I hope this blog finds you well and discovering pleasant ways to enjoy this different kind of summer. With our safety measures in place—requiring masks indoors, maximum sanitizing, limiting parties to 10, and observing social distancing—we’re thankful so many of you are coming to lift your glasses to life here at Sassafras Springs, whether it’s by gathering on our decks for pizza and wine, or sharing your wedding vows and other celebrations.
This month we’re talking about something many of you have asked about—our wine and how we make it. So, I sat down with our winemaker, my son, Derek Kilpatrick, for a fascinating conversation about the process and poetry of wine, from vine to bottle.
Me: What are the wines you make here at our winery?
Derek: We have four varietals. There’s Opportunity, a white winegrape developed by Dr. John Clark at the University of Arkansas. Also from the university we have Enchantment, a dry red wine. Then there’s Chambourcin. It’s what I use to make our rosé. This year we’ll have the Chambourcin red coming out. It’s really, really good. Our newest vineyard is in front and has Concord grapes. We’re going to use that for a table wine that we’ll sell in the tasting room.
Me: Are there other grapes that you use?
Derek: Yes. I bring in grapes from the West coast. We make a Syrah every year. It’s kind of our signature wine here, and it’s very good. I get that from the Wahluke Slope in Washington State. That’s an AVA [American Viticultural Area] inside the Columbia Valley region where we also get our Chardonnay grapes from and make our Chardonnay wine from it.
Me: How many vines do we have?
Derek: We have around 1,000 vines on our property. My wife, kids and I originally planted 400. These were the Opportunity that we started with. We’ve added every year. Last year we added 480 Chambourcin in the back field.
Me: How have the weather conditions been for growing grapes?
Derek: We started off with a lot of rain this year. It can be an issue if you have too much rain for grapes because they almost have to struggle to get that really sweet, ripe grape. Most of July has been super dry. But this has been a good year for us.
Me: What are the main challenges you face?
Derek: Here in Arkansas, black rot is a fungus that attacks grapes. This year I established a really good spray program, and it’s working. Our vines are healthy and looking good. Grapevines want to survive! We had a late freeze at the end of April that affected us, and it killed the primary buds, so the vines have to start from scratch. Everything you see here is running off the secondary buds except the Concord vines we just planted. There are three bud stages— primary, secondary and tertiary. The secondary isn’t going to produce as many grapes as the first. But we’re still doing fine. Our other main issue is Japanese beetles. It hasn’t been that big of a deal this season. They go in four-year cycles. Another issue is the deer. They’ve been a problem, but this year not as bad as before.
Me: So, please tell us, how do you make wine?
Derek: I mentioned that we get grapes from Washington State. One reason we like the producer there is because they use minimal equipment. They use more of a land-to-hand, hand-to-bottle type method. Typically, when they pick grapes in Washington, they pick them on Sunday. I get them here on Tuesday. They show up in big reefer [refrigerated] trucks. We unload them and get grapes. They’re still in their stems. We go straight to our destemmer and run them through that. The destemmer crushes the grapes. With a red wine, we go directly into the tank s,o we’ll leave the skins on, the caps.
Me: What are the caps?
Derek: The caps are the solid material of the grapes—the skin and pulp. We’ll let them sit on the caps for about 2 ½-3 weeks as the juice is fermenting. While we do that, we take samples about every 4 to 6 hours. So, for the first 3 to 4 weeks of winemaking, you’re checking on your baby about every 4 hours to make sure the temperature doesn’t rise too high, and we have a couple of methods we use to ensure it doesn’t.
Me: Sounds like an art and a science! What’s next?
Derek: For a red wine we do a racking process. After the skins have been on for a few weeks, we get the juice off the skins and pump it back in. Then we start what we call malolactic fermentation that gives the wine a nice, creamy mouth feel. Then we let the wine rest for a couple of months. During the resting period, we’ll also do a couple more racks. We’re trying to get all the sediment which at this point is continuously falling to the bottom of the tank. When we rack, we take the juice off the lees [sediment] and basically clean it. We put bentonite clay in the tank, and it acts as a weight that binds onto any material inside the wine and forces it to the bottom.
After the wine has settled for 3 to 4 months, we take it over to our oak barrels. We use American oak. I have 6 oak barrels. Right now, the wine I’m making is Chambourcin red. I have 850 gallons of it. After it’s been in the barrel for a couple of months, we continually homogenize it by pumping it back into the stainless to get it all mixed back in, and then we pump it back into the oak barrels. Our wine right now has been in oak for about 11 months. For our Syrah, it takes about a year and a half to make.
Me: How does the wine we sell here differ from what you’d get in the grocery store?
Derek: At Sassafras Springs, we’re trying to change the way people see Arkansas wines. We’re not trying to make a $5 of wine and sell it to Walmart. If somebody’s looking for a good quality wine, we’re making it. We like to consider ourselves the Porsche of wine in Arkansas. I’m a big keep-it-local person. We’re putting out just as good if not better than a lot of your big California wineries. That’s because we’re very low as far as our production amount, so we can concentrate on our wine better and spend more time with it.
Me: What’s your favorite varietal?
Derek: Either our Syrah or our Riesling. And I love our rosé. As I said, it’s made from the Chambourcin grape, and I like that grape because it can be used for many purposes. Besides the rosé, I’m going to use it for a blend, and I’m making a full-bodied red wine out of it. I also like it because it’s local.
Me: What’s our most popular wine?
Derek: By far it’s the Syrah. Our rosé is also popular, and so are our Wine-a-Ritas, frozen wine slushes. They’re number 2!
Me: How did you become a winemaker?
Derek: I started making beer when I was in high school from a kit. Right after that I went in the navy and started making wine. I got deployed for three years, and where I was there wasn’t really an alcohol source, and so I made bilge wine, and it was poison and it was nasty. I made it from grapes that were on the ship and hid it in bilges there. When I came back home, I made wine from kits. Then the folks opened up the winery, and I had an opportunity to come out here and work.
I got to shadow a guy named Luke Holcombe who’d been a major winemaker for several years. I worked with him for two years. We’re also fortunate to have the university in our backyard. I use them a lot. Renee Thelfall is a professor there who specializes in viticulture. She’s been amazing. I can take my samples up to the university and get my lab work done there.
Me: What’s the best way for people to get our wine?
Derek: The best way to get a bottle of wine is to come out here and see us because you get the experience. We’d love for people to come and enjoy the wine with friends or family on our deck or in the valley or the arbor among the trees. Our wine club is also going great. We have 260 plus members now.
Me: So, what do you like about being a winemaker?
Derek: I love my job, getting to be outside. I enjoy it because every batch of wine has different characteristics. I like to try new things. This year I used a method called Saignée for the Chambourcin Rosé. It’s a bleed-off method, something they did in the Old World. I pumped everything into the tank straight from the crusher, and then we bled off of the tank instead of using the press. It has a totally different tannin taste to it because it had a little more skin contact on it. The wine has a more refreshing taste to me.
It’s satisfying to know that what I do out in the field will someday make a memory for someone else, that a little grape will share a memory. It might be just sitting around the table, talking and being together. Some of our best family times are sitting around the dinner table and sharing our thoughts and experiences over a glass of wine. As I’ve said before, to see the delighted and often thoughtful expressions on the faces of visitors as they taste the wine Mother Nature and I have created together is poetic.