|Grape Harvest and Crush Sept. 4, 2005
If you ever taste a glass of wine with hints of espresso and
chocolate please send me the bottle. If you ever here me
ascribe such flavors to wine, then it’s time to cut me off. On the
other hand, you may hear me talk of the essence of bird’s nest
in fine wine. We found a nest today while gleaning Mike’s
vineyard of Merlot grapes. I also rescued a ladybug from the
must, which had somehow passed unharmed through the
destemmer and crusher, the machine with a giant blade that
removes stems from grapes and breaks their skins.
“Please don’t test the clippers with your fingers to see if they’re
sharp,” warns Mike, as he gives us instructions before releasing
us into the vineyard. “Believe me, they’re sharp!”
“If you cut off your finger,” advises the doctor on hand, pick it up
and place it on ice immediately. If at all possible, pick it up
before it goes through the crusher; it’s a whole lot easier to pick
it out then.”
Coastal fog blinds us in the morning, as we drive north on I-15
from San Diego towards Escondido. I turn on the car’s fog
lights. The temperature is 57, and my sophomore instinct
welcomes the cool temperature, which will make the morning's
work more comfortable.
The fog lifts as we enter Escondido. The morning is bright. It’s a
magnificent day. “Thank goodness there’s no fog here,” says
Nancy, as we look over the hillside and see traces of mist in
distant valleys “Damp air causes mold on the grapes,” she
explains. The grapes like sun, and she shows me an example of
a vine in the shade they left untreated from mildew spray, with
withered, deformed, useless fruit.
Bluey patrols the vineyard for raccoons and birds. “Oh my,
there’s an Australian Shepherd,” cries one of the pickers. “That’
s a plump Australian Shepherd,” says another. Bluey is well fed
by him mom, and with me out of town the past week, he has run
less, and put on extra pound or few.
“From Zero To Naked In 1.2 Bottles of Wine” states the sign
leading to the gazebo area at the property’s summit, where two
dozen day amateur winemakers have gathered for a
champagne toast. Many have brought a bottle of wine to share
at the potluck picnic after the harvest. Most couples will take
home a couple of hundred pounds or crushed grapes. We paid
$500 for 1,000 lbs. We are joined by 4 professional vineyard
hands, who speak Spanish and will eat their lunch separately.
Mike and Linda’s place is a fine example of Blue-Merle Country
living, and earns Bluey’s highest Four Paw ranking. They have
designed it with practicality in mind. There is a restroom/toilet
on the ground floor, accessible from the outside. Also on the
ground floor (looking out over the vineyard and onto a vista of
Palomar mountain) is a wine bar. In the catacombs behind the
bar is their naturally cool “cave” for wine fermentation, storage
and testing lab.
“The first year we picked 5 pounds,” recalls Mike. “One of the
pickers stopped to taste a grape, and I almost shouted at him,
because that one grape represented a significant percentage of
the harvest,” he jests. This year, he’s expecting to reap 17,000
“Some of the grapes are dried and look like raisins,” he
instructs us. “Go ahead and cut those and throw them in the
buckets – they will add a lot of sugar.”
At the end of the picking, Mike, a generous host, invites me and
others into his cellar and lab. He Mike runs another test
measuring the sugar content. “Just under 26 brix.” That’s
perfect. Acidity is also running at .67; so, there is no need to
make any adjustment to the must.
Mike tells me that Lum was here yesterday, and he also took
1,000 lbs. “Let’s have a contest to see who makes the better
wine,” I joke. If Lum were here he’d probably say, “To make
really good wine, you need really good grapes. You can’t make
good wine unless you have good grapes. But you can make a
bad wine from good grapes. I know. I’ve done it!”
Mike offers me a taste of grape juice … it has hints of his 2004
vintage Merlot, which I sampled with lunch. Dreamy nectar.
Driving down the hill, there is an abrupt dip … I notice it too late,
and slam the brakes in an attempt to slow down. The containers
smash into one another; the handles prying open the lids of
several containers. A close call, but not a drop spilled.
Finding a truck was a logistics challenge this year, again. One
friend who wanted to loan us theirs experienced mechanical
difficulties the week before, and had to cancel. Another friend
offered me his, but it wasn’t available the whole day. This left
me scrambling, while out of town during the week, to find a
truck. I made arrangements with Enterprise to pick one up
Downtown at 9:15 am. So, first it was to the vineyard to pick.
Then Downtown (about 50 miles away) to pick up the truck.
When I arrived the truck wasn’t available, and fortunately the
representative located one at their Airport location, not far
away. So it was back to the house to pick up 5 of the 32 gallon
containers, and back to the vineyard, where the crushing had
already been completed. I was not alone with car troubles. The
truck of another fellow who joined us broke down that day… he
ended up leaving his grapes with Mike in the cellar until he
could get the truck fixed.
