Monday, August 20, 2012

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The Queen of this vineyard started with a vision, a dream featuring her walking in a white dress among the vines, white sun umbrella above her head, as workers trim, rake, bundle and haul. Never did she imagine she would cook for this crew. Never did this vineyardista imagine she would become the crew.

I write these words on a Sunday afternoon in August, a month that teaches the concept of siesta. Rise before the sun. Finish vineyard chores before noon as the heat builds. Go inside for lunch, have a glass of wine, have a rest, emerge later in the afternoon as the heat subsides and the magical time returns, sun drifting slowly toward the horizon, over the ocean, casting orange glow over the vines.

“Please come inside and I’ll make you lunch,” I offer. The sun is directly overhead and the thermometer is over 90 degrees.
“You go ahead,” she replies, “I want to finish.”
“Don’t worry. The work will never be finished,” and this is true for there’s always work to be done in the vineyard, and if not there, then some batches of wine need to be racked, some barrels topped, some barrels bottled. “Please come inside,” this time with a plea in my voice. It’s only been 6 weeks since the hospital discharged her.
“Don’t stop me. It’s my dream and it’s my vineyard and I want to finish.”

Netting vines in
August heat. Small
body; strong heart.
Is it the wine?
Since I can’t win this argument I go inside and bring her a bottle of cool water and help with a little netting and go back inside and pack because I have a weekday job and I need to travel and my bags aren’t packed and the bills aren’t paid and I need to get these things done before I go. Thirty minutes later, the scene repeats as I re-enter the furnace. “I made some lunch for you. Would you like to come in and have a bite to eat?”
“No thank you,” she says. It’s hot outside and I help her hang a little more net. It’s only been 7 weeks since her heart stopped and the paramedics restarted it and I realize she’s in better shape than I am when it comes to working a full day in the vineyard in summer because I listen to my friend siesta when she calls. Or maybe it’s the Spanish Tempranillo grapes calling. The vines do call, but they don’t talk back. After almost 25 years of marriage, I’ve learned that the best way I can help her is not to irritate her, especially after all she went through, so I let it go, let her be, and Bluey, limping slightly, follows me down the hillside into the house.

Bad 1: Lost Computers
Winemaker’s Journal serves up stories of the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s start with the bad. First, our Princess calls from Africa to say her computer went on safari and didn’t return. Minutes later, Bluey dodges from under my desk tangled in the power cord that pulls my computer to its death.  That evening, the motor powering the refrigerator fails to proceed and the Queen proclaims its demise. That’s three electronic gadgets that need replacing and have you priced a good refrigerator these days? So much for trying to save some money for retirement and paying down some debt. (Message to our daughter the teacher, leadership consultant and comic: We love you, and (in the spirit of improve comedy) would you mind earning a living?)

Bad 2: Crash Delivery
She arrived in a Ford F-150 cira last century, but still a workhorse pickup truck and who isn’t to like a lady with her own truck who wears a short skirt and high heels and the truck is loaded with 4 French oak  barrels and 100 cases of bottles and I knew right away that she wasn’t going to make it up our driveway, which, if it were a ski slope would be rated Triple Black Diamond.
“You don’t have a forklift?” she asks, with a hint of irritation in her voice. Does she think we’re the Mondavi Winery or something and we have forklifts?
“You mean, you didn’t bring a forklift?” I shot back. “The guys at Home Depot always bring a forklift when they deliver.”
Two barrels and 50 cases of bottles might have fit comfortably – but this truck was overloaded. There was only one thing to do … take down the barrels and cart them up the hill. So she steps out in her high heels and is climbing up on the truck and reaching for the barrels and handing them down to me and I cart them up the slope with a dolly. This process goes well and as I bring the 4th barrel into the garage she starts backing the truck up the driveway and as I hear tires spinning and smell rubber burning I look up just in time to see a tower of cases crash on the hood of the truck and then on the ground and an explosion of green glass. Does she think we want to make shard-donay?
Question: An overloaded F-150 truck carrying 100 cases of bottles will lose how many driving up a steep incline?
Answer: 15.
What was supposed to be a quick delivery was cleaned up within 2 hours without her scratching one toe, high heels and all, and the rest of the cases were set down safely without harm. (Message to bottle supplier: Would you mind issuing a partial refund or replacing those 15 cases of bottles you broke on the way to our winery?)

