Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On Making Wine and Turkey

And how is it that making wine and butchering a turkey are similar? They both start with a lot of preparation and finish with a big water hosedown. Both use a big blue container, a destemmer-defeatherer and a punch down tool. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

It was a noble idea to purchase a fresh, organic, corn-hand-fed, heritage turkey for my father, one of the Fighting Gobblers and a true Hokie (the Virginia Tech mascot is a castrated Tom). He recalled the time when as a newspaper delivery boy in Richmond, VA he won a turkey one Thanksgiving and went on his bike to pick it up and was surprised to see a live bird. (That was back in the day, last Century.) He held the flapping gobbler in one hand and the handlebars with the other and cycled home where Grandpa, the Petersburg Kid, knew what to do with a butcher knife. He says it took forever to pluck the feathers. Guess dad didn't know about dunking the bird into boiling water to loosen the feathers, although he knew about dunking birds to baptize them.

Turns out mom & dad had other plans for Christmas this year and the Queen, who wouldn't hesitate to eat a steer from Kobe raised on beer dregs and hand massaged, wanted nothing to do with this bird. "Don't kill him," she warned. "We'll make him a pet. Bluey needs a job and can look after him." This is the same woman who in rational moments says she wants no more pets. So I called Jane, the grower, to discuss the options. Well, as a pet, she said, he wouldn't last long, being favored by bobcats and coyotes who live in these parts, and being raised by hand, wouldn't be able to forge for himself.

I put out a notice "Free Turkey" and if there were no takers would bring him to Tiny Tim at the Interfaith Community Services Shelter. The only responses I got were from animal rights activists to free the bird and an old Lynyrd Skynyrd groupie looking for Freebird (that was back in the day, Last Century.)

The location of Rusty Spur Ranch is just a hilltop over from Blue-Merle Country but it's a world away. There, everyone has at least 40 acres to work with and raising livestock is as common as a flower garden in the suburbs. From there, jump just one more hilltop over and the next thing you know you're in Montana.

When Jane went to the pen at o'dark hundred she found ice on the birds' waterhole. Tom, whose ears were pinging, instinctively knew it was time and as she opened the dog crate for the ride to the butcher's the Dodger flew the coop. She called me with the news, "You're bird's escaped, but...."
"That's great! I was going to pay you not to kill him."
"I grabbed him by his tail feathers before he could go too far and wrestled him into the cage."
I was disappointed. Tom's escape would have solved my dilemma. "Listen, my wife, the Japanese Buddhist who loves to chomp on Kobe Beef, has found religion and wants nothing to do with this bird."
"Does she eat store bought turkey?"
"That's not the point. She's not a vegetarian. There's one thing I've learned in life: There are times when you need to listen to your wife. Let me pay you for him to keep him alive. Don't you need to keep one Tom as a stud?"

"I already have a stud. Let me tell you, I raised these birds by hand. I'm their mother hen. I love these animals. They roam freely. This is the best turkey you've ever had. I'll never eat store bought meat again. If you saw their operations you'd be horrified."

"OK, OK, I'll see you there." So I got in the car and drove through winding country roads and open vistas enjoying the sunrise on the shortest day and as I got to the other side began thinking, "I'm not in California any more." Or, perhaps I had gone back in time to the real California, where people grew their own, made their own, ate their own. Jane, with still a bit of city slicker blood in her veins and not being able to stand the sight of too much of it had hired a butcher to do "the deed." We met at Paul's 40-acre property, the sacrificial grounds being in a valley at the bottom of the hill with crisp ice covering water puddles and a plowed field surrounded by hills and acres of oaks, lemons and avocados. "I'm just a dumb farmer," says the owner about growing avocado trees in an area with only 10 inches of annual rainfall.
"I hear you brother, so am I. I grow grapes."
"Where's your place?"
"In Blue-Merle Country."
"That's just the next hill over," he said, and a world away I thought.

The first order of business was to build a fire to heat up a tin drum of water. The birds will be dunked in the hot water to soften the skin so that feathers pull out easier than clumps of hair from a balding 40 year old.

Next, Paul brought out a blue, polyurethane plastic drum, just like the ones we use for wine storage and fermentation. I soon found out that's where the birds are dropped after their necks are slit. It keeps them from running around flapping their wings with their heads dangling. Made sense to me and from now on when I hear the tapping sound on a plastic drum I'll think of the bird inside like a fish out of water flapping on a boat deck.

Paul's kids and their cousins were there to help build the fire and work the assembly line and I thought of our Princess back at home asleep missing once again something she would never forget. Does this kid really want to join the Peace Corps and work in Africa?

Once we were set up and the water hot we were ready to begin. Paul took a bird from one of the dog cages, straddled it, slit its neck and dropped it in the blue drum. After a few minutes, he picked up the bird and put it into the drum of hot water, taking a punch down tool (today a shovel) keeping the bird under water as if making soup or punching down a cap of rising grapes. After a few minutes, the bird would emerge from its bath and the feathers extract easily. Paul pulled out the large feathers; Jane would take the tail feathers to an archer friend who makes arrows. Next, the defeathering machine. Holding the bird, the machine would strip most of the remaining feathers from the bird; the kids would pull out the rest. At this point, the turkey looked like any fowl you'd purchase at the store except for the feet and dangling head. You could rip the skin off the toes and if there was a black toenail left, that would just either break or pull out (with flashbacks to George Clooney and a torture scene from the movie Syriana).

On the assembly line the kids pulled out the lungs, hearts and kidneys while Paul cut off the feet (a delicacy I learned to enjoy on trips to China and local dim sum restaurants), the neck and extracted the gizzard. The kids had fun hunting for treasure in the gizzard, finding shot gun pellets, wires, but no diamonds. When the birds were cleaned they were thrown into an ice bath to cool, and after we were done washing up Jane and I put the birds into an ice chest and began the climb out of the valley.

After 21 years of marriage I have no reasons left to lie to my wife and when she accused me of killing the turkey I told her honestly, "I did not kill that bird." I did, however, admit to plucking a few of them and making a video of the event for those of you who live in the city or the suburbs and dream of a life among the vines, growing your own, making your own, drinking your own wine, and eating your own turkeys. As she stormed into the garage to fetch the golf club we use as a punch down tool for grapes to punch me down I remembered she also keeps her samurai sword in the same place so Bluey and I headed up the hill to fork loads of compost and to let her settle down, while among the silence of the vines, we heard the wife's song turn into sweet wine.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Storm of Shakespearean Proportions

"Tom's a cold. Tom's a cold!" I called out as the season's first rain turned to hail. Soaked to the bone I meandered through the vineyard inspecting the flow of water, taking note of areas to patch. Oh, Tom's a cold, and I thought of old Tom Turkey trying to stay warm, huddling next to the hens. Over 80 degrees just two days ago on Turkey Day, Tom basting himself in the sun's warm rays among his harem. And now this. What a fall from fortune. 80 to zero in two days oh Tom's a cold! I thought of King Lear out in a raging storm spurned by ungrateful daughters and I, a Lear-like pauper, ignored by our Princess last week in the "Special Thanks" program of her play, "To The Men I've Dated: A Tribute." No tribute to the parents. Not a tribute to her dog. There are thanks to Judy (for ongoing support), and thanks to Katie (for the lights) and thanks to Caroline (for the sound), and thanks to Bryan (for the summer -- what's that about?). But where are the thanks to Papa, payer of the college tuition, and the bank roller of the production? Where are the thanks to mama, from whose womb she was untimely ripped? "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow." I said to Bluey who had followed me loyally into the storm, "Come, Fool!" and we picked up a mouse dead in his trap and carried him to the burying ground. As I dug the shallow grave my shovel hit a a skull which I pulled out and showed to Bluey, "Alas, poor gopher, I knew him Horatio."

My wits began to turn and common sense returned and I asked Bluey, "How dost, my boy? Art cold? I am cold myself." We headed down the hill towards the house, inspecting mounds of compost placed under each vine before the storm. The compost held its ground, and I took the shovel and worked it into the soil, to provide slow nourishment for the year ahead.

