Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Grafting & Barrel Topping & Woodchips

John the Avocado Grower from New Zealand paid a visit to Blue-Merle Country over Thanksgiving weekend with his wife and son. I invited Joe the Wino to join us for some gophering and wine tasting. Joe likes New Zealand wine, and often flies to Wellington to go skiing during our summer (their winter.) Joe said he was playing in a golf tournament. I couldn't believe it. "You don't play golf well enough to play in a tournament."
"I've been taking lessons with Bruce," he replied. Macadamia Bruce is our local Macadamia tree grower and nut vendor who is a golf pro with a golf-course on his 4-acre plot that winds through his macadamia grove. Some of the holes are tougher than Pebble Beach.
"What tournament is this?"
"It's a tournament for handicapped and blind kids -- I think I have a chance to win!" he said erupting in laughter. Joe thinks he's a comedian.
"Yeah, I read that joke on the Internet too."
So, without Joe's humor or presence, we were left to entertain the Kiwis by ourselves. Although we didn't strike back at the gophers as planned (the gophers started this war in 2006 with a ruthless attack on the lone, surviving, 25 year old kiwi plant on our property), John's son the U.S. Navy helicopter pilot volunteered to lend us some napalm. We picked up our clippers and marched through the vineyard to the boutique avocado grove with me at the front of the line carrying a shovel just in case.
"Just in case what?" Mary asked.
"Just in case we meet Mr. Rattlesnake." It had turned warm again that day, and the Queen had spotted one in the area the week before. They don't have poisonous snakes in New Zealand. Nor do they have gophers. Just Hobbits.
After determining that our favorite avocado trees are "reed" avocados and not the "bacon" variety, then showing us how to prune the avocado foliage to let in more light at the top of the tree, John & Mary took some samplings of budwood to graft onto a free-range, volunteer, avocado tree growing out of control, but which would never yield fruit as it had never been grafted. One of the mysteries of this tree is how it grew so fast and so lush without watering? The general state of avocados in San Diego country is worse than Detroit automakers. Earlier this year, most San Diego growers cut back their groves 30% -- that is, they stumped 30% of their trees -- because of mandatory water cutbacks for growers on the agriculture water plan. One of our neighbors who grows avocados told me they were going to take out all of their avocado trees this winter, because the cost of water is forecast to increase significantly. So in the middle of avocado wasteland, a tree is growing. (I wonder if there's a spring nearby?) The tree had 3 shoots, so we tried 3 different grafting techniques in the hopes that one might work. John sawed off most of the tree, but left a large trunk which still had some branches. Then, he cut a wedge in the top of the trunk, and inserted into the wedge some budwood, which Mary had whittled to expose moist weed. On a different trunk which had been sawed, we placed budwood on locations around the perimeter of the trunk (this technique was recommended by the University of California, Davis). And, on the third, smaller shoot, Mary just simply sliced the shoot in half half and taped some budwood to the shoot, forming one, new shoot. As we walked back to the house, with Mary pulling out clippers faster than the Sundance Kid and snipping every rose bush in site, "Don't forget to go back there tomorrow and place some gauze around those grafts to protect them from the sun."

The next day was warmer and the sun was brighter. After Bluey and I taped some gauze bandaging (aka a paper towel) around the grafts, I started pulling some weeds around the nearby Aglianico vines when I spotted Mr. Rattlesnake slithering in slow motion on by me right down the middle of the row. The Queen had implored me not to behead the beasts. She says that they have spirits and to decapitate them is an ill omen. She could be right. In China, there are 1,000-year old, white, cultivated snakes, who assume human form. There are operas written about this. They are the scourge of men. I know about this, having met one first hand in the City of Hangzhou near the West Lake. Almost ruined my life. As I considered my dear wife's request not to harm the snake, I realized that my shovel was 10-yards away by Bluey, asleep in the cool shade of the wines. I took a step towards the shovel and Mr. Snake (or perhaps Miss Snake if she were a 1,000-year old spirit from China touting me to return?) picked up speed, and darted under a large boulder, hidden from view. I grabbed the shovel, and did what needed to be done since dogs and rattlesnakes don't mix, and thrust the shovel under the rock multiple times. My assumption is that the snake escaped through a gopher hole, and is out there, hibernating, growing larger, until Springtime.

And then there was winemaking. One of the ongoing tasks is to top the barrels (we have three wooden ones this year). Makes you wonder if you can really classify this as a chore? It involves: removing the bung, sticking your nose into the barrel. Inhale. Relax. Pull a sample of wine with the Turkey-baster-thingy and taste. Spray the bung-hole entrance with a mixture of potassium metabisulfite and water, then wipe the hole. Add a little bit of sulfite solution for good measure (typically, I'll mix in about a quarter teaspoon or so with each topping.) Next, open a bottle of topping wine, taste it, and fill the barrel to the top. (Normally, "the angels" in the winery will consume 1.5 - 2 bottles per month per barrel depending on the temperature -- the angels are more thristy in summer). I was pleased to find "sprtizyness" from the wooden barrel I tasted last night, indicating that malolactic fermentation had kicked in naturally (without me needing to inoculate the barrels with malolactic bacteria this year). And the 2008 Petit Verdot is "bolder" than the 2007. In fact, the 2008 wines are tasting great at this stage, and it's like Opening Day of the baseball season when any team can win and become the World Champion that year. These wines are promising and could win awards, until I do something to screw them up! This happened when I tasted a 3-gallon carboy of Petit Sirah pressings which I had been saving ... the bung of this container had been knocked off (I don't know for how long) -- when I tasted this wine yesterday, it had an "oxidized" taste to it... so I probably cannot use it for topping wine -- but it sure will make an excellent grappa when I find time to take it to the man with the licenced still.

We started a Winemaker's Forum on the business networking site LinkedIn recently, and I'm amazed by the number of business people out there who are planting vines and making grapes. (Misery loves company I suppose.) One of the discussion topics that came up this week was adding wood chips to wine. Lum Eisenman, our mentor in San Diego, uses wood chips all the time with his 15-gallon stainless steel beer kegs. It's an acceptable way for a small producer or hobbyist to make wine. When I was in Australia and NZ this summer (their winter), I met several winemakers using "oak staves" -- these work quite well also, in combination with breathable "flex tanks" -- these are "permeable tanks" which allow the wine to oxidize slowly (as if the wine were being barrel aged). Merlot Mike purchased several of them during this crush season, which are about $300/each for the 50 gallon size and $400 for the 100 gallon size. About small, 15-gallon wooden barrels, STAY AWAY FROM THEM! (It's a long story.) It's much easier to use the 15-gallon beer kegs. Hint: have a keg party and "forget" to return the keg (forfeiting the deposit as payment).

We used French oak wood chips in our "neutral" 60-gallon barrel last year. In the past, I would just put the chips through the bung hole into the barrel and let them settle at the bottom. (I would use about one pound of chips.) After bottling, I'd manage to get most of the chips out. (Remember, I'm the guy who always makes mistakes when making wine, so I'm not saying this is the best way to do it.) This year we tried something different... I had a very low-tech net/nylon type of stocking, and a special bung that had a protrusion, so that I could "tie" the wood chips in the stocking to the bung -- this kept the chips from going all over the place at the bottom of the barrel -- and made cleaning the barrel much easier when we bottled. In fact, we didn't clean the barrel at all this year ... we just put the new wine into the freshly emptied barrel this year -- because we were so tired at that point. Check out future editions of the Winemaker's Journal to see if that was a mistake, or resulted in award winning wine.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

White Wine: A Turkey?

Some people think I don’t like white wine. What I don’t like is the thought of making it because making good white wine in large quantities typically involves refrigeration for which we just don’t have the equipment. After months of drinking thick, chewy Nebbiolo wine or rich, inky, Petit Sirah with every dinner, a little white wine would be a welcome relief. In fact, one of our favorite experiments this wine making season has been “Bluey’s Blush” -- we took a 40-lbs. basket of Petit Sirah,Tempranillo and Zinfandel grapes from our vineyard, crushed them (breaking the skins and removing the stems) then immediately pressed them (separating the juice from the skin and seeds) and began the fermentation process with pink grape juice. The result has been surprising. We love the rose color and there is a hint of “banana” —it was a wonderful use of the grapes, since this is just the “second leaf” of the vines planted 18 months ago and the grapes are not that complex, yet. This is a fun wine. Like Nouveau Beaujolais. Something not to be taken too seriously. But to enjoy.