Bad 3: Lost Wine and a Lost Mind
In the winery, it wasn’t such a shame to lose the small batch of 2011 Petite Sirah we purchased from a grower in Valley Center that smelled of rotten eggs. We had managed to eliminate that odor with a dash of copper and set the wine aside without a sulfite addition (why add sulfites to a wine that already had too much hydrogen sulfide?). It ends up that the wine lost the rotten smell but became oxidized. The 2nd batch discovered ruined broke my heart. It was an extra 25 gallons of our beloved Petit Verdot from the Arroyo Dulce Vineyard, 2010 vintage, that when found several months earlier, was perfectly preserved. I added malolactic bacteria to it, did a battonage stirring of the lees to add rich flavors and a sulfite addition to preserve it. Alas, it may have been in that container too long, for it had passed its prime when we went to blend it the other day. Not only did we lose the wine, far worse, we’re losing our friend who grew it to Alzheimer’s. His family finally had to take away his personal mobile phone, as he was making random calls to his lawyer and running up large legal bills. He managed to sneak away with that phone and make a final call to us. I didn’t pick it up, but he left us a voice mail message, repeating the pending invitation to come over for a wine tasting (which had been part of every conversation for the last year) and finishing with a heart felt goodbye, knowing this would be the last call he could make to us. I’ve saved that message and it’s written in my heart. Farewell, good friend, farewell.

Bad 4: Where Has All The Topping Wine Gone?
The lost wine was discovered when we racked wine into the new barrels after they made their stunning entrance. Concerning the 2010 Syrah (grown by a neighbor) an executive decision was made. After close to 20 months in the barrel, it just didn’t seem quite right to bottle. Perhaps the acid was a bit too high? Perhaps it just didn’t have enough fruit? So, the decision was made to rack the 60 gallons of Syrah into a 78 gallon Flex Tank, which means I needed 18 gallons of wine to fill the tank so there would be no air pocket. At the end of the day as we did our racking, we came up short of “topping wine” so, I thought, not a problem, as I have this 25 gal container of Petit Verdot, the container of Petite Sirah, and 15 gallons of 2009 Zinfandel stored in an airtight beer keg. Having lost the first two batches, I was down to the Zinfandel, opened it up, and my nose knows when there’s trouble and I was suspicious. A quick taste confirmed that this batch was also bad. The lesson here: a tiny bit of headspace in a container can do you in. Winemakers, beware!

Ugly: A Really Bad Hair Day
Six years ago when we moved into the neighborhood we were introduced to other vineyardistas of a certain age and being a younger member of the male species my first impression upon meeting these women was “looking good!” It must be the wine. Six years have passed and they are still looking good and I reached that certain age they were when we first met and while they are fine looking ladies fine does not describe me and it’s time to shave my head.

And Now For Some Good
Magic time in the
vineyard as sun sets
and cool mist
moves in.
The 2011 “estate” Tempranillo is wonderful and perfect and everything I could hope for in a wine. And if the 2009 Tempranillo (our first vintage) was a little too “strong” and if the 2010 Tempranillio was not quite bold enough the 2011 Tempranillo is by all measures just right.  So here we were having racked the 2011 Tempranillo into a new French oak barrel where the plan is for it to pick up these wonderful, subtle, oak flavors and turn into one of the best wines we ever made and will make Escondido, historically one of the United States’ oldest grape growing regions, proud of those [winemaking fools] who would restore her grandeur. The same can be said for the 2011 “estate” Petite Sirah. Whatever we did in 2011 we should repeat each year – a key decision on the Petit Sirah was dividing the harvest into two blocks and picking each when ripe (this meant picking the 2nd block 3-4 weeks after the first). We racked the 2011 Petit Sirah into its new French oak barrel and came up a little short but was able to top up by the barrel by using some of the leftover Tempranillo. So here we were with 10 gallons or so of Tempranillo and its dregs and lees at the bottom of a Flex Tank and the 2010 Syrah needing a home. So we pumped the Syrah into the 78 tank that held the Tempranillio, mixing that higher acid Syrah with lower acid and fruitful Tempranillo, after which I threw in a couple of pounds of new oak chips, in an attempt to boost the oak flavor. But, I was still 5 gallons short from filling it to the top. (Message to winemaker: time to check that Syrah blend – it could be really good. Eternal hope springs from winemakers.)

