Chateau Ste. Michelle feeds the beast

By Andy Perdue, Herald staff writerOctober 6, 2010 

When Chateau Ste. Michelle winemakers sleep -- a rare occurrence this time of year -- they dream of a giant monster.

But this is no nightmare. Rather, it's a contraption affectionately known as the MOG Monster, a device that helps Washington's flagship winery craft better wine.

MOG is an acronym for "material other than grapes," which includes leaves, stems and seeds -- items that can impart green and bitter aromas and flavors in a wine. The more MOG a winery can remove, the better the wine should be.

The MOG Monster, a two-story contraption, was installed last year at Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Estate facility, where all of its red wines are made under the direction of Bob Bertheau, head winemaker, and Josh Maloney, red winemaker.

"What we saw with the 2009 harvest were softer, more delicate tannins than we'd seen in the past from Canoe Ridge wine," Bertheau said. "It's not just the machine, but this is part of the puzzle."

Here's how it works: As grapes arrive from the vineyard west of Paterson or other locations throughout Eastern Washington's Columbia Valley, they are dropped into a receiving area with a large auger that helps remove the grapes from the stems.

The grapes then go onto a slotted screen -- a big, flat sieve -- that gently shakes the grapes, removing more material, including "shot berries," which are tiny green grapes that never developed properly. In addition, seeds also will come out. Finally, an "air knife" will push out any light material that makes it that far through the process.

"We built this system because we wanted to greatly improve the quality of our red wines," Maloney said. "We felt that was one of the next steps for the evolution of our wines."

Last fall, Ste. Michelle measured the amount of MOG removed from a 20-ton load of grapes, and it ended up being 1,000 pounds.

"That might not seem like a lot," Maloney said. "But the stuff it is pulling out is incredibly bitter."

Last year, Ste. Michelle processed grapes from the same load two different ways. One went through the MOG Monster, and the other was processed at another winery. The results, Maloney said, were remarkable.

"The only difference was the equipment," he said. "Tasting the wines side by side a year later, the wine made by this system is rich, it is ripe and it is round, but it is also very soft. It had every bit as much extract as the other system, but it had no hard edges to it."

In other words, wine drinkers will find them easier to like, he said.

What makes Ste. Michelle's MOG-removal system so different is its size. Maloney said most wineries that have such a device might be able to process as many as two tons of grapes per hour.

"We've had ours running at 70 tons per hour," he said.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie and other wineries in Washington, Oregon and California, has just one MOG Monster, though smaller MOG-removal systems are in place at Col Solare on Red Mountain and Northstar in Walla Walla. There are no definitive plans to install a MOG Monster at other wineries.

Bertheau said the MOG Monster is believed to be the largest on the West Coast and, perhaps, in the United States. As news of its success has traveled through the industry, he is receiving calls from California wineries wanting to see it in action.

For Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Estate facility, the action finally started last week.

The first red wine grapes arrived Sept. 28, a load of merlot from the estate vineyard that offers a panoramic view of the Columbia River from the southern edge of the Horse Heaven Hills. The juice from those grapes are happily fermenting into wine, a process that will finish this week.

By Friday afternoon, Ste. Michelle had processed 3 percent of its wine grapes as it waited with the rest of the industry for fruit that has ripened more slowly than in years past.

"Last year at this point, we were 23 percent complete," Maloney said. "Fortunately, we can do 20 percent in a week if we have to. We'll just keep picking the grapes as long as the weather holds up. We'll get it home in time."

Thanks, in part, to the MOG Monster.

-- Andy Perdue: 582-1405; He is editor of Wine Press Northwest, a quarterly magazine owned by the Tri-City Herald.

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