Saturday, December 10, 2011

Don't Cry Over Spilled Wine

Streaming wine.
We have an old saying: "When racking wine you're going to spill." This has been true since 2004, so it was something of a miracle last weekend when we racked 3+ barrels of wine and didn't spill a drop.  No accidents. No spousal fights. The other morning as I took Bluey out for a run I noticed an inky color meandering beneath the garage door. I went back into the house, into the garage (which has been converted into a winery) to find that my worse nightmare was about to unfold: A container of wine leaning like a tower of Pisa about to tip over. (It had been placed on a wheeled stand not strong enough to support it -- of course, The Queen had warned me: "What are you thinking?" she said, about putting that container on that wheeled dolly? "It's not going to work.") As it is, only a gallon or so escaped, and I don't like that wine that much anyhow, a Petite-Sirah with the aroma of rotten eggs (more about that in another post). So here it is folks: With Winemaker's Journal, you get the good, the bad and the ugly. There's no reason to cry over spilled wine. The dog will lick it up.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Allure of Netting & Disrobing Vines

The mind wanders down a path of creativity while doing repetitive manual labor and ponders amusing thoughts to pass the time. These green nylon nets become silky black lace and we're no longer pulling nets over vines but rather helping our darling into her stockings. We're not tying the nets to keep out birds but helping our darling fasten her dress behind her neck. As the climax of harvest arrives we're not untying vines but unhooking her brassiere. The next move is helping her step out out of her black lace revealing her luscious, sweet fruit. The rest is up to your imagination.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is OwlGore Asleep On The Job?

There's a fresh gopher hole in the vineyard right underneath the home of OwlGore. What's that gopher thinking? And what the hell has OwlGore been doing? Is he asleep on the job? Did a GOP candidate just win a Congressional seat in a heavily Democratic New York district? WTF? Wait, the gopher trap Bluey and I set this morning is empty, and we're known for catching them with one shot, like the DeerHunter. And what's that small mound of fresh slimeytar rodent gunk under the owl's nest? Could that be the gopher? Tomorrow will tell.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Superpower Palate For Grapes

I've never had the experience of tasting "chocolate" in wine, which is to say the society of grands chevaliers du vin from Burgundy are not aggressively recruiting me to join their group, quel domage. However, my superpower palate for tasting grapes may qualify me for the next edition of X-Men (in which I prevent the "terrioristas" from injecting salt into Napa Valley's water table and save the grapes). Our beloved instructor and mentor Lum Eisenman once told us in class that with about 20 or so years of experience we would be able to walk among rows of vines and determine by tasting individual grapes if the vineyard was ready for harvest or not. (Been there, done that, most notably during a pick three years ago when I was sampling Brunello berries from the vine and was astonished that the brix were low, which was confirmed once we took measurements back in the lab). Two years ago when we purchased grapes from Val de Guadeloupe, Mexico, when I munched on some grapes my first reaction was, "These are salty."  Our mentor Pete Anderson remarked, "Some people are able to taste the brine, others aren't.  You've got that sense". Not only could I taste the salt in the grapes, I can taste it in finished wine from those grapes (even when professional winemakers using those same grapes claim they were able to cold soak the salt out of them -- not so, in my opinion).

Under the full harvest moon this evening Bluey and I picked a random sample of 50 Aglianico grapes, squeezed them in a baggie and poured the juice into a shot glass and sipped. Not quite ready for picking, I guessed, and the refractometer confirmed that with a reading of 23 brix (a measure of sugar).  We're shooting for higher. But I could feel the acid on the tongue and tickling my glands and thought that it's just a little high, but still a nice acid and will make for a good puckery wine.

My benchmark for acid in wine is the Cabernet produced by Chateau Montelena.  Mind you I don't buy this wine, but I enjoy winning it in bets from Celestial Sandra and Coyote Karen, and this wine is the best I've had in recent memory which, despite being 10+ years in age is still has robust fruit, and, to borrow a phrase from wine connoisseur Bill Clinton, "It's the acid, stupid!"

