Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Preparations

New Year's Eve, 2007 -- It's been another 3-ring circus at the little vineyard on the hillside in Blue-Merle Country. In the first ring was the setting of 10 ft. posts and stringing wire for drip lines and cordons for new vines to be planted in March. The second ring was construction of the Great Wall of Merle -- a 120-foot retaining wall. On top of that, preparations were under way in the household below for welcoming in the New Year -- was it really Christmas a week ago -- not to mention feeding a crew of workers. The Ringmaster barking orders was having a grand old time. I couldn't help but sing this song as we dug 4-ft holes, hauled boulders, and carried 500 cinder blocks down the mountain:

"On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me:

12 lines of vines
11 hundred lbs. mortar
10 rebar bundles
9 tons of stone
8 fresh oranges
7 pallets of block
6 bottles Chateau Lafitte
5 circling hawks
4 guys working
3 hanging gophers
2 yucca plants
and a talking Aussie Shepard."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas At The Blue-Merle Winery

Welcome, warm, Santa Ana winds gusted through the rows of vines in Blue-Merle Country as the orange glow behind the eastern mountains signaled daybreak's advance, bringing paradise weather to a land in winter. Christmas Morning; Red Flag Warning. Unlike those frightful days of October when those devil winds ushered in acrid, ocher smoke, today they are an enjoyable gift.

As the 20th anniversary of our marriage approaches, the Queen has left several hints for the present she desires. Not just a diamond. Twenty diamonds, one for each year she has endured with me (and boy does she deserve them). I have hid the big "rock" in her stocking. Twenty tons of rocks. Merry Christmas, darling.

If there were a poll about what profession Jesus might choose for a next appearance, I would vote for mason. Laying the cornerstone; laying the bricks. What a noble line of work. Building things. This is how we are spending our Christmas. Laying the foundation for retaining walls, holding back the earth with rocks. It is body numbing work, giving the mind a chance to wander, reflect and to say prayers for all of those we care about. Vineyard is art. Vineyard is meditation. Vineyard is prayer.

Attentive readers will ask, "Where is the Princess?" She has gone Indian, with a decorative nose piercing. She was in Bollywood last week, New Delhi today, the Taj Mahal tomorrow and a pilgrimage to the Ganges next week. When she returns in January, there will still be plenty of paths to be dug, and rocks to be placed.

John & Gunvor brought a special gift -- 6 bottles of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild! Of course, they are all vinegar, John says, as they are from the 1970 vintage, and have been cellared in California homes all of these years. Well, if my Queen wishes for diamonds, I wish for one of the bottles to be unspoiled. We will share the spoils at a hastily called meeting of the Hidden Meadows Winemakers Association . Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter Solstice At The Blue-Merle

December 23, 2007 -- Full moon rising over the Blue-Merle Winery at the time of the Winter Solstice. At precisley 5pm, the moon has entered the wine glass on the table of the terrace, as seen by a crowd of spectators who have come to witness the event. The flash of cameras; the push of digital video recorder buttons; the barking dog (and howling coyotes) to capture the moment for the world. Webcast: Live from the Blue-Merle.

Scene Two: A few moments later, from inside the winery, looking through a glass window, the full moon to the Northwest; a reflection, the glow of the setting sun to the West, highlighting Catalina Island, and the Pacific Ocean, seen side-by-side, in the window pane, a surreal picture-in-picture, observers sipping a glass of wine, previously shined on at 5pm by the full-moon.

(The Blue-Merle Winery is now taking reservations to attend the Summer Solstice celebrations and the 2008 Winter Solisitice. All are welcome.)

P.S. (December 24th) -- As we celebrated the return of longer days, our neighbor Pam marked the passing of the seasons with the death of her father. She sent us this note and poem:

"Dear friends, Just a short note to let you know that my father died today at Yavapai Regional Medical Center. My sister, her husband, my brother, Paul and I were at his bedside. I've attached a poem I just wrote. Thank you for your prayers. with love, Pam

My father passed away
This first day of winter
As if unwilling to spend
Another cold season
Too lonely
Without his life’s companion
By his side
This first day of winter
Early morning
We said goodbye and
Turned off the machines
Which kept his breathing going
I held his hand
and watched for his soul to leave
But only caught the shift,
the physical moment
His body turned to stone
This first day of winter’s eve
I spoke of the accident
Said how sorry I was
And asked my father’s forgiveness
For my part, my responsibility
For his year of suffering
His response,
A rapid rise in respiratory rate
Alarms and bells
Let me know
He heard my voice,
Perhaps he heard my plea
This first day of winter
It’s cold outside
Inside my body’s like a furnace
Burning with the grief and hurt
Of the loss, of the prospect
Of a world without
My father in my life
A new season
Usually means a new beginning
This first day of winter
It’s cold outside."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Planting The Cover Crop