Meantime, we racked our “estate” Aglianico into another one of those new French barrels – 30 gallons of 2011 Aglianico from one container and 15 gallons of 2010 from another container. I then had some Aglianico from a 5 gallon carboy and another 5 gallons of Tempranillo from another carboy and we found out during the process that the 30 gallon container only holds 25 gallons so after we added more wine we came up short. I put my finger in the barrel and reached down and the finger was dry. I estimated I was 10 gallons short. What to do? We had no more topping wine.

First thought was to call Coyote Karen: “May I come over and borrow a cup of topping wine?” But she was out of town. And then I thought about self-reliance. By the way, it is a sin for a winemaker to run out of topping wine and I am now guilty of that sin.

Racking "Ugly Hanako"
wine into a new French
Oak barrel, without
spilling a drop.
How could that be?
Here’s what we did:  I topped the Flex Tank with Argon gas. This inert gas will keep the wine from oxidizing (at least for a week). Next we began opening bottles of the 2009 Aglianico made from Guadeloupe Valley, Mexico grapes that yes, we had bottled a year ago already. Some of you find the 2009 Aglianico (aptly named Ugly Hanako after the princess) “earthy” and some of you like the 2009 Aglianico best among all the wines we have made (the Coyote is one of them). Frankly, I have not yet developed a taste for the earthy 2009 edition, so opening up some 48 bottles of wine to fill up a barrel didn’t bring tears to my eyes and Bluey was ecstatic to see so many first grade corks he could chew on. And, we added a bit of complexity from Aglianico made from more mature vines with the fruit forward Aglianico from our own vines. Finding a legal name for this wine will be a bit of a challenge, but at the end of the day the grapes are mostly Aglianico (over 80%) and mostly from our vineyard. The wine is promising, and is now soaking up French oak flavors. Promising, promising, promising. They come in 3s. (Note to wine buyers: since uncorking 48 bottles of this wine to dump into a barrel, we offered the 2009 Aglianico to a professional winetasting panel and to  100 tasters at the MIT Enterprise Forum. Most people LOVE this wine. You can buy it now for $25. If they keep loving it and the supply dwindles the price is going up. Click her to buy now if you like earthy wine.)

Good 2: Another Heart Saved
Blue-Merle wine makes hearts strong.
"Where's my bottle?" demands the
head nurse.

Blue-Merle wine has been proven to strengthen hearts and extend life. After dad’s open heart surgery, I gave a bottle of the 2008 Merleatage to the doctor who asked, “Where can I buy this?”
“You can’t buy it. You can only get it from my dad.”
“Then we better keep him alive,” and indeed the medical team did. Word of the wine spread rapidly among the heart ward and Nicole, the chief nurse asked, “Where’s my bottle?”
“Yours will be on the next shipment of the Bootlegger’s Express,” and it was delivered, as promised. In the fullness of time, the Bootlegger’s Express always delivers. Always. Since the operation, dad’s diet has included a glass of Blue-Merle a day and he looks fantastic and is as active as ever.

Patient #2 of the Blue-Merle’s scientific wine-health study was found in shock, foaming at the mouth, unresponsive, with pulse below 30 and extremely low blood pressure. Paramedics arrived, inserted IVs. “We may have to aspirate her.” They put her on the gurney then navigated down the Black Diamond driveway into the ambulance. “Don’t try to keep up with us. Secure the dog, gather your insurance papers, her medications and meet us at the hospital.”

As I sped to the hospital I thought “this is it” and she didn’t even have a chance to share her last worlds. When I arrived the ambulance bay was empty and I saw the lead paramedic who gave me a report. “She’s inside and doing well. She was very alert when we arrived and she wanted to walk in. Her heart stopped on the way, but we restarted it pretty quick and she bounced right back.”
“OK,” I acknowledged and went in not sure what to say when the paramedic tells you the heart stopped but he seemed to be OK with it so that was good enough for me. At the time I was unaware that they had performed CPR for 15 or more minutes to keep her alive, and didn’t even break a rib. And bounce back she did indeed. By midnight, she was moved into intensive care and was conscious. “Did you see God?” I asked.
“What happened?”

Bootlegger's Express delivers to
paramedics at local fire station.
The next day The Bootlegger’s Express stopped by the fire station with a case of wine and learned the full details of the heroics performed by the paramedic team. I had always wanted to deliver wine to the fire department since we live in a wildfire zone and the day of reckoning will arrive, but the incident from the night before accelerated delivery of that case of wine.  The Bootlegger’s Express always delivers.  Always.

