(Editor's note: On "Labor Day" four years ago we pressed our first batch of wine. Juice from 1,000 lbs of Syrah grapes. By hand. No ratchet press. No machine. Hands. And paws. It was one of the most memorable -- and gruelling -- experiences. A true winemaking fool. Don't try this at home. Since we bought a press in year 2, life has been easy. Buy a press. Borrow a press. Rent a press. Don't even think about doing this by hand. Enjoy the story as it was recorded on http://www.winemakersjournal.com/ four years ago and I'll work on a new entry that describes how we "crushed" grapes by hand this year.)
I am concerned about the length of skin contact on the juice. We picked on Sunday 7 days ago … the winemaking handbook I purchased in Australia 11 years ago says 4-5 days contact is enough – otherwise the wine may pick up too much tannin, and taste “astringent” – a fancy word for bitter. Yet, I thought I heard the guys from the San Diego Winemaking Society who were in the vineyard picking grapes say they would ferment in the container for about 9 days. What to do? I go back to Lum’s manual. It seems the length of time the skins are on the juice is a black magic art. Experienced winemakers know when it’s time to press, because of, well, their experience. Finally, Lum suggests: “If in doubt, it’s better to press early.” I have a press reserved for Tuesday – it’s Saturday. I went on-line to e-Bay to see what presses I could buy – but timely delivery would be an issue. What to do? I decide to take a lesson from the ancients (or the cavemen) and press by hand. Starting now. The experiment – and race – is on and Labor Day Weekend takes on a new meaning. First, we try to extract the “free run” – this is the wine that could be “ladled out” of the containers without having to squeeze the grapes. Matt has sold me a clear plastic siphoning tube for the job. He says “no sucking” on the tube ,,, you’re supposed to jiggle it a few times – he’s attached a $6 jig to the end of the hose -- and the flow is supposed to start. Back at the house, I’m giggling the hose and the juice starts to move up the pipeline. “Awesome!” I’m reminded of the blood test the vet did on the dog earlier in the week – the wine has taken on a deep, violet, fuchsia, purple color. Unfortunately, the victory is short-lived, as the flow stops before it can get over the container. I try again. And again. Jiggling and jiggling. Damn, how am I going to get the wine out of there? I wonder if the hose is broken, so I take it into the kitchen, fill a bucket with water, and I’m able to siphon it out OK. I go back to the garage, and lift the container (no easy task if you remember from day one) onto a cinder block to give it some elevation. No luck. We’re stuck. What to do?
I decide to just slop it out with a bucket. There’s a technique I develop. Place the bucket rim at grape (raisin) level, and press slowly, so that only the liquid flows slowly into the bucket. It works easily. Especially in the beginning, when there is so much liquid beneath the cap. The grape skins are a giant sponge – when you press down on them, liquid comes forth, but remove the pressure, and the liquid disappears back into the grapes. Press down again, and the “free run” flows. And where to put this new wine? I only have 5 of the 32-gallon food grade fermentation containers, and they are all full. My idea was to empty one, clean it out, and use it as a “storage tank” for “secondary fermentation.” I notice a couple of empty Arrowhead water containers (you know, the ones labeled For Water Only). What’s more, I know I can easily lift the 5-gallon plastic bottles. So I fill a bucket, and using a funnel slowly poor the reddish liquid into the water bottle. Some of it splashes on my hands, and I remember Lady Macbeth, “Out damned spot!” Not just my hands, but my clothes and garage floor become stained. The procedure is going smoothly. I’m able to fill a few buckets and transfer the wine to the water jug, and I’m thinking of the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, and what a miracle that was turning water into wine. But like an oil well that is drying up, the free flow can no longer be extracted, and so now I must push the bucket harder into the grapes to extract the juice. This time, ¼ of the bucket fills. Next time, a 1/8th of a bucket. Next time, the equivalent of a generous glass-size of wine. Time for the next step. To press.
I spy a hand-carry shopping basket from Ralph’s grocery. This is made of plastic and designed with holes and a metal handle. We have large plastic tubs which my wife uses for storage containers stacked on either side of the garage. I pick one that looks fairly clean, empty it of books and things, rinse it out with the hose, and I’m able to fit the shopping basket into the container in such a way that there is space at the bottom. My plan is to place the juice-soaked fermented grapes into the basket, press down, thereby extracting fluid which will drip to the bottom of the plastic tub, which I can then empty into the 5-gallon water bottle. I drive to the hardware store to purchase some screen material. Back in the garage, I cut some of the material and place it at the bottom of the hand basket to serve as a filter. I scoop out some grapes, fill the shipping basket, and put the basket in the plastic bin. Then, I take the bucket and use the flat side to push down on the grapes. It starts raining wine drops, then a waterfall, then drops again as I push. I need to push harder to get more juice. Then instead of gingerly pressing, I’m pushing all of my body weight into the basket, reaping the extra benefits of cross training with this weight training exercise. There’s a cracking sound; the basket falls to the bottom of the underlying bin with me crashing on top. I take one of these raisins, put it into my mouth – yum, like an alcohol raisin. Then, I notice a whole, perfectly formed grape. Not a raisin, but a grape. I put it into my mouth, crush it with teeth, and the sweet juice surprises my tongue. There should be a recipe for this … perhaps over ice cream. Enough with the distractions … my makeshift press has limitations. It won’t let me apply maximum pressure to the grapes. As I extract myself from the mess, I notice that the basket is not broken – I have merely pushed down too hard, expanding the plastic sides of the container beyond the reach of the basket, which caused the basket to fall to the bottom.