As we had run out of food a couple of days ago and the cupboard was bare and oranges, pomegranates and lemons can only sustain you for so long, I made my first trip to the grocery store in months, a Trader Joe’s located in the valley 15 miles from the vineyard. The first thing that caught my attention was “white wine” for $1.99 which wasn’t white at all. It was labeled White Zinfandel, and it was pink as Bluey’s Blush, so I put a bottle in my basket as I wanted to give it a try to see how we compare with Napa winemaker Charles Shaw. And who do I see at that moment but none other than Joe the Wino, vintner and owner of a high tech company who’s seen me just make a selection of $2 wine.

“How ya doin’ there partner?” Joe asked.

“Doin’ fine. Doin’ fine, thank you. Spending all my money on women and wine and the rest of it I’m wastin’. Good to see you Joe.” We shook hands. “Whatcha doin’ here at Trader Joe’s – buying Two Buck Chuck to refill your empty bottles of Chateau Laffite for your dinner guests?”

“How did you know?” Joe winked.

Just then a cute little thing acting as a sommelier came up to the millionaire vineyard owner and asked, “May I help you select a wine?”

“I like Pinots; do you have any Pinot noir?” Joe asked.

“This one’s my favorite,” said the Trader Joe’s staff member pointing to a bottle. “And it’s only $9.95.”

“I like the picture on the label,” Joe said. Then he asked, “Do you have any Pinot more?”

“Pinot what?”

“I heard it through the grapevine. A new varietal developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis. A new grape designed for older people like myself. After drinking a whole bottle at dinner, it’s not necessary to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. It’s called Pee-No-More.”

My eyeballs rolled and the little thing blushed pinker than the rose wine and Joe The Wino just laughed at himself. It seems Joe must be on the same e-mail list as my father who sent me the joke earlier in the week. I asked the attendant if they had any local wines for sale. She said sometimes. I made a note that some of the wines were selling for $30 or more, and this would be a good place to sell Blue-Merlot – especially if the Trader Joe’s artists did a picture of Bluey in Technicolor on the chalkboard. Something like this:

Since John the Avocado Grower from New Zealand is planning to visit us this weekend, I bought a package of kiwi fruits. Our vineyard used to be a kiwi ranch 25 years ago but fell into disrepair as the price of kiwis fell lower than the cost of water, so the place was abandoned. When we moved in, it was a ghost town, navigating through remnants of the old kiwi trellis system, and the locations of a thousand kiwi vines. There was nothing left of the old vines, except for dried, rotted roots which we found as we dug up the place planting olives, persimmons, apples, avocados, macadamias, almonds, figs, guavas, blood oranges, palms and eventually end posts and grapes. Except for under the Man In the Rock. The Man In The Rock is a rock formation whose frown always follows you from whatever angle you look. Is he an Indian? The guardian of the property? Or just a rock? Under his shadow, we found a shoot. A remnant from an old kiwi root, which sprouted forth a few green leaves, unmistakeably those of a kiwi plant. Imagine that, after 14 years of neglect. A survivor. What were the odds? The Queen watered the baby vine very day, and it grew, and she covered it with a clothes hamper from the laundry to keep out the rabbits. When she arrived one day with her water bucket, the kiwi was gone. Nothing. Nothing but a hole. The hole of a gopher. And thus started The Gopher Wars, which will be rekindled after a brief Thanksgiving Truce, with John the Avocado Grower at my side. The Kiwis Strike Back!

Back at Trader Joe’s, I pick up a bottle of Nouveau Beaujolais which I’m delighted to see. The Queen and her species love Nouveau Beaujolais. Where she comes from, they think that this is high quality wine – but it’s Thanksgiving and I know it will make her happy so I’m willing to splurge and spend $8 for the bottle (well, if she drinks that, then I’ve saved one of our $39 in inventory and can sell that and make some money and pay off the Beaujolais purchase). I bumped into Joe The Wino at the checkout counter. His cart was full as he was shopping for Thanksgiving and I wagered the cashier, “I’ll bet you a bottle of wine there’s $200 of groceries in Joe’s cart,” and the cashier said, “You’re wrong – there’s $300.” And at the end of it there was $277.77 and I got to thinking there’s about a week’s worth of food in there and if there are 4 weeks in a month then that’s over $1,100/month for food and that just includes Two Buck Chuck and his $9.95 Pinot More and that’s what I used to spend on my mortgage and now food alone is that much. How is Joe The Plumber going to live let alone this guy who drives a Jaguar?

Back at the ranch there’s an e-mail from my friend Jeff who runs our local commercial winery Belle Marie, where I’ve entered a contest with my answer to the question: “What’s the best temperature to serve white wine?”

To which replied, in order to score a free bottle with at least the most creative answer: “When wine is involved, any temperature is good for serving and drinking!” Lum Eisenman, our master winemaker mentor, would like that answer.

Jeff writes:

“Well there's a sales guy's answer if I've ever heard one! Not that I take issue with your logic. Just so you know, in our opinion a fine dry wine is best served at about 55 degrees. Since most refrigerators are maintained at about 45 degrees, this means that a white wine served directly out of the fridge is too cold. The next time you try a premium white wine, such as our 2006 Paradiso or our 2007 Fume Blanc, try taking the wine out of the refrigerator for 15 or 20 minutes before you drink it... or pour a glass right away but drink it slowly, paying attention to how the wine changes as the temperature rises. In the end, the best serving temperature (just like the best wine) is up to you, the one doing the drinking and enjoying! Thanks for playing along with our challenge Craig. Since taste is subjective and your answer is at least our sentimental favorite, you are officially entered into our drawing to win a bottle of premium white wine. We'll look forward to seeing you again soon. “

I’ll need to remind Jeff that at our house, wine lasts about 15 seconds after being taken out of the refrigerator, and to all of you drinking white wine on Thanksgiving, I send you a toast, as we sample from our land pomegranates, persimmons, olives, oranges and gopher filled with Stauffer’s stove-top stuffing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Vineyardista

I’ve realized that my dearly, beloved wife, the Queen of this narrative, is a vineyardista – someone who dresses up before going into the vineyard to get dirty. Her morning begins with a shower, then she dons color coordinated pink polka-dot boots, slacks and a pink sweat shirt and spays a cloud of Channel No. 5 over her hair and clothes. It has been raining a bit today – I call it Normandy weather – a few sprinkles here, a little sunshine there – so she’s fashionably dressed for wallowing in the mud.

When it comes to a night on the town Saturday there is no "recessionista" chic here – we go as we are.The pink polka dots are muddied over. There are brown stains on the pink sweat shirt, and even the Channel No. 5 is a faint memory. We don’t need to dress down to tone down during tough economic times – we’re always dressed this way. And, we’re just too tired to shower and change after working all day with the vines. (Maybe the Queen has it right taking her bath before vineyarding because I haven’t bathed in a couple of days which is soon to become a few days because I would just rather collapse into bed.) I half expect the wino outside the liquor store to give us a quarter as we limp in after a day of work. I’m more frightening then him – in the afternoon I grabbed a pomegranate and gorged on it leaving deep red stains around my mouth. I look like an advertisement for "Got Vampire?" combined with my disheveled look – the wino edges away.

This aptly named "Liquor Store" in the California version of a redneck town called Escondido, CA has a hidden jewel in the basement—a machine called an Enolmatic which dispenses a measured taste of wine by inserting a SmartCard into a slot. The wines vary from $9.95 to $99.95 – the beauty of it is you can taste the most expensive wine for $4 a shot, while the cheap stuff is 99 cents. As we have already pre-paid the remaining $12 on our card, there is no cash outlay for us to have a few sips Saturday night. Needless to say that the $99 wine from Napa Valley tasted pretty good and the $54 wine from the Stags Leap area also tasted pretty good and the $10 wine wasn’t that bad. What was nice about it was that we got to taste some pretty good wines pretty quickly and it didn’t cost us any cash, and we walked away not buying any of the bottles that were on sale. That’s trickle down economics. We trickle down the aisles and out the store without spending a cent.

