Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Art of Wine Blending & Another Disaster Narrowly Avoided


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.

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