Last Friday (Dec. 7) we were blessed with another rainy day (that's two Fridays in a row in a drought plagued land) so the plan for the weekend was more digging, terracing and sewing a cover crop. Planting a cover crop on a steep slope is an intersting proposition (some would say "foolish"), especially since I can't get a lawn mower, much less a tractor, up there to cut it once it grows. Planting a cover crop is asking for more work -- how will I find the time to maintain it? And what if the seeds migrate down to the vines? More trouble. On the other hand, having a natural barrier of grasses or flowers will help control erosion and return nutrients back into the ground. So this year, I decided to experiment. I picked a couple of relatively flat areas (which are rare in our vineyard) to give it a try. If it turns out disastrous, I'm only looking at problems in 2 rows out of 40. As the earth was moist from the rains, I was able to combed her easily with the rake, creating a path down the center of the selected rows. I spread some annual grass seed, and covered with hay. Temperatures were in the 40s on Sunday (cool by California standards) with clear views to snow capped mountains to the North and out to Catalina Island in the Pacific to the West -- with very few birds except for circling hawks. (One of my concerns was that this effort would simply result in a feast for crows .) The clay and decomposed granite that make up most of the the Blue-Merle Vineyard drain quickly, and by Sunday evening, the muddy & moist areas that I had raked earlier in the morning had begun to dry. (I was beginning to wonder if I would need to water the seed after all of that rain.) The seed has been set; let's see what takes. (Hopefully, we will not find grass sprouting at the base of the vines -- but an emerald green carpet running straight down the row, accenting the land with the promise of spring to come.)

Gustavo came out and inspected the routes for delivering a 20 ton truck-load of rock, slate, ledger, mortar, rebar and concrete blocks for continuing our work on The Great Wall. He thinks he can maneuver a fork lift onto key areas of the property, and make the drop. His planned date: This Friday. Although we survived the second set of heavy rains without catastrophe, there is erosion, and the retaining walls will be helpful long term. "Vineyard is art" and the retaining walls are the frame.

Will the fork lift get stuck in the mud? Will weeds sprout faster than the cover crop and take over? How will we cut the grass if it starts growing? If we hire the neighbors goats to graze the grass, will they eat the vines instead? Will rains continue next week, eliminating the mandate for growers to cut their irrigation by 30% next year?

January 3rd, 2008 -- update on the cover crop. The seed has taken root and there are paths of green where we sowed. Another winter storm is on the way. Fidel says he wants to spray "roundup" herbicide to kill the weeds that are also beginning to show their green tops -- he'll try to kill everything green that isn't a vine. We've got to keep that sprayer from him. So far so good on the cover crop-- as I have 15 lbs. of grass seed left over, I may sow some more this weekend after the first rain (as the earth has turned rockhard again after three weeks of no rain).

Wine Delivered to Diocese & Marketing 101

We bottled 20 cases of wine over the Thanksgiving holiday and a "tithe" of the wine (10%) was delivered to the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego on Saturday morning. The Reverend Canon Steve Wendfeldt accepted the gift on behalf of The Bishop. Canon "Steve" had time for breakfast , so over eggs Benedict dripping with extra Hollandaise sauce we discussed "Church Marketing 101". What he said applies just as well to promoting a winery, or a business:

Become known in the community:
* Join the local Chamber of Commerce. Get a link from their website.
* Approach local real estate agents/agencies about exchanging links. Give them your cards, flyer, brochure which they can include in their information for new comers.
* Get a listing on the website of your town.
* Take out a Yellow Pages listing -- make your listing stand out (by reversing the image, etc.)
* Flyers: post them up at community service bulletin boards, at shopping centers, wherever appropriate
* Identify members of the press in the community who would have an interest, and issue press releases, often. (For example, at Grace Church in San Marcos, the members got together this month and provided Christmas gifts for every single child in the local Head Start program -- that's worth a press release. Another example would be the education classes sponsored by University California San Marcos which are held at Grace Church each week). Be sure and understand the correct format each media outlet prefers.
* Use the church to hold events, such as concerts, lectures, classes, etc. If you have a good piano and a suitable space, contact all the piano & violin teachers in the area, and let them know they may use the church for free concerts.
* Hold a youth dance for teenagers, from 9pm - 2 am. Charge $1 or a can of food (to be given to the local food bank) as admission.
* Offer a "Friday Morning Out" for mom's -- where mom can take a couple hours off, leaving her kid(s) at church.
* During the Christmas season, on an appointed Saturday, offer to take care of the kid(s), so the parents can go shopping. Make this available as a service to the community -- not just the membership.
* Design ministry opportunities for retired seniors. For example, contact local schools in the area to see if they would welcome church members as tutors to help kids improve their reading skills.
* If you live in a town with a military base with lots of deployments, consider a ministry for young mothers (whose spouse may be deployed). Example, have the retired folks who love to knit offer a gift of a sweater/clothing for newborns....
* Use the kid's Christmas pageant as an opportunity to practice "all are welcome" by giving parts to all children who attend Christmas services -- even those who are attending church for the very first time. Prepare extra costumes for angels and shepards, and invite any newcomers you see at church that day to participate. (Make sure there are adults on hand who can guide the little ones who haven't participated in the rehearsals.) Publicize the open pageant to the community. Parts for everyone. No auditions required.
* For a "Blessing of the Animals" service, partner with the local ASPCA or animal shelter to get the word out about the event. The co-marketing will work well for both organizations, as both groups care about critters.