It is the beginning of another cycle in the vineyard and the first rain has fallen and the first steps to making the 2010 wines have been taken. Now warmed in the house, and having penned a few lines, it's time to get outside again and take the rake and grate the damp soil and sow annual grass seed as a cover crop. The rackings finished yesterday, siphoning new wine from the dregs of microscopic grape skins and sediment, tasting as I racked, the 2009 wines full of such promise. The sun is coming out and it will be warmer to work outside in the rays moving more compost and raking, scraping the dirt to prepare the soil for the seed as the new growing season begins today, with the first of nature's irrigations, and I take off my jacket as I warm up and start to sweat, faithful dog at my side, imagining Prospero releasing his magic to the vineyard.


(Kind words to our Princess: P.S. we love you. The play's your thing.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dad, About That Wine I Sent You ....

Dear Mom & Dad,
You'll find a case of wine waiting for you when you arrive in Connecticut. I truly regret not being able to join you and the Old Gang from France yet again for the annual Thanksgiving feast. Well, someone has to stay home and take care of the dog (excuse me, the Cellar Master), who as you know receives better treatment than your grand-daughter. Besides, this is not the time to take time off from work to travel East, as I fear a storm is on the horizon and it's time to buckle down and be even more productive. For the first time in my life I felt this week I was living on the edge and I'm one person's whim away from becoming an unemployment statistic and then a foreclosure statistic and there I go but for the Grace of God. I do not like this feeling of vulnerability although I know that we could bounce back. We could just move to Oklahoma or Texas or to some shack in California and squat some land and plant a new vineyard and a new life. I suppose there were times you wondered how you would make things meet but being the good parents you were you found a way to provide and we never knew about your concerns. I'll spend Thanksgiving out in the vineyard shoveling the ton of compost that just arrived (just like I used to shovel tons of wood chips for you for $2/hour when I was a kid) and I'll give thanks for having a job and think about ways to gain financial independence. If I held a garage sale and sold all the wine in it at a fair market price I'd have enough cash to pay the mortgage for a year and that would feel like a pretty good cushion. Why don't you mention it to the rich retiree vinophiles from the Old Gang when you see them?
I remember attending Thanksgiving in Connecticut 9 years ago with the Old Gang and Mr. S served a case of Domaine Tempier wine from Bandol, France that he somehow carried home. I remind you that Domaine Tempier's wines are made 100% from the Mouvedre grape so please tell Mr. S that we bought a ton of Mouvedre from Paso Robles and are making a wine in the style of Domaine Tempier (which means barrel aged for 18 months) and we'll call it Lulu in honor of the matriach of that estate. We pressed the wine the other evening and Bluey licked it 5 times which means it's very good and I have to say it is the "sweetest" wine I have ever tasted. I used the hydrometer to test the sugar level which showed -2 brix which is to say it fermented to complete dryness so that sweet taste is not sugar but the amazing fruit of the vine. Since it won't be ready to drink for another 3 years I recommend that you, Mr. S and the rest of the Old Gang keep on trucking so that you may enjoy it your first Thanksgiving as Octogenarians.

About the wine I sent you....the first two bottles are 2006 Nebbiolo. The grapes came from Guadeloupe Valley, Mexico about two hours drive from here. This is the boldest, heartiest wine we have ever made and has been adored by CEOs and Bishops and is worthy of your Thanksgiving meal and we are pleased to share what's left of it with you.

The next three bottles of interest are the 2008 Petit-Petit, a 50-50% blend of Petit Verdot and Petit Sirah. This is better than the 2007 Petit-Petit, which, although delightful, we found lacked a strong finish which kept it from greatness. The 2008 improvements started in the vineyard where we begged the grower to keep the Petit-Verdot grapes on the vines a little longer giving them more sugar than last year (23 brix) and a little more strength. Then, we punched down the fermentation with my favorite golf club, the Jimmy Wood. Next, we blended back in more of the tannins. This is a new wine just bottled 10 weeks ago. It's beginning to show some bottle bouquet. Imagine this wine a year from now. I think you will enjoy it. Please share a bottle with the Old Gang with their appetizers and let them know there are only 23 cases available and we still have one more semester of the Princess' college tuition to pay.

There are two bottles of the 2007 Malbec, which we painstakingly crushed by hand and feet. This is a fun, light wine and may be enjoyed with your meals before Thanksgiving. We blended in 20% Petit Verdot to give it a bit more complexity... the Malbec grapes that year were low in sugar (21.5 brix) so think of this as a fun, delightful wine. It is a true expression of the grape and of the vineyard (there is not much oak).

The 2007 "Bluenello" is interesting and I'd like your opinion about it. Frankly speaking, we don't like this wine very much. Yet, it is an expression of the grape and of the San Diego vineyard it came from. Brunello is a clone of Italy's Sangiovese and the Brunello's from Italy are world-reknowned. I can't call ours Brunello otherwise I'll get an unpleasant visit from the Italian wine police. This wine tastes totally different from any other wine we have made and yet the techniques are the same so don't blame the winemakers. The reason I want your opinion about it it we purchased grapes from the same vineyard again this year and have 48 gallons of 2009 Bluenello. We were disappointed because we were told the grapes were ripe but after harvesting we found the brix to be only 22 (this equates to about 11% alcohol, hardly a bold, expressive wine). As it turned out, we have so many other wines with too high pH's this year so we can blend other wines with this one. I'm thinking of making a Super Tuscan (by blending in some Cabernet Sauvignon) or a Super Italian by blending in Montepuchiano, Nebbiolo and Aglianico (yes, we really did make a lot of wine this year). So let me know what you think and how it could be improved.

Last and least, I threw in a bottle of 2007 Merlot. Alas, this is also a wine we don't like. Not at all. But when you visited us last year and tasted it from the barrel, you said you liked it. (Maybe that was after the 2nd margarita?) Well, if you still like it there are about 50 bottles left and Christmas is coming.

All of the 2009 wines are coming along fine (except for one with strong hints of vegetative green pepper) and they taste fantastic so far and we feel like Spring Training is over and it's Opening Day in the baseball season when there's so much promise. When do you think you and mom will be able to come by for a barrel tasting?

Love,
Bluey, Queen & Craig
(P.S. The pictures top to bottom show: 2008 Petit-Verdot grapes hanging on the vine; crushing the 2008 Petit-Verdot; punching down the cap of the 2008 wines with my favorite golf club; hand-crushing the 2007 Malbec.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mouvedre and the Stuck Fermentation

The final puko-puko bubbling of the last fermentations is near and the window of opportunity for dealing with 15-gallons of semi-sweet "stuck" Zinfandel wine is open. Stuck wine is what you get when fermentation stops prematurely and there is residual sugar. It tastes wonderful and I dream of sipping a "Late Harvest Zinfandel" to warm myself on a cool winter night. But bottling a wine with sugar in it is an improvised explosive device. It's just a matter of time before it blows up with unforeseen consequences. Lum told us about his winemaking friend who gave his fiance in New York City a case of wine which she put under the Christmas Tree. The residual sugars in the bottle, disguised as a legion of Trojans inside the horse, blasted through the cork and rampaged through the apartment dying the white carpet burgundy. If she was that upset by this maybe it was a good thing they didn't marry. I had just given Terri a bottle of one week old Tempranillo (still fermenting in the bottle), the first fruits of our first harvest for her to serve her guests at a dinner party, which she forgot to serve and stored in her pantry. After Lum told his story I sent her an e-mail warning, "Terri, you better open that wine outside. It's going to erupt like a shaken can of Coke." She reported that the wine had exploded and redecorated her pantry. Since I'm not engaged to Terri she couldn't break off the marriage but she does have the powers to have me excommunicated from The Church and my only hope is that she knows the word forgiveness. She is the wife of our beloved patron The Bishop. In summary: sugar in table wine is not a good thing and I've got a batch of Zinfandel with 2% sugar. In winemaking terms, we say it's 2 brix.

