Tuesday, November 25, 2008

White Wine: A Turkey?

Some people think I don’t like white wine. What I don’t like is the thought of making it because making good white wine in large quantities typically involves refrigeration for which we just don’t have the equipment. After months of drinking thick, chewy Nebbiolo wine or rich, inky, Petit Sirah with every dinner, a little white wine would be a welcome relief. In fact, one of our favorite experiments this wine making season has been “Bluey’s Blush” -- we took a 40-lbs. basket of Petit Sirah,Tempranillo and Zinfandel grapes from our vineyard, crushed them (breaking the skins and removing the stems) then immediately pressed them (separating the juice from the skin and seeds) and began the fermentation process with pink grape juice. The result has been surprising. We love the rose color and there is a hint of “banana” —it was a wonderful use of the grapes, since this is just the “second leaf” of the vines planted 18 months ago and the grapes are not that complex, yet. This is a fun wine. Like Nouveau Beaujolais. Something not to be taken too seriously. But to enjoy.

As we had run out of food a couple of days ago and the cupboard was bare and oranges, pomegranates and lemons can only sustain you for so long, I made my first trip to the grocery store in months, a Trader Joe’s located in the valley 15 miles from the vineyard. The first thing that caught my attention was “white wine” for $1.99 which wasn’t white at all. It was labeled White Zinfandel, and it was pink as Bluey’s Blush, so I put a bottle in my basket as I wanted to give it a try to see how we compare with Napa winemaker Charles Shaw. And who do I see at that moment but none other than Joe the Wino, vintner and owner of a high tech company who’s seen me just make a selection of $2 wine.

“How ya doin’ there partner?” Joe asked.

“Doin’ fine. Doin’ fine, thank you. Spending all my money on women and wine and the rest of it I’m wastin’. Good to see you Joe.” We shook hands. “Whatcha doin’ here at Trader Joe’s – buying Two Buck Chuck to refill your empty bottles of Chateau Laffite for your dinner guests?”

“How did you know?” Joe winked.

Just then a cute little thing acting as a sommelier came up to the millionaire vineyard owner and asked, “May I help you select a wine?”

“I like Pinots; do you have any Pinot noir?” Joe asked.

“This one’s my favorite,” said the Trader Joe’s staff member pointing to a bottle. “And it’s only $9.95.”

“I like the picture on the label,” Joe said. Then he asked, “Do you have any Pinot more?”

“Pinot what?”

“I heard it through the grapevine. A new varietal developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis. A new grape designed for older people like myself. After drinking a whole bottle at dinner, it’s not necessary to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. It’s called Pee-No-More.”

My eyeballs rolled and the little thing blushed pinker than the rose wine and Joe The Wino just laughed at himself. It seems Joe must be on the same e-mail list as my father who sent me the joke earlier in the week. I asked the attendant if they had any local wines for sale. She said sometimes. I made a note that some of the wines were selling for $30 or more, and this would be a good place to sell Blue-Merlot – especially if the Trader Joe’s artists did a picture of Bluey in Technicolor on the chalkboard. Something like this:

Since John the Avocado Grower from New Zealand is planning to visit us this weekend, I bought a package of kiwi fruits. Our vineyard used to be a kiwi ranch 25 years ago but fell into disrepair as the price of kiwis fell lower than the cost of water, so the place was abandoned. When we moved in, it was a ghost town, navigating through remnants of the old kiwi trellis system, and the locations of a thousand kiwi vines. There was nothing left of the old vines, except for dried, rotted roots which we found as we dug up the place planting olives, persimmons, apples, avocados, macadamias, almonds, figs, guavas, blood oranges, palms and eventually end posts and grapes. Except for under the Man In the Rock. The Man In The Rock is a rock formation whose frown always follows you from whatever angle you look. Is he an Indian? The guardian of the property? Or just a rock? Under his shadow, we found a shoot. A remnant from an old kiwi root, which sprouted forth a few green leaves, unmistakeably those of a kiwi plant. Imagine that, after 14 years of neglect. A survivor. What were the odds? The Queen watered the baby vine very day, and it grew, and she covered it with a clothes hamper from the laundry to keep out the rabbits. When she arrived one day with her water bucket, the kiwi was gone. Nothing. Nothing but a hole. The hole of a gopher. And thus started The Gopher Wars, which will be rekindled after a brief Thanksgiving Truce, with John the Avocado Grower at my side. The Kiwis Strike Back!