These are all great ideas, and we should follow them up at the Blue-Merle Vineyard and our little church in the valley, Grace Church San Marcos. What would you suggest?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Ground Squirrel Trapping

Yet another half-eaten prized "Bacon" avocado lay at the entrance of its home. Adding insult to injury, the squirrel had eaten the avocado we left for him in the trap, leaving behind the nut. He ate it from the outside, without venturing in. This calls for an escalation of techniques: I placed the half-eaten delicacy on the ground, with the trap over it. That way, the rodent will not be able to reach it and pull it to the side; he must go inside to nibble.

(One week later, Dec. 8th)
The avocado meat at the bottom of the cage is gone. Just the skin remains. We're dealing with one, clever fellow here. We gave a bag of lemons to our neighbor the other week, who returned the lemons as a delicious "lemon jam." I will spread that on some toast and see how that works for bait.

(December 23rd, 2007): Public enemy #1 is still at large, with another victim (a stripped avocado nut) by the hole. A new tactic: this guy is located by avocados, and I have taken an orange from another part of the vineyard. I have dog a hole for the orange two inches deep, and placed it in the ground, peeled, with the trap on top, with the peelings making a path from the squirrels home to the center of the trap. Merry Christmas, Mr. Squirrel!

Will we not catch this squirrel before he eats all the remaining avocados? Will we need to call in a terminator to deploy dynamite and flame-throwers? In a weak moment, will we let the squirrel live free, but by doing so, unleash bubonic plague in San Diego County?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Last Watering & First Rain

Two milestones have come to pass. Last Sunday (Thanksgiving weekend, the end of November) was the last watering day with irrigation. The growth for this year is finished. It is time for the vines to rest, to go to sleep, to store nutrition, to save their energy for an explosive burst of growth in the Spring. We will prune in February.

It is raining. Not since we did some grading one year ago at this time, putting in Rue Jean Baptiste ("level the mountain", "make the paths straight") and planting the vines in Spring, has their been a significant rainfall. Tomorrow, I will be a water sleuth, examining what worked and what didn't concerning our drainage plan. Have any vines disappeared in a mudslide? Are all the paths still clear? What new paths need to be dug to move water in a less destructive direction? What mini retaining walls need to be built?
(The next day, Saturday, Dec. 1st.) It rained two inches, and we came through OK. No catastrophes. But there are areas to fix.

I have never seen the hard earth here so malleable. I cut paths into hillsides with a shovel. I molded a shapely berm out of clay. I filled in ditches, and dug min-culverts to better channel the water. As if on cue, the first day of December, the daytime temperature dropped to the 40s with a strong wind as light showers passed. A rainbow appeared.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Transplanting Vines: Do's & Don'ts

Nick Thompson from the UK has an interesting story about transplanting vines at his property in France. My own experience up to now is two-fold: the first is transplanting cuttings which I had in pots. This worked well, as the vines moved from pot to field (or the fence) and took root as we were able to water them with irrigation during the summer. In the 2nd case, I dug up a first-year vine along the fence from under a large apricot tree where it couldn't get enough sun. I was surprised at how much effort it took to dig up, after being in the ground only a few months. After transplanting to a sunnier spot by the house, it began wilting, and stopped growing upwards. It is still alive, but it has not been happy. My assumption is that it will rest over the winter, get strong, and come back strong in the Spring.
Nick, tell us what happened to you. (These photos accompany Nick's story.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bottling Weekend 2007: The price just went up $5

It's almost 4a.m. and I've just finished rinsing carboys and fermenters from their purple sludge, with one eye on the full moon and the other eye on the lookout for a pack of coyotes. This feels like deja vu all over again ... a day full of bottling, an evening spent racking. This year, we had it all figured out. We borrowed a pump and 100 feet of tubing. After everything was hooked up, we turned on the pump, the motor purred, and the wine trickled from the storage container into the barrel. Note the word: trickled. We were expecting a torrent. My little siphon hose works faster. The flow was less than one quart per minute. "The motor's no good," opined the Queen. I thought, perhaps, the tubes were too long, or too tangled. Finally as midnight approached, I went back to methods I knew that worked: using the Enomatic bottling device to siphon wine off the dregs into a 5-gallon carboy, then lifting and pouring the contents through a funnel into the barrel. When I was cleaning up a couple of hours later, I noticed something in the filter: wood chips! No wonder it didn't work; the filter was clogged. Lesson of the day: when using a pump, if it doesn't work, check the filter! Needless to say, we bottled 3/4 of the Nebbiolo (about 17 cases), and racked the Petite Sirah into the barrel with the Petit Verdot, creating a new, promising blend: Petit Petit. In our book, Petit + Petit = Grand. Stay tuned to see how the Petit-Petit turns out next year.