Mike and I measured out 1,000 lbs. of must, which was divided
unevenly into 14 containers weighing 37 – 96 lbs. He, and
some of the other pickers, helped carry the containers up to the
truck in the driveway, and Mike helped me empty each one into
one of my 5 containers. As we proceed with the work, there’s a
temptation to lift the containers by oneself to keep the
momentum going. Not a good idea for most people, if they wish
to keep the chiropractor away.
Back at our house, I put a wooden board from our bed flush
against the ledge of the pickup which we did last year. But the
plank is unstable, and I’m concerned about sliding the
containers down. My neighbor offers to help, and together –
with gravity’s assistance – we lower the 200 lbs. containers to
the ground. “My co-workers won’t believe when I tell them what I
did this weekend,” he says. He works at a facility to treat
I say prayers for the wine, requesting a blessing for it. That it
may be put to good use. That it brings joy & happiness.
Our 16 almost 17 year old princess comes home. “Come here,
take a look at the grapes.”
“What are you going to do with the wine?”
I told her I’m planning to donate some to the Church, and use
some of it to raise money.
“Why don’t you give the money to hurricane victims?” she
“That’s a good idea.” So here we go: (If you would like to make
a donation of $50 or more for economic development or
disaster relief, Bluey will send you a bottle of his 2004 Syrah.
Click here for details. Bluey says he welcomes contributions to
assist distressed pets and animals.)
We let the mixture sit overnight, and pull out the yeast packets
in preparation for tomorrow.
September 5, 2005 Pitching The Yeast
In the morning, there is the faintest hint of sulfur in the air, a
sign of the natural fermentation that is taking place. By this time
tomorrow, the garage and the room upstairs will smell like a
saloon's floor on Sunday morning--or for a more pleasant
image, like a winery.
I purchase two baguettes, and a bottle of organic apple juice.
The theory is that the sugar from the juice will jump-start
fermentation, but this is not necessary. I pour an ounce of cool
juice into five glasses when I get back home. Into each glass, I
pour a couple of ounces of heated water, so that the mixture
feels neither too warm, nor cold. (The target temperature is 100
F, but the sophomore has no thermometer to measure.) I have
14 yeast packets (5 grams/packet) to brew 70 gallons, and
divide the packet among the glasses, then stir gently. Within a
few minutes the yeast begins to rise. Before the yeast expands
out of the glass onto the kitchen floor (an improvement from last
year), I add it to the must, in a corner. I let most of sit there,
although I’m tempted to stir it in. I don’t.
I dip a spoon into the must to taste the grape juice. It’s the
sweetest jam I’ve ever tasted! I give a spoonful to Bluey, who
indicates his approval by licking it dry.
“Come, look at the yeast,” I say to the princess, who has just
returned from spending the night at a friend’s.
“I know what it looks like, you showed me before,” she says, but
in fact, she’s never seen the beginning stage of fermentation.
She peers into the vat. “It looks like throw-up!”
Back in the kitchen, I pull at the baguette – there is something
familiar about this taste. The yeast.
One hour later, small bubbles appear at the edge of the blob.
Three hours later, the blob seems to be seeping into the must,
as there are purple patches that have penetrated through the
white yeast making pock marks.
We give thanks for our blessings and celebrate the day with a
feast. Our Aussie Cellar Master helps cook up some prawns on
the barbie, and for the main course, our sheep herder prefers
lamb. Accompanying the wine is a 2002 Cabernet from Afton
Mountain Vineyards, located at the foothills of the Appalachian
mountains in Afton, VA (about half an hour from Charlottesville).
It’s my third visit to this winery in four years, and I am enjoying
this bottle of wine. The wine is made from estate grapes,
located at an elevation of 960 feet. I picked up the bottle on
Friday afternoon, while driving through Virginia. When I
compare this one to a North Carolina wine I purchased earlier in
the week and sampled at Mike’s vineyard, I am very pleased
with the Afton.
|Sept. 6, 2005 The Cap Rises
I'm up at 5:30 am to check progress. T + 18 hours since the
yeast was added. It was a cool evening, and I kept the screen
door to the garage open. (We had the screen door put in this
year to keep out the possums, raccoons and rats.) I'm not
impressed with the progress of fermentation, so I gently stir the
exposed yeast in with the must. By noon (T + 24H), the cap is
rising, and I take the trusty Virginia Tech Paddle and carefully
break the cap, as an icebreaker ship treads through frozen
arctic seas, until the grape juice is exposed, generating a wake
of frothy fuchsia foam. In the early afternoon, the cap has risen
indeed and the fermentation is well underway. I'm liking the
color of the mixture. A deep purple already. The paddle has
turned deep magenta. I think of making tie-dye shirts.