Back at Trader Joe’s, I pick up a bottle of Nouveau Beaujolais which I’m delighted to see. The Queen and her species love Nouveau Beaujolais. Where she comes from, they think that this is high quality wine – but it’s Thanksgiving and I know it will make her happy so I’m willing to splurge and spend $8 for the bottle (well, if she drinks that, then I’ve saved one of our $39 in inventory and can sell that and make some money and pay off the Beaujolais purchase). I bumped into Joe The Wino at the checkout counter. His cart was full as he was shopping for Thanksgiving and I wagered the cashier, “I’ll bet you a bottle of wine there’s $200 of groceries in Joe’s cart,” and the cashier said, “You’re wrong – there’s $300.” And at the end of it there was $277.77 and I got to thinking there’s about a week’s worth of food in there and if there are 4 weeks in a month then that’s over $1,100/month for food and that just includes Two Buck Chuck and his $9.95 Pinot More and that’s what I used to spend on my mortgage and now food alone is that much. How is Joe The Plumber going to live let alone this guy who drives a Jaguar?

Back at the ranch there’s an e-mail from my friend Jeff who runs our local commercial winery Belle Marie, where I’ve entered a contest with my answer to the question: “What’s the best temperature to serve white wine?”

To which replied, in order to score a free bottle with at least the most creative answer: “When wine is involved, any temperature is good for serving and drinking!” Lum Eisenman, our master winemaker mentor, would like that answer.

Jeff writes:

“Well there's a sales guy's answer if I've ever heard one! Not that I take issue with your logic. Just so you know, in our opinion a fine dry wine is best served at about 55 degrees. Since most refrigerators are maintained at about 45 degrees, this means that a white wine served directly out of the fridge is too cold. The next time you try a premium white wine, such as our 2006 Paradiso or our 2007 Fume Blanc, try taking the wine out of the refrigerator for 15 or 20 minutes before you drink it... or pour a glass right away but drink it slowly, paying attention to how the wine changes as the temperature rises. In the end, the best serving temperature (just like the best wine) is up to you, the one doing the drinking and enjoying! Thanks for playing along with our challenge Craig. Since taste is subjective and your answer is at least our sentimental favorite, you are officially entered into our drawing to win a bottle of premium white wine. We'll look forward to seeing you again soon. “

I’ll need to remind Jeff that at our house, wine lasts about 15 seconds after being taken out of the refrigerator, and to all of you drinking white wine on Thanksgiving, I send you a toast, as we sample from our land pomegranates, persimmons, olives, oranges and gopher filled with Stauffer’s stove-top stuffing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Vineyardista

I’ve realized that my dearly, beloved wife, the Queen of this narrative, is a vineyardista – someone who dresses up before going into the vineyard to get dirty. Her morning begins with a shower, then she dons color coordinated pink polka-dot boots, slacks and a pink sweat shirt and spays a cloud of Channel No. 5 over her hair and clothes. It has been raining a bit today – I call it Normandy weather – a few sprinkles here, a little sunshine there – so she’s fashionably dressed for wallowing in the mud.

When it comes to a night on the town Saturday there is no "recessionista" chic here – we go as we are.The pink polka dots are muddied over. There are brown stains on the pink sweat shirt, and even the Channel No. 5 is a faint memory. We don’t need to dress down to tone down during tough economic times – we’re always dressed this way. And, we’re just too tired to shower and change after working all day with the vines. (Maybe the Queen has it right taking her bath before vineyarding because I haven’t bathed in a couple of days which is soon to become a few days because I would just rather collapse into bed.) I half expect the wino outside the liquor store to give us a quarter as we limp in after a day of work. I’m more frightening then him – in the afternoon I grabbed a pomegranate and gorged on it leaving deep red stains around my mouth. I look like an advertisement for "Got Vampire?" combined with my disheveled look – the wino edges away.

