hot one so the sooner we got the grapes into the bin to begin fermenting the better.  The whole process took about three hours to complete, with several more hours of cleanup.  The mess in the barn was unbelievable and it was more than 100 degrees out. I took roughly a dozen trips with the wheelbarrow into the nearest vineyard to dump grape stems and other detritus.

In the days that followed, we punched down the must (the cap of grapes on the top of the bin) two times a day and carefully tracked the temp of the cap, the temp of the wine and the brix count.  It should be noted for posterity that this was the week of the Epic Heat Wave. Cloverdale got up to 117 degrees at one point. We had to be in the barn several times a day to tend to the grapes, and even with the help of a portable air conditioning unit, the barn struggled to stay below 100 degrees.



If you aren’t supposed to cry over spilled milk . . .

A week and a half later we were ready to move the wine to the barrels.  On Sept 10&11 we pulled the wine out of the bottom of the fermentation tank and moved it into our first new French oak barrel.  The following day we pressed the rest of the grapes and got nearly a second barrel of wine.

But not quite a full second barrel.  We hadn’t captured as much fruit as we should have with the destemmer due to all of us using the machine for the first time.  It’s important to note that you can’t age wine properly if the barrel isn’t totally full because the air in the barrel could ruin the wine. We were sweating every ounce of wine that was coming out of the press. But there was something worse.

We pressed our grapes/must at our neighbor’s, watching the juice go through the strainer and then into containers we’d brought to get the wine back to Woodhawk and put in the second barrel.  We had 15 gallon stainless kegs, 5 gallon stainless kegs…and 5 gallon glass jugs called demijohns.

When we were all done pressing the wine, we were carrying the containers out to the truck to take home and safely fill our second barrel.  I put each of the stainless kegs down on the ground and went back to grab the final container – a glass demijohn.

I put it down on the ground next to the truck with the others.  I set it down with the same force I sit a wine glass on a table.  Not harshly.  But not gently enough.  The glass container shattered, and the wine flooded across my shoes and disappeared down a drain.

I simply sat down on the ground and buried my face in my hands.  There was nothing that could be done. Now we weren’t sure if we’d have enough wine to fill the second barrel. It was a dark moment.


Putting the wine to sleep

We managed to get about ¾ of the second barrel full, and Rob was kind enough to let us use a couple of his smaller barrels to transfer the wine to for aging.  We will monitor its aging in the months ahead.  And at some point in 2023, it will be time to move it into bottles.

Probably the most fun part was moving the barrels of wine from the barn to the wine cellar near the house. Sorin made sure the wine was securely on the forklift and rode it all the way to the top of the hill.

Based on all the metrics available to us, including the regular lab tests we run and all the tasting we have been doing, Woodhawk 2022 Cabernet Sauvignon is looking really good.   The final proof will be in the bottle – and we look forward to sharing it with friends old and new in a couple of years!

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  1. Sabrina Hungerford

    Congrats Kara and Michael! I’m working at a small vineyard in Celina Texas, Eden Hill, and learning about a lot of this as well. Very fun!

  2. What a great story for Woodhawk’s history book. You two are amazing and persistent, nothing slows you down. It will be fun to taste your first harvest!

  3. Congratulations on this big milestone! Getting your first batch into barrels is so cool. I’m looking forward to trying it someday!

  4. In wine making, periodic mistakes are a given! You both are obviously enjoying the learning process. I look forward to tasting your first harvest. Cheers!

  5. What a great story – may I pass it along to some good friends from Kansas City who bought a winery near Medford Oregon last year and are in their first year of “we have no idea” wine makers?
    You and your family have had an amazing journey over the last year. I hope you keep fighting the good fights and thanks again for sharing.

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