A fine wine in Turtle Creek
by Cheryl Lecesse/ Staff Writer

From the Thursday, September 8, 2005 edition of the Lincoln Journal:

Walking into the basement of Kip Kumler's Beaver Pond Road home is like walking into another world.

Below his home, set far back from the road, surrounded by peace and quiet, is where Kumler makes his wine.

Kumler is the proprietor of Turtle Creek Winery, where he has been making a variety of red and white wines for more than five years.

Having no background in chemistry, Kumler studied books and talked to winemakers around the globe to become the knowledgeable winemaker he is today.

Grapevines on fences catch the eye of the driver heading up Kumler's driveway, the only marker spoiling the known secret that a winemaker lives in this neighborhood. Inside the unassuming home, on the winery's heated floors, are equipment essential to winemaking. In another room stand cases of wine, and in still another sweet-smelling room sit oak barrels full of wine, waiting for the day when they will be bottled and sold.

"I could have hidden everything," Kumler said, saying all of the winery - except the barrel room - was made from existing rooms at the bottom level of his home. The barrel room was built from scratch.

Kumler's daughter designed the first "turtle" logo. Later Kumler asked an artist at a printing company to design the logo as a mosaic.

Kumler makes about 500 cases of wine a year - about 7 tons of fruit. But that large amount is only handled about 10 times between the vine and the store, he said.

Winemaking 101
Making white wine is a different process than red wine, Kumler said. While white wine grapes are pressed immediately, red wine grapes are pressed after fermentation. Allowing red wine grapes to ferment first adds to the wine's color.

Grapes are pressed gently - no more than 20 pounds per square inch.

"You want some solids in the juice because that facilitates fermentation," he said.

The result is a high quality juice.

After the grapes are pressed, the juice goes into a large stainless steel tub, called a fermentor, for the full fermentation process to occur. A computer system monitors the temperatures in each fermentor.

"Temperature control is one of the important things," he said.

Fermentation is an exothermic process - it generates heat. But too much heat can kill the yeast, which interrupts the fermentation process.

"The yeast doesn't want to see more than an 8 degree Fahrenheit move in eight hours," Kumler said.

Most Chardonnay and all red wines go through secondary fermentation, in which malic acid is converted to lactic acid, and a process that reduces acidity in wine.

In the laboratory, Kumler examines the wine, checking its acidity and sugar content, measuring the pH, and adjusting them if necessary. Kumler also measures the wine's alcohol level in the laboratory.

Finally, some wines are oaked - a process in which wine sits in oak barrels to add to its flavor. Kumler said he places his red wines in new French oak barrels - a sweeter oak than American oak, he said.

"Most Chardonnays, I think, Tracy and I feel are over-oaked," he said, saying he uses both 5-year-old oak and 4-your-old oak for his batches. But 1/3 of his Chardonnay he stores in stainless steel barrels.

"Riesling doesn't see any oak," he said.

Bottling is a process in itself. First bottles are purged with argon and filled using a special machine, set to fill each bottle according to the legal fill requirement. Although the machine is designed to handle 1,800 bottles an hour, Kumler uses it at 400 bottles an hour. The machine corks each bottle under a vacuum, then the bottle moves onto the spinner - a machine that places the tin covering tightly over the cork - and then to a machine that presses the label on.

An assembly line of people pitch in to make the bottling process go speedily by. One person purges the bottles and runs it through the machine, the next runs the spinner, and another runs the labeler. The wine then moves on to the finishing room.

Volunteers help get the work done, especially around harvesting time. Each one receives a Turtle Creek T-shirt, and Kumler rewards them with a big dinner.

The grape
Currently Kumler purchases most of the fruit used to make wine. Fruit for Riesling comes from the Finger Lakes in New York, while the remainder of the fruit he purchases comes frozen from California.

"People are kind of surprised at the idea you can make wine from frozen grapes," he said.

But Kumler said using frozen fruit has been a benefit.

"By freezing that you're breaking down the molecular structure, particularly in the skin," Kumler said, which adds to the flavor and color of the wine.

In fact, a friend of Kumler's in the Sienna Foothills, also a winemaker, liked how Kumler's wine tasted so much, he decided to freeze his fruit to experiment.

"Purchasing fruit is a way of getting the winery going," Kumler said.

Kumler said they have been working on growing the vineyard - both in his yard and at Flint's field off Lexington Road - for four years. Winemakers usually wait about four years to grow their vineyard before going into commercial production," he said.

"We want the vine to be in really good shape," he said.

The first winter, a lot of Kumler's vines were lost due to the weather. Two winters ago, Part of the vineyard was damaged again due to the extreme cold that hit in mid-December.

"We had butane heaters, trying to soften the ground," he said. "That's all been replanted now."

In addition to his 8 acres at Beaver Pond Road, Kumler also leases part of Flint's field off Lexington Road from the town.

Residents were weary of Kumler's plans for a winery when he first proposed the idea, partly because his proposal included clearing two acres of land of Lexington Road. But the deed for the property, he found, stipulated the field had to be kept clear.

While the slope of the field is a little too steep for a hay wagon, it works well for a vineyard - a south-facing slope ensures the vines will always be in sunshine, which is critical to grapes' growth, said Tracy Ebbert, vineyard manager.

"I think that it is far more beautiful now," he said, saying a trail goes near the vineyard, to the top of the hill. "It just gives you this beautiful experience over 30-40 acres."

But Kumler said he thinks purchasing fruit will always be a part of his business model.

"This is fruit coming from people that have a stake in what I'm doing," he said. "They're an important part of what we do."

He added, "They like to see the wine that comes from it."

Challenges
From deer and turkey to fungus and disease, vineyard managers face all sorts of challenges, not to mention the challenge of making the perfect batch of wine.

A rotten egg and Tabasco painted on a post keep the deer away, said Ebbert.

The threat of fungus also poses a challenge to winemakers throughout the northeast.

"We're at the epicenter of it now," said Kumler of fungal pressure, which contaminates grapes, and wine if not found.

To minimize fungus, Kumler treats his vines with a spray that is 95 percent sulfur.

"Sulfur technically is organic," Kumler said.

In addition, the vineyard drops a lot of fruit, due to animals, pests, or disease.

"We burn everything," Ebbert said of the fruit that is picked off, as a precaution to keep disease or fungus from spreading to the healthy grape clusters.

Weather is also a major challenge, but Kumler has a system to protect his vines in extreme cold: Sleeves of two layers of bubble wrap, laminated and wrapped in foil, inside polyethitate envelope with a touch of salt.

Winemaking is a constant delicate balance. While sugar is needed during fermentation - the yeast turns it into ethyl alcohol, it could cause fermentation if residue is in the wine bottle. Yeast needs oxygen during fermentation, but oxygen can spoil wine after it is bottled.

"Cleanliness is everything," he said. "You're spending a significant amount of time cleaning up."

Once wine leaves a fermentor, everything is cleaned, including the threads of the spout at its base - with a toothbrush.

Cleaning has to be thorough, or else the equipment could contaminate the next batch of wine.

Kumler made significant investments in his winery, to make sure he used techniques and equipment that would best respect the integrity of the grape. All of his equipment was purchased with quality in mind, down to the type of pump he purchased.

"I know we can make world-class wine here," Kumler said. "It's a different matter to make it consistently."

For more information, visit www.turtlecreekwine.com.

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