There is a McDonalds 100-yards from the Liquor Store and I was thinking about Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live when she talked about the $70 BILLION economic bailout and why it’s important to restore $1 value meals. The Queen is craving French fries so we go to McDonalds and order from the $1 menu: Hamburger: $1. French fries: $1. Espresso: $1. I kid you not. This was one of the McDonalds with gourmet coffee service: cappuccino, lattes, the works. In the interest of full disclosure, I must state: I am a shareholder of Starbucks (having purchased at $10/share recently) and the Princess was gainfully employed by Starbucks in Manhattan this past summer. Moreover, when I joined Joe The Wino on his march to Wall Street, I was given a free Starbucks coffee by the Starbucks manager (as that was the shop where the Princess had worked). Not only did we eat dinner for $5 cash on Saturday (including the cost of sips of $99 wine, $54 wine and $10 wine), the espresso we enjoyed at McDonalds was delicious, had a bit of froth on top, and was large enough to serve 3 people. Yes, a triple espresso, for 33% less than the cost of a Starbucks espresso, and 3X the liquid. "Would you like a flavor with that?" asked the MacDonaldsista. "No thanks. Plain is fine." No one had ordered an espresso from that location before and the barristas need a bit more training. I’m planning to stop by there for my morning Joe tomorrow.

It was not a good week for Joe The Wino—it started out promising with the newfound celebrity he enjoyed from his interview with The Winemaker’s Journal and his march "From Main Street To Wall Street." Then Tuesday came, and Obama was elected president which sent Joe, who was in denial about the possibility of an Obama presidency, into a tizzy. On election eve he went to visit Gerry Meisenholder, one of the premier grape growers in Blue-Merle Country, bringing with him a bottle of 1970 Chateau Lafite Rothschild wine. I don’t know how much Joe paid for it but let’s just say it might have cost $15 per sip had it been featured on the enolmatic. When Fox News announced Obama the winner, Joe told his host he might as well open up the Lafite, since the President-elect was likely to implement a wealth tax and tax assets including wine collections. So they sipped the 38-year old wine before the cost went up from taxation, and Joe thought it tasted a lot like Gerry’s 8 year old wine which had oxidized and is worth $1 a sip or less.

In spite of drinking a rare wine on election eve, Joe was in a foul mood when he arrived at his company the next morning. Joe is the CEO of a high tech firm in San Diego, and he’s not at all pleased that his taxes are going to go up in the Obama regime. What’s more, his company was forecast to grow 50% this year but with all those economic troubles around the world, business only increased 15% year over year in October, so Joe restructured the company and laid-off 15% of the work force. Joe’s friends in his CEO round-table applauded his moves which they say are necessary in tough times. I say there I go but for the grace of God and I’m grateful to have a job to support my winemaking, my vineyard and my women.

Back at the Blue-Merle ranch, the Queen had already fired the work force last winter when she figured out that she could do the work of the staff in half the time (and could save the money she would have paid the workers and purchase 46 canary island palm trees for $39/each which will be worth $10,000/each 49.7 years from now). So when I was cutting the large limb from the Pepper tree in the vineyard that crashed down on the wires of the trellis system which snapped the end post causing all the vines on that row to sag where the rabbits could jump-up and reach and eat and make disappear overnight what had taken us two years to grow, there was nothing to do but fix it. So I started digging a hole to China in the hard, brick clay and the going was slow but as I progressed I noticed the soil was moist underneath a vine that had been irrigated regularly and it was still moist two feet under and the baby vine’s roots had traveled to that 2-ft. depth as well. A good sign. I put the replacement pole in place and then a metal rod to support it and as I was preparing to pour cement into the hole the wheel barrow hit the metal support rod and the wooden pole feel on me and the metal support rod fell down to the ground breaking the irrigation head on the irrigation line on the way down. Self reliance is a good thing to have in a recession when you don’t have the money to hire workers or when you’re saving your money to invest in palm trees so there was nothing to do but to try and fix it. I found that the Queen kept in the garage enough irrigation parts for us to plant another vineyard or to open a wholesale supply outlet for valves, bushings, T’s, connectors, blue glue and primer glue. I was able to piece the assembly back together and this only took less than a day. I began thinking about economic theory and the division of labor and began wondering if this was the best use of my time when I could have spent the day looking for new customers and increasing sales at my company and with an increase in sales could come an increase in jobs and economic wealth.

"Do you see the smoke," asked the Queen drawing me out of my reverie. A wildfire had started on the horizon and we had a perfect view of it and it was a good excuse to go into the house and call it in just in case no one else was reporting it.

Back inside there was a message from Merlot Mike who wanted to borrow our enolmatic which is slightly different than the one used at the Liquor Store – we use it to bottle wine. The Queen came in and complained about being tired and had that look that said she was more than tired. I pricked her finger and tested her blood sugar which at 66 was very low so we poured some orange juice into her to raise the sugar and made her a snack of bread and olive oil. It’s not easy trying to manage a vineyard when your blood sugar puts you into a comatose state, there are wild-fires starting on the horizon, the banks won’t loan you money, and it seems that everytime you touch something (like cutting a tree) you break something that needs repair and while you’re doing the repair you break something else. Then you see that with the cool weather the gophers are getting active again and you’re just too tired to set a trap for them. You pray for your sister who has cancer and then your other sister complains because you haven’t called her for weeks and your parents keep asking you when you’re coming out for Thanksgiving when they live 3,000 miles away and you’re just trying to hang on and there’s so much to do.

I headed to Merlot Mike’s and I promised I wouldn’t have anything to drink. I was good when he offered me a glass of wine and I said I’ll have it to go and save it for the evening so he poured it. But since the glass couldn’t transport very well without spilling there was nothing to do but drink it. Then I needed to sip what he was bottling and it was 2007 Merlot which he had just blended with some Cabernet Franc made a month before. And now you’ve learned a winemaker’s secret and time will tell if it’s good. When I got back home I gave what was left of the wine to the Queen who was feeling better and I finished digging the hole for the post and that’s when I broke the irrigation line. We got the line fixed and managed to restring the vines that were sagging so the rabbits wouldn’t gorge on them. Then Bluey and I set a few gopher traps and went about giving haircuts to a few of the overgrown vines and soon it was dark and I was working by moonlight and Bluey took a nap with a stick in his mouth.

It’s another full moon eve and it’s a magical time in the vineyard. It’s cooler now than last month, and if I were a rattlesnake I wouldn’t be out of my den on a cool evening like tonight which means it’s safe for me and Bluey to jog through the vineyard this evening so long as the mountain lion is not nearby. Life is pretty good. My middle sister is surviving cancer and the Princess is surviving New York and my favorite World War II Veteran from Greensboro, N.C. is surviving and our investments in palm trees are growing. Life is happening. And the vines … the vines just keep being vines and they grow a little here and change a little color there. The work is finished and I finish the last sip of wine and the bottle is empty. The cupboard is full and there will be another glass tomorrow.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Joe The Wino Speaks Out On Politics, The Economy & Joe The Plumber

(Editor’s Note: “Joe The Wino” lives in Blue-Merle Country and is an accomplished high-tech entrepreneur, farmer, grower & vintner. Concerned with all the attention given recently to “Joe Six Pack” and “ Joe the Plumber”, our Joe felt the concerns of winos were being neglected. In an exclusive interview with the Winemaker’s Journal, Joe the Wino speaks out. The views expressed are his and do not represent the opinions of Winemaker’s Journal nor the editors.)

Winemaker’s Journal (WJ): Joe, I understand you have a sign in your driveway that states “Keep Right.” Is that an expression of your political views?

Joe: It’s just a traffic sign I took from an intersection.

WJ: Isn’t that theft of government property?

Joe: I call it “fair trade.” What do you call it when the government takes thousands of dollars from me and gives it to some bankers so they can have parties in California?

WJ: Then, you’re not a liberal?
Joe: I’d like to take Sarah Palin on a date to a wine bar.

WJ: Wouldn’t that make Joe Six Pack jealous?
Joe: I used to make beer before I started making wine. I have nothing against Joe Six Pack and beer drinkers. It was costing me $6 a six-pack to make really good beer, but with the increase in micro breweries during the last 20 years, I could buy the best beer in the world for about $6 a pack so I quit making it myself. It costs me $6 to make a bottle of $46 wine, so I’m actually saving $40 a day with every bottle of wine I drink.

WJ: Speaking of home economics, how would Obama’s policies impact U.S. wine production?

Joe: Under Obama’s plan, my taxes are going up. He’s proposing to increase the tax on anyone who makes more than 250 cases of wine a year. I was thinking of buying out the Mondavi estate, but I just don’t know how I’m going to do it with my taxes going up. Obama says he’s only going to tax the rich, but where does it stop? Sure, he starts by taxing you if you make more than 250 cases, then the next thing you know, he’s charging a $10 tax on every bottle of wine produced in America in order to fund the bank bailout. Hey, Mr. Obama, would you mind lowering the mortgage on my vineyard by $250,000? The other thing the politicians don’t understand is that when they raise taxes, I’m going to hire fewer workers. When that happens, unemployment goes up in San Diego and in Mexico.

