Sunday, August 16, 2015

Genesis in the Vineyard of Eden

On the Third Day of Creation after finishing the world’s greatest reclamation project the Lord said, “Let there be organic vegetables and plants and fruit trees” and so it was that The Grapevine appeared on the earth.  And God said let Durian be the stinkiest of fruits and the grape the sweetest and the Lord loved the grape because it was good. Now the vines that produced the grapes, the fruit the Lord loved, required a lot of work but since God was almighty he could handle it.[1]  God knew the process of fermentation and he drank the fermented fruit of the vine which he called ambrosia. [2]

In the order of creation, the Grapevine was here first and believed she was superior to what came afterwards – especially man - and the Grapevine was jealous of man because God paid more attention to the man and to the man’s wife than to the vines. God loved the man and the man’s wife and gave them everything except ambrosia, for he knew if he gave ambrosia to man it would ruin him and God didn’t want man showing up drunk to church.[3] 

Now the Grapevine was even more subtle than the serpent and said to the reptile, “Why don’t you tell the man’s wife to eat the apple with grapes for a healthier diet?” and the serpent followed the Vine’s suggestion.

The next day the Lord was walking in the Vineyard in the cool of the day – checking for gophers, thinning leaves, spraying against mildew and mowing down weeds (all with the swipe of a finger across his nose) and when he was finished he wanted someone to talk with and looked for the man and his wife but couldn’t find them. “Have you seen the man and his wife?” he asked the Grapevine.
 “Am I my brother’s keeper?” she replied. But the Grapevine knew the man and his wife had hid themselves and covered their nakedness with large grape leaves.
“Adam, where are you?” called the Lord.
“We’re hiding,” replied the man. “We heard you coming and hid behind the grape vines. We have no clothes and are naked.”
“Who told you you were naked?” demanded the Lord. “God damn it! Did you eat the apple I commanded you not to eat after I gave you all these grapes?!” The Lord was pissed and in his furry decreed a perpetual punishment on man – henceforth, he had to toil the soil and be responsible for tending the vines, for the Lord knew there was no worse punishment.

The man was pissed because now on he had to work and with vengeance in his heart took a shovel to hack down the Grapevine.  As the man approached, the Grapevine pleaded, “Please grant me a last drink.”  The man agreed and she took some of her grapes, crushed them into juice, added yeast, shook it, then waited a minute and poured the libation into a cup. The Vine inhaled aromas from the libation with great ceremony then took a sip and oooohhed and aaahhhd.
 “What are you drinking?” asked the man.
“God’s ambrosia,” said the Vine, “which your ancestors will call wine. This is the drink most pleasing to the Lord.”
“Why have I not heard of this?”
“The Good Lord says you are too immature to drink it,” and she added subtly, “He wanted to keep it all for himself.”
The man raised his shovel and demanded, “Let me taste this ambrosia or die!” and the Vine passed the cup to the man who sipped and it was the most amazing thing he had ever tasted – even more luscious than the juice of his wife.
“The recipe is a secret known only by me and God.  He didn’t want you to have it, because he doesn’t believe you are worthy.  It is I who offer you this gift.  If you cut me down, this is the last cup of wine you shall ever taste.  Wine is the cup of salvation,” she said. “Drink this and enjoy everlasting life.”
“How may I get more of this drink?” asked the man whose thirst grew with each sip.
“You can start by not hacking me down.”  The man lowered his shovel.  “If you cut down the vine of life, you cut off life. If you separate yourself from the vine, you will die.  Let’s work together,” the Vine proposed. “You care for me and I’ll produce grapes for you. I’ll teach you how to turn the grapes into wine. And, in the fullness of time, you’ll get rich and your New York descendants will have a monopoly on wine distribution.”
“Deal,” said the man, who was seduced by the allure of the Vine and the promise of more wine.
“Whenever you drink the fruit of the vine do so in remembrance of me.”
“Cheers!” said the man and they drank to the bottom of the glass. The Vine poured him another glass then another. Later that afternoon the Lord, walking through the vineyard, found the man and his wife passed out and mourned the loss of his creation. So man and woman became caretakers of the Vine and the true fall of man began when man worshiped wine more than God.