How is it that a 6th year, semi-experienced winemaker and the author of this authoritative tome on winemaking ended up with his first stuck fermentation? The explanation is simple: I'm married. In late August we were blasted by a heat wave with temperatures over 100 degrees and the sugars shot up in the grapes and we rushed to harvest them as quickly as possible and ended up with Zinfandel at 27.5 brix which after cold soaking for a day in those tasty Zinfandel raisins had risen above 28.5 brix (which has the potential to make a wine about 16% alcohol). That would sure make a Big Red Wine but I also know that as the alcohol increases in a fermentation the yeast don't like that so much and can conk out leaving you with a stuck fermentation and trouble. So I suggested to our Queen that we add a little water to the grape juice to lower the sugar and therefore lower the alcohol so that the wine would be pleasant to drink and wouldn't stick but she protested that she wanted to drink the wine the way it comes out naturally without making any adjustments and so in the middle of the night while Royalty slept I went into the garage and added water to one batch of the grape juice but not to the other and for the record the batch I added water to didn't stick and came out great and the batch without the water (by decree of The Queen) stuck at 5 brix.

As I hadn't yet learned that there are "killer yeasts" that will ferment up to 18% alcohol, I went through the process of hydrating my "regular" yeast and adding some pure grape juice to it to get it going and half a day later added these really happy yeasties to the stuck fermentation and we got it going again and the brix dropped from 5 brix to 2 brix and then stuck again. So what I decided to do (instead of adding Everclear 190 proof alcohol to make a light --less sugar--Port-style wine), was to add the stuck wine to an ongoing, vigorous, fermentation.

(Reflection: If yeast are weakened by alcohol and if spermatozoa are yeast with tails what happens to the manpower of men when they consume alcohol?)

It's near the end of the crush season and we've only got two fermentations left and I made the executive decision this evening to add 5 gallons of the stuck Zinfandel to an active fermentation of Mouvedre (see photo above) and I'm fixing to add the remaining 10 gallons of stuck Zin to a fermentation of Cabernet Franc later this week.

About that Mouvedre... Ten years ago we went to France for my 40th Birthday (this was before The Crash of 2008 when we could borrow from our home equity and vacation in Paris and travel around the world and send our kids to private school and invest in the stock market and Pass Go and do it all again) and stayed in the town of Bandol which is about one hour from Marseilles. The cottage were we sojourned is surrounded by acres and acres of grape vines and each day I got up at sunrise to jog through the vineyards. We drank the local wines everyday and our favorite was Domaine Tempier and we all brought back cases of the wine with us. I realized that the South of France is much like the South of California and we could also grow figs and lavender and oleander (although now I don't like oleander so much because it's so poisonous) and play petanq and realized France is far away and all you ever really need in life you can find in your own backyard and like Dorthy from the Wizard of Oz (one of my favorite movies) I realized there's no place like home and today, even in this economy, we live like we're on vacation in the South of France each weekend even though there's no money because wine is cheap, lavender is cheap, figs are cheap, olives are cheap and friends are priceless.

When I visited Dad last month he gave me a book about Domaine Tempier and Madame Lulu the matriarch and I absorbed the recipes and the winemaking and what struck me most was that their wines are made from 100% Mouvedre grapes and I became determined to source some and Paso Robles Bill was able to provide us with a half ton. These Paso Robles (my favorite wine region in the U.S.) grapes arrived Saturday 10 days ago and we cold soaked them for over 4 days and have been fermenting for almost 7 days and they are tasting wonderful and we have great expectations. And, like Domaine Tempier, I plan to age them 18 months in an oak barrel (I hope they will not mind French oak) and I hope they do not mind that 7% of the wine will be Zin (because we had to do something with that Zin) and if it comes out good we'll call it "Lulu" in honor of Madame and after the Princess graduates from college and after we win the next shoot out winetasting competition we'll go to France and bring some wine to Domain Tempier and we'll exchange winemaking stories and toast to the new century in Franco - Americano cooperation, goodwill and the good, simple life.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Cheers To You Who Grew Up During The 30's - 70's

My father just sent me this. I'm not sure of the source, but it's so good, I just had to post it. It certainly describes how we grew up (fortunately leaving out the details of what we did with those b-b guns, and how we learned to drink wine). Enjoy!

TO ALL THE KIDS WHO SURVIVED THE
1930's, 40's, 50's,60's and 70's!!

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn't get tested for diabetes.

Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered
with bright colored lead-base paints.

We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps not helmets on our heads.

As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster-seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes.

Riding in the back of a pick-up truck on a warm day was always a special treat.

We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died from this. We ate cupcakes, white bread, real butter an d bacon. We drank Kool-Aid made with real white sugar. And, we weren't overweight.. WHY?

Because we were always outside playing...that's why!

We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on..

No one was able to reach us all day. And, we were OKAY.

We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride them down the hill,
only to find out we forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem

We did not have Play stations, Nintendo's and X-boxes. There were no video games, no 150 channels on cable, no video movies or DVD's, no surround-sound or CD's, no cell phones, no personal computers, no Internet and no chat rooms.

WE HAD FRIENDS and we went outside and found them!

We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping pong paddles, or just a bare hand and no one would call child services to report abuse.

We ate worms and mud pies made from dirt, and the worms did not live in us forever.

We were given BB guns for our 10th birthdays, made up games with sticks and tennis balls and, although we were told it would happen, we did not put out very many eyes.

We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just walked in and talked to them.

Little League had tryouts and not everyone made the team. Those who didn't had to learn
to deal with disappointment. Imagine that!!

The idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was unheard of. They actually sided with the law!

These generations have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever. The past 50 years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas.

We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all.

If YOU are one of them, CONGRATULATIONS!

You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good.

While you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave and lucky their parents were. Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn't it ?

The quote of the month is by
Jay Leno:
'With hurricanes, tornados, fires out of control, mud slides, flooding, severe thunderstorms tearing up the country from one end to another, and with the threat of bird flu and terrorist attacks, are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?'

Friday, September 11, 2009

About That Wine I Gave You

Dear Terri,

I cannot find the words (nor the energy after two weeks of non-stop harvesting & pressing) to express our gratitude for the magnificent dinner Labor Day evening. How is it that the Bull-In-The-China-Shop was so well behaved? That Blue-Merle winemaking sheepdog with the barking voice who loves to talk, whom you recklessly invited despite my warnings, was gentler than a lamb. Was he merely exhausted after herding the pickers in the vineyard, or, as I suspect, do you have powers to sooth the savage beast including the mighty Bluey?

Labor Day is aptly named for the endeavors we undertake that day each year, a tradition started in 2004. Not a holiday, but rather the day we work the hardest, making wine by hand and paw. Somehow, we managed to finish pressing the wine skins in the early afternoon on Monday (we usually finish around midnight) and were exhausted and hungry when we arrived. Our spirits were brightened when we saw the antique Carolina-Blue trim of your lovely home and the wooden pergolas framing a gazebo. I dream about that same shade of blue at the Blue-Merle Winery, and we also have dreams of a gazebo looking out across the vineyard towards the Pacific Ocean, Catalina Island and Japan. The land is cleared, but there is no time to build . Another project in waiting. I was wondering, may we put you in charge of painting the blue trim around the place and constructing the gazebo? Do you work for wine? The meal and company were wonderful and by the time we left we were well nourished and recharged for another week, which has ended with the pressing of yet more wine.

About that wine I gave you, three bottles, their nicknames are "Tomato" "Problem" and "Miracle" each with its own story. Let's deal with the Miracle wine first, as that is a ticking time bomb and may require some immediate action on your part.