This aptly named "Liquor Store" in the California version of a redneck town called Escondido, CA has a hidden jewel in the basement—a machine called an Enolmatic which dispenses a measured taste of wine by inserting a SmartCard into a slot. The wines vary from $9.95 to $99.95 – the beauty of it is you can taste the most expensive wine for $4 a shot, while the cheap stuff is 99 cents. As we have already pre-paid the remaining $12 on our card, there is no cash outlay for us to have a few sips Saturday night. Needless to say that the $99 wine from Napa Valley tasted pretty good and the $54 wine from the Stags Leap area also tasted pretty good and the $10 wine wasn’t that bad. What was nice about it was that we got to taste some pretty good wines pretty quickly and it didn’t cost us any cash, and we walked away not buying any of the bottles that were on sale. That’s trickle down economics. We trickle down the aisles and out the store without spending a cent.

There is a McDonalds 100-yards from the Liquor Store and I was thinking about Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live when she talked about the $70 BILLION economic bailout and why it’s important to restore $1 value meals. The Queen is craving French fries so we go to McDonalds and order from the $1 menu: Hamburger: $1. French fries: $1. Espresso: $1. I kid you not. This was one of the McDonalds with gourmet coffee service: cappuccino, lattes, the works. In the interest of full disclosure, I must state: I am a shareholder of Starbucks (having purchased at $10/share recently) and the Princess was gainfully employed by Starbucks in Manhattan this past summer. Moreover, when I joined Joe The Wino on his march to Wall Street, I was given a free Starbucks coffee by the Starbucks manager (as that was the shop where the Princess had worked). Not only did we eat dinner for $5 cash on Saturday (including the cost of sips of $99 wine, $54 wine and $10 wine), the espresso we enjoyed at McDonalds was delicious, had a bit of froth on top, and was large enough to serve 3 people. Yes, a triple espresso, for 33% less than the cost of a Starbucks espresso, and 3X the liquid. "Would you like a flavor with that?" asked the MacDonaldsista. "No thanks. Plain is fine." No one had ordered an espresso from that location before and the barristas need a bit more training. I’m planning to stop by there for my morning Joe tomorrow.

It was not a good week for Joe The Wino—it started out promising with the newfound celebrity he enjoyed from his interview with The Winemaker’s Journal and his march "From Main Street To Wall Street." Then Tuesday came, and Obama was elected president which sent Joe, who was in denial about the possibility of an Obama presidency, into a tizzy. On election eve he went to visit Gerry Meisenholder, one of the premier grape growers in Blue-Merle Country, bringing with him a bottle of 1970 Chateau Lafite Rothschild wine. I don’t know how much Joe paid for it but let’s just say it might have cost $15 per sip had it been featured on the enolmatic. When Fox News announced Obama the winner, Joe told his host he might as well open up the Lafite, since the President-elect was likely to implement a wealth tax and tax assets including wine collections. So they sipped the 38-year old wine before the cost went up from taxation, and Joe thought it tasted a lot like Gerry’s 8 year old wine which had oxidized and is worth $1 a sip or less.

In spite of drinking a rare wine on election eve, Joe was in a foul mood when he arrived at his company the next morning. Joe is the CEO of a high tech firm in San Diego, and he’s not at all pleased that his taxes are going to go up in the Obama regime. What’s more, his company was forecast to grow 50% this year but with all those economic troubles around the world, business only increased 15% year over year in October, so Joe restructured the company and laid-off 15% of the work force. Joe’s friends in his CEO round-table applauded his moves which they say are necessary in tough times. I say there I go but for the grace of God and I’m grateful to have a job to support my winemaking, my vineyard and my women.