WJ: Concerning Mexico, how do you feel about the candidates’ positions on immigration?

Joe: I predict that Obama, bending to pressure from protectionist special interests, will ship all illegal Mexican workers back to Africa.

WJ: Wouldn’t that negatively impact you? How are you going to manage your ranch without farm hands?

Joe: Because our taxes are going up, I’ve taken preemptive action to cut costs and fired our workers. After things pick up again, we can always go down to the street corner to hire some day laborers.

WJ: Do you or did you ever employ undocumented workers?
Joe: Are you with the “Justice” department or something? No. Never.

WJ: How do you know?

Joe: They never told me they were illegal.
WJ: What would a McCain presidency mean for wine makers?
Joe: John McCain would free the grapes. The Republican Party, going back to the days of George Washington, has a long history of supporting brewers, winemakers & distillers. Did you know that George Washington himself made a pretty mean brew? Sam Adams used George’s recipe.

WJ: What about the Whiskey Rebellion, when Washington crushed a movement by distillers who refused to pay taxes to the federal government?

Joe: As Jesus said, pay unto Caesar what is due Caesar, then he broke out the good wine at a wedding. Under a McCain administration, the states would no longer be able to interfere with interstate commerce and the Constitutional Right of American citizens to purchase wine direct from any winery they want. McCain would end the tyranny and protectionism of the monopolistic wine distributors and we would be able to ship our wine anywhere in United States, especially Alaska. Did you know that Governor Palin nips a glass of wine every once in a while? She has a plan, whereby we could stock wine in Alaska then slip it into Russia. The idea is to get Russians addicted to wine, so they’ll quit vodka undermining Russia’s industrial base. As the saying goes, when vodka factories fail, down goes Mother Russia, and along with that Putin and his cronies. When McCain was campaigning out here in California wine country, he promised to cut tobacco subsidies (what with all the complaints about cancer and those other problems caused by smoking) and he promised to help the winemakers. Only John McCain and Sarah Palin are maverick enough to stand up to the tobacco lobby. Instead of a $10 tax on a bottle of wine which we would see under Obama within three years – under a new Republican administration I’ll be given a $10 per bottle subsidy to make wine – plus I get to keep the revenue from what I sell. McCain has a plan for fixing Iraq. He’s going to take the $75 billion annual surplus from Iraqi oil revenues to purchase wine to ship to Iraq. And finally, McCain has an alternative energy plan. He’s going to purchase millions of gallons of premium wine to convert to ethanol for use in America’s cars. Under McCain, wine production goes up, we hire more workers, unemployment in San Diego drops, unemployment in Mexico drops.

WJ: Are you planning to hire workers from Mexico?

Joe: I invited my friend Joe the Plumber to come over and install an irrigation valve because the Mexican workers were taking too long to get the work done. When Joe arrived, they freaked out. But I’ve got to tell you, Joe didn’t install the valve correctly, and the Mexicans repaired Joe’s sloppy work. It was a victory of the Mexican worker over the American worker, and the beginning of the end for Joe the Plumber.

WJ: You’re trying to be a farmer in a desert. Aren't you concerned about the future availability of water?

Joe: I used to be an avocado farmer before I planted grapes. In the summer, I was giving each avocado tree 300 gallons of water a week – my water bills were astronomical. A grape vine only needs 10 gallons of week in the heat of summer – and 8 months out of the year I don’t need to give them any water at all. I’m saving thousands of gallons of water with every grape vine I plant. I have a friend in New Zealand. His name is Joe, Joe the Avocado Grower. He’s the father of the avocado oil business over there, and has his own avocado groves. I asked Joe how much he spent on water. He said $500. I asked $500 per day? No, he spends $500 the whole year! He’s got much greater rainfall over there, and a well. Shoot, we should just buy all of our avocados from New Zealand, and the New Zealanders should buy all of their red wine from us.

WJ: Do the policies of the San Diego water district and the San Diego county government support avocado growers at the expense of grape growers?

Joe: That’s a complicated question – all I know is that there’s going to be less water to go around and that avocado trees require a lot more water than grape vines . While the politicians try to figure that one out, I’ve already made my decision: I planted grapes.

WJ: Which Presidential candidate is more supportive of the rights of wine producers to sell the product of their labor from their own backyard?
Joe: With the strategic importance wine producers will play in thwarting Russian aggression, alternative energy initiatives and the Iraqi balance of payments problem, I’m concerned Congress will nationalize wine production after the banks.

WJ: Wouldn’t boutique wineries benefit from billions in public investment?

Joe: Do you think the government can make "fine wine"? The Italians make good wine. Good wine is made by stomping grapes with your feet. But according to my good friend Merlot Mike, Fine Wine™ can only be made when lush grapes are gently crushed between the subtle breasts of nubile maidens. Can you see Uncle Sam doing that? Besides, what would we do if given billions of tax dollars? Go to California and throw a party? There’s no point in that – we’re here already and have as much as we want to drink already.

WJ: Is it true you’re organizing a protest march in New York?

Joe: I call it “Main Street Goes to Wall Street.” I’m calling for all winos to meet on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange building in Lower Manhattan next Tuesday, election day. It’s not a protest – it’s to provide emergency relief. After Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast, we bottled up wine to send to our brothers and sisters in Texas as a symbol of our solidarity. After all this financial carnage on Wall Street , I’m sure there are some bankers who could use a drink.

WJ: Won’t you need to hire New York wine distributors to do the pouring for you?

Joe: Not if McCain wins. He’ll bust the monopolies.

WJ: Any final last words before the election?

Joe: Vote early and vote often.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Full Moons & Fires

It was the week of the full moon in Blue Merle Country, almost bright enough to read a newspaper under the night-time sky. It’s the time to hunt gophers without night vision goggles. It’s the time to take an evening stroll through the vineyard to enjoy the magic of this time of the month. It’s mid-October, and it’s warm enough to walk under the stars and the moon without a sweater. The Santa Ana winds are blowing in from the dessert, and I suppose that the snakes are out and about looking for that last meal before hibernation. Not wanting to be mistaken for that meal, I bring a shovel, making my presence known to all in the area. Some might call it paranoia. I call it common sense, especially since we found 12 snakes the first two weeks we moved here two years ago. I’m on a mission, to investigate the smoke rising from the West. It’s "fire season" in San Diego and I’m climbing to the top of the hill of the vineyard to examine the scene below, where flames become visible in the valley. The fire looks much closer than it is – but if the wind shifts, we could be in trouble, so I pack a bag, important papers and the computer and put them by the door just in case. My father used to joke about "sleeping with one eye open." That skill will come in handy this evening, as the flames are visible from the house where I set up my stake out.

It was the first day of Gopher Season, which opens when the bulk of the winemaking is behind us and at least one car fits in the garage. I was setting the first traps of the season when Merlot Mike and Nancy, out for a joy ride, drove over in the Gator. "Every time you come here I catch a gopher," I tell Mike. "Let’s see if it works again this time." We had just finished bottling wine three days before, so we broke open a couple of bottles for tasting. It was getting dark as they left, "another hour of sun wasted" I thought, but it was good to see them. It wasn’t the light that was lost, but water. In my rush to welcome them, I forgot to turn off the irrigation. The Queen called me at the office the next morning to report a flood cascading down the hill. There was no gopher in the trap – Mike’s hitting streak was up but we verified one in the area. Mr. Gopher back-filled the hole where we set the trap, so the hunt was on with me setting a trap, and Mr. Gopher back filling it. I set a good one yesterday, deep into the hole, and found a succulent root for bait. As Bluey and I made the rounds the morning, he froze in his "Gopher Dog" point and I suspected we caught one. When I arrived on the scene, Bluey had already pulled on the chain of the trap and there was Mr. Gopher, squeezed between the tongs. Without gophercide nor dynamite, so long Mr. Gopher! I throw him over the fence for the coyotes to snack on.

The saga of the 46 Phoenix Canarius palm trees (or, if you prefer the less scientific name, those [expletive deleted] palm trees) continued, with more digging, piercings and swearings. Merlot Mike called, "Can I bring over the Gator and help you move those trees up the mountain?" I explained to him no thank you, because this is my penitence, to atone for all the iniquities, sins and wrong doings during 20 years of marriage. It seems I am not the sole Martyr of the Palms. The Queen attempts to help me lift one of the trees into a hole, and her hand is pierced by a needle. Without a word she walks up the hill to the house, stoically bearing the sign of the "stigmata."