Man and his wife believed they were masters of the Vine, but the Vine – the subtlest of all creation - had a long-term game plan.

With instructions from the Vine, man took cuttings from the Vine and planted them into the ground to propagate new varietals.  Cabernet Franc and Sauvingnon Blanc begat Cabernet Sauvignon.  Pinot Noir and Cinsault begat Pinotage.  Dr. Durriff and Syrah begat Petite Sirah. And so and so begat so and so. The first year the man and his sons pulled fledgling grapes off of the young vines to strengthen their roots.  The second year the vines grew taller than the man and he pulled the fruit to make the vine even stronger. The third year the man, his wife and their sons harvested the grapes and made a blush wine and it was pretty good, especially on a hot summer day.  The fourth year the man and his sons harvested the grapes and made red wine and it washed down the pasta pretty well. As the years passed the vines waxed stronger and stronger and the wine improved and the Lord took fewer walks through the vineyard and as the Lord was seen less often by the man he drifted further and further away from his Creator and grew fonder and fonder of the wine.

Each year the vines grew stronger while the man grew older, and while the wine made by the grapes improved with age the man did not,  imperceptible at first, but with each year, an ache in the hand here, a pain in the foot there, and over the years the ailments compounded. In his youth, man was master of the Vine and harvested the grapes and perfected the art of winemaking, but the Vine seduced man with wine, central to her plan.  The Vine provided wine to the man for lunch and suggested to him to enjoy the lifestyle of his Mediterranean cousins and he started taking siestas and worked less and put on weight and while he slept the Vine grew taller and stronger.  She whispered to the man, “Plant more,” and the man listened, believing more vines and more wine would make him happier and the vines sang hypnotic songs in the vineyard – which German poets would call “Lorelei” about a siren above the river Rhine who caused ships to crash on the rocks.  Lorelei was a grapevine and she and other vines seduced men and women with their music.  One afternoon after drinking his fill of the fermented fruit of the vine the man awoke and his beard was long and white and the vine was long and green, and the vine wrapped its tendrils around the man’s ankles, and although the man was tired he brushed her back, but the vine persevered and the next year wrapped herself around his ankles and thighs and the man could only train her back to his ankles and it was the beginning of the end, for in the fullness of time the man would succumb and the vine would rule, and when she ruled, she would nourish the birds of the vineyard who nested between her breasts with her grapes for that was the way Mother Nature intended.  The man would die, be cremated and his ashes spread in the vineyard, which nourished the vines even more and was their ultimate victory.

You dream of owning a vineyard?  A vineyard will consume all your time, drain you, kill you, then devour you.

[1] In those days this paradise was called the Vineyard of Eden before Hebrew historians renamed it the Garden of Eden and The Grapevine was Queen of the Fruits.
[2] Christian historians state Jesus was right up there at the right hand of God at this time and joined the Lord for happy-hours and patented a method for turning water into wine but about this I’m not so sure because I missed Sunday school the week that was taught because my parents had a hangover.
[3] When followers of the Son of God started serving wine in church that was the start of church schisms because at the beginning God did everything in his power to keep wine away from man.

(C) Copyright 2015, Craig Justice, All Rights Reserved. Permission granted to quote with credit.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Winemaker's Breakfast: Simple Soup, Simple Shrimp & Shrooms

Simple Soup, Simple Shrimp & Shrooooms

A man's got to eat a good breakfast to rack the new wine into the new barrels that arrived this week. Especially if he intends to do it without spilling a drop. The leftovers available were one day old shrimp, the bottom of the pan of 3 day old crab soup, cherry tomatoes going from red to green, several days old hard rice left as an offering to the spirit of the dog and some fur-growing mushrooms.

The method:

* Boil the left over soup. Throw in some broccoli. Throw in two fresh eggs and stir. Add the handful of hard dried-out rice. Simmer.
* Cut the mushrooms. Saute with olive oil and a dash of butter. Pour onto plate. (Note to chef, next time try adding a bit of leftover can't call it "Port" wine while cooking and a pinch of Hawaii Kai red clay sea-salt when serving.)
* Into the saute pan add more olive oil, sliced garlic, and from the herb garden grab what's available, which in our case was basil dried on the plant and some rosemary. Throw in the shrimp. A touch of butter. This cooks up fast - then drain off the delicious "shrimp sauce" into the simmering soup, stir, and serve. Alas, there is no suggested wine pairing today - it's 6 o'clock in the bloody morning.