I went into the winery and sampled the Tempranillo now in its third day of cold soak. The fruit is delicious, but it lacked the puckeriness of that Aglianico juice I had tasted a few minutes before.  The Tempranillo checked in at 25+ brix with a high pH just below 4 and an acid level below .45 .  I was considering blending some high acid wine that we held back from the year before, but at the end of the day decided to do a modest addition of tartaric acid to raise the acidity to approximately .60  .  I added the acid, stirred, then tasted. You didn't need to be an X-Men to notice the difference, and improvement, immediately.

Taste varies widely from person to person, and there are no objective standards. What I like, you may not, and vice versa. What has been your experience tasting grapes (or wine) and what are you able to detect?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Vintner's Prayer

Twenty-five people joined us for yesterday's picking which yielded over 1,000 lbs. of Tempranillo and 700 lbs. of Petite Sirah grapes. One way to honor those who perished on 9/11 (and the members of our armed forces along with the innocent who have been slain in the War On Terror) is to celebrate life while we have it and what better way to do that than with the harvest, at the time of the harvest moon, and to sip wines made from those same vines in earlier years. Our vines are in their 5th leaf and at their planting Father Bill Lieber from Grace Episcopal Church  San Marcos, CA prepared a "Liturgy of the Vine" to bless the infant vineyard.  It has been our custom during each harvest (this being our third) to read from that liturgy and give thanks and praise for all that is good in life.

"Holy God - Beloved Trinity -  let me always be rooted in you so that I may live in you and you in me. Bless me so that your grace may flow through me, allowing me to bear your fruit to a hungry and helpless world. As I wander, prune me of all that inhibits your growth in me. Let me do nothing apart from you so that your joy may be complete in me. Amen."

The Vineyard Blessing

"Dear Lord, You are the One who blesses us with abundant life. You are the One who brings the seasons by which seed is planted, matures and is harvested.  So we pray for your blessing upon this vineyard, that the plants may be vigorous and healthy. We pray for your blessing upon the vineyard owners and workers as they tend the vineyard. May they be diligent as they tend the plants and appreciative of your blessing at the time of harvest. We ask your blessing on all who share in the gift of the fruit of the vine. Let us enjoy the celebration of life as you set an example in John 2:1-11 when Jesus was invited to a wedding feast in Cana where he performed His first miracle. For you are the one who brings abundant life as our redeemer and savior. May the blessing of God, Gather, Son and Holy Spirit be given you and to these fields now and forever. Amen."

Monday, September 5, 2011

What's On The Other Side of Bottling Black Hole?

Bottling is sitting down to write a college term paper. Bottling is driving from North Carolina to Manhattan in one stretch. Bottling is doing your tax returns in a day. Bottling is running a marathon. No matter what time you start, it's going to take all day; it's going to be painful; you'll be lucky if you finish before midnight. If bottling is entering a black hole, then what's on the other side?

If there is one piece of advice to share about bottling, follow the example of Tom Sawyer white washing the fence. Bottling is fun. Bottling is celebrating the new wine. Bottling is tasting what you're packaging. Bottling is fellowship and meant to be shared with good friends, not a penitence for sins known and unknown, not a purgatory to be suffered in solitude.  As I ran around, methodically performing all of the bottling functions (filler, quality inspector, corker, case stacker, labeler and taster), I put out a distress call to Merlot Mike disguised as an invitation to taste the new wine with free food (I made a Tangier's chicken using fresh Myers Lemons and olives from our property which wasn't half bad). And Merlot Mike, like himself, recovered from yesterday's massive harvest, ascended the winery with friends and family and took up the corker and was faster than old John Henry working that manual machine like lightening and corking those bottles. Owen watched and talked with the dog. Mark stacked the cases and Nancy tasted the wines and food. Light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Their response to my 911 plea rescued me and fulfilled their pledge to the winemaker's creed: thou shalt not rest when they winemaking neighbor is still laboring over the bottles, or the crush pad, or the vines, especially on Labor Day.
Rainbow landing in Valley Center, CA before
Palomar Mountain. View from Blue-Merle Vineyard.

We sent them forth to retire for the evening and went back inside the winery to finish bottling the bottom of the barrel when the phone rang and it was Merlot Mike telling me to step outside where, behold, I found out what's on the other side of the bottling black hole: a double rainbow that arched from the vineyard in Valley Center where we pick the Petite Sirah to the sky above our heads landing just behind Merlot Mike's estate.

What's on the other side of your black hole?