One revelation about the 2006 Merlot, which we also bottled this weekend. The grapes were grown next door. They were fermented with equipment that anyone could easily purchase. The wine was stored in a 15-gallon carboy, which anyone could purchase (or you could just as soon use a beer barrel). We bottled using a simple device. And as the winemaker's father would say, "It doesn't taste that bad." It ends up there was a 5-gallon carboy leftover of Merlot pressings, which we blended with slightly more than a gallon of the Nebbiolo -- I'm looking forward to tasting it after it's aged for six months in the bottle but I anticipate the winemaker's father saying, "That tastes pretty good." Anyone could do this.

When we finished, the place was a mess. But, within 24-hours, we had it cleaned up, and achieved an important milestone: we slept with both cars in the garage.

The first words out of the Queen's mouth the morning after were: "I'm tired of this." Her suggestion: "Sell the grapes -- forget the winemaking." There is so much work that went into the bottling, and the racking, that as I thought about the "costs" of the wine -- and how good it tastes -- we concluded that we would be cheating ourselves if we didn't charge $25/bottle for the Nebbiolo. Next steps: apply for that wholesale reseller license, and get the garage bonded.

Have any suggestions for the permitting process? Looking forward to your posts.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Yikes! Gophers! What to do?

It was the gophers who fired the first salvo, when they took down the new shoot of the remnant of a 25-year old kiwi that we were bringing back to life when we took over stewardship of the land. It was a miracle -- a kiwi farm that had been abandoned for over a dozen years, and finding a kiwi shoot that emerged from underneath the mysterious "Man In The Rock". We started watering it, and to protect it from the rabbits, the queen put a white laundry hamper over it. When she came back to water a few days later, the hamper was in place, but to her shock, no kiwi. Only a gopher could have done that. Up until then, my attitude with the gophers was live and let live. But for them to attack the rare -- and defenseless kiwi, this was war.

Until last Sunday, the score was 5 to 0, the gophers leading. In addition to the kiwi, they had taken out 3 Zinfandel cuttings from the top of the hill, another Zinfandel from the fence de Lum, and one Zinfandel in the main vineyard by Bobcat Ridge (named for the Bobcat who used to prowl there). The score is now 5 - 1. We're behind in the game, but determined to catch up, using conventional weapons. We like the owls and hawks in this area, not to mention the dogs, so poison is out. We're using the standard traps. In fact, with our allies the owl, the score is now 5-2, with the momentum swinging in our direction. Next stop: the "Squirelinator."
Dec. 31, 2007 -- The Squirelinator has not lived up to its name, and I have been taken in by a superlative salesman. However, Fidel is the "Gophinator" -- he caught 3 in one day by setting those traps. (His trophy hanging from the cross above.) By the way, those guinea-pig looking cute fellows are so destructive -- the offender above had his eyes -- and teeth -- on our young olive trees!

SO2 Quick Test: You Get What You Pay For

We are supposed to bottle tomorrow, Thanksgiving, but we were running blind without an accurate SO2 test. On Monday, I ordered a quick and dirty kit from Vintner's Vault, which arrived yesterday. This morning, I opened the kit, and read the directions. The kit is from Accuvin ( I took samples of wine from the 2006 Merlot Reserve and the 2006 Nebbiolo. This was the first time for me to use such a test -- it's about time, after 4-years of winemaking, and I found it easy to do. Just follow the directions, taking a minute sample of wine, adding it to a vile, then reading a color chart. It seemed that the Merlot came in with a reading of about 16 PPM, about half where I need to be before bottling. Then, I tested the Nebbiolo. As I suspected the Nebbiolo was high, I used the "high range" or "red cap" of the Accuvin test, and the reading suggested 40 PPM (perfect). Just to be sure, I repeated the test, this time using the "Green Cap" for the lower range. The result: 16 PPM (same as the Merlot). The color of the green-cap test vile containing the Nebbiolo was the same color as the green-cap test vile containing the Merlot. So, what is the reading: 40 PPM or 16 PPM? Answer one: neither. Answer two: I don't know. What I do know is not having enough free sulphur when bottling is a recipe for a short shelve life, so, to be on the safe side, I added a 1/2 teaspoon of metabisulfite to the 15-gallons of Merlot Reserve, and 2-teaspoons of metabisulfite (mixed with water) to the barrel of Nebbiolo. Because our biological clocks are geared to bottling on Thanksgiving, momentum drives us to bottling something tomorrow. It will be the Merlot. The Nebbiolo can wait until the weekend. And about the tests, you get what you pay for. When I asked Steve at Vintner's Vault about it, he said he's got a $600 machine that will provide accurate tests. This we need to look into next year.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sulpher Dioxide Additions & Measurements: How Best To Measure?

We're less than a week away from bottling and all was looking good. Mike's SO2 measurements -- which cost $5 a pop for the cartridge -- indicated that there was plenty of SO2 in the wine to ensure long preservation, which is what I want for this prized Nebbiolo. Karen sent a sample of her Nebbiolo wine off to the lab, to compare measurements. Whereas Mike's test indicated SO2 levels approaching the legal limit and the threshold of taste (i.e., way too high), the lab indicated that she didn't have enough SO2. Uh, oh. (One piece of good news ... the alcohol level is at 15.6% -- we're talking about a big, chewy, red wine here folks.) So, here are the issues:

* How best for the small winemaker to test S02 levels without using the lab?

