Sunday, August 30, 2009

Deflowering of the Vines

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

Are We Just Vines?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Crazy Lady Winemaker

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

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

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

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Good Chemistry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Birds & The Bees In The Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alvin & the Chipmunks Visit For Lunch

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

Here goes:

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

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Preparing For Baby's Arrival & The Wine Summit

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

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

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

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

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

The Wine Summit

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

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

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