What Makes A Great Picking Party?

Champagne toast & receiving
A swarm of locusts.
Right on schedule, Merlot Mike held the great Merlot festival on the Sunday before Labor Day, no small feat considering weather variations from year to year. This is the 7th year we've attended the harvest at Escondido Sunrise Vineyard and it's quite an event. About 80 people were on hand ranging in age from 8 months to 80 years, from as far away as Oklahoma and Australia who picked over 10,000 lbs in 3 hours. There were winemakers with their fans (including San Diego's Blue Door Winery which makes their best-selling $35 wine from this Merlot) and the Blue Thong Society, a civic organization. And of course, the cast of characters from Blue-Merle Country made an appearance to sign autographs and pick including Joe The Wino (fresh from meetings with Syrah Palin), Coyote Karen (a vineyardista dressed to the nines & freshly perfumed), Celestial Sandra chaperoning the USC cheer girls, Jim and the Vietnam-era mule 4-wheel drive vehicle, and the arch villain Fidel (that rascal).

As a kid, I used to hear stories from college students who went to France to pick grapes at the harvest. Now, we just walk to the neighbors (a bit more convenient than the trip to Europe) and what could be more fun? If you've never participated in a grape harvest, I suggest you find one and go. It's good entertainment for the whole family.

What makes for a good harvest party? Here's what I've learned from Merlot Mike over the years, with a couple of other ideas thrown in.  What recommendations do you have for us to make it better?

Check List
-- Open nets the night before (so the guests can right to work harvesting grapes)
-- Prepare buckets and clippers for the guests
Relaxing after harvest, before
the crush.
-- Blessing of the vines
-- Champagne toast (ask Jim bring his sword to make a grand show) and a good warm up speech
-- Lots of bottled water
-- Shady area to rest
-- Truckloads of food (Merlot Mike's better half Nancy makes this brisket to die for each ear). Ask the guests to bring a side dish if they are able. Need lots of food to soak up that wine.
-- Big, healthy males with strong backs
-- Nubile maidens to do some ceremonial stomping
Merlot Mike (R) with
Stone Beer in hand
with Blue Door
-- A keg of Stone Brewery Arrogant Bastard Ale (for enjoying after the picking)
-- Quality control team to pick out any large stems or leaves that make it through the crusher
-- A scale (to weigh the harvest as it comes in and the must)
-- A hose down team (to hose buckets and containers as needed)
-- A Gator, Polaris or another vehicle to haul grapes if long distances must be covered
--Samples of wine made from the vineyard.

Instructions for New Pickers
-- #1 Don't Cut Your Finger! (Merlot Mike always invites Veterinarian Don to be on hand just in case. The problem, according to Mike, is the guy who last got his finger sewed on by Don hasn't stopped barking.)
-- Raisins are good. Throw them in.
-- Leaves are bad. Keep them out of the buckets.
--If a bunch falls on the ground, pick it up, dust it off and throw it into the bin.
--A 5-gallon pail can weigh 15 lbs. or more when full. Don't strain yourself.
--Do taste the grapes.
--If your dog eats grapes, keep him at home (grapes can kill a dog).
--Stay hydrated (it takes good beer to make good wine), wear sun glasses and a hat and enjoy yourself!

What do you think makes for a great picking party?

The Sign.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Something Is Rotten In The State of Blue-Merle: Can You Guess What It Is?

What's in that bag?
This is a story about a foul smell at our doorstep and it's a hoot. I know about off odors in the winery (I've made my fair share of bad batches) and the vineyard (my nose detects the occasional bird rotting away in a net half devoured by Yellow Jackets or the rabbit that tries to hop through the squirrel trap, stupid rabbit). A similar scent greets me each morning as I open the front door of the house. What's that smell?! I check the netting in the nearby rows of vines. Nothing. I inspect the mouse traps outside the garage. Nothing. I search for nearby carcasses. Nothing. What is that smell? I glance at rotting greens inside a plastic bag destined for the compost pile and think, aha, this is it. Alas, not. And then something in the Starbucks bag next to the trash catches my eye (shown in the picture above). I notice the familiar scent coming from the trash can, open the lid to inspect and am overwhelmed by the stench and realize (with amazement) what the Queen has been collecting and putting into the trash by our front door. Can you guess what it is? I'll give you another hint: Owl Gore.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Merlot Mike's 2nd Vineyard Update

(Editor's Note: Here they go again. Our neighbors Merlot Mike and Nancy ranting and raving about the grape. We bring you their vineyard report # 2. For the record, our Tempranillo grapes are at 21 brix, TA = .68 and pH = 3.5  We have cut the water to the Tempranillo in an attempt to quickly raise the sugar levels with a possible harvest date Labor Day Weekend. Click here to read Merlot Mike's 1st vineyard update if you missed it.)