* Without a good method to use down at the farm, which lab in Southern California to use?

Looking forward to your answers soon, as we're itching to bottle!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Filtering The Wine: Keeping Out Mice Tails At The Expense of Taste?

We're one week away from bottling a vintage that we feel is good enough to sell for $20 bottle, or more, and some interesting questions have come up.

What is the best way for us to [economically] filter the wine?

If we filter too agressively, with the flavor be stripped out?

What I know is this ... the other week we opened one of the last bottles of our first vintage, the 2004 Syrah. It tasted good, and age was treating the contents very, very well. But in the middle of my glass, was a piece of sediment, swimming around. And I vowed that I would filter when bottling this year.

The enomatic device we use for bottling has an optional filter available. Mike from neighboring Sunrise Vineyards has this filter, and I've asked him if I could borrow it, but he warned me saying the last time he used it, it did a fine job keeping the mice tails out, but stripped the flavor.

So, gentle reader, and those of you with more experience than us, what would you recommend for filtering?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Winemaker's Quiz: Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Winemaker?

You've seen the website, read the horror stories, and you think you still want to make wine? Well, to be sure, take the quiz to see if you have what it takes.


Choose A, B, or C

1. To cut down on green house gases, you vow not to use the air conditioner, except:
a. When the temperature exceeds 40 C ?
b. The temperature hits 40 C degrees and your wife complains about her high blood pressure and says she’s about to faint?
c. You have wine fermenting in the garage and concerned about the yeast dying in 40 C heat, you turn on the air conditioner in the house, keep the door between the garage and the kitchen open so that the garage cools down?

2. Your dog would rather:
a. Play Frisbee?
b. Chew on a steak bone?
c. Eat a bunch of grapes?

3. You wake up in the middle of the night to:
a. Watch an international soccer match?
b. Feed the baby?
c. Stir your fermenting wine?

4. When planning a hunting vacation with your buddies, you would rather hunt:
a. Elephants in Africa?
b. Pheasants in Kansas?
c. Gophers in your backyard?

5. Where do you park your car at night?
a. In the garage?
b. I don’t have a car; I bike to save the planet!
c. Outside, because the garage is full of wine.

6. If you wanted $1 million, you would:
a. Invest 10% of your earnings each month in the stock market?
b. Buy a lottery ticket?
c. Borrow $2 million from the bank, start a winery, and end up with $1 million?

7. For your next car, you dream of buying:
a. A Mercedes.
b. A hybrid.
c. A pickup truck (battery powered).

8. When given 1-minute to evacuate from a wildfire, after gathering your family and your dog and with 15 seconds left you grab:
a. Your iPOD
b. Your photos
c. Your wine collection

9. Your father gives you the greatest, biggest-ever BIG BERTHA golf club driver and you want to:
a. Hit a golf ball 300 yards
b. Throw the club after hitting a bad shot
c. Use the club to stir fermenting wine

10. You have just remodeled the kitchen in your home and installed a kitchen-nook eating area and you dream of:
a. Inviting your best friends over for Sunday brunch
b. Submitting pictures of the new kitchen to House Beautiful magazine
c. Moving wine barrels from the garage into your kitchen because the garage is too warm

11. Which statement best describes your life to this point:
a. A penny saved is a penny earned.
b. Shit happens.
c. I spent all of my money on wine and women – the rest of it I wasted!

Pressing Wine By Hand. Warning: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

(Editor's note: On "Labor Day" four years ago we pressed our first batch of wine. Juice from 1,000 lbs of Syrah grapes. By hand. No ratchet press. No machine. Hands. And paws. It was one of the most memorable -- and gruelling -- experiences. A true winemaking fool. Don't try this at home. Since we bought a press in year 2, life has been easy. Buy a press. Borrow a press. Rent a press. Don't even think about doing this by hand. Enjoy the story as it was recorded on four years ago and I'll work on a new entry that describes how we "crushed" grapes by hand this year.)