I can hear dad asking: "Where are the grits?"  OK, next time.

Voila!  I'm so full - and so ready to tackle those barrels of wine - especially after the pot of pressed coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate. For the record, this is the first time I can remember cooking with butter in ages. This is the first time I remember cooking in ages. Will get cholesterol checked on Monday at Lab Corp.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Is It Halloween?

Now that all the grapes are harvested and fermented and there's a heat wave I'm working inside on the bookkeeping and there's no excuse but to exercise a little personal hygiene and cut my overgrown hair. There should be a law against balding men appearing in public with hair as bad as this. At least I won't need a Halloween mask after cutting it myself.  I step carefully outside with the electric shears half expecting to see a Rattler looking for shade. Leaves rustle and a lizard - the relative of a Komodo dragon - scampers up the stucco wall frightened out of his wits. The mirror I need to avoid being arrested for a really bad haircut is hanging from the wall and I half expect to see the lizard's mate behind it - during Spring cleaning I found a lizard self-taxidermied stuck to the wall. I lifted the mirror and there was no scurrying but I half expected a Black Widow to crawl from behind the mirror onto my hand so I put the mirror down and found no spider then looked up on the wall to see what was left of the previous year's lizard corpse and I noticed Dracula sleeping. Before I could take a photo the bat had flown. Do you know if bat shat is poisonous? There seems to be some left behind.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Memories of the 2014 Harvest

What a difference a month makes. Just a few weeks ago, we were up to our knees - and eyeballs - in grapes and a blasting heat wave. Now, the weather has cooled, the vines are fading and the 2014 vintage is fermenting, slowly, and so full of promise. New barrels have been ordered - hybrid French & American oak barrels - and when they arrive next month we will begin the process of racking and blending. We have plans for a tasty Petite Sirah - Tempranillo blend; an uncommonly good Grenache based wine enhanced with Tempranillo and Petite-Sirah;and a big, powerful, towering Zinfandel-Aglianico blend. Meantime, it's time for some battonage - stirring up the lees, or sediment, in the holding tanks of the new wine to extract more flavors and to create a fantastic mouth feel. And when I'm in the winery, I'll take the opportunity to top-up and taste the 2013 barrels - I barrel tasted the 2013 Petite Sirah yesterday afternoon - it was amazing!

In case you think I get this excited about all of our wines - then obviously we haven't met yet. I've made plenty of bad wine the last 10 years - so I'm grateful for the good.  And now with some experience, I like to think we've finally figured out what works, just in time for our winery's 10th Anniversary.

Don't you just love how easy it is to create video memories with iMovie? I couldn't resist, so here's a short video of the 2014 harvest. Thank you to everyone who helped. It takes a village to make - and enjoy - good wine. Cheers!

To learn more about Blue-Merle Winery please visit

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Wine For The People

A boutique distributor of fine wines looking for a local San Diego winery to fill out his lineup approached me at a wine tasting event and tried a sip of our "Merleatage." He, his spouse and their two companions returned to our serving table several times to sample them all and the tastes turned into glasses. The distributor's timing was perfect - as wine was piling up to the ceiling in the winery - aka our modest two car garage converted into a crushpad and storage area - we really needed to start selling more. But, occupied by my daytime job I don't have time to sell it - and our help don't speak English - while the daughter moved to San Francisco to be a comedian.  So, I had reached the point - as painful as it was -  to give up margin and to work with a distributor as our sales force to turn our inventory into cash. Besides, if I hired a sales rep, it would probably cost me as much. A distributor made sense.

