Saturday, November 28, 2009

Storm of Shakespearean Proportions

"Tom's a cold. Tom's a cold!" I called out as the season's first rain turned to hail. Soaked to the bone I meandered through the vineyard inspecting the flow of water, taking note of areas to patch. Oh, Tom's a cold, and I thought of old Tom Turkey trying to stay warm, huddling next to the hens. Over 80 degrees just two days ago on Turkey Day, Tom basting himself in the sun's warm rays among his harem. And now this. What a fall from fortune. 80 to zero in two days oh Tom's a cold! I thought of King Lear out in a raging storm spurned by ungrateful daughters and I, a Lear-like pauper, ignored by our Princess last week in the "Special Thanks" program of her play, "To The Men I've Dated: A Tribute." No tribute to the parents. Not a tribute to her dog. There are thanks to Judy (for ongoing support), and thanks to Katie (for the lights) and thanks to Caroline (for the sound), and thanks to Bryan (for the summer -- what's that about?). But where are the thanks to Papa, payer of the college tuition, and the bank roller of the production? Where are the thanks to mama, from whose womb she was untimely ripped? "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow." I said to Bluey who had followed me loyally into the storm, "Come, Fool!" and we picked up a mouse dead in his trap and carried him to the burying ground. As I dug the shallow grave my shovel hit a a skull which I pulled out and showed to Bluey, "Alas, poor gopher, I knew him Horatio."

My wits began to turn and common sense returned and I asked Bluey, "How dost, my boy? Art cold? I am cold myself." We headed down the hill towards the house, inspecting mounds of compost placed under each vine before the storm. The compost held its ground, and I took the shovel and worked it into the soil, to provide slow nourishment for the year ahead.

It is the beginning of another cycle in the vineyard and the first rain has fallen and the first steps to making the 2010 wines have been taken. Now warmed in the house, and having penned a few lines, it's time to get outside again and take the rake and grate the damp soil and sow annual grass seed as a cover crop. The rackings finished yesterday, siphoning new wine from the dregs of microscopic grape skins and sediment, tasting as I racked, the 2009 wines full of such promise. The sun is coming out and it will be warmer to work outside in the rays moving more compost and raking, scraping the dirt to prepare the soil for the seed as the new growing season begins today, with the first of nature's irrigations, and I take off my jacket as I warm up and start to sweat, faithful dog at my side, imagining Prospero releasing his magic to the vineyard.

(Kind words to our Princess: P.S. we love you. The play's your thing.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dad, About That Wine I Sent You ....

Dear Mom & Dad,
You'll find a case of wine waiting for you when you arrive in Connecticut. I truly regret not being able to join you and the Old Gang from France yet again for the annual Thanksgiving feast. Well, someone has to stay home and take care of the dog (excuse me, the Cellar Master), who as you know receives better treatment than your grand-daughter. Besides, this is not the time to take time off from work to travel East, as I fear a storm is on the horizon and it's time to buckle down and be even more productive. For the first time in my life I felt this week I was living on the edge and I'm one person's whim away from becoming an unemployment statistic and then a foreclosure statistic and there I go but for the Grace of God. I do not like this feeling of vulnerability although I know that we could bounce back. We could just move to Oklahoma or Texas or to some shack in California and squat some land and plant a new vineyard and a new life. I suppose there were times you wondered how you would make things meet but being the good parents you were you found a way to provide and we never knew about your concerns. I'll spend Thanksgiving out in the vineyard shoveling the ton of compost that just arrived (just like I used to shovel tons of wood chips for you for $2/hour when I was a kid) and I'll give thanks for having a job and think about ways to gain financial independence. If I held a garage sale and sold all the wine in it at a fair market price I'd have enough cash to pay the mortgage for a year and that would feel like a pretty good cushion. Why don't you mention it to the rich retiree vinophiles from the Old Gang when you see them?
I remember attending Thanksgiving in Connecticut 9 years ago with the Old Gang and Mr. S served a case of Domaine Tempier wine from Bandol, France that he somehow carried home. I remind you that Domaine Tempier's wines are made 100% from the Mouvedre grape so please tell Mr. S that we bought a ton of Mouvedre from Paso Robles and are making a wine in the style of Domaine Tempier (which means barrel aged for 18 months) and we'll call it Lulu in honor of the matriach of that estate. We pressed the wine the other evening and Bluey licked it 5 times which means it's very good and I have to say it is the "sweetest" wine I have ever tasted. I used the hydrometer to test the sugar level which showed -2 brix which is to say it fermented to complete dryness so that sweet taste is not sugar but the amazing fruit of the vine. Since it won't be ready to drink for another 3 years I recommend that you, Mr. S and the rest of the Old Gang keep on trucking so that you may enjoy it your first Thanksgiving as Octogenarians.