I am concerned about the length of skin contact on the juice. We picked on Sunday 7 days ago … the winemaking handbook I purchased in Australia 11 years ago says 4-5 days contact is enough – otherwise the wine may pick up too much tannin, and taste “astringent” – a fancy word for bitter. Yet, I thought I heard the guys from the San Diego Winemaking Society who were in the vineyard picking grapes say they would ferment in the container for about 9 days. What to do? I go back to Lum’s manual. It seems the length of time the skins are on the juice is a black magic art. Experienced winemakers know when it’s time to press, because of, well, their experience. Finally, Lum suggests: “If in doubt, it’s better to press early.” I have a press reserved for Tuesday – it’s Saturday. I went on-line to e-Bay to see what presses I could buy – but timely delivery would be an issue. What to do? I decide to take a lesson from the ancients (or the cavemen) and press by hand. Starting now. The experiment – and race – is on and Labor Day Weekend takes on a new meaning. First, we try to extract the “free run” – this is the wine that could be “ladled out” of the containers without having to squeeze the grapes. Matt has sold me a clear plastic siphoning tube for the job. He says “no sucking” on the tube ,,, you’re supposed to jiggle it a few times – he’s attached a $6 jig to the end of the hose -- and the flow is supposed to start. Back at the house, I’m giggling the hose and the juice starts to move up the pipeline. “Awesome!” I’m reminded of the blood test the vet did on the dog earlier in the week – the wine has taken on a deep, violet, fuchsia, purple color. Unfortunately, the victory is short-lived, as the flow stops before it can get over the container. I try again. And again. Jiggling and jiggling. Damn, how am I going to get the wine out of there? I wonder if the hose is broken, so I take it into the kitchen, fill a bucket with water, and I’m able to siphon it out OK. I go back to the garage, and lift the container (no easy task if you remember from day one) onto a cinder block to give it some elevation. No luck. We’re stuck. What to do?

I decide to just slop it out with a bucket. There’s a technique I develop. Place the bucket rim at grape (raisin) level, and press slowly, so that only the liquid flows slowly into the bucket. It works easily. Especially in the beginning, when there is so much liquid beneath the cap. The grape skins are a giant sponge – when you press down on them, liquid comes forth, but remove the pressure, and the liquid disappears back into the grapes. Press down again, and the “free run” flows. And where to put this new wine? I only have 5 of the 32-gallon food grade fermentation containers, and they are all full. My idea was to empty one, clean it out, and use it as a “storage tank” for “secondary fermentation.” I notice a couple of empty Arrowhead water containers (you know, the ones labeled For Water Only). What’s more, I know I can easily lift the 5-gallon plastic bottles. So I fill a bucket, and using a funnel slowly poor the reddish liquid into the water bottle. Some of it splashes on my hands, and I remember Lady Macbeth, “Out damned spot!” Not just my hands, but my clothes and garage floor become stained. The procedure is going smoothly. I’m able to fill a few buckets and transfer the wine to the water jug, and I’m thinking of the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, and what a miracle that was turning water into wine. But like an oil well that is drying up, the free flow can no longer be extracted, and so now I must push the bucket harder into the grapes to extract the juice. This time, ¼ of the bucket fills. Next time, a 1/8th of a bucket. Next time, the equivalent of a generous glass-size of wine. Time for the next step. To press.
I spy a hand-carry shopping basket from Ralph’s grocery. This is made of plastic and designed with holes and a metal handle. We have large plastic tubs which my wife uses for storage containers stacked on either side of the garage. I pick one that looks fairly clean, empty it of books and things, rinse it out with the hose, and I’m able to fit the shopping basket into the container in such a way that there is space at the bottom. My plan is to place the juice-soaked fermented grapes into the basket, press down, thereby extracting fluid which will drip to the bottom of the plastic tub, which I can then empty into the 5-gallon water bottle. I drive to the hardware store to purchase some screen material. Back in the garage, I cut some of the material and place it at the bottom of the hand basket to serve as a filter. I scoop out some grapes, fill the shipping basket, and put the basket in the plastic bin. Then, I take the bucket and use the flat side to push down on the grapes. It starts raining wine drops, then a waterfall, then drops again as I push. I need to push harder to get more juice. Then instead of gingerly pressing, I’m pushing all of my body weight into the basket, reaping the extra benefits of cross training with this weight training exercise. There’s a cracking sound; the basket falls to the bottom of the underlying bin with me crashing on top. I take one of these raisins, put it into my mouth – yum, like an alcohol raisin. Then, I notice a whole, perfectly formed grape. Not a raisin, but a grape. I put it into my mouth, crush it with teeth, and the sweet juice surprises my tongue. There should be a recipe for this … perhaps over ice cream. Enough with the distractions … my makeshift press has limitations. It won’t let me apply maximum pressure to the grapes. As I extract myself from the mess, I notice that the basket is not broken – I have merely pushed down too hard, expanding the plastic sides of the container beyond the reach of the basket, which caused the basket to fall to the bottom.
We have a problem here … I am not going to be able to press too hard. Part of me says that’s good, because I suspect that if tannins are in the skins, and we squeeze every last drop of wine from these saturated grapes, we’re bound to have too much tannin in the finished wine. I take the VA Tech paddle and mix up the pressed mound of grape skins and give it another round of pressure… drops of wine fall this time. I take the liquid from bottom, run it thorough the screen in the funnel – I estimate about a ¼ of a bucket from that pressing. Time to try again. And so the process goes on. And on. Bluey supervises the work. When we get to the bottom of the 32-gallon container we notice all the seeds. I understand where Grape Nuts cereal got its name, and I’m thinking of grape seed oil, and what can we possibly make with all these seeds? I put some into my mouth and crunch down, and the taste is, well, grape seeds – bitter. Miraculously, I find a whole grape that has not been crushed, and that escaped the pressing – it is delicious. I also find a metal washer, and I wonder if that’s the part Charlie was missing from his tractor? From that one 32-gallon container partially full, we end up with 2 @ 5 gallon bottles plus 1 @ 3 gallon bottle = 13 gallons. I do the math … 5 containers X 13 gallons = 65 gallons … hmm, looks like we’re going to produce enough wine to fill the wooden barrel. A good sign. We set the 3 jugs to the side of the garage, and I notice another empty 5-gallon water bottle. Great! So, we get started on the next 32-gallon container, and fill it up quickly since we’re working with free run. As we get ready to go to dinner, I notice there is active bubbling in the 5-gallon bottles, and purple foam the consistency of the sea on 3 of the bottles, but nothing is going on in the fourth. I tell myself, “That one must be the last one we did,” and hasn’t had enough rest yet to restart its fermentation. After the day’s work, the wife and I have a sip of our wine – it is slightly sweet, full of flavor. We treat ourselves to dinner at the local Thai restaurant. I order Singha beer, but she wants a glass of red, so I order a glass of Robert Mondavi “Coastal” Cabernet. We taste this in a new way … we notice the fruit; we notice the alcohol; we notice the color; and we’re thinking: we haven’t had the benefits of aging in oak yet and we compare with this $6.50 glass of wine. Motivation to keep going, for there is a lot of pressing to be done the next day. When we get back from dinner and inspect the “water” bottles, there is bubbling action in each of the bottles. A small victory!