We have a problem here … I am not going to be able to press too hard. Part of me says that’s good, because I suspect that if tannins are in the skins, and we squeeze every last drop of wine from these saturated grapes, we’re bound to have too much tannin in the finished wine. I take the VA Tech paddle and mix up the pressed mound of grape skins and give it another round of pressure… drops of wine fall this time. I take the liquid from bottom, run it thorough the screen in the funnel – I estimate about a ¼ of a bucket from that pressing. Time to try again. And so the process goes on. And on. Bluey supervises the work. When we get to the bottom of the 32-gallon container we notice all the seeds. I understand where Grape Nuts cereal got its name, and I’m thinking of grape seed oil, and what can we possibly make with all these seeds? I put some into my mouth and crunch down, and the taste is, well, grape seeds – bitter. Miraculously, I find a whole grape that has not been crushed, and that escaped the pressing – it is delicious. I also find a metal washer, and I wonder if that’s the part Charlie was missing from his tractor? From that one 32-gallon container partially full, we end up with 2 @ 5 gallon bottles plus 1 @ 3 gallon bottle = 13 gallons. I do the math … 5 containers X 13 gallons = 65 gallons … hmm, looks like we’re going to produce enough wine to fill the wooden barrel. A good sign. We set the 3 jugs to the side of the garage, and I notice another empty 5-gallon water bottle. Great! So, we get started on the next 32-gallon container, and fill it up quickly since we’re working with free run. As we get ready to go to dinner, I notice there is active bubbling in the 5-gallon bottles, and purple foam the consistency of the sea on 3 of the bottles, but nothing is going on in the fourth. I tell myself, “That one must be the last one we did,” and hasn’t had enough rest yet to restart its fermentation. After the day’s work, the wife and I have a sip of our wine – it is slightly sweet, full of flavor. We treat ourselves to dinner at the local Thai restaurant. I order Singha beer, but she wants a glass of red, so I order a glass of Robert Mondavi “Coastal” Cabernet. We taste this in a new way … we notice the fruit; we notice the alcohol; we notice the color; and we’re thinking: we haven’t had the benefits of aging in oak yet and we compare with this $6.50 glass of wine. Motivation to keep going, for there is a lot of pressing to be done the next day. When we get back from dinner and inspect the “water” bottles, there is bubbling action in each of the bottles. A small victory!
Sunday (September 5, 2004) Day 8 I’m up at 5:15 am to check the wine and run the dog. It’s Sunday, but we won’t be going to church. We’ll worship from the garage as we make wine. (Is this why European monks were and are such good brewers?) The words sanctifying wine as a symbol of the new covenant take on a new meaning. In those days, people must have been more familiar with wine must, new wine and the bold colors. Our wine is thick and an appropriate symbol for blood. Sip it while you work. A Santa Ana wind bringing warm temperatures from the desert has arrived. The morning started out cool, just 67, by late morning it’s 94 degrees. What is the heat going to do to our brew? We improved the press. I went back to the hardware store and purchased a large (15-gallon) plastic flowerpot, with a ring of holes at the bottom. My idea was to find something more sturdy than the shopping basket that would allow me to apply more pressure. I load up some grapes, press down, and in an instant, the basket is forced to the bottom. Same result. I know what I need -- something solid – like an anvil -- underneath the basket, and the cinder block I have been eyeing all day would do fine. I imagine wine as the elixir that dissolves cholesterol; that it has healing properties and characteristics of a disinfectant. Nevertheless, I do not recommend drinking wine that has run over a concrete cinder block, not even for dummies. That technique was quickly abandoned. Most of the leftover skins, seeds, stems, pressed grape-cakes and spider-part remnants we’re able to dump into large garbage bags, and put into the trash. We city slickers don’t have a compost pile as the wife doesn’t appreciate the rats that would dine there. Still, we can’t get all the dregs into bags, and end up washing down the containers and the leftovers onto the grass. We do see an increase in flies the next couple of weeks, but thankfully the ants, which seem to be very content in our home, never make a trail for the wine storage containers. Lum advised us to keep a clean shop and we do. The pressing continues all day Sunday and most of the day Labor Day. We end up with what I estimate to be 68 gallons in the garage, plus two bottles and 6 liters that we place in our refrigerator in clear water containers, which looks like a storage cabinet for the Red Cross. It is a Labor Day weekend to remember. A labor of love.