At a follow-up meeting at the distributor's tasting room we re-tasted our wines and compared them with other wines he was selling. His wines were good and he was buying them at a wholesale distributor price of $12 a bottle. Good wines from Santa Barbara and Lodi and Napa.  At this price, there is no profit for us, but the inventory pressure was high, the wines in the barrels needed to be bottled and stored so I bit the bullet and we shook hands. "Charge my Amex card at the end of the month - we pay net 30 days," he said. His enthusiasm was infectious - no wine shop or fine restaurant would be able to resist his sales pitch for our wines. Soon, our labor of love would be available throughout San Diego County - and the cash flow would allow us to buy new barrels and more bottles and first-grade corks to produce and bottle the highest quality wines.

The next week I delivered eight cases with an extra case for samples. I produced a tri-fold brochure. I set up a PayPal account and sent my first PayPal invoice. The invoice was received by the office manager. At 15 days I emailed the distributor - "How's it going?"
"We have two placements already,"he wrote. At 25 days, I emailed the office manager, do you have the PayPal invoice? Yes she replied. On day 30 there was no payment. At 40 days they didn't return my phone message. At 45 days their telephone line didn't work. At the 46th day I drove to their office and it was closed.

The good book says to forgive your debtors and I have "let it go" and perhaps some of the wine will be a seed that someone somewhere will drink and contact us and become our best customer ever. I had an epiphany - wouldn't it have been better to just give it away?

And this is how the superhero named BootleggerMan - or is he WineMan? - could they be the same person? - began.

I gave away a case of wine to the church. And a case of wine to the office of my daytime job. And a case of wine to a reseller of our products from my daytime job. And another case of wine to the church. And to our business consultants and to the group raising money for breast cancer research and to the group raising money for Big Brothers and to ....

Wine for the People. Wine for the Teachers. The Bootleggers Express Always Delivers.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Winemaker's Notebook

Today there is no harvest. No pressing. No ice change. No bottling. No heat wave. Just an easy punch down for the last batch of fermenting Aglianico grapes. For a moment, I don't know what to do. What is this? Free time?

Is the fog in my head from being a Zombie Winemaker lifting? During my zombiehood last week I watched Netflix videos of Himalayan expeditions to relax. Winemaking = Climbing Mt. Everest.

Today is irrigation day. The last big drip for the vines. Two hours of water yesterday blended with a cocktail of organic nutrients and enzymes to promote healthy roots. Another two hours this morning - which became three hours since I started writing this. That's it for water - no more - except for the baby vines who will get one final drink before bedtime.  The deep deep watering we did last Fall helped the vines get through this year's drought. Same strategy again next year. Already taking steps to make next year's harvest fruitful. Must order compost.

Our water bill for August was $150. I cut the water to raise the Tempranillo sugars.  My neighbor, who has no vines, no agriculture, has a bill over $200. Just sayin' ... yes, we're using water, but ....

As I walk by vines with fading and fallen leaves, canes emerge from once thick foliage. I lift my fingers as clippers and make practice air-cuts that will be made five months from now in February when we prune. I bend a long cane imagining it as a new cordon arm next year and begin stretching it down along the wire.

For weeks, I've been doing everything to keep the winery - a converted garage - cool during the heat wave where temperatures topped 100 degrees outside last week. Who invented the phrase "It's only dry heat"?  I'd like to employee that person outside here. The winery has an air conditioner. The house - and our cars - do not. Today, the morning temperature in the winery is 62 degrees from the natural cool air outside. I begin thinking "Hmm, I better let it warm up to 70 degrees today in the winery to encourage malolatic fermentation" of the new wine.

Yesterday, the spray guy came to do an injection into the irrigation line. I showed him how to cut off water from the new backflow device when he finished so I could head off to my daytime job to earn money to pay him.  "Is that the one you replaced after the building contractor broke it?" he asked. I nodded.  "And he charged you for a new one after breaking your old back flow device?"
"Some people."
"What would you have done?"
"Make him pay."
I remained silent for a moment and said, "It reminds me of the story of a man responsible for spraying a vineyard and he missed some spots and mildew grew.  The vineyard owner summoned the man to show him where he had missed and where there was a mildew infestation.  The spray guy went and bought some materials and came back and resprayed the area - charging the vineyard owner for his mistake." Silence..... I saved his life again by not strangling him on the spot.