It’s been one year since we evacuated from the Great San Diego fires of 2007 and camped at Coyote Karen’s mom’s house. There were the Queen, Bluey & myself, Coyote Karen and her sidekick Pinot Noir "We’re Drunk" Sandra with her two shitzus, Merlot Mike’s cat (whom we called "kitty" and locked into the bathroom); Jack, Judy, Chuckie (the medical miracle with Down’s Syndrome) and their two golden retrievers (Max & Maggie) and a couple of cats. We were a mini Noah’s Ark – not having to worry about bringing a wine dog, Coyote Karen brought her wine collection and was very liberal with her libations. Might as well enjoy a good class of wine while your house burns. We sipped, and watched distant flames lapping hill tops.

Our houses didn’t burn this time (thanks in part to Sandra’s husband Jim who stayed behind to defend the neighborhood) – and this day, one year later, Karen called to say her brother (who co-hosted us refugees last year) was coming down for a visit. Would we join them for some brisket? Now the best brisket I’ve ever tasted was at The Salt Lick outside of Austin, Texas 11 months ago and the second best in the world is made by my cousins in Oklahoma. Ole Coyote Karen had lived in Texas herself a few years and must of learned a thing or two because I now declare her the Princess of Brisket, and I don’t say that just to flatter her in hopes of being granted privileged access to her wine collection or other hidden gems. "I added a can of coke and wine to the recipe," she explains, and I suggest that what’s good for beef should be good for gopher meat and I offer to go and find the carcass of the fresh one we caught this morning.

After the nourishment, it’s back to the "winery" and racking wines into the refurbished French barrel. I’m told there are two kinds of barrels: Burgundy and Bordeaux. I can’t tell you if the difference influences the taste of the wine – but the thinner barrel we got last year fit through the side door of the garage. The one we received on Saturday does not. But, this one doesn’t leak. The work begins at 2:30pm and finishes at 8:30pm, and the Queen starts singing some very melodic songs about how she never dreamed about "making wine" – that she only wanted a vineyard. I suggest that she go and plant a palm tree or something – which I’m glad NOT to be doing as I blend the Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot into a "Merleatage" (named after Bluey) wine. The Cabernet Franc tastes good for a 3-week old wine, the Malbec is surprising good and "spritzy" from malolatic fermentation, but the PV I’m not so sure about so we’ll see how the "2008 Merleatage" turns out. After that’s done – and I take a break from racking to plant a palm tree (which turned out to be our best financial investment of the week) – we rack "Bluey’s Blush", our first rose wine… and it tastes pretty good! (I’ll spare you the comments about how it has a "banana nose.") We come inside, enjoy the leftover blush topping wine chilled from the freezer, then open a bottle of 2007 Petit Verdot, which was just bottled a few weeks ago… and I’m thinking, what a difference a year makes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Making Fruit Wines by Amber Rounseville

(Written By Amber D. Rounseville for the Winemaker's Journal)

As a novice wino in the winemaking field, I wanted to take a few minutes and talk about fruit wines. Here in the Ozarks of Missouri, we are very simple people with very simple tastes. There are some advances in the grape growing industry here in the Show-Me-State. Now, I am not a winesnob but I have run into them in Missouri. In a discussion with a manager at a local wine shop in Branson, he is anti-Missouri grapes and wine. He will not touch anything from this state, only the eloquent wines of California satisfy his taste. I would love for someday to explore the vineyards of California but for now, I explore the small micro wineries of Missouri.

So starts my journey of fruit wines. It mainly started as experimental in learning how to make wine. My first batch was Raspberry. I bottled it back in August and it turned out to be a semi-dry light red wine. With some sampling among friends, most were pleasantly surprised by the lightly sweet, yet dry taste. The assumption was that it was going to be very sweet but it is not. My neighbors really enjoyed it and I took some on a camping trip this past weekend. Grandpa Bob had some for breakfast yesterday around the campfire and then took the rest home! This is what we do in the Ozarks, drink wine around the campfire!

The next batch I experimented with was Pomegranate and Blueberry. This wine turned out very successful. I lightly sweetened it before bottling and it's a hit. My friend Stephanie and her husband told me that they are addicted to that wine and is the best they have ever had. I have had other people comment that it is a very good wine.

This is what I have learned about fruit wines so far. For people who do not have a real taste for wine, I will start them on a fruit wine and slowly introduce them to the grape wines. Start with the blushes and move forward. It becomes a gradual process to acclimate the palate. I know fruit wines are not as prestigious as traditional Pinots, Merlots, Chardonnays, etc but I am more interested in developing a person’s taste for wine and moving them forward. In the process I am having fun with the native fruits and opportunities in the Ozarks. So, as I develop my style to make Pinots and other traditional wines, there will probably always be a fruit wine in the background to help a new wino develop a taste for wine!

Here are some pics of my wine work room: As you can see, I have the merlot, blackberry concord, and reliance waiting to be bottled. Also included Jake, the winemaster taste-tester. I am hoping to grow out of the room in 2009 and into an actual building!

Here's The Recipe:

For raspberry wine: 8 lbs of raspberries 12 lbs of sugar 6 tsp acid blend 4 tsp yeast nutrient 2 1/2 tsp pectic enzyme 5 campden tablets red star premier cuvee wine yeast *this makes 5 gallons of wine. You need to add 4.5 gallons of water. Please note, the first thing I do is dissolve the sugar into the water by heating the water, then put it in the fermenter. Do not try to dump the sugar into the fermenter without dissolving. You will have trouble. Then add your raspberries. I smashed them into a cheese cloth and let it ferment in the primary.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Art of Wine Blending & Another Disaster Narrowly Avoided

Definitions:

PV = Petit Verdot.
PS = Petit Sirah
Queen = the woman who runs this place, whose dream it was to own a vineyard
Phoenix canariensis = my favorite palm tree
Disaster = when you mistakenly turn a barrel of wine (street value $7,000) into vinegar
PP = Petit Sirah / Petit Verdot blend in approximate equal amounts
pp = what the dog does when he goes out, as in: "Le chien fait son pis-pis…."

(Editor’s note: I assure you there is no pp in the PP but we guarantee "hair of the dog" in every bottle.)

Since planning the layout of our vines, our rule for making decisions has been: "Vineyard is Art." More so for the blending of wines. For over a year I have been raving about the "floral characteristics" of this Petit Verdot (PV) we were fortunate enough to source from Gerry Meisenholder, owner of Arroyo Vineyard in nearby Bonsall, CA. I liked the fruit so much, we invested in a French-oak barrel for it. The general consensus about PV is it’s a great blending wine, but not strong enough to stand on its own. I thought we would buck the trend, and produce something different – a unique PV with enough character to star as the main attraction. What’s more, since PV is fairly uncommon, it would be a good marketing niche. In May 2008, just 8 months after harvest, I entered the PV into competition at the San Diego County fair. An 8 month old wine, mind you. Knowing full well that it had not fully matured, I added character to it by blending in some Nebbiolo – a prince of Italian grapes, which I nicknamed "Petit Verdot Plus." The result: a wine fit for royalty, and a 2nd place ribbon in the "blended red" category. (This for an 8 month wine that had no bottle aging…) I felt I was on to something. The plan was simple. I had 5-gallons of the 2006 Nebbiolo left, and decided to blend this with 15 gallons of PV. This would leave me 45-gallons of pure, 100% PV to market as a stand alone wine, and giving consumers a chance to sample a wine that normally they wouldn’t have an opportunity to taste. The problem was this: as good as the PV is, it just didn’t have the "complexity" that one would expect in a fine wine. The decisive moment came three weeks ago, when Mick from Belle Marie Winery, Coyote Karen, Merlot Mike and I met to discuss San Diego wine politics, and I pulled a sample of PV from the barrel to share. The silence was defining. I had hoped to share the PV with Mick to create a joint-venture "Opus One" – no such offer was forthcoming. Merlot Mike took me into his winery and gave me a jar of "tannin" – add this, he suggested, as if to spice it up. It was as bland to him as rice without sushi, as oatmeal without milk, as Merlot without the "fine."

Back to the drawing board. Once the decision was made that something needed to be added, the next question was what? We had some Brunello that would blend nicely – but from a marketing point of view didn’t make much sense. I tried blending in some 2007 Merlot – but the Merlot’s dominant characteristics overpowered the PV. And then there was the barrel of Petit-Petit, the 50-50 blend of Petit Verdot & Petit Sirah. That Petit Sirah, invented by Dr. Durif, so purple, so powerful – and that blended combination, so promising.