Escondido Sunrise Vineyard
The Grape Vine August 25, 2011

2009 Harvest at Merlot Mike's
Hello Grape Enthusiasts, Winemakers, and Mystified Recipients,

Things are running along quickly.  The sugar levels are rising.  The grapes are moving towards achieving “ripeness”.  The question is always “When will they be ready to harvest?”

Mother Nature is in complete control.  The sugar level a few days ago was 22.3 brix. That’s good. Pretty much right on point with the readings for past years. If things are as they were previously, we will have harvest on the Sunday over Labor Day weekend.  But, Mother Nature doesn’t give us as much notice as we would prefer.

So, we will watch, measure and send out updates more and more frequently as the date gets closer.

We love harvest.  It is always so much fun to see our friends picking, plucking, squeezing and enjoy a selection of our wines.  This year will be no different.

More soon.
Michael & Nancy

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Merlot Mike Vineyard Report

(Editor's Note: He's back: Merlot Mike, with the first preharvest update, written by the poet Merlot Mike himself.)

Escondido Sunrise Vineyard
The Grape Vine, August 16, 2011

Hello Grape Enthusiasts, Winemakers, and Mystified Recipients,

Last winter was kind to our vineyard.  Frequent rains allowed us to get into late spring before starting irrigation.  On about March 17th, we saw our first of bud break.  “Bud break” is when the vines, pruned and looking for all the world like so many wooden French fries sitting atop of the larger wood of the vine’s cordon (the cross arms of the vine), finally start to burst forth with leaves emitting from the swollen and pregnant appearing buds left on the upright spurs.

With all of the rain, once bud break started our vineyard exploded with growth.  Within days, it transformed itself from a field of bare wooden pole like objects to a vibrant, beautiful vineyard.  And, shortly thereafter, tiny clusters of flowers appeared.

The flowers bloom into very tiny bouquets.  If you listen when the wind isn’t blowing and the birds aren’t calling to one another, you can almost hear the pollination as the flowers form the base of what will shortly become a miniature cluster of grapes.

Over the early summer months, the grapes grow into larger green clusters … green grapes, not red.  All grapes start out green.  And on about July 27th, yet another transformation took place.  Veraison.  This is the metamorphosis that as the clusters of green grapes change, one grape at a time, from green to red.  And as red overtakes the green, the thousands of clusters of  grapes that were before camouflaged among the millions of green leaves suddenly become evident, swinging swollen from their vines, swelling with the promise of the wine yet to come.
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Veraison is almost complete as I write you.  The birds, once oblivious to the vines with their green and bitter tiny grapes, begin to show a new enthusiastic interest.  They surround the vineyard, sitting on power lines greedily observing the red grapes as they ripen.  And the race begins. (Editor's Note: The birds have migrated from our property to his. After he nets, a flock of them will return to us, I'm sure.)

“The race” refers to our preparing the vineyard for netting and then rushing to get the nets in place before the birds gorge themselves, sending out invitations to their family and friends to fly forthwith to our vineyard for the mother of all feasts.

Preparing the vines for netting refers to our walking up and down each row of vines, trimming the vines that extend above the top wires of our trellis.  The rows of vines extend for 2.5 miles  …  trimming the rows requires attention to each side, a 5 mile exercise of holding your arms above your head, grasping vine after vine and snipping the portions off that would foul the nets.  Our early mornings and late afternoons have been filled with side-step, snip, snip, snip, drop vines into trashcan, side-step, snip, snip, snip, oh my arms are breaking, drop vines into trashcan.  Fortunately, our evenings are filled with a collection of red wines that have been expanding beneath our home, making all of this worthwhile.