How often is it that a non-winemaker has the chance to drink one week old wine? And so I thought it would be a treat to share a sample of the 2009 Tempranillo at your dinner party. We planted the vines two and a half years ago and we call them "third leaf" and this was our first harvest, 19 containers about 50 lbs. each for an estimated yield of 950 lbs. of grapes. We crushed them into a large "pick bin" and having never fermented wine in a pick bin before I was unsure how much wine would result. I had purchased an 80 gallon flex tank to store it, but when I realized that I might only get 60 gallons of juice, I went shopping for Argon gas to separate the liquid from the oxygen. Last Saturday we pressed the wine dumping bucket after bucket of young wine into the silo, watching it rise as mercury goes up the thermometer as it does these hot days. Then something strange happened. We kept pressing wine and it kept coming out and we kept dumping more into the container and I began feeling a bit like Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer's Apprentice as the wine kept rising higher and higher and eventually it overflowed the 80 gallon tank (which is really a 78 gallon tank but it's sold as an 80 gallon tank) and we had to scramble to find more containers to put it in because I hadn't prepared any extra containers because there was only supposed to be 60 gallons, barely. When it had stopped there were 93 gallons of wine and there is only one explanation for this. A miracle. And then I remembered a lesson that was taught in church last month about the tithe and the angry prophet Malachi who said that if you give what is due the Lord then the Lord will provide and will make your harvest abundant. Is not this bounteous harvest and overflowing wine a sign of that promise to one who tithes the first fruits of the vineyard? Just thinking about it sends shivers up and down my spine. Therefore, rejoice and enjoy the Miracle Wine!

(Caution: the 2009 is still fermenting and I suggest you open it carefully because it will behave like a shaken Coke can when you open it. Don't let it sit around too long, because I wonder if the bottle might explode.)

Next, the "Problem" wine, a 2007 Merlot, made with the same techniques that we make all of our award winning wines, and yet this one has turned out to be a canard, an ugly duckling, and it threatens the friendship between me and my neighbor Merlot Mike, the grower. The problem with this wine is I don't like it. The Queen doesn't like it. And the mice don't like it. It's been aging two years and I still don't like it. Because of the wine miracle and all the other winemaking activities going on (we're taking steps to significantly increase our production this year), we're running out of space and need containers, so we decided to bottle the Merlot the morning of your party. Before bottling, I gave a sample to Bluey who gave it eight licks. Normally, four licks from the Blue-Merle is a high rating but eight licks is unheard of so I tasted some myself and as my father would say, "It's not that bad." I realized the issue with this wine is not the grapes but the winemaker who kept it in stainless steel all this time, denying it the benefits of slow, micro oxidization, which significantly slowed its aging. Therefore, when bottling, we tried something different -- we bottled putting bubbles and air and oxygen into the wine to open it up, and it seems to have worked. Since I needed to "top" our wooden barrels with wine (the angels in the garage have been sipping more than their fair portion) I decided to use some of the 2007 Merlot to top the 2008 vintages. In so doing, I have become blood-brothers in wine with Merlot Mike the grower of the Merlot and honored him by putting a little bit of him and his vineyard into all of our 2008 wines (yet to be released). I finished up the bottling and set aside one bottle for you. It's experiencing bottle shock right now, so give it a try in two months and let me know what you think.

The "Tomato" wine is a "Bluenello" wine. I'm not allowed to call it Brunello without the Italian embassy sending the polizia to our vineyard; I'm allowed to call it Sangiovese but because our place is run by the Blue-Merle we'll just call it "Bluenello", OK. It had an auspicious beginning originating from the famous vineyard in Ramona managed by Bill Schweitzer but on harvest date the Oklahoma Sooners ran out to the vineyard grabbing the best grapes so that more than half of what went into our wine were what Coyote Karen calls the "shitty" grapes damaged by mildew, bees and critters. Well it ends up that Coyote Karen made a pretty good wine and won all kinds of awards with the "Brunello" that she made but to our simple North Carolina palate it tastes like tomatoes, which is not necessarily a desirable flavor in wine. The fact that the 2007 fires came during the secondary fermentation and my reaction to being evacuated and to the catastrophe was was a post-traumatic wine syndrome where I could not bring myself to rack the wine into the barrel so it sat and became a bit oxidized, so I thought. The aging fate of this wine was similar to the Merlot mentioned above. Because the batch was small I kept it in stainless steel, a glorified beer keg, and only racked it once, and, as I realize now, it just didn't age properly. This wine was not tasting very good and we just didn't know what to do with it. But when you're running out of space and you need the containers it becomes clear what to do so we bottled it, and while bottling I bottled it aggressively and splashed it around and inserted air and had a little bit of the 2007 Merlot mentioned above leftover so threw that into the mix and when Bluey judged the Bluenello he gave it quite a few licks and I set aside one of the bottles to bring with us to your dinner on Monday.

Now as I was thoroughly stuffed, overfed and satiated by your wonderful meal on Monday, Tuesday evening it was back to normal and dinner consisted of humus dip and Syrian bread. I had set aside a glass of leftover Bluenello the day before which had 24-hours to open up. First I smelled it, and not only did it not smell that bad, the bouquet was pretty good and when I tasted it, my goodness, it tasted real good (well, it tasted good after eating all that humus). I thoroughly enjoyed the glass. Please give your bottle a couple of months to get over bottle shock and let me know what you think. One thing I've learned in winemaking is that peoples' tastes are individual and what I don't like others may love. And that's a good thing because it means there's a willing buyer out there, somewhere, for all of our wines, once we go commercial.

Bluey enjoyed your place and the company and told me that he'd like to see you again and he invites you to his domain. He's also invited Barrack and Michelle and we've been waiting for them since the inaugural balls so we're used to waiting until the fullness of time for important people to find time to humble us with a visit. Perhaps you could join us for the bottling of the 2008 vintages and we could even make an event of it and invite the Bishop to bless the wine that it may bring forth good companionship.

About that tall bottle of wine I gave your husband on the occasion of his 50th birthday, it's the 2007 Petit Verdot Plus and it's the best we ever made and let's just leave it at that. I've found that since Bluey turned 50 years old (in dog age) he's mellowed out quite nicely like a fine wine and I imagine it's the same with married men.

Yours most appreciatively,
Bluey & Craig

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Deflowering of the Vines

A gang passed through leaving carnage in its wake. The skirts of the vines have been ripped open and are left dangling in the wind. What was neat, tidy, and a symbol of beauty is now askance, a ghost town. The fruit has been untimely ripped from the womb. The virgin vines have been deflowered. To help them recover and regain strength I turn on the water. This too will pass.

Are We Just Vines?

A lot has happened this past week. What started out as green vines with green shoots a week ago now shows yellowing leaves and gives up its fruit. Soon, all the leaves will brown and the sky will gray and the vine will go to sleep apparently barren and lifeless. This gave me pause to reflect about my colleague at work, Marcia, whose healthy husband became infected with a super virus and within a week suffered stroke, kidney failure and is in hospice. A healthy vine, who bore fruit -- two children, a son who graduated from college a year ago and a daughter entering her sophomore year. A week ago, vibrant. Today, withering. Doesn't our life follow the pattern of the vine? And don't we hope for renewal after we have gone dormant? As I think of the promise of renewal I am filled with strength, and smile.

I saw a withering vine with brown leaves and hanging fruit this morning as I walked through the vineyard. The last watering was two weeks ago and the vines are showing stress and the fruit is starting to shrivel a bit in this heat and it's looking riper. Yellowing leaves are to be expected but brown leaves are a concern and I wonder what's going on. There are no signs of Pierce's disease and I look at the ground and see a gopher hole and a gopher could explain the damage and after the harvest I will need to get after the gophers. The berries are ripening and I'm thinking harvest in a week.