Back at the Blue-Merle ranch, the Queen had already fired the work force last winter when she figured out that she could do the work of the staff in half the time (and could save the money she would have paid the workers and purchase 46 canary island palm trees for $39/each which will be worth $10,000/each 49.7 years from now). So when I was cutting the large limb from the Pepper tree in the vineyard that crashed down on the wires of the trellis system which snapped the end post causing all the vines on that row to sag where the rabbits could jump-up and reach and eat and make disappear overnight what had taken us two years to grow, there was nothing to do but fix it. So I started digging a hole to China in the hard, brick clay and the going was slow but as I progressed I noticed the soil was moist underneath a vine that had been irrigated regularly and it was still moist two feet under and the baby vine’s roots had traveled to that 2-ft. depth as well. A good sign. I put the replacement pole in place and then a metal rod to support it and as I was preparing to pour cement into the hole the wheel barrow hit the metal support rod and the wooden pole feel on me and the metal support rod fell down to the ground breaking the irrigation head on the irrigation line on the way down. Self reliance is a good thing to have in a recession when you don’t have the money to hire workers or when you’re saving your money to invest in palm trees so there was nothing to do but to try and fix it. I found that the Queen kept in the garage enough irrigation parts for us to plant another vineyard or to open a wholesale supply outlet for valves, bushings, T’s, connectors, blue glue and primer glue. I was able to piece the assembly back together and this only took less than a day. I began thinking about economic theory and the division of labor and began wondering if this was the best use of my time when I could have spent the day looking for new customers and increasing sales at my company and with an increase in sales could come an increase in jobs and economic wealth.

"Do you see the smoke," asked the Queen drawing me out of my reverie. A wildfire had started on the horizon and we had a perfect view of it and it was a good excuse to go into the house and call it in just in case no one else was reporting it.

Back inside there was a message from Merlot Mike who wanted to borrow our enolmatic which is slightly different than the one used at the Liquor Store – we use it to bottle wine. The Queen came in and complained about being tired and had that look that said she was more than tired. I pricked her finger and tested her blood sugar which at 66 was very low so we poured some orange juice into her to raise the sugar and made her a snack of bread and olive oil. It’s not easy trying to manage a vineyard when your blood sugar puts you into a comatose state, there are wild-fires starting on the horizon, the banks won’t loan you money, and it seems that everytime you touch something (like cutting a tree) you break something that needs repair and while you’re doing the repair you break something else. Then you see that with the cool weather the gophers are getting active again and you’re just too tired to set a trap for them. You pray for your sister who has cancer and then your other sister complains because you haven’t called her for weeks and your parents keep asking you when you’re coming out for Thanksgiving when they live 3,000 miles away and you’re just trying to hang on and there’s so much to do.

I headed to Merlot Mike’s and I promised I wouldn’t have anything to drink. I was good when he offered me a glass of wine and I said I’ll have it to go and save it for the evening so he poured it. But since the glass couldn’t transport very well without spilling there was nothing to do but drink it. Then I needed to sip what he was bottling and it was 2007 Merlot which he had just blended with some Cabernet Franc made a month before. And now you’ve learned a winemaker’s secret and time will tell if it’s good. When I got back home I gave what was left of the wine to the Queen who was feeling better and I finished digging the hole for the post and that’s when I broke the irrigation line. We got the line fixed and managed to restring the vines that were sagging so the rabbits wouldn’t gorge on them. Then Bluey and I set a few gopher traps and went about giving haircuts to a few of the overgrown vines and soon it was dark and I was working by moonlight and Bluey took a nap with a stick in his mouth.

It’s another full moon eve and it’s a magical time in the vineyard. It’s cooler now than last month, and if I were a rattlesnake I wouldn’t be out of my den on a cool evening like tonight which means it’s safe for me and Bluey to jog through the vineyard this evening so long as the mountain lion is not nearby. Life is pretty good. My middle sister is surviving cancer and the Princess is surviving New York and my favorite World War II Veteran from Greensboro, N.C. is surviving and our investments in palm trees are growing. Life is happening. And the vines … the vines just keep being vines and they grow a little here and change a little color there. The work is finished and I finish the last sip of wine and the bottle is empty. The cupboard is full and there will be another glass tomorrow.