About the wine I sent you....the first two bottles are 2006 Nebbiolo. The grapes came from Guadeloupe Valley, Mexico about two hours drive from here. This is the boldest, heartiest wine we have ever made and has been adored by CEOs and Bishops and is worthy of your Thanksgiving meal and we are pleased to share what's left of it with you.

The next three bottles of interest are the 2008 Petit-Petit, a 50-50% blend of Petit Verdot and Petit Sirah. This is better than the 2007 Petit-Petit, which, although delightful, we found lacked a strong finish which kept it from greatness. The 2008 improvements started in the vineyard where we begged the grower to keep the Petit-Verdot grapes on the vines a little longer giving them more sugar than last year (23 brix) and a little more strength. Then, we punched down the fermentation with my favorite golf club, the Jimmy Wood. Next, we blended back in more of the tannins. This is a new wine just bottled 10 weeks ago. It's beginning to show some bottle bouquet. Imagine this wine a year from now. I think you will enjoy it. Please share a bottle with the Old Gang with their appetizers and let them know there are only 23 cases available and we still have one more semester of the Princess' college tuition to pay.

There are two bottles of the 2007 Malbec, which we painstakingly crushed by hand and feet. This is a fun, light wine and may be enjoyed with your meals before Thanksgiving. We blended in 20% Petit Verdot to give it a bit more complexity... the Malbec grapes that year were low in sugar (21.5 brix) so think of this as a fun, delightful wine. It is a true expression of the grape and of the vineyard (there is not much oak).

The 2007 "Bluenello" is interesting and I'd like your opinion about it. Frankly speaking, we don't like this wine very much. Yet, it is an expression of the grape and of the San Diego vineyard it came from. Brunello is a clone of Italy's Sangiovese and the Brunello's from Italy are world-reknowned. I can't call ours Brunello otherwise I'll get an unpleasant visit from the Italian wine police. This wine tastes totally different from any other wine we have made and yet the techniques are the same so don't blame the winemakers. The reason I want your opinion about it it we purchased grapes from the same vineyard again this year and have 48 gallons of 2009 Bluenello. We were disappointed because we were told the grapes were ripe but after harvesting we found the brix to be only 22 (this equates to about 11% alcohol, hardly a bold, expressive wine). As it turned out, we have so many other wines with too high pH's this year so we can blend other wines with this one. I'm thinking of making a Super Tuscan (by blending in some Cabernet Sauvignon) or a Super Italian by blending in Montepuchiano, Nebbiolo and Aglianico (yes, we really did make a lot of wine this year). So let me know what you think and how it could be improved.

Last and least, I threw in a bottle of 2007 Merlot. Alas, this is also a wine we don't like. Not at all. But when you visited us last year and tasted it from the barrel, you said you liked it. (Maybe that was after the 2nd margarita?) Well, if you still like it there are about 50 bottles left and Christmas is coming.

All of the 2009 wines are coming along fine (except for one with strong hints of vegetative green pepper) and they taste fantastic so far and we feel like Spring Training is over and it's Opening Day in the baseball season when there's so much promise. When do you think you and mom will be able to come by for a barrel tasting?

Bluey, Queen & Craig
(P.S. The pictures top to bottom show: 2008 Petit-Verdot grapes hanging on the vine; crushing the 2008 Petit-Verdot; punching down the cap of the 2008 wines with my favorite golf club; hand-crushing the 2007 Malbec.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mouvedre and the Stuck Fermentation

The final puko-puko bubbling of the last fermentations is near and the window of opportunity for dealing with 15-gallons of semi-sweet "stuck" Zinfandel wine is open. Stuck wine is what you get when fermentation stops prematurely and there is residual sugar. It tastes wonderful and I dream of sipping a "Late Harvest Zinfandel" to warm myself on a cool winter night. But bottling a wine with sugar in it is an improvised explosive device. It's just a matter of time before it blows up with unforeseen consequences. Lum told us about his winemaking friend who gave his fiance in New York City a case of wine which she put under the Christmas Tree. The residual sugars in the bottle, disguised as a legion of Trojans inside the horse, blasted through the cork and rampaged through the apartment dying the white carpet burgundy. If she was that upset by this maybe it was a good thing they didn't marry. I had just given Terri a bottle of one week old Tempranillo (still fermenting in the bottle), the first fruits of our first harvest for her to serve her guests at a dinner party, which she forgot to serve and stored in her pantry. After Lum told his story I sent her an e-mail warning, "Terri, you better open that wine outside. It's going to erupt like a shaken can of Coke." She reported that the wine had exploded and redecorated her pantry. Since I'm not engaged to Terri she couldn't break off the marriage but she does have the powers to have me excommunicated from The Church and my only hope is that she knows the word forgiveness. She is the wife of our beloved patron The Bishop. In summary: sugar in table wine is not a good thing and I've got a batch of Zinfandel with 2% sugar. In winemaking terms, we say it's 2 brix.