I visited the Zinfandel block, which has not had its water cut and was surprised to see that the grapes were shrivelling and getting wrinkled and they were soft to the touch and when I pulled them out none of the meat stuck and I tasted it and it was sweet and I looked at the seeds and they were brown and I said to myself these guys might just be ripe. I took a sample and went into the lab. The "lab" sounds very professional and I suppose it's getting that way as I purchase all the equipment used by professional winemakers but it's really a set up in a garage and my lab bench is the clothes washing machine and the clothes dryer, which I've never used to dry clothes, yet, but it makes a handy work space. The result: 25.5 brix on the "refractometer" which is a technical way to say that the sugars are high and we could make a pretty strong wine with that and on my hydrometer it might read 26 brix and what was supposed to be a leisurely weekend preparing for harvest and entertaining my relatives from France (yes, the Coneheads and yes, they sure consume a lot) and now we're scrambling to get the grapes in because the aforementioned Zinfandel are perfect for picking and it turns out that the Tempranillo are also ready, in fact, their acid is so low and we need to get them in right away but a I have an ace in the whole and that's a section of unripe grapes which are bound to have high acid and this may work out.

The picking commenced this evening under the stars as it's only 87 degrees at night instead of 100+ and I brought a couple of buckets and containers and a shovel to let Mr. Rattlesnake know that we are nearby. It's Sunday and I'm thinking of church and this being the first fruits of the harvest I'm thinking of the tithe and as Bluey sleeps I'm thinking of the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane who couldn't stay awake and I know the answer why. They were dog tired and they are human and I would rather be asleep too but there are these grapes we need to get in. I suspect Sunday is going to be a long day.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Crazy Lady Winemaker

It's been the coolest summer in recent memory so perhaps the weather is a cause. Or, maybe it's something in the wine. The fact is, Coyote Karen has gone crazy and caught refer madness. Cuidado vineyardista loca!
The tell tale sign of a crazy lady in Blue-Merle Country is a 40-foot container in the front yard. Karen put one of those out by her vines yesterday. Pass me the papers, I'm ready to certify her. She started out her winemaking adventure intelligently by planting a 250-vine boutique vineyard. The perfect size. Small enough to be a hobby. In retrospect, the warning signs were there such as moving barrels of wine from the garage into the kitchen during the summer months. But earlier this year, she crossed the point of no return by clearing another acre of land and adding another 500 vines. Goodbye hobby: welcome prison -- chained to the vineyard for life. I suspected she lost a screw at that time. I was right. She made beautiful plans to build a winery guest house on the property, which would also serve as a tasting room. But then she saw an advertisement for a refrigerated container (hence the name "refer"), cleared the space and yesterday it arrived, driving down property values in the neighborhood and prompting jokes on Twitter: Question: Who makes the best container wine? Answer: Coyote Karen @shermigirl

Thank goodness I don't have Crazy Lady syndrome. How would craziness manifest itself in a man? Planting a vineyard larger than he could possibly manage? Contracting to purchase tons of grapes without the facilities to ferment them? Writing stories about loca vineyardistas, vinogirls and Texas hot-pants wine pourers?

The Queen of our little boutique winery just made a suggestion, "Why don't we dig into the hillside by our house and put a container like Karen's in there and cover it with dirt and use that as our wine cave?" Now that's an interesting idea.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Good Chemistry

Chemical analysis can help you make a better decision about the optimum time to pick your grapes. Good chemistry is important to good winemaking. It's also helpful in a lab partner. I haven't had this much fun since Kendal P., bless her heart, was my lab partner in 8th grade science and I received my worst grade ever as she was a serious distraction. This time I kept all hands on deck and my eyes on the pipettes and the beakers and the LCD display and came away with some useful information.

I took a 100-plus random sample of berries from different parts of the clusters from each row of the Tempranillo block yesterday evening, hand crushed them in a baggie and measured the sugar: 22 brix. I purchased a Milwaukee pH meter and an acid measuring kit and not sure how to use them Coyote Karen volunteered to show me how so I went to her kitchen lab with my specimen. The reason she is called "Coyote" Karen is her vineyard is host to the crafty critters and they and men alike howl at her beauty. She is something of a scientist and I watched intently as she she showed me how to calibrate the pH meter then measure my sample. The reading came in at 3.63.

Next, she showed me how to test the acid. You do this by seeing how many cc's of indicator solution you drip into 50 cc of distilled water combined with 10 cc of grape must and 3 or 4 drops (we used 4 drops) of another solution until you reach 8.2 on the pH meter (or until the liquid becomes dark). Because it's not exactly certain when the liquid becomes dark, use of the pH meter is a bit more scientific. Being a scientist Coyote Karen has all kinds of beakers and pipettes and measuring devices and a machine that vibrates when you put a beaker on it and you put a little magnet at the bottom of the beaker and the magnet spins around creating a whirlpool to keep the mixture mixed and she puts her mouth over the pipette and pulls the poisonous indicator fluid (10 cc's) up the pipette and she doesn't waste a drop and I'm thinking if anyone in the neighborhood goes to their car and finds the gas siphoned then she's the #1 suspect. She tests some finished wine that has way too much acid in it and the wine doesn't taste good but it's not a total waste because she'll hang on to it and some time in the future she may blend it with a wine that is way too low in acid.

Being a good teacher she then insists I try (there is no better way to learn than by doing) and my butterfinger hands pick up the glass pipette and I start sucking up the poisonous liquid and as it rises up the pipette my saliva starts going down the tube and resting on top of the liquid and she starts laughing and making fun of me and I swear I wasn't drooling over her although the chemistry is good. She tells me to multiply the 10.5 cc of solution I dropped into the beaker to raise the pH to 8.2 by a factor of .15 and the resulting acid level of 1.57 doesn't sound good to me at all and I read the directions and the directions say to use a correction factor of .075 and she says that's because I used 10 cc of grape juice instead of 5 cc and despite the fact I would have ruined my wine based on the information she gave me the chemistry is good. The acid recalculation is .785, which, I am told, is a good level.

In summary: The brix are 22; the pH is 3.63 and the acid is .787 and she says those are good numbers. So, here's the decision to be made. Should I cut the water and try to get the brix up to 24 next Sunday in which case the acid is likely to drop a little and I'll have good numbers for making a good wine?

Or, should I water the vines a little tomorrow and plan on harvest in 2 weeks? Two weeks from now I could get the brix up to about 25 (keeping it from reaching 26 or 27 by adding a little water) and the grapes will be full of sugar and riper and the seeds will be darker brown and crunchy but the acid will drop maybe a little too much. You can always do a little acid adjustment (most winemakers do by adding tartaric acid) and if the brix get too high you can always add water to the must (many winemakers do). If the brix get too high then the wine may have too much alcohol and it may "burn". Waiting two weeks would allow me to make a "bigger wine". On the other hand if I wait two more weeks the birds may get more of the grapes and I'll be left with less, and, I'm dealing with younger vines (only their 3rd leaf) so perhaps I shouldn't get my hopes up about making a big red wine.

To pick or not to pick? Experienced winemakers, vineyardistos and vineyardistas, what should I do?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Birds & The Bees In The Vineyard

After my nostrils were treated to the aroma of decomposed chipmunk before breakfast (I bet you never tasted that in wine -- I tell you there's more birds, squirrels, ants, slugs and chipmunks in wine then espresso and chocolate), I recalled a song we used to sing as children in North Carolina during the last Century:

Great big globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat
Little dirty birdie feet ...
That's what I had for lunch
.

Bluey and I traversed rows in the vineyard looking for bees (a sign that a bird had pecked a berry) and damaged, leaking fruit. Where we found it, there was sure to be an opening in the netting and perhaps a bird himself. Bluey came across the first sparrow -- he just wants to sniff their butts, not devour them--and I was able to reach in and eventually catch and release. (I was reminded of Snoopy and Woodstock.) We came across another bird, this one lifeless. I tried to pull it out, gently, and about to rip its head off, decided to leave it in the nets. Then we came across a "yellow bird" (shown at left) which we caught, brought to the Queen as a present, then released.