Three generations from 82 to 5 years old helped pick the Petit Sirah, The patriarch accomplished something never before seen in this vineyard: with one motion he did a double-click and cut his hand with clippers in two places. Not a good idea for a Coumadin patient.  He survived and in two years we'll be drinking the blood of the vine at communion. Thank goodness I'm not a chip off the old finger.

All nephew Luke could say when he visited was "Uncle Craig, I hope we see a snake" and "Uncle Craig, where are the snakes?" She finally appeared the day after he left. A mathuesula. An 8-footer with over a dozen bands around the rattle cooling off under a Grenache vine the day we were planning to start picking our loveliest grapes. It guess it takes leviathan snakes a while to travel when called. She sure took her time leaving the Grenache as she sauntered into the riparian canyon next to our vineyard. My 1,000 year old cultivated snake friend from China, no doubt, who wished a few words with me.

This is the year we implemented night time harvests - at 6pm as the heat from the day passed we started picking grapes. The advantage to this was to get a headstart on the next morning's work - and - to give us a chance to photograph and pick some vines before the mad rush of the harvest and looking after the guests.  Do you know how hard it is to pick your own grapes while managing a harvest? We brought the grapes down the hill and let them cool overnight outside - or if the temperatures were not dropping that evening brought them into the winery and let the air conditioner run all night.  After the harvest and crush, my job was to drive into town to fetch blocks of dry ice - up to 20 lbs. - to cool down the grapes.  After the dry ice treatment, the next day and for a few days thereafter we added blocks of ice from the freezer - in water jugs. One of the daily routines is to change the ice in the morning and the evening. Could an ice bath be the secret to great wine?

Bottling wine is sure going faster this year - from not having to trip over the dog. Still, we miss him. During the harvest, we encouraged his ghost to eat all the grapes he wanted. Do dogs dream of eating grapes?

My vineyardmobile is approaching 300,000 miles and she says when it goes she wants to buy a truck. "I thought you wanted a Jaguar."
"No one will buy me a Jaguar."
"I bought your teeth." Her dentist bills cost more than a Jaguar. Unfortunately, he doesn't work for wine.

Did you hear about the winery in California being sued by the state for using unpaid volunteers? It seems wineries that pay their people complained about wineries that use volunteers because of an unfair cost advantage. Both the state and the wage paying wineries have it wrong. There's an old saying "there's nothing more expensive than free" and we've proven it in our vineyard. When we total the cost of food we prepare for people who help us at harvest - not to mention the time preparing it - we would save so much money hiring day laborers. For the record, if anyone from the state is reading this, we do pay our help. They work for wine.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Simple Revelation

I heard the rooster crowing and opened my eyes and saw faint light entering the windows. "Dawn," and rolled over to look at the clock -  3:13 am -  "Ah, the light is from the moon. I can sleep another hour," and listened to the hoots of an owl and the roosters cokokirokoko-ing la lune. As I thought about getting up, "Craig - " I heard clear as day. "Oh great, now I'm hearing voices," but when your name is called clearly in the middle of the night you rise to investigate. The household was sound asleep. I did a zombie shuffle to the water dispenser in the kitchen and poured myself a cup and answered the only way I now how when you hear your name called -  "Here I am" - and memories of a forgotten faded song entered my head:

"I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin,
My hand will save.

I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart."

Then I remembered Las Mananitas when group after group of faithful singers paraded through our dormitory at dawn with joyous songs as part of a religious retreat called Cursillo. I thought at the time las mananitas was the summation of all your joyous birthdays at one breakfast.

This was supposed to be a low-key day. Maybe not. Good morning everyone!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Chere Francine, About that wine I gave you.....

"If it hadn't been for them we
wouldn't be here today," - a toast
to D-Day veterans.
Chere Francine,

I'm thinking about you this week, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, le six juin, le debarquement. You are grateful pour les americains and tell the stories of the parachuting over St. Mere Eglise and Murphy hanging by the church steeple from his parachute and Father Wood with his cricket and scenes featured in the movie Le Jour le Plus Long. You heard the stories first hand from the heroes who were there and you and your sister both met and fell in love with GI's, married and moved to the United States and your two sons served in Viet Nam. What a story! And your local newspaper knows your histoire and interviewed you yesterday for an article and a river cruise ship line stopping stopping near your house in Vernon has invited you to speak to the passengers about your memories and they soak up your personal stories more thoroughly than the bread I used to sop up la sauce a la moutarde you served me with a lapin.