Later this week, the nets will start to cover the rows of vines.  Three men, all netting applied by hand alone, spending two and a half days, covering a mile of vines each day, holding their hands over their heads and doing the same side-step as they drape the nets over the vines and tie the nets together beneath the vines.

Above it all, the growing flocks of birds gathering on the power lines are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film  …  they watch, hungrily, occasionally flying into the vineyard and snatching a grape ahead of the fellows moving slowly along, draping nets over the vines.  Tiny birds, large crows, condors, bald eagles, and humming birds … sitting in rows on the lines, watching the vineyard and the feast they hope will come.

Last evening, we took our first reading of the sugar level from a sample of grapes.  Nancy walked through the vineyard, selecting about 40 grapes from vines scattered through the lower section of vines.  We adjusted and calibrated our refractometer, a device resembling a small telescope that provides an instant analysis of the percentage of sugar in a sample of grape juice.  We crushed all of the grapes together and placed a few drops of juice on the lens of our instrument, looking expectantly at the reading and finding that our sample was 19.6% sugar in solution in the juice.

19.6% means a lot to us.  First of all, we keep records of the readings at different points in time over the years.  Looking back quickly over the past seven years, we found that we were right on track with the readings in prior years.  We had felt that the grapes were one to two weeks behind earlier years but this first reading tended to contradict our observations … the grapes are moving quickly towards ripeness. 

For years, we have had our major harvest over Labor Day weekend.  For some reason, our vineyard tends to be among the very first in our county to mature.  Our harvest begins a 10 to 12 week period of frantic harvesting, crushing, destemming, fermentation and pressing as the winemaking season moves from standing by to full swing production.

As the grapes ripen, we will send out more updates, culminating in a call for harvesters.  Each year, a collection of old and new friends descend on the vineyard and help with the harvest.  This is the high point of our year as farmers and starts us off on our season of winemaking.  It’s good to wear many hats.  It’s good to drink wine.  It’s good to have friends.  Thanks to all of you who have come to help in the past.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Vineyard Scents For Men Only

Kelly and Jones is a scentologist working in New York City who brings wine fragrances to the bottle for women. We have often noted that the Petit Verdot wine we produce from our friend's vineyard in Bonsall, CA is so fragrant that some women have said they are tempted to splash it on their neck rather than rinse their pallet. Mademoiselle Kelly has distilled the essence of such aromas into perfumes, colognes and wearable fragrances that are welcomed by winemakers in the tasting room. I have an idea for her, inspired by the vineyard. Look what happens when I add water to the eau de yellow jacket scent -- the males appear instantly. I suspect Mademoiselle Kelly is working on such a fragrance for men. One splash and the women swarm. My recommendation for Kelly & Jones stock: STRONG BUY.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hidden Ninja In The Vineyard

Lord Vordemort is alive and well and living in Blue-Merle Country in the guise of a rattlesnake, Bluey's mortal enemy. The Queen, my mortal enemy and the descendent of samurai, has a plan. As I trim and hedge the vines in Snake Alley, she takes the green cuttings and places them over Bluey's body and head. "He likes it," she says, "It gives him shade." She starts singing a song that goes "Hagakure Senpo" which means "Ninja Under The Leaves." Vineyard Dog has become Ninja Dog.

 What fun things do you like to play with your dog in the vineyard?
Aussie-Ninja Hidden
 Underthe Leaves

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Crimes & Misdemeanors In The Vineyard

Cane cut too short.
A log of recent crimes & misdemeanors committed in the vineyard:

* Severely cutting some canes with fruit to one or two leaves before netting. (How will that fruit ripen?)
* Vacuuming vineyard and raking it spotless clean while purple clusters remain unprotected. (Is it more important having a pretty vineyard or saving the grapes? Priorities, please!)
* Leaving hard green clusters on the vine. (They will not ripen in time and might lower overall quality of the wine.)
* Leaving pulled green grapes on the ground where they will dry and the dog will eat them, possibly making him ill. (Queen to husband: "Would you mind picking up those grapes and your cuttings!" She doesn't know how to swear in English, so she finishes that kind of request with an "aho" (which means stupid or fool in Japanese).
* Under watering three rows of Aglianico vines. (Fruit has withered on the vine or did not form at all.)
* Mowing down a row of Grenache vines, cutting them to 1/2 the length they were meant to be. (You think all vines need to be cut before a net goes over them, well they don't.)
* Bending canes to shorten them, snapping them or damaging them.
Paying someone to cut the canes too short, or not at all, and folding long canes over each other without pulling off the 2nd growth fruit.