Our friends the honey bees made their appearance in the vineyard the other week, and we took preemptive action against the not so friendly yellow jackets, which I hadn't encountered in the vineyard until the Queen placed yellow jacket traps deep inside a row of vines (I suggested to her to place the traps outside the vineyard). I'm not sure what kind of yellow jacket mojo the traps contain but the person who harnesses a similar hormone in humans that causes women to swarm to men is going to be rich. There is a warning on those traps not to hang them during the middle of the day when the flying stingers are active and you are likely to attract the bastards to you. Folks, there is a reason for this. Pay attention to that warning.

As I walked back to the vineyard I passed the deceased sparrow, bless his heart, whom I could not remove from the netting. He was covered with yellow jackets, and I realized that the yellow jackets would be useful in cleaning up the carcass. When I returned the next day, there was just a skeleton. As I think about it, most creatures under the sky serve some useful function.

Last night, all the neighbors in Blue-Merle Country got together to honor Joe the Wino, hero of The Wine Summit hosted by Sarah Palin earlier in the week. They slaughtered a pig and roasted it and there were more than 100 people and more than 100 bottles of wine. What do you bring as a gift to a pig-pickin' party where the host has everything? I found the answer: Stone Beer. We were proud of Joe who, according to press reports, managed not to make a fool of himself. And I was glad that he honored us by requesting our wine. "Joe, what did Sarah think of the Blue-Merle wine?"
"Well partner, she's a Syrah drinker, K Syrah, Sarah."
"Shakespeare. Good one, Joe."
"When I poured her a glass of your 2007 Petit Verdot she said it was very floral. From her purse she pulled out a bottle of Channel #19 and emptied it. Then filled it to the top with your wine and sprayed it on."
"She's got class. I'm beginning to like her."
"I told her about a good follow-on to Cash for Clunkers our tech group had come up with: 'Cash for Klunkware.'
"I don't get it."
"You see, millions of people have old computers running old software. Under this new stimulus, the government will allow Americans to turn in their old software and receive a voucher to purchase new software."
"Brilliant. And who's going to pay for it? Microsoft?" Joe doesn't like Microsoft.
"How did you know?"
Dinner was served and Joe brought out the roasted pig wearing a Banana Joe's hat, sunglasses, a long sleeve linen shirt rolled up above the pig's knuckles and a Cuban cigar. The Queen would have nothing to do with this mockery and boycotted the event, saying it would bring bad luck. As the sun set and the moon rose the coyotes in the valley woke from their slumber and gave a first call.
"Joe, with all those coyotes living in the valley on your property, isn't there a problem with them chewing your drip lines?"
"Naw, I water them with a water trough. Since I started doing that, I haven't lost a drip line." I guess it kept them from chewing our drip lines also. "Drink at Joe's" must be what the coyotes around here say.

The next morning as I walked though the vineyard and came to the spot where the chipmunk was tangled in the net I found no chipmunk; only a hole in the net. He had been ripped out by a coyote. Another useful function served by Mr. Coyote.

I irrigated the vines and where there was mildew damage in the Aglianico grapes a single droplet of grape juice emerged on a round grape, and I immediately recalled when Coyote Karen was over during the full moon and wine seemed to lactate from her as she had two purple spots at precise locations on the front of her white T-shirt. (Editor's Note: Discretion cautions us from publishing the photo.)

As I hung yellow jacket traps, yellow sticky traps (to keep an eye on the sharpshooters) and replaced 2-gallon per hour water emitters with 1-gallon per hour in an attempt to reduce the vigor of two rows of vines, the Queen busied herself raking then vacuuming the vineyard. As birds destroyed the grapes, she was cleaning the vineyard.

"Sweetie," I started out, "What would you think about fixing the holes in the nets to keep the birds out?" I suggested as gently as a man can say when he means what the hell are you doing?!
"I want to clean up. Please, go and get your own vineyard."
"Why don't you leave the leaves and the canes where they are? It's good organic material for the soil and will help control erosion when it rains."
"Why don't you leave!" When Bluey heard this he exchanged the grapes of wrath for the coolness under a giant grapefruit tree.

Well, this has become the source of a major disagreement and you can tell there's not going to be any birds and the bees between us. I began thinking of taking out a paid classified ad and tweeting: Seek vineyardista lifelong companion who likes composting and organic farming. Will work for wine and birds & the bees. As I thought about that and especially the birds and the bees part the Queen began singing a song about how it was her vineyard, and her dog, and her wine, and her awards and how I wasted her little plastic bags by filling them up with fruit scraps and coffee grinds for the stupid compost pile.... I really couldn't hear what she was saying because the silence of the vines turns the wife's song into sweet wine. When Jesus said love your enemy I think he meant wife. This is not easy.

She volunteered to go into town to purchase clothes pins to make the nets more secure and Bluey emerged from under the grapefruit tree and we cut the last row of Zinfandel and yes we put the cuttings in a neat row along the vines so the organic matter could work its way back into the soil and the rain would be slowed as it fell and trickled down the mountain carrying any topsoil that was left. Next, I put some of the cuttings behind the row in the most inaccessible part of the vineyard and she will never go there to clean it out because the access is difficult and for fear of snakes. I even made a little video of the work. Merlot Mike says it takes 3-guys to net his vineyard and it started out that way with us when we made it complicated by using gas pipes on either side and attempted to lift the netting (wrapped around a PVC pipe) over the vines which resulted in more singing by the Queen. She finally threw away the pipes and took the nets and did the netting herself while I was at my daytime job. She is barely 5 ft. tall and that was an accomplishment and I was more proud of her for the sixth time this year since Michelle Obama ran for First Lady and was proud for the first time to be an American.

The Queen returned about the time Bluey and I finished the netting and we hiked down the mountain and came to my favorite aloe which the Queen doesn't like and had apparently hacked to pieces as she stormed out. She doesn't like the aloe because it starts off cute and fits in a wine glass but as they grow they become larger than a barrel and they have sharp edges and she's always saying dig it out and I was planning to dig it out someday but not today and not this year but in a couple of years and she has taken vengeance on my favorite plant. Upon inspection I see that half the plant is eaten out by none other than Mr. Gopher -- who has been in retreat these last few months. I am pleased by this and even a gopher has his good points. As do coyotes, yellow-jackets and spouses.

I check Bluey's paws for foxtails and we go inside and the Queen has prepared sushi and an omelet made of octopus and vegetables. After lunch I top the barrels of 2008 wine which hold great promise, tasting along the way. Is this a chore?

Alvin & the Chipmunks Visit For Lunch

I dedicate this post to Vinogirl, my favorite blogger, who says I should write a book. (What she really means is she would appreciate it very much if I would leave my long posts for a novel and write quick, short, succinct posts when blogging.)

Here goes:

I was walking through the vineyard this morning and it was good. I came upon a grape-thieving chipmunk, trapped in bird netting, decomposing. As I tried to pull him out his tail released as if he were a lizard. I left him there to dry. A new ingredient in San Diego's finest boutique wine?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Preparing For Baby's Arrival & The Wine Summit

You heard about the Beer Summit held at the White House last week, but do you know about the upcoming Wine Summit? First, a recap of the vineyard news.

While waiting for the harvest of our first crop, I compared myself on Twitter to a nervous, about-to-become-a-father in the 3rd Trimester not knowing quite what to do. My comment resulted in several offers from baby goods suppliers and I began to think hosting a "berry shower" for the first crop might not be a bad idea. I could invite Joe the Wino, Merlot Mike, Coyote Karen and the whole cast of characters from Blue-Merle Country and instead of a crib they could bring a crusher destemmer. Instead of a pram, they could bring me a Gator. Instead of baby bottles they could bring me 750 ml Bordeaux green glass push up bottles. Instead of a rattle, they could bring me a shotgun. And, best of all, instead of formula they would bring fresh mother's milk from the nymph-maidens who crush the grapes at Merlot Mike's with their fine breasts when making the Fine Merlot(TM) wine he's patented. In the end, the grapes probably know best what to do, thank goodness, just like a baby swimming through the womb to this world. There was no shower, but the stork from Vintner's Vault arrived carrying more than a ton of equipment including the items mentioned above (less the milk and shotgun), and Merlot Mike saved the day by managing to haul it up the driveway with his Gator. Our cars, freshly washed for once, are now outside again, the sign of a true winemaker. And the Tempranillo grapes, now at 19 brix, probably know best what to do, just like the newborn. Harvest could be in three weeks.