"Do you see it on the news over there?" you asked. I reassure you President Obama will be there for the ceremony. You're disappointed many people especially the young do not know of these important events. For that matter, do we remember each year the Battle of Yorktown and your countrymen from France who made General Washington's victory over the British possible?

After you moved to America as a war bride you became friends with my parents - Dad worked at the same company as your Bob - and when we meet people today you say about me "I used to change his diapers,"  while Nina your daughter says "I used to beat him up." Time passed and you and your Bob purchased a country house in Normandy not far from Monet's old home and it was a dream come true until the dream shattered when your Bob died of a heart attack on the streets of Paris and you didn't know how you would live another day. That was almost 40 years ago, and here you are, entertaining the river cruise ships.

After graduating from college, I visited your house in Normandy the first week of June and you generously loaned me your Peugeot and told me the places to visit and what to do and I made my pilgrimage to the landing beaches and to the sea of grave sites with crosses and stars of David planted more symmetrically than my rows of vines. You suggested I stop and see the tapestry at Bayeux which I did and learned about Viking invaders. What I most remember about my D-day tour was when Father Wood himself returned to France to baptize your grandson and you also invited me to visit and we took Father to Giverney to see Monet's restored house and water lilies and le Pont Japanois and I basked in the presence of history.

I think of France and America as good friends - largely because of you. When I think about Japan and China aren't Americans and French true allies and very much alike? When you tell people about me visiting you you say "he used to bring me his dirty laundry and I told him what he could do with it." I guess that's just because I thought of you as mom. The families were such good friends when my parents went on vacation you volunteered to take care of their Lasaopso - Maltese chien named Mugsy whoknocked-up your Yorkie Nanette and we remained friends through health and through sickness, good times and bad, and even a scandalous dog.

Before every dinner we had an aperitif, usually white wine infused with creme de casis or mure and on special occasions there were kir royale with Champagne and there was always red wine with dinner. You are a legendary cook and you taught me how to make lapin au moutard and afterwards we watched on French TV an American movie The Flying Dutchman. You took me to see Jacques Chirac - then Mayor of Paris - speaking in your village. You and your neighbor taught me how to tie a bottle to a tree and grow the pear inside - and of course, you introduced me to the elixir Noyeau de Vernon - distilled from Apricot pits - and the local Calvados, stiff brandy distilled from apple mash.

Eight years ago you visited San Francisco and I flew up to see you and I knew enough about wine so that when we went to an Italian restaurant I ordered a Nebbiolo.  I brought you a barrel sample of our first Syrah and you told me you like a Syrah and I poured you a glass from my plastic water bottle I had bootlegged into a fine San Francisco restaurant.

The Queen of the Vineyard always appreciates the way you treat me like a kid and put me in my place like a domineering mother - she wished she could control me like that. Whenever I spoke French in your presence I was always justly criticized for butchering your beautiful language so I just gave up speaking it with you. Besides, your English is too good.

About that wine I gave you .....It was a year ago we flew to France to see you. We invited you to lunch at La Coupole and I presented you with a bottle of 2011 Petite-Sirah, the darkest most delicious wine we had made up to that time and it was a pleasure to carry it all the way to you. The Bootleggers Express always delivers. This is not like the wines we used to drink in your home - at least how I remember them - it is more in the American style and the fruit seems to taste sweet - although there is no sugar in the wine which is fermented to dryness. I once had a 2009 Gailliac wine from France that was similar in its syrupy texture and taste.

It was June the 1st a year ago and you proposed a toast with a tear in your eye: "This Thursday is June 6th and I want everyone to remember that 69 years ago the GIs and my husband Bob landed in Normandy. If it hadn't been for them we wouldn't be here today."

I know you miss your Bob and his comrades and today and your heart is aching as you remember their sacrifice to liberate France .... and I thank you for still being with us.

With love and gratitude always, je t'embrasse,

Your petit Craig