Saturday (September 27th) was the hottest day we have had in September, and was bottling day. The marathon started at 7am and continued until 10pm – requiring the stamina of a 26 mile race, but no need to throw-up. It’s a dreaded day…. Like driving from North Carolina to New York… but the rewards await. The first part was easy … use the siphon hose to pull 15 gallons of PV from the barrel into a storage container, then rack in the 5-gallons of award-winning 2006 Nebbiolo. 103 bottles produced … folks, this is a winner, as the judges have already declared.

If bottling were just bottling, it might not be so bad. But, there’s preparation, then racking. When you empty one barrel, you need to immediately fill it up with the new wine because empty barrels invite microbes. And, when it’s all said and done, there’s cleaning up.
Next, I pull 10 gallons from the Petit-Petit (PP) barrel (which was 50% PV and 50% Petit Sirah) for blending with the remaining Petit Verdot. But, in order to keep the PP barrel full, I pull out 10 gallons of PV, then siphon it over to the other barrel, to keep it topped. All of this takes time.
(Time for a math exercise: … 35 gallons of PV blended with 10 gallons of a 50%-50%- PV/PS blend results in 45 gallons, 5 of which are PS and 40 of which are PV, and 5/40 = 12.5%, except, it didn’t exactly happen that way and the actual mixture is one batch with 10% PS and another batch with about 15% PS and the batch with 15% Petit Sirah (PS) tastes better and we labeled that one PV (good) for internal purposes while the other is just PV. [Do all winemaker’s go through this?]
This is how I almost turned $7,000 of wine into vinegar. The pump is the greatest invention since the wheel, at least for winemakers. Using a siphon hose used to add hours to the bottling/racking marathon, but a pump can empty a barrel of wine in minutes (or fill a barrel up with new wine). As I was setting the pump up, I accidentally hit the on switch, which disgorged a reddish, brown liquid. "Vinegar!" Somehow, I had not cleaned it out properly the last time I used it, and had it not been for the accident of turning it on, that vinegar would have been injected into the batch of Petit Verdot, with unthinkable consequences.
In summary: This PV with a touch of Petit Sirah is better than 100% PV, while the PP (which is now about 60% PV and 40% PS is better than both) and the PV Plus (with 20% Nebbiolo is already a proven award winner. All of this is back breaking work and the Queen whose dream it was to own a vineyard never dreamed about this and is singing a lot of songs about how this is not what she dreamed about.

I am saved from a knockout punch by the bell. The door bell. It’s Lera from Colorado with her brother Micah and his fiancĂ©e Megan who’ve flown in for a "tour" of the little vineyard on the mountainside and the so-called winery in the garage on Sunday afternoon. Special guests deserve special wine and we open a bottle of the 2006 Nebbiolo – it has become silky smooth and it tastes great and I’m thinking that the price has just gone up another $5 to $39/bottle. We also serve some of the leftover PV from the night before, and I’m thinking the initial taste is good, but I’m not sure about the finish and we’ll need to see what 6-months in the bottle does to this. Still, the company is great and the wine is delicious and there goes Sunday afternoon and here comes the heat wave. Summer has arrived and it’s almost October. The chain saw will have to wait.

Fast forward to Friday …. The Queen said she wanted to bottle the PP on Friday night. We started at 7pm and finished at 2:30 am and got it all bottled, close to 24 cases and 280 bottles and Saturday started out as a slow day and turned into it’s own marathon, death by 1,000 cuts from palm trees.

The Queen is always singing a song about how the vineyard is her dream, not mine, and how dare me for usurping her dream. Well now we’re even, because since we moved to San Diego 14 years ago "my favorite palm tree" has been the Canary Island Date Palm and every time we drive by one I’ll raise my hand, point, and say, "That’s my favorite palm." The Princess will say, "Dad, you’ve told me that already," but it doesn’t stop me from saying it again when we pass the next tree. When we moved to Blue-Merle country and started clearing the land my parents offered to purchase us a tree as a gift. "Thanks dad – I’ll take just one of my favorite palm trees." I then told him they cost $10,000 (plus delivery, which requires a crane.) He sent a $150 gift card instead and we bought a dozen Macadamia trees (another dream and another story).

I’m going on and on about winemaking and blending and vineyards but we live in interesting times and we’re one whoops away from the Great Depression of 2008. Stocks have dropped 20% and college tuition has gone up to $50,000/year and there’s no money in my bank account and the princess calls from New York City saying there’s no money in her bank account, and Bluey the dog growls "hungry" and there’s no food in his bag and there’s no money to buy any today. It’s all the fault of our greedy mortgage broker who put us into a house we couldn’t afford so we could pursue the cock-eyed dream of a vineyard. Because of his greed the world economy is about to collapse. But, there’s hope (besides the fact that we can live off the land, have our guns to hunt game of rabbit, squirrels and gophers and there’s a church at the bottom of the mountain where we can cling to religion): The Queen saves money like a smart squirrel who hoards acorns. She has $1,677 in her savings account and she has taken that, plus my last $100 and assembled $1,777.77 which was the bill for 46 Canary Island Palm trees, given to our daughter on the joyous occasion of her 20th birthday. Does this sound like "Jack and the Beanstalk"? This is either extreme foolishness or genius.

"I’d go to Las Vegas," said the salesperson at the nursery who unloaded the palms for quick cash. "Buy a lottery ticket. It’s not every day that a receipt has five 7’s in a row." Perhaps a roll of the dice would have been a wiser investment?

The 46 palm trees are delivered on Monday and at $10,000 each (future value) we now have an additional $460,000 in assets (future value) less:
The cost of hauling them to designated points on the property
The cost of digging holes and planting
The cost of chiropractic care (for my back)
The cost of watering
The cost of making boxes (and of dirt) for those we don’t plant
And, 50 years from now, when our "bonds" have reached their mature "face value" of $10,000 each, the cost of building roads and renting a crane to pull these puppies out of the ground (this should be slightly less than drilling for oil in the Arctic wilderness)
Less the cost of sales (in case the Princess is unable to sell them direct to consumers and goes through a wholesale nursery)

After pulling a near all-nighter on Friday night bottling, I am pressed to plant palm trees on Saturday. And Sunday. I go to sleep with my clothes on. I plot on getting even: "These palm trees are my dream," I inform the Queen and, "They’re half mine." I explain how I’ve earned 50% sweat equity from planting them and suffering a thousand piercings from the needles. Given the fact that stocks are likely to go lower next week – at least our stocks --the palm trees, now worth more than our house, are looking like a pretty good investment, guaranteed to grow. Just add water.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New Seasons & New Beginnings

This is the week of new seasons and new beginnings. The leaves of trees and vines are yellowing, and the calendar says autumn has officially begun. The harvests and fermentations are done, and we look next to bottling and the renewal of gopher season . (Watch out Mr. Gopher, I have recently seen “Caddy Shack” since our last confrontation and you are in trouble!) And, last but not least, this is the day when our cars are allowed to return to the garage, which calls for a celebration.

Celebration …. That reminds me. There seems to be something else about this day. I can’t quite get my fogged brain around it. September 24th.... The autumn equinox? The harvest moon? No, no. That’s not it. Ah, yes. The Princess’ birthday. I am the father of a 20-year old this day. Congratulations to me. Or more appropriately, congratulations to the Princess’ Mother, The Queen. I suppose the next thing the Princess will be asking for, after a dog (“Daddy, I’ll take care of him”) and a $3,000 bike (“Daddy, I’ll ride it every day”) will be a date. No, not from a palm tree. Speaking of palm trees, the Queen bought the Princess a harem of palm trees for her birthday present. She bought out the nursery. 46 of them. Not just any palm tree, but the famed “canarius” – the Canary Island Date Palm. These trees sell for $10,000 each, and as the Queen says, the investment can’t be beat. You buy a small tree for $35, put it out in the yard, and 50 years later sell it for $10,000, leaving the Princess with an inheritance of $460,000 when we ascend to the great vineyard in the sky. She ignores questions such as: where are you going to plant those? What are you going to do when they start growing? (These trees are enormous). But never mind, it’s the Princess’ birthday and the Queen can have her way for the day.