With the grapes hitting 19 brix the bees arrived and the birds have multiplied. I found a large yellow bird inside the netting this morning and as I went to rescue him he fluttered through the row and escaped through a hole. The Queen reported that the bird-brained grape-vultures are crafty and now I believe her. I saw a small sparrow fly half the length of Row 11 (once again inside the netting) before making a Star Wars dive-bombing maneuver cutting 90 degrees right and out, escaping my furry.

A full moon is waxing this week and I've sent out invites to the cast of characters and thought I would also invite the world via Twitter. The idea is for people who enjoy the combination of wine and full moons to share their thoughts about moon-wine as the moon shines. The first RSVP was sent in by Obi Wan Kenobi who wrote, "That's no moon. It's a space station." Thank goodness it's not The Death Star. If you'd like to join the fun search for #moonwine on Twitter (the # mark indicates a group discussion) and tell us (and the world) what you're up to. I think I'm going to write something like: "Ladies, I just finished stuccoing the retainer wall real smooth so it won't rip your stockings as you sit and enjoy the full moon at #moonwine. If they do tear, no worries. Plenty of black-lace bird net available."

Today being Sunday I learned what Jesus meant when he said "love your neighbor." We have been taking care of our neighbor's three cats while they are out of the country. When we visited their home to feed them we found, in addition to the usual bricks in the litter box: an ant trial that extended from the cat food a mile outside; several semi-dried puddles of cat throw-up; several piles of cat "shat" in the home office (some semi-dried, some mushy fresh). Apparently, as their masters are away the cats will play, and they are pretending to go feral and not use the litter box all the time. Or more likely, they are pretty pissed off being left alone. We cleaned it up, joyfully. I love my neighbors. Really. If the Devil offered me the chance to marry the most beautiful woman in the world with one condition: I must clean her cats' litter box. It's an easy choice: No Thank You!

The Wine Summit

As for the wine summit, it all started when I went to Escondido Joe's on Friday morning for a quick cup of java on the way to my daytime job. A sign stated "Free Cup of Coffee for Anyone Named Joe" and that sounded like a good idea as it's still the Recession and I like saving a penny here and there so I told the waitress, "My name is Joe The Wino -- I kid you not." To which she replied "Oh no you're not. The real Joe the Wino is here right now." As my stomach dropped a foot caught in the lie and I stammered, Joe emerged from the washroom. I hadn't seen him in weeks. "Joe, good to see you. It's been months. How you doing?" We banged knuckles and exchanged a manly shoulder bump. It was good to see him.

"This country's headed in the wrong direction," he started. "If Congress passes this health care legislation and they start taxing me more to offer health insurance to our employees, I tell you, it will just be cheaper for me to put everyone on the government plan. We provide our team members the best insurance in the country and I'm proud of it but at some point everyone is going to be insured by the government. This country is going downhill.'

I wanted to ask him about the uninsured but I know Joe and he wants nothing to do with it so I humored him with one of my pet peeves. "You know I support the President, but I tell you, this cash for clunkers is about the stupidest thing I've heard of and it's the straw that's going to break the camel's back. Enough is enough."
"You're right. They're just taking our tax dollars and helping people buy cars they're going to buy anyhow sooner or later. What a waste of money."
"Why doesn't the government start a program to give $4,500 to farmers so they can go and trade in their wheelbarrow for a Gator?"
"And a bottle of wine for every household."
"I'll drink to that."
"Joe, I haven't seen you in a while. Where you've been? Hiking the Appalachian trail or visiting Evita in Argentina?"
"Alaska."
"You rascal! I knew it! You've been with Sarah haven't you?" As Joe was explaining to me how he's been advising Sarah Palin and donating to her election campaign in walked a policeman looking for a free cup of coffee.
"Is you name Joe?" asked the waitress.
"No, it's Captain Smith. Is your health permit displayed?"
Joe overheard the conversation and interjected, "Tell her your name is 'Jo Mama' and she'll give you a free cup," to which, Captain Smith, a police officer of color took great offense and before you could say Jammin' Joe he was in handcuffs and being escorted to the station. You know the drill by now: Captain Smith claimed that Joe was out of line and causing a raucous. Joe says he did nothing wrong and was wrongfully arrested. Sarah Palin has invited them both to Wasilla next week to see if they can settle their differences over a glass of wine. The press is already calling it the Wine Summit, and there's been great speculation about what wine Sarah will be drinking. I know Joe will throw me a bone and ask for a bottle of Blue-Merle, and Sarah being an advocate of free trade and free commerce will probably encourage the shipment of our best vintage across state lines in violation of federal and state laws to make a point of free trade and freeing the grapes.
"Joe, will she be drinking Bitch Wine?"
"She's got the balls to do it, but since it's from Australia, I think not."
"K Syrah, Sarah."
"Amen brother."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

2009 Vineyard Log: The Importance of Good Records

Good record keeping is part of being a good steward of the land and a good winemaker. Keeping records is also a requirement to achieve "sustainable vineyard" designation. I've decided to post records of significant vineyard events & milestones under this journal headline, returning periodically to update. (I keep similar records of wine vintages as well.) Alas, no life and death stories today; just dreary facts. I am reminded of my friend Dr. Hugh Straley of Seattle who once observed, " When marathon runners get together they discuss their bowl movements." When I see my vineyard buddies this week I'll say, "I'm going through veraison." (I describe veraison as the grape's version of menopause as they make that transition from young, hard, green-pea to mature, luscious nectar, with heat flashes to boot.) To which the other grower asks, "What are the brix?" The Tempranillo (which means "early" in Spanish) are about 95% through veraison today, and yes I'll go out and measure the brix after I finish this post, and finish paying the bills (yes, there is that).... A few hours later.... The brix are at 15 and just for fun here's a little video showing how I picked the berries and measured the sugar.

2009 Vineyard Log

Last water in 2008 (mid-Nov., 2008)

Good rain storms November, December '08

Jan 30th started pruning in earnest, finishing February 14th (mostly)

Feb 21 - 22 (last major rain) Finished all pruning. Finished rain. Total season rainfall less than normal after getting out to a great start, about 8 inches.

Feb. 28 - March 8: Sprayed lime sulphur and oil

April:

Planted about 40 Tempranillo Vines. (About 30 of these were a mistake and will be transplanted in winter.)

Bud Break: March 21. Lower part of vineyard (Petit Sirah), first bud break. Also, lower part of Petite Sirah on less vigorous root stock are netted early July. (Much mildew damage there).

April 17: Admire Treatment First Irrigation. Glassy wing sharpshooters appear in early April. Also, in July after setting yellow traps we catch 5 sharpshooters in one week. In August, the sharpshooters are gathering around the two rows of Tempranillo vines which have found their own source of water putting out green shoots. Cannot add Admire -- too close to harvest. This could be a problem.

2nd Irrigation two weeks later. (in hindsight, this one unnecessary)

May Water Usage: 26 HCF, 53% decrease from May 08 (May weather unseasonable cool, foggy, cloudy.) Vigorous growth throughout vineyard --especially lower Tempranillo and Petit Sirah on 5C rootstock--and should be able to cut back irrigation even more next year.

Planted 18 "potted" Aglianico vines end of May to fill in gaps.

Powdery mildew developed in late May (should have been spraying. Must implement spray program next year.) Treated with 10 pounds wettable sulphur and 2.5 lbs. Kaligreen, spraying June 10 - June 17 with backpack sprayer. Sunrise Vineyards management sprays with Rubigan on June 26th (whole vineyard in less than two hours).

June--Petiole analysis of Zinfandel block. Results show nitrogen deficiency, which can be remedied by composting. (Will order compost in fall for nutrition and erosion control.)