How is it that a 6th year, semi-experienced winemaker and the author of this authoritative tome on winemaking ended up with his first stuck fermentation? The explanation is simple: I'm married. In late August we were blasted by a heat wave with temperatures over 100 degrees and the sugars shot up in the grapes and we rushed to harvest them as quickly as possible and ended up with Zinfandel at 27.5 brix which after cold soaking for a day in those tasty Zinfandel raisins had risen above 28.5 brix (which has the potential to make a wine about 16% alcohol). That would sure make a Big Red Wine but I also know that as the alcohol increases in a fermentation the yeast don't like that so much and can conk out leaving you with a stuck fermentation and trouble. So I suggested to our Queen that we add a little water to the grape juice to lower the sugar and therefore lower the alcohol so that the wine would be pleasant to drink and wouldn't stick but she protested that she wanted to drink the wine the way it comes out naturally without making any adjustments and so in the middle of the night while Royalty slept I went into the garage and added water to one batch of the grape juice but not to the other and for the record the batch I added water to didn't stick and came out great and the batch without the water (by decree of The Queen) stuck at 5 brix.

As I hadn't yet learned that there are "killer yeasts" that will ferment up to 18% alcohol, I went through the process of hydrating my "regular" yeast and adding some pure grape juice to it to get it going and half a day later added these really happy yeasties to the stuck fermentation and we got it going again and the brix dropped from 5 brix to 2 brix and then stuck again. So what I decided to do (instead of adding Everclear 190 proof alcohol to make a light --less sugar--Port-style wine), was to add the stuck wine to an ongoing, vigorous, fermentation.

(Reflection: If yeast are weakened by alcohol and if spermatozoa are yeast with tails what happens to the manpower of men when they consume alcohol?)

It's near the end of the crush season and we've only got two fermentations left and I made the executive decision this evening to add 5 gallons of the stuck Zinfandel to an active fermentation of Mouvedre (see photo above) and I'm fixing to add the remaining 10 gallons of stuck Zin to a fermentation of Cabernet Franc later this week.

About that Mouvedre... Ten years ago we went to France for my 40th Birthday (this was before The Crash of 2008 when we could borrow from our home equity and vacation in Paris and travel around the world and send our kids to private school and invest in the stock market and Pass Go and do it all again) and stayed in the town of Bandol which is about one hour from Marseilles. The cottage were we sojourned is surrounded by acres and acres of grape vines and each day I got up at sunrise to jog through the vineyards. We drank the local wines everyday and our favorite was Domaine Tempier and we all brought back cases of the wine with us. I realized that the South of France is much like the South of California and we could also grow figs and lavender and oleander (although now I don't like oleander so much because it's so poisonous) and play petanq and realized France is far away and all you ever really need in life you can find in your own backyard and like Dorthy from the Wizard of Oz (one of my favorite movies) I realized there's no place like home and today, even in this economy, we live like we're on vacation in the South of France each weekend even though there's no money because wine is cheap, lavender is cheap, figs are cheap, olives are cheap and friends are priceless.

When I visited Dad last month he gave me a book about Domaine Tempier and Madame Lulu the matriarch and I absorbed the recipes and the winemaking and what struck me most was that their wines are made from 100% Mouvedre grapes and I became determined to source some and Paso Robles Bill was able to provide us with a half ton. These Paso Robles (my favorite wine region in the U.S.) grapes arrived Saturday 10 days ago and we cold soaked them for over 4 days and have been fermenting for almost 7 days and they are tasting wonderful and we have great expectations. And, like Domaine Tempier, I plan to age them 18 months in an oak barrel (I hope they will not mind French oak) and I hope they do not mind that 7% of the wine will be Zin (because we had to do something with that Zin) and if it comes out good we'll call it "Lulu" in honor of Madame and after the Princess graduates from college and after we win the next shoot out winetasting competition we'll go to France and bring some wine to Domain Tempier and we'll exchange winemaking stories and toast to the new century in Franco - Americano cooperation, goodwill and the good, simple life.