But what are we to do about that date thing? The Princess has just arrived in New York City, and the first thing she says is, “Daddy, I just met these two French guys ….” So let’s set the record straight young gentlemen. If you’re even thinking of asking my daughter for a date, here are the 10 questions which must be answered:
1) How many Canary Island Date Palm Trees can you plant in a day?
2) Which part of Paulliac is your vineyard located?
3) How far away is your chateau from Baron Phillip’s?
4) What year did you graduate from Ecole Polytechnique?
5) How many pounds (or kilograms) can you carry?
6) How many guest rooms does your Paris apartment have?
7) Do you prefer “Freedom” oak or American oak?
8) How do you spell “Barack”?
9) Do you know what a shotgun is?
10) Do you understand: “Ne touchez pas!”

Happy Birthday, Princess. (And don’t forget to water your trees!) I’d write more, but Paso Robles Bill has just brought us 200 lbs. of Cabernet Franc grapes which need dealing with – looks like I’ll need to get the cars out of the garage again. Mama threw away all of your old Barbies, Beanie Babies and photographs to make room for the wine. Love, Papa & Bluey.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Green Initiatives and Sustainability at Blue-Merle Vineyard

Al Gore (famed inventor of the Internet) and I invented the LCD projector and the hands-free Earset for mobile phones in the 1990s. When I saw his Academy Award winning documentary on the environment, I knew what needed to be done. Here is a partial list of Green Initiatives we've taken at the Blue-Merle Vineyard & Winery:

1) Carbon Offsets. We replaced two acres of weeds with vines. Each vine supplies enough oxygen for one human-being/year. We support the breathing of 1,150 souls across the world -- who otherwise would not have enough to breathe.

2) Eliminating Green House Gases. Carbon dioxide gas is a by-product of the fermentation process. To cut down carbon emissions, instead of releasing CO2 into the air outside, we trap it in our garage through a hole in the ceiling, converting green house gases into harmless garage attic gases.

3) Renewable Resources. The "hair of the dog" contained in every bottle of Blue-Merle wine is a natural, renewable resource (it just keeps growing on Bluey and he just keeps shedding it into the wine during his inspections). We use corks grown by Portuguese trees -- no wasteful, metal screw caps here.

4) No Animal Testing. We don't use rabbits for animal testing of our products. Rather, we let the rabbits gorge on our vines. We do let Bluey (a canine with a keen sense of smell) sniff each wine batch at all production stages. And, when concocting blends, each must pass Bluey's sniff & taste test before bottling.

5) Recycling. Each bottle consumed in house is recycled. (2 household members x 365 days/ year X 1 bottle wine per household member = 730 bottles/year). This initiative has kept at least 730 glass bottles from clogging landfills each year. Our rich neighbors who subscribe to wine shipments from Napa Valley each month give us their used shipping containers to reuse. We compost stems & grape skins (by dumping them in our neighbors' vineyards at midnight).

6) No pesticides. We do not use poisons to control rodents, varmints and gophers. We use "Owl" Gore, occupant of the barn owl box. We do not pour gasoline down gopher holes (that would pollute); nor do we do we flush out gophers with water (that would be wasteful in our draught stricken land). We catch our gophers by hand, mano y mano. If that doesn't work, nearby Camp Pendleton has offered us aerial combat support.

Dear reader, as modern technology has made it possible for you to comment on this blog suggesting to us how to become more green and reduce waste, kindly let us know additional steps we can take to be more responsible citizens.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

High Tides & Harvest Moons

It must have seemed like Friday the 13th for the residents of Galveston, Texas yesterday, a Saturday. What can we do to help? Each of us can offer time, talent or money. A carpenter can help rebuild a house. A counselor can offer comfort. And so, a humble winemaker – who spent Saturday, September 14th picking 2,000 lbs. of grapes, crushing a ton of grapes, lifting and carting a ton of grapes, and pressing a ton of grapes until midnight under the harvest moon – a simple vintner can offer to the humanity of Galveston a case of wine. May a bottle of wine offer some solace to some unfortunate Texans… I’m sending a case to a relief agency in Galveston, who are on the scene and can make sure the wine – and our wishes – find a “good home” – or rather, folks who have lost theirs.

The person connecting me to Texas relief efforts is Father Leland Jones, Assistant Pastor of Grace Church, San Marcos. Father Leyland was the minister at the Episcopal church in Romona, CA last year -- his family lost their house in the fires. He now volunteers with rebuilding efforts in the community. (As he now has 11 acres of vacant land in the heart of the Romoma AVA, he asked me probing questions about planting a vineyard.)

Hurricane or fire? After the flood in the days of Noah, the Lord made a covenant with the world – the sign of which is the rainbow -- that he would no longer destroy us with water. (Our high school teacher taught us next time it would be fire.) Last October, uncontrollable wildfires tore though parts of San Diego County – over 500,000 residents were evacuated. Over 1,000 homes lost. Over a dozen people died. When I think of the hurricane, the damage is so widespread, and so many more homes are damaged. Fleeing from flames; or trapped in a house with rising water? It doesn’t matter which I choose… we live in the tinderbox of Southern California…. Wildfires are our bane. I have made my choice by being here, and planting a vineyard (which is said to be a pretty good firebreak).

There is no reason to live in fear of fires … except when smoke is on the horizon, flames are in view and the wind is blowing your way. Yesterday, I needed to overcome a different fear. “Truckophobia” – fear of careening down a hillside in a pick-up truck.

Subscribers to the Winemaker’s Journal will recall a cliffhanger incident that occurred earlier this year when a gentleman farmer hauling rocks in a rented pick-up truck down on a path in his property found himself out of control and sliding down the hill side …. When I recalled that incident the other day, I suddenly realized why I felt a bit of anxiety during yesterday’s harvest. It ends up the Ford F-150 truck is an outstanding vehicle – we loaded it with almost a ton of grape must (and everything fit in one truck – we didn’t need a second). We got it up our hill, even our 45 degree driveway without spilling a drop!

Since it handled the grapes so well and I had it rented for the whole day (we finished the pick, crush and trek back to the Blue-Merle winery before noon), I decided to drive it to down the mountain top to the Home Depot and load it with two (yes two) of the gravel bags (normal pick-up trucks can only handle one). With Bluey by side we went to face our destiny. When you fall off a horse, as Texans would say, you’ve got to get back in the saddle. I had fallen off the mountain once in a truck – and so, I must get back in the saddle and try again (this time with firm, dry ground under the wheels). If Texans had to deal with rain, floods, flying glass, and washed up rattlesnakes, then for Texas, I could face driving a pick-up truck down Blue-Merle Mountain. (Some would call this foolishness – well, at least I bought the insurance this time).

The turn into the back road of the vineyard is “blind” – you can’t see the road – only the sky … I took a breath, said a prayer (does the Lord love fools?) and spun the wheel to the right, heading down the first hill and cleared the shed. A sigh … next, hitting some rocks retaining the left side of the “road’ (hadn’t done that before… is this truck wider than normal?) and squeezed past the retainer wall with two inches to spare. A bit too close for comfort but still no damage. So far, so good. I took a break, and used a shovel to empty about 1/3 of the gravel, then started the truck, and inched as slowly as possible to the exact part of the path which gave way earlier in the year. Took a deep breath and began the descent down the hill, where if I braked to0 hard, I would skin out of control, and asking myself, "Why am I doing this?" The answer: "For Texas!"

(How much damage did the truck sustain this time? Will the rescue crew sent by USAA be able to extract the pick-up truck from the pit? Will the new fermentation of the Petit Verdot grapes be started while the moon is still full? Will the Blue-Merle Winery still be able to apply to the Federal TTB for its alcohol permit? Will the wine sent to Galveston arrive safely? Subscribe to the Winemakers’ Journal today to find out.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

2008 Vintages: The history of ...

Here is the place to keep facts & notes concerning the 2008 vintage. First the facts (updated 9/14/08) , then the story.

2008 Malbec
Source: Arroyo Vineyards (Bonsall, CA)
200 lbs. 22 brix. Estimated yield: 17 gallons
Picked on cool day (64 degrees), 9/7 Cold soaked: 36 hours
Notes: Beautiful grapes, picked at low brix before the bees could get them. Very little bee damage this year. Pressed 9/14. 15.25 gallons of "free run" Malbec, topped with .25 gallon of Petit Sirah. Tastes good for new wine. In October, blended with 2008 Petit Verdot (32 gallons), 2008 Cabernet Franc (13 gallons), and a bit of Petit Sirah in a new oak barrel, thus forming the 2008 Merleatage.
2008 Petite Sirah
Source: Don's Vineyard (Valley Center, CA) 550 lbs. picked (our portion from the total yield of 2,100 lbs. ). 500 lbs. must. 23 brix. Acid: No adjustment required. Ph: in the range. Estimated yield: 34 gallons. Picked on hot day (90 degrees), 9/6. Temperature of must at winery: 85 degrees. Warm soaked 24 hours (decided to get the fermentation started before it took off on its own). Pressed 9/14. Very deep, purple color, inky color. Approx. 30 gallons of "free run", 5 gallons of pressings and 3 gallons of heavy pressings. Blended in 2nd year French Oak barrel (30 gallons) to create 2008 Petit-Petit.

