Put A Cork In It!

By Kara Busselen

Michael and our winemaker extraordinaire Rob Davis loading the wine into the truck for its trip to the bottler


Our Woodhawk Vineyards 2022 Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine born of extremes. It was harvested in late August 2022 during one of the most intense heat waves the Alexander Valley had seen. It was 80 degrees at 7am as the grapes were being plucked from their vines by the skilled hands of the vineyard workers. It was 90 degrees by 10am when the first grapes started to arrive at the barn. And it was 100 degrees inside the barn at noon as we were shoving them through the destemmer/crusher. Hot and sticky that whole week, we worked side-by-side with our winemaker Rob to do the punchdowns and fermentation adjustments. When the wine finally went into the barrels, it was a relief.  (For a recap of the 2022 harvest, see https://www.woodhawkvineyards.com/blogs/make-world-class-cabernet-with-amazing-fruit-you-grow-yourselves-its-easy-said-no-one-ever/)

The winters were wet and cold. There were barrel-cleaning days that were barely above 35 degrees. We would pump the wine from the barrel into the big stainless steel tank, then take the empty barrels down to the barn, run clean water through them, and then have to take them back up to the cellar and pump the wine back in (this is called racking). Many times I could not feel my fingers or toes by the time we were done.


There were moments of elation as we tasted it for the first time, and moments of darkness as we tried to move the barrels around to rack the wine and would spill way more wine than we meant to.  And lots of repetition.  Another SO2 adjustment, another racking, another acidity test adjustment.


We couldn’t wait for this wine to be safely in bottles.

While the ‘22 resided in our little onsite cellar, our ‘23 was down the street at our neighbor Jim Rickards winery. Those barrels were only a small part of Jim’s custom crush operation, which is really just a fancy way of saying we make and store our wine in barrels on his property. Unfortunately, he does not have his own bottling line because they are large and expensive. Fortunately, he does bring in a mobile bottling truck (basically a semi with a bottling line in the back) and as his clients, we would have access to that mobile line to bottle our ‘22. We knew it would be in the early spring of 2023. 

Rickards sent an email one day saying the mobile bottling truck would be available to his clients March 4 & 5. We were so happy to finally have a date to bottle this wine! 

As we went to put it on the calendar, our blood turned to ice. We were going to be out of town on a long-planned trip. We didn’t want to leave the wine in the barrels more than 18 months so this was our only shot to use the mobile bottling truck at Rickards. We were flummoxed and despondent. But as luck would have it, that very evening was the Alexander Valley Grapegrower Association’s annual meeting and dinner. 

We realized that the ONE thing we know how to do in this business is network. We have honed these skills over decades of corporate events. We packed our pockets with business cards and headed over to the annual meeting.

I had no shame I would just walk up to someone and say, “Hi. I’m Kara. I don’t know anyone here so I thought I’d meet you.” And then Michael would swoop over and say, “It’s so nice to meet you. By the way, do you know anyone who would be able to bottle our hobby wine?” Each person we met was lovely, but having no solution of their own, would point us to someone else. We worked the room and with the help of several friends, at the end of the evening had three solid leads to follow up on the next day. 

Early the next morning, we jumped in the truck and started driving all over Cloverdale, Geyserville, and Healdsburg. We started with a small winery someone from the night before thought might help us. They were very nice, but their bottling machine would only work with a minimum of 100 gallons. Since we only had 90, the machine wouldn’t work. The lady pointed us to a custom crush facility nearby. They had the same problem– we didn’t have enough volume. 

Our last stop was a winery in Russian River. Rob had learned that they did small lots and had their own bottling line, so they might be willing to help us. After talking with the winemaker, the cellarmaster, and finally the owner, they agreed to bottle our ‘22 wine. We finally had a winery that would bottle our wine! 