Our new press has arrived. I unpack it. It's impressive, and
should be much easier than pressing by hand, which took two
days last year! (More progress.) The wooden basket it comes
with is not exactly light ... this could require some serious work.
Before bed, I break up the cap again, with thoughts of this
being a good wine.
|September 7, 2005 Maintenance & A Scare
I am greeted at 5:30 this morning with the "snap, crackle, pop"
of fermenting grapes and an even higher cap that approaches
the edges of the container. This could be good news -- more
wine! Although I shouldn't start counting my magnums until the
cork's put in, I know a facility with a still that will distill extra wine
for me. What do you call distilled wine? Cognac! Bluey
approves of the idea, so we'll give the distillery a call and start
inquiring about making some brandy with the extra s ... also, I'm
wondering what can we do next week with the leftover skins and
seeds? Isn't that what Grappa's made from?
Bluey enjoys helping me clean the paddle (with his tongue)
after breaking the cap. I'll have to watch out for a drunken dog.
He reminds me of a kid licking brownie batter from a spatula ...
maybe this is where wine critics develop "hints of chocolate"
when describing wine. To me, it tastes like semi-fermented
A vigorous fermentation is taking place. At the evening night
cap, I notice the heat being generated. I wash my hands, then
dip in a clean finger. Is the wine running a fever? The
temperature seems to be approaching that of my body ...
fermentation above 90 degrees could be an issue. I go inside,
and consult Lum's article "Basic Winemaking" (7/23/05) which
states: "Red wines are fermented at temperatures ranging from
75 to 92 degrees...." I remember him telling stories of dropping
icepacks into fermenters to cool down the reaction taking place.
There is a handwritten note on the article: 93 degrees is the
killing point for yeast. Ah ohhhh ....this could be trouble. I go to
the hot tub spa to grab a thermometer, but it's not there. I open
up the garage door to let more cool air in ... after punching the
cap down, I give it one more punch to allow heat to escape ...
shoot, I should have bought a thermometer! I send Alan (who
is studying the science of wine at the University of California,
Davis) an e-mail ... he says 105 degrees is fatal for most yeast.
I know we're not that high ... I'm a little uneasy, and go to bed.
|Thursday, Sept. 8th Racing Seabiscuit
I'm up at 5:30 a.m., and the Princess' alarm is going.
"Time to wake up," I gently urge.
I open the garage door all the way to let in as much cool air as
possible, and inspect the caps. They have risen. As I push
them down, I notice they offer less resistance ... I suppose
much of the juice in the skins has been converted to alcohol,
releasing it from the skins, making the skins lighter, and easier
to push down. A sign of progress in the fermentation. The
temperature of the mixture feels cooler. The fever has broken.
And, I'm being greeted with "snap, crackle, pop". All seems well
with the wine, but Bluey is not happy. He yelps, "I want to run."
The wine is getting more attention than him, something he's not
used to. We start out for a two mile run, and sight a big Old
English Sheepdog on the sidewalk on the other side of the
street, who's also out for a run with his owner. Bluey picks up
the pace to pull ahead, but The English will not be outdone and
is now in the lead. Not for long as the Aussie shifts gears ...
mind you this is 6 a.m., we've just started our run and I'm not
warmed up ... I'm being taken on an Iditerod husky race in
Alaska, but instead of "mush! mush!" I'm urging him, "Woa boy,
slow down." This Seabiscuit doesn't know the meeting of slow
down when it comes to racing another canine. The pace is
accelerating and now we're heading downhill in a sprint ... The
English turns left to go home, and the Aussie is satisfied with
his victory and slows to a cantor, then gentle trot, as I catch up,
and catch my breath.
Energized and warmed up after my run, I try my hand at lifting
the wooden basket (which I estimate is close to 50 lbs.) from the
press. I do it without too much trouble; so I should be able to
press. It's 6:30, and the Princess is finally up and running out
the door. I give her the keys to my car, and silently pray for her
I'm thinking about pressing this weekend ... some winemakers
may want to keep the wine on the skins for a week or more ... I
may opt for less time (in order not to impart too many tannins)
... but we'll see how the brew tastes on Saturday. Lum states:
"Grapes with a sugar content of 22 or 23 Brix might be
fermented for 8 to 10 days, and grapes at 24 or 25 Brix are
often fermented for 5 or 6 days." Since we started at noon on
Monday, noon on Saturday will be 5 days.
Belle Marie Winery called to say they could use a volunteer at 6
a.m. Tuesday morning. This will give me a chance to see how
the pros press (most likely after I've gone through it on my own
over the weekend).