2008 Petit Verdot
Source: Arroyo Vineyard (Bonsall, CA)
Harvested Saturday, 9/14 in 66 degree temperature. Approximately 1,800 pounds. 23 brix. Fermentation started Sunday evening, 9/15 under the full moon. We pressed 9/19 in the evening and 9/20 in the morning, obtaining 120 gallons of "free run" and 10 gallons of "pressings" (which are stored separately). The "wine" tastes wonderful already....Racked into one neutural barrel of American oak in October.

2008 "Blush Wine" Tempranillo, Grenache, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and "Karen's Vines" Source: Blue-Merle Vineyard (Estate Grown!) 50 lbs. Notes: Picked on a hot day (over 90 degrees) in the afternoon (9/6). Had to fight the bees for the Petite Sirah. There was a row of grapes hidden by the giant, overgrown, Ent-like, "big herm" vines which the birds never pecked (they couldn't get in there) and I grabbed from the bees doing my Winnie The Pooh imitation. The Grenache grapes were not damaged. The zin was in good shape. The yield from crush and pressing was only about 3 gallons of must. To make it over 5 gallons, Jim from Fallbrook -- who was crushing 800 lbs. of white Chenin-Blanc grapes at Mike's -- donated 3 gallons of white must. Folks, this is an experimental wine -- our first blush. Let's see what happens. (Racked 9/15 ... taste is promising. Malolactic bacteria added. 5 gallons yield + 4-bottles of topping wine. ) Racked again in October and topped. This is tasting suprisingly good as of end of Nov.

Here's how the harvest went: The pick of the Petit Sirah last Saturday was near brutal. Not quite, just near, as temperatures quickly climbed to 93. Fortunately there were 10 of us: Merlot Mike, Nancy, her brother Mark (who makes an annual pilgrimage from Wisconsin to help), Paso Robles Bill, Fidel, Don, Don's wife, Nancy's friend, the Queen and a Gator (that's a 4-wheel vehicle that goes all over the vineyard). It was an exercise in vineyard disease: Many of Don's vines are suffering from Pierce's disease, and are shrivelling (not his fault -- the infection was brought on by sharpshooters before Don purchased the property a few years ago). The grapes on the vines are also shrived. At first glance, you think, ah, raisins, "sugar bombs." But that's not the case. The taste of many of the so-called raisins is bitter, because they could never absorb water and grow (because of the disease). Still, award-winning wine was made by Merlot Mike out of these grapes -- and I'm anticipating success with our Petit-Petit blend from last year (50% Petit Syrah and 50% Petit Verdot). We started at 7:30am... I believe we finished around 11:30am -- over 2,100 pounds. We loaded up the trucks -- it took two pickups and an SUV to [barely] carry all the lugs -- and headed to Merlot Mike's for the crush.

The next morning we were up again at 4:30am to head down the mountain to Gerry Meisenholder's beautiful Arroyo Vineyard in Bonsall. The healthy, green vines were a stark contrast to what we had seen the day before. And, we were treated to fog and 60 degree temperatures as we descended down the mountain. The Malbec grapes were plump and tastey. A little more ripeness would have been perfect, but Gerry's Malbec has thin skin. As the sugar rises, the bees assemble. So, there's a choice: pick early and grab the fruit (with lower sugar) or wait and battle the bees. Last year we battled the bees, and lost 1/2 the fruit. This year, we picked a little early.

It's been a long week of picking, crushing, stomping, schlepping, sweating, tasting, fermenting, and punching grapes, and it's just Thursday. There's the daytime job, it's getting late, and THE BIG HARVEST is this Saturday.

Question for the day before calling it quits: What's the difference between Good Merlot, Fine Merlot, and Blue-Merleot wine? Good Merlot is crushed by the bare feet of Nubile maidens. Fine Merlot (the specialty of "Merlot Mike" Dunlap and the Escondido Sunrise Vineyard) is crushed les seins of beautiful Nubile maidens. Blue-Merlot is crushed by the paws of Bluey, the Blue-Merle himself, and includes "hair of the dog" at no extra charge. Call it branding.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First Harvest and the Last Racking

We survived the first harvest of 2008, taking in 7,000 pounds of Merlot (without any fingertips) at our neighbor's Escondido Sunrise Vineyard. Don, the veterinarian from Valley Center who is a veteran grower of Petite Sirah, was on standby in case anyone needed a digit sewed back. The only potential problem with having Don instead of a doctor: "They might end up barking after the procedure." It was quite a day, which began with perfectly cool weather for a change and a champagne toast. And once again, Nancy made brisket that couldn't be beat, accompanied by enough wine to fill a swimming pool and the stomachs of more than 50 volunteers.

The day before, Bluey and I took what grapes we could glean from the yellow jackets and honey bees -- the premier harvest from Blue-Merle Vineyard. Our goal: gather enough Tempranillo to make jam. We found that making San Diego's best jam ever is not an easy task -- I just threw the grapes into a pot and started boiling them. At the end, I ended up crushing them by hand, destemming them by hand, and picking the seeds out, by hand. The resulting liquid is nectar from heaven. But after adding some pectin, the liquid didn't set. So now instead of jelly, I've got pancake syrup or concentrated natural grape juice. (I added some to lemon juice and made a refreshing drink after the harvest.) There are still a few grapes on our 2nd year vines, and we're debating harvesting those for the farmer's market, or perhaps trying to make a blush rose?
Picking grapes is fun. Racking wine is not. It's a chore. But, with some wines, it needs to be done. "Racking" is the process of transferring wine from one container to another, which allows you to remove the lees -- or sediment -- from the container when empty. In addition, it allowed me to add some "oxygen" to some wine I have been storing in beer kegs. It seems ironic that we spend so much time trying to keep O2 out of the wine, and here for a brief moment we're trying to add it. But the fact is, wine stored in a beer keg does not experience that slow oxidation process which wooden barrels impart to wine, and I've found that wine we've made [expertly] and stored in beer kegs is somewhat "harsh" compared to equally made wines that we love which are stored in wooden barrels. A small, electric pump moves 15 gallons of wine from the keg into a clean storage container in a few minutes. That device sure is a lifesaver, because in the early days, we would have used a siphon hose -- and the procedure would have taken longer, if we were able to complete it at all. When I picked up the keg to rinse it out, I wasn't surprised to see a black widow at the bottom. The surprise was that she didn't bite me -- as I had been carelessly carrying the keg with my bare hands. Dodged another bullet. After racking the 2nd keg, I looked carefully at the bottom before putting my hand there. No spider this time. Just a scorpion.

This marks the fifth anniversary of winemaking for the Blue-Merle. My sister in Connecticut has one of the last remaining bottles of the 2004 Syrah, our first effort. I'd pay her $100 for it. It probably tastes pretty good by now -- too bad the Queen consumes all of ours before it ages. For five years, I've been a voice crying in the wilderness taking photos, writing web pages, and blogging about making your own, growing your own, drinking your own wine. And in five years, I think there are about a dozen of you out there, amused by our progress or lack thereof. The other day, I set up a group on LinkedIn called "Kaisha Society" which was an attempt to reconnect with friends who lived and worked in Tokyo 20 years ago. Kaisha Society has gone somewhat viral, attracting a dozen new members today -- whom I've never met before. Perhaps I should become a marketer of a non-profit professional organization for people whose work involves Japan rather than a raconteur of wine?

Then again, maybe I won't. I suppose there's at least one person who's been inspired by this story of a guy and his dog who make wine in their garage: Bill Powell. I met Bill at Grace Church San Marcos two years ago when we came down from the mountain to give worship, praise and thanksgiving for all of the blessings bestowed upon us and this land. He said he was thinking about planting some vines, and we shared with him our plans. We advised him to just do it, which he did, on a little strip of land in his back yard. When I saw Bill at Merlot Mike's on Sunday, he shared his news: He bought 10 acres and a house in Paso Robles, CA (the best wine country in the world) and is planting a vineyard there this winter. Way to go Bill!

Next stop: Malbec this weekend, Petit Sirah soon thereafter, then Petit Verdot.