Our glee turned to dismay when we started thinking about logistics. They will take our full barrels. But the barrels were still in our wine cellar, sitting on a custom cradle Rob had made for his own wine. We had one 60-gallon that was solidly on the rack. We also had one 30-gallon barrel, which was barely big enough for its ends to stay on the cradle– we only had about ½” to spare on either end to make sure it didn’t slip off. Moving these barrels would be tricky– and heavy.

We were puzzling over how we would move the full barrels to get them into the back of the pickup truck. Would we rent a forklift? That was not a cheap option, and considering the mess we made last time we used a forklift to put the wine into the sunken cellar (stairs and forklifts do not mix), that option was off the table. Then Rob, in his offhanded fashion, says, “We’ll pump the wine out of the barrels into the mobile stainless steel tank, then move the empty barrels on their cradle into the pickup truck. Then we’ll pump the wine back in.”


So that’s what we did. On a cold (thankfully not rainy) Thursday, we got the barrels in place on their cradle in the back of the pickup truck, again with the little guy tenuously situated, strapped down everything, and slowly went down our driveway.

The smaller barrel bounced off its cradle halfway down the hill and we both let out a little scream. Upon checking, we found it was still right-side up but crooked, half on and half off the cradle,with the plug firmly in place. Because its shaky position on the cradle would be no match for the bumps of rural River Road, we decided to leave it how it was. 

We held our breath all the way over to our bottling winery. Every turn, every stop sign, we were looking breathlessly in the rearview mirror to determine the barrels were still solid. Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the parking spot at the vineyard, and both exhaled. We hadn’t spoken the whole way. 

The cellarmaster was ready for us. He brought over the forklift and easily lifted the cradle and two barrels off the truck. 



Our first bottling was exciting and novel. Michael was put in charge of loading the empty bottles onto a small conveyor belt. The bottles then moved through the machine, getting a blast of gas to clean them, then the wine would squirt in, coming to exactly 750ml per bottle. Then the cork would be inserted. When those bottles came to me, I had to place the little foil cap over the top of each one, after which they would go to the final stop on the machine to be sealed. We got through our 32 cases in about 45 minutes. 

An action shot of Michael writing a check!

Because it was such a small batch, we opted to hand-label all the bottles with peel-and-stick labels. Everyone that visited us after was “required” to do at least one case. Even my mom got to do a few!

We had one more thing to do with this ‘22. In order to defend our trademark of “Woodhawk Vineyards”, we had to show it in “commerce.” Although we can’t sell it because it’s just a hobby batch, we could still demonstrate that it is being used in the public realm to build out business. We put on our best Woodhawk Vineyards merch and drove around, dropping off our wine to people that have helped us along the way. 

Here we are with Danny Christensen, one of the first people we met a few years ago at our first Alexander Valley Grapegrowers Association luncheon. He was so kind to us, and promptly invited Michael to join his men’s group. He has introduced us to a lot of people in the wine and hospitality industry. We also visited our wonderful accountants Tom Benton and Lisa Warner. These guys keep us on track every year and are simply delightful to work with. Finally, we took a day and drove to Napa to drop off wine to Rob McMillan and Molly Stitcher at Silicon Valley Bank. They were instrumental in helping us buy Woodhawk in the fall of 2020 and have been active partners as our needs have evolved over the years.

Danny Christensen of Geyserville Inn
Tom Benton and Lisa Warner of BPM


Rob McMillan and Molly Stichter of Silicon Valley Bank

Now the real question: when can we drink it? The answer is 2025 at the earliest. Cabernet needs a few years after being bottled to settle down and develop its flavors, and this is a big cab with a lot of fruit and tannins so it is going to benefit from plenty of time in bottles.


The bottles in which it safely, finally, resides.

If you are interested in future releases, be sure to sign up for our interest list:  https://www.woodhawkvineyards.com/contact-us/

If you are interested in renting the whole property this summer, we have limited availability (and based on previous years it books fast).  Rental info is located here  https://www.vacasa.com/unit/47856 

Join the more than 1000 people who follow us on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/woodhawk.vineyards/ 


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