June Water Usage: 46 HCF (15% under water rationing allotment of 54 HCF).

July 19: Tempranillo veraison, 15 brix. (Picture at top shows the berries.) Zinfandel veraison beginning. Petit Sirah, heavily damaged by mildew, seems mostly a lost cause. Many Petit Sirah bunches "tight"--need to address. Aglianico -- just a few grapes turning. Aglianico crop is light, and we may decide not to pick. Grenache grapes still green; lost 1/2 to mildew. Promising harvest this year is Tempranillo and Zinfandel.

July Water Usage (7/6 - 8/5): 42 HCF (Allocation was 63 HCF). Except for one week of "hot weather" the week of July 18th, weather has been unseasonable cool.

August 1st: Tempranillo at 19 brix (100+ berry sample); taste is still tart. Will we be harvesting in 3 weeks? Petit Sirah lower block is already ready, but since block is small, holding back. Two lower rows of Tempranillo have found a water source, putting out green shoots. (Not good.) Must cut irrigation to them next year. Birds are finding holes in nets and penetrating, causing damage. Bees have arrived. Irrigated 1.5 hours (2 gallon/hr) this week. (Just one hour last week.) Zinfandel at 70% veraison. Grenache at 50% veraison. Aglianico still mostly green. Will drop most of the fruit. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

August 7th: Zinfandel finishes veraison. Aglianico veraison beginning.

August 14: Tempranillo at 22 brix (100+ berry sample with hydrometer); pH=3.63; acid= .787 Zinfandel block at 19 brix; pH=2.98; acid = 1.54 Caught and released 5 birds today that had penetrated the nets. Grenache veraison complete. Last, light watering of Tempranillo (one hour) August 16th. Cool for 6 days, not much ripening.

August 26 (Weds): Tempranillo at 24 brix. pH= 3.75 acid (TA) = .7 Acid test done with Accuvin quick test, so accuracy is questionable. I also question accuracy of pH meter. (Will need to recalibrate.) Temperatures have warmed up since Sunday into the mid-80s, reaching 90+ today. No water last weekend. Grapes are ripening quickly now. Many (but not all) of the grapes damaged by birds have become sweet raisins. This may add "jam" characteristics to the wine and raise sugars.
Last week in August heat wave. Temperatures climbed above 90, close to 100 degrees. Zinfandel grapes dehydrating and at 26 brix on Saturday. Watered for one hour on Saturday to try and bring down the sugars. Mad rush to harvest the Tempranillio & Zinfandel last Sunday in August. (One container 1/2 full of Zin grapes left in vineyard ... must thoroughly check next year, and remind friends/pickers to bring grapes to the center of the vineyard, dumped ton larger containers, which can be easily transported downhill.) Tempranillo come in at 25 brix. Zinfandel come in at 27 brix and cold soak to 28 brix the next day. pH's of Zinfandel & Tempranillio are high. May need to water more next year during August to prevent such rapid ripening, but we'll see. The new wines made from these groups are fruit forward, and taste surprising good for new vines. About 1,100 pounds of Tempranillo, 500 lbs. Zinfandel, 100 lbs. Aglianico are harvested that Sunday. Mid-week, we harvest the Petit Sirah (about 400 lbs.) and the next Saturday (Sept. 5th) the Grenache. Full account of the wines (including brix, TA and pH is kept in the 2009 vintage log.) Some remaining Aglianico grapes/raisins used to raise sugar of Ramona Brunello grapes and Valley Center Petit Sirah grapes.
September watering: heavy watering after harvest. Seems to have been much stress on some of the vines, because of heat wave. Will need to see how they recover. Removed emitters from over vigorous vines near leach fields; and gave .5 gallon emitters to some other vines near leach field.
Sharpshooters in lower part of vineyard (Tempranillo mostly, some Petit Sirah vines) in August concentrated on over-vigorous vines. This is serious. Not sure yet of damage caused and extent of Pierce's disease infection. (Until now, it seems we've lost about 3 vines to PD.)
November 1, 2009 - Last deep watering. Water usage for October, including Nov. 1st watering was 35 HCF. Bill for October watering is $135.82 (Bill for September watering is )$173.62.

Education: Took Pete Anderson's course at Mira Costa Community College on Vineyard Management. Attended sustainability seminar put on by California Winegrower's Institute and am completing self-assessment.


More later.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Growing Grapes Is For The Birds. Or Maybe Not.

I've been thinking about nets and their useful purposes. An African man and woman demonstrate a mosquito net for life at the Episcopal National Convention explaining how millions of lives can be spared from malaria with an inexpensive, simple net. Earlier in the week when serving breakfast at a food bank I wore a net over my head and not one hair from my follicular-challenged scalp fell into the salad. And as I wrapped and tied nets around the first rows of vines, my mind dreamed of black lace stockings on a loved one's legs.....

Back to reality: As the vines in Blue-Merle Country were the first to break bud back in March I shouldn't be surprised that the grapes are already turning purple and flocks of birds gathered in the Poplar trees at vineyard's edge to plan their assault. To the disappointment of the perfectionist Queen, our Bluey, the Australian sheep dog and 9-time award winning winemaker, is not a "bird" dog and proved useless. (As a distant cousin of Wiley Coyote, he's only interested in the Road Runner and Bugs Bunny.) There was nothing to do but take a break from the cluster thinning, the mildew cursing and the leaf pulling to bring down one of the nets purchased from Sandra of Old Coach Vineyards.

Now Sandra is very conscientious about the nets, and she had rolled them meticulously on a PVC pipe. By attaching a metal pipe to either end of the PVC pipe, two people can stand on either side of a row of vines and unwrap the netting on top of the vines. For the fourth time since Michelle Obama ran for First Lady I am really proud of my wife as we were able to unroll the net successfully until we came to the growing oak tree in the middle of the vineyard which created an obstacle we surmounted. When there wasn't a tree in the way the net unwound smoothly and we'd go back and pull the net from the top of the vines and join them underneath with ties. And it was tying those nets that I was reminded of manipulating black laced stockings another time of my life ....

Back to reality: The vines are not thick and not overgrown at the lower part of the vineyard but four rows are a veritable jungle rain forest and you never know what lurks in the midst. A pack of rabid coyotes? An escaped bear from a circus? The lair of the neighborhood mountain lion? There is a school of thought that says you don't cut back vigorous vines, because it will just force growth into laterals. And there is another school of thought that says it would be nice to be able to walk down the rows and we need to let light and air pass through as a hindrance to the return of mildew. We decided to ask an expert for advice and he said go ahead and "trim" them -- note the word "trim". So that Queen of ours took her machete and she went on a rampage and began hacking, sawing and cutting vines. Now this woman is not very tall, so she was cutting the vines under the top wire in some cases and what we were left with looked like a well hedged garden wall from the castle at Versailles. She had given the vines a military crew cut and they looked good enough to start charging admission to let the neighbors have a look. But are there enough leaves left to allow photosynthesis and the maturation of a sweet, delicious grape so that the Blue-Merle can make more wine and win more competitions than Tiger Woods and Roger Federer? Maybe I should just grow grapes for the birds. That is, after all, what mademoiselle vine wants to do, all decked out in her black lace stockings.

I have these nets and I might as well use them. I think I'll also borrow Joe the Wino's shotgun as it gets closer to the harvest just to give the crows a little warning now and then. Nevermore. Nevermore will you dine on the fruit of the vine. Meantime, Sandra from Old Coach Vineyards will have established colonies of hummingbirds in her vineyard to ward off other birds, and she'll identify which birds are in her vineyard and broadcast recordings of their distress call. As for us, "Owl" Gore -- our very capable barn owl, only works at night and is focused on field mice and everyone else's gophers except ours. Perhaps what I need is a great horned owl (code name: "Horney" Clinton), to chase the birds. But how will we keep this guy from taking down the laced stockings of mademoiselle vine?

(How would you suggest we deal with the birds in Blue Merle Country?)