Sunday (September 5, 2004) Day 8 I’m up at 5:15 am to check the wine and run the dog. It’s Sunday, but we won’t be going to church. We’ll worship from the garage as we make wine. (Is this why European monks were and are such good brewers?) The words sanctifying wine as a symbol of the new covenant take on a new meaning. In those days, people must have been more familiar with wine must, new wine and the bold colors. Our wine is thick and an appropriate symbol for blood. Sip it while you work. A Santa Ana wind bringing warm temperatures from the desert has arrived. The morning started out cool, just 67, by late morning it’s 94 degrees. What is the heat going to do to our brew? We improved the press. I went back to the hardware store and purchased a large (15-gallon) plastic flowerpot, with a ring of holes at the bottom. My idea was to find something more sturdy than the shopping basket that would allow me to apply more pressure. I load up some grapes, press down, and in an instant, the basket is forced to the bottom. Same result. I know what I need -- something solid – like an anvil -- underneath the basket, and the cinder block I have been eyeing all day would do fine. I imagine wine as the elixir that dissolves cholesterol; that it has healing properties and characteristics of a disinfectant. Nevertheless, I do not recommend drinking wine that has run over a concrete cinder block, not even for dummies. That technique was quickly abandoned. Most of the leftover skins, seeds, stems, pressed grape-cakes and spider-part remnants we’re able to dump into large garbage bags, and put into the trash. We city slickers don’t have a compost pile as the wife doesn’t appreciate the rats that would dine there. Still, we can’t get all the dregs into bags, and end up washing down the containers and the leftovers onto the grass. We do see an increase in flies the next couple of weeks, but thankfully the ants, which seem to be very content in our home, never make a trail for the wine storage containers. Lum advised us to keep a clean shop and we do. The pressing continues all day Sunday and most of the day Labor Day. We end up with what I estimate to be 68 gallons in the garage, plus two bottles and 6 liters that we place in our refrigerator in clear water containers, which looks like a storage cabinet for the Red Cross. It is a Labor Day weekend to remember. A labor of love.

Essential Piece of Winmaking Equipment -- Punching The Cap With Virginia Tech Paddle

Four layers of ink from four years of making wine have seeped deep into the wood of the Virginia Tech paddle, which has now been retired until the end of August, next year. The paddle has become part of the winemaking tradition at the Blue-Merle Vineyard, and like the kid who likes to lick the brownie mix from the spatula, Bluey is always one to touch his tongue to the paddle after it has punched the cap, stirred the batch and is dripping with red nectar. Here is a "reprint" from our first musings of the paddle from