Canes cut short, with long canes
folded over and compacted.
* Not cutting cane and folding long canes on top of each other before netting (how will sunlight reach the fruit and the leaves)?
* Not pulling the 2nd growth fruit off of the end of the vines, because you think the birds need food to eat (all that energy is going into unnecessary grapes, instead of the grapes we will use to make wine).
* Raking up all the leaves for the recycle garbage man and not leaving them to compost in the vineyard. ("Where will the nutrition come from?" I ask. "Just buy chemical fertilizer," she replies.  I want to say aho.)
* Leaving gaping holes in the netting for the birds to enter when you say no birds will get in there. (Are you still trying to feed the birds?) Paying someone to put on nets and leave gaping holes.
* Writing this blog when I should be outside netting.

* Bird caught in net.

* Saving birds caught in net.
* Queen putting nets on the vine herself.
* Raking up the pulled clusters.
* Queen cutting the vines in snake alley by herself to prepare them for netting.
* Owl Gore (for catching a gopher, mouse, rat or some rodent every day)
* Getting most of the nets on in time and saving most of the crop from the birds.
* Saving Fidel's life (by not killing him).
* Bringing cold beer to the vineyard.

Does any of this take place on your property? I hate to say it, but, alas, I think this post will be continued.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Investment That Grows in Volatile Times

Canary Island Palm
Wasn't it beginning to feel a bit like 2008?  My friends were wondering if they should cash out their stock portfolios and put the money in a mattress, buy gold or head for the hills. In another deja-vu scene, Joe The Wino laid-off 15% of his workforce--just as he did in 2008--and the Dow started its descent the very next day. (Is he a genius businessman or what?) I was reminded our our "Jack and the Beanstalk" tale of 2008 when the Queen spent the last of our life savings on 46 palm trees. I'm pleased to report that this is one investment that has grown during the last three years. Here's an excerpt from the Oct. 2008 post, as timeless now as it was then.

"....We live in interesting times and we’re one whoops away from the Great Depression of 2008. Stocks have dropped 20% and college tuition has gone up to $50,000/year and there’s no money in my bank account and the princess calls from New York City saying there’s no money in her bank account, and Bluey the dog growls "hungry" and there’s no food in his bag and there’s no money to buy any today. It’s all the fault of our greedy mortgage broker who put us into a house we couldn’t afford so we could pursue the cock-eyed dream of a vineyard. Because of his greed the world economy is about to collapse. But, there’s hope (besides the fact that we can live off the land, have our guns to hunt game of rabbit, squirrels and gophers and there’s a church at the bottom of the mountain where we can cling to religion): The Queen saves money like a smart squirrel hoarding acorns. She has $1,677 in her savings account and she has taken that, plus my last $100 and assembled $1,777.77 which was the bill for 46 Canary Island Palm trees, given to our daughter on the joyous occasion of her 20th birthday. Does this sound like "Jack and the Beanstalk"? This is either extreme foolishness or genius.

"I’d go to Las Vegas," said the salesperson at the nursery who unloaded the palms for quick cash. "Buy a lottery ticket. It’s not every day that a receipt has five 7’s in a row." Perhaps a roll of the dice would have been a wiser investment?

The 46 palm trees are delivered on Monday and at $10,000 each (future value) we now have an additional $460,000 in assets (future value) less:
The cost of hauling them to designated points on the property
The cost of digging holes and planting
The cost of chiropractic care (for my back)
The cost of watering
The cost of making boxes (and of dirt) for those we don’t plant
And, 50 years from now, when our "bonds" have reached their mature "face value" of $10,000 each, the cost of building roads and renting a crane to pull these puppies out of the ground (this should be slightly less than drilling for oil in the Arctic wilderness)
Less the cost of sales (in case the Princess is unable to sell them direct to consumers and goes through a wholesale nursery)