During the week she was in the hospital she was poked and prodded and X-rayed and CAT-scanned and put through multiple stress tests and the conclusion is that that woman has one strong heart. All the doctors and all the nurses and all the paramedics say “she’s a walking miracle” and I say it’s the wine.

There was one scare in the hospital when on the 3rd day of the miraculous recovery her heart rate increased to 150 beats per minute and she was short of breath and the emergency call on her monitor went off and all kinds of nurses arrived and they weren’t smiling and they called for the doctors as she was showing signs of cardiac arrest. This wasn’t supposed to be happening but maybe she was a heart patient after all and it occurred to me that the reason the Lord spared her the other night was so I could be with her when he called. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” She spoke softly giving me a list of her last instructions and for the first time a lump grew in my throat as we were losing her and she asked me to tell our daughter please become a doctor or go into the medical field. Doctor T. arrived and reviewed the situation. “I think her central IV is in a little too far which is causing her heart to go into afib. I’m going to pull it out a little” so I held her hand and he put on his scrubs, pulled out the IV, sewed her up and cleaned up the blood just before sunset and in time for Friday services.

Good 3: Racking Without Spilling a Drop & And New Beginnings
The day we returned from the hospital she went out into the garden with her hose and started watering the plants and singing a song about how I let the tomato plants die and why didn’t I water her roses and why did I waste my time staying with her in the hospital when I should have been watering the garden and as she sang this song I’m sure her blood pressure was rising and I was thinking she must be feeling better and I also began to wonder if the Lord had saved her to torture me?

Shortly after her return we took that delivery of bottles and barrels. We had an extra new French oak barrel and a remaining Flex tank filled with 78 gallons of 2011 Carrignan (60%) and 2010 Estate Zinfandel (40%), the product of another executive decision that the Zinfandel was too high in acid to stand on its own and must be blended and the Carrignan was a logical choice as it was low in acid, high in pH and had good, light, fruit but not a lot of complexity so it was a logical match; plus, it was the only available wine we had. Now, if I took the 78 gallons from that Flex Tank and put 60 gallons into the new barrel that would leave me 18 gallons or so (actually less after subtracting the sludge) for topping and I would go from having no topping wine to having a surplus which I could supply to Coyote Karen, Merlot Mike or Paso Robles Bill if they ever ran out of topping wine, which of course they would never do because they are methodical and organized. After a day of racking and still recovering from heart stoppages and afibs and hospital stays and diagnoses of canine arthritis it was probably enough for one day and I decided it would be better to wait and to do that one racking into that last barrel the next weekend which, for the first time in the 8 year history of the Blue-Merle Winery was done without spilling a drop, without a fight, without raised voices. “You’ve improved in your new life,” I told the Queen and maybe she had; maybe we had.  “That’s the first time we didn’t make a mess and didn’t fight when racking.”

We decided to go out for a drive and I went to open the car door for her because I remembered that Mr. Jack McGinn a true gentlemen from Greensboro, North Carolina (bless his heart) always opened the door for Ms. McGinn and that it’s good manners to open the car door for your wife and maybe it was time for me to start showing the Queen some good manners now that she has a new life.

 “You don’t have to open the door for me,” she said suspiciously. “You can pretend to be a good person, but you’re not.” Although the words were somewhat harsh she said them without the venom she once used to spit out words so it came across as something of a compliment. What she said was true, but there was another side.
“You know, I’m not that bad,” I said and recalled an event 12 years earlier during difficult times when there was talk of divorce. “Do you remember when the angel came and said to me ‘you’re not that bad?”
“What kind of God is it who say’s ‘I’m not that bad’?”
“It’ true. It was Easter and after going to church and taking communion and praying we came home and grilled lamb chops and had some wine to drink – one of the bottles from Domaine Tempier in Bandol. I took a nap, and while I was asleep, an angel of the Lord came to me and said, ‘Don’t divorce Kazuko. She’s not that bad.’”
“And what did you say?” she asked.
“I said, ‘OK.’  Just like Joseph in the Bible, who didn’t leave Mary. I didn’t leave you.’”
“OK? Is that all you said?”
“That was it.”
 I wonder if she was given a second life so we could make really good wine together?

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