Winemaking Day 3 (August 31, 2004) Virginia Tech Paddle Fulfills Destiny

During the 1970’s at the Virginia Tech summer Sports Camp, the greatest honor bestowed upon campers was the wooden paddle. Much like the stripes a military cadet earns, good campers were awarded paddles (and subsequent brands) in a campfire ceremony. To be awarded a paddle came with a price. After the chosen few received their paddles at the campfire pow-wow, they were rounded up and initiated into an ancient Virginia Tech rite of passage: the fanny smack. So it was with the paddle I was awarded … no sooner had I received my paddle then my rear cheeks were baptized by a gang of fellow campers and future Hokies who rounded me up and raised welts on my hind quarters with the fine wood and a few splinters. Some thirty years later, the paddle is in my garage. The paddle and its two brands – the arrow for perseverance; the heart for sincerity – has stayed with me, through moves to Japan, California, Virginia, and back to California. Since I don’t play cricket, there hasn’t been much use for it. And when my own child has deserved a good whack, my hand alone was good enough for the job. The paddle has been dormant through the decades, taking up space, waiting for an opportunity … an opportunity to fulfill its destiny. The paddle shares the garage with a half ton of grapes which have been stomped on and crushed and are divided evenly between five food-grade rubber trashcans (i.e., fermenting vats). Yeast was pitched the day before, and during the last 24 hours, a slow, gurgling sound has emerged as carbon dioxide gas bubbles up from the grape juice, which is called “must.” The rising gas carries grape skins with it forming a “cap” – something similar to the volcanic doom of Mt. St. Helens before she exploded. The cap rises, inching up towards the rim of the container. If the top of this cap dries out, bacteria will invade which might result in the production of vinegar instead of wine. The cap must be broken and pushed back into the liquid three or more times per day for the next week. This amateur winemaker lacks the proper equipment and wonders how on earth to push this cap down? Then, he spys the Virginia Tech paddle mixed in with a shovel, hoe, rake and other instruments of gardening, and pulls it out as if reaching for the pitching wedge from the golf bag to make a 100 yard shot to the green. The cap exerts resistance as I push down with the paddle, and I never imagined that this activity would be such good exercise. So, I hereby inaugurate a new sport with the VA Tech Sports Paddle – pushing the cap down into the grape must, a necessary procedure to make wine. And the value added to the wine is a little Hokie spice from the paddle.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Blue-Merle Winery Pledges Tithe Wine Donation To Episcopal Diocese of San Diego

November 11th was "Ingathering Sunday" at Grace Episcopal Church in San Marcos, CA when parishioners made pledges of time, talent and money to the church for the 2008 fiscal year. The services were presided over by The Right Reverend James Mathes, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego. To add a festive mood to the event, the Ladies of Grace took two bottles of 2005 Nebbiolo wine, added mulling spices and served it warm in a traditional coffee brewer during Fellowship Hour. One of the kids called it, "Happy Hour." Some of the parishioners who were filling their cups to the brim needed to be warned that the punch had been spiked. Although the graceful ladies are cautious about serving this deep, inky wine during communion -- for fear of staining the linens -- social hour is a different story. In the spirit of the event -- and in the spirit of giving -- the Blue-Merle Vineyard pledged to Bishop Mathes 10% -- the biblical tithe -- of its wine to be bottled this Thanksgiving for the use of the church, to be used for communion (at churches that care less about the linens) or perhaps at a church function as the Bishop saw fit. "I think we'll use it at our General Convention next year," Bishop said.

Most of you are familiar with "Chateauneuf de Pape" -- which means "New Castle of The Pope" -- commemorating that time in history several hundred years ago when the Papacy was headquartered in France. As the Blue-Merle vineyard is growing Grenache grapes -- the same as those featured in the Cheatauneuf wines -- we have decided to honor Bishop Matthes, as the self-proclaimed winemaker to to the Bishop, with a new label titled: Maisonvielle de Bischoff. Our castle is but an old home, but our aspirations for winemaking are high, as high as our esteem, respect and hopes for our Bishop.

Topping The Barrel After Santa Anna Winds and Fires

With all the disruptions caused by the recent wildfires, topping the barrel of Nebbiolo wine was long over due. In October, the humidity was as low as 8% as the Santa Anas blew through, which caused the leaves on the vines to first dry, then be blown off. Green one day; shriveled the next; gone the following day. What I didn't anticipate was the effect these dry conditions would have on the barrel. Normally, when I topped, I had been putting in one bottle, to one and a half bottles per topping. When I pulled out the bung yesterday, the wine was down a couple of inches. The guardian angles who had protected the property during the fires had taken their fair share of the wine! Problem was, I had run out of topping wine ... What to do??!! We are still two weeks away from bottling, and that was too much head space. (Air space in the barrel provides an environment for turning the future award winning wine into vinegar.) In the cellar, I found some bottles marked 2005 Nebbiolo "pressings", which I would normally use as topping wine. I needed to check these, before putting into the barrel. As I poured a taste, I noticed a deposited layer of evenly spread film all around the inside of the bottle -- a sure sign of oxidation. And the taste confirmed it. However, since I did not detect a taste of vinegar -- and new that the wine in the barrel was well fortified with SO2, I put in 2.5 bottles of the 2005 Nebbiolo pressings. The barrel was not yet full -- I noticed a plastic bottle with about .5 liters of 2007 Merlot pressings -- I twisted off the top, and was treated to Merlot "champagne" -- an unexpected surprise, as the wine came fizzing out of the bottle! (Now, this is the way to celebrate "NeuveauBeaujolais" at the beginning of September. This sparkling experiment tasted quite good -- I remembered that there was some residual sugar in the Merlot after pressing -- and enjoyed the "spritziness" of the carbonation. That, too, went into The Barrel. (A possible novice winemaker's mistake? Stay tuned.) Still more space. So, I opened up one of the 2007 Malbec bottles full of pressings. No sparkles. Just a light, fruity taste (as this wine was made from grapes of only 22.5 brix) -- and added it to the barrel. We have high hopes for this Nebbiolo -- barrel tastings during the last year have shown excellent promise. We will be bottling it on Thanksgiving Day, 2007.