After pulling a near all-nighter on Friday night bottling, I am pressed to plant palm trees on Saturday. And Sunday. I go to sleep with my clothes on. I plot on getting even: "These palm trees are my favorite palm trees and my dream," I inform the Queen and, "They’re half mine." I explain how I’ve earned 50% sweat equity from planting them and suffering a thousand piercings from the needles. Given the fact that stocks are likely to go lower next week – at least our stocks --the palm trees, now worth more than our house, are looking like a pretty good investment, guaranteed to grow. Just add water."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Vineyard Cross-Training

Thursday morning is trash day so Bluey and I enter the vineyard as the sun rises and pick up two bundles of roped sticks then march down the hill to the bottom of the driveway with me pumping sticks along the way to build the biceps and he chewing sticks showing that a smart Aussie can chew sticks and trot at the same time (while I'm wondering if he's so smart then why doesn't he get out of the way of the newspaperdeliveryman's car as he drives up the road). We place the bundles down then jog along the road 100 yards or so until the spot where the hill drops off then jog back to the driveway up into the vineyard until we come to the next pile of sticks. Repeat. Then repeat, until all stick bundles have been cleared. Cross training.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Netting of the Vines

The game of cat & mouse (better described as the Queen vs. The Birds), began yesterday. Today, the netting of the vines unfolds as the Queen hacks at shoots giving them a "military" haircut. "Take that, buchink! And that!" she shouts in Japanese as she clips and snips. "Basari!" It's no use for me suggesting diplomatically that perhaps, sweetheart, this shoot has been left too short without enough foliage to ripen the grapes, so the best I can do is inhale, relax, then pick up her cuttings (normally her job) and assist her pull the net over the vines (when you're just 5' tall this is a challenging task), then head to the top of the hill to fetch her a fresh lime from the tree and squeeze it into a Corona. ("Who wants to drink wine anymore?" she says. "Aren't you tired of wine?" she says, sipping on the cool one. "I now understand why the workers want to drink beer in the vineyard in the morning.") Meantime, I'm scheming. Perhaps if I hedge the vines before her, she won't cut them any shorter, I wonder, and decide to try that at dawn tomorrow before she gets up. Is this vineyardistos against the birds, or spouse vs. spouse?

Three rows are finished today and we've protected the most threatened bunches. (But wait, did you tie the bottoms of the nets? Where are the ties? Where are the clothespins?) If we continue with three or so rows per day (with more on weekends) we should stay ahead of the birds and enjoy most of the fruits of the harvest. Famous last words.

A New Job For The Aussie: Guard The Food

I've been told the Australian Shepherd needs a job to keep him busy and it seems ours has been to keep a watchful eye on me, his "lost sheep." When I carried a 37 lbs. bag of food from the car to the house I asked him to "watch it" which kept him occupied a few minutes. As we prepare to retire for the evening he seems anxious to enter the garage where I've set the the bag of food on a table. We step into the garage and he checks the food and all is in order and laps a bowl of water while I wait. When he's done I open the door to enter the house but, out of character, he doesn't follow. "Let him stay there," says the Queen, "He wants to keep an eye on his food." After 9 years, a new job. His other chores over the years have included: gopher check, nezumi check, bird check (to inspect the nets for trapped birds), get the paper (well, he did that once then graduated), take out the trash (which he supervises), owl check (seeing if Owl Gore has left us any presents), throw the dead mouse over the backyard fence (one of his favorites), chew the cork and last but not least, wine tasting (to give us his 1 - 5 lick rating). The next morning, he's in the garage, and with the screen door there, he's able to keep one eye on me rustling around making triple espresso and one eye on his precious.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Game of Cat & Mouse With Birds Begins

Petit Sirah, a clone developed by Dr. Durif,
ripen early attracting the attention of birds.
The Durif grapes, a clone of Petit Sirah,
are smaller than their cousins above
(as are the leaves), and almost ripe.
As the Durif vines were the first to break bud it's not surprising they are the first to produce ripe grapes, yes even in July, and a game of cat & mouse with the birds has begun. Or, is it better described as a chess match? Birds move to Row 5 Vine #1 and take grapes. (This is not a frontal offensive, but rather a probe and they have found sweet sugar.) Vintner has Queen move nets from the top of the hill to end of Row 5: "Check."

Click here to see what happens next and to learn about the netting of the vines.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Note To Vineyardisto: Next Year Trim the Vines Before the Jungle

