Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New Seasons & New Beginnings

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Green Initiatives and Sustainability at Blue-Merle Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2008

High Tides & Harvest Moons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 11, 2008

2008 Vintages: The history of ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First Harvest and the Last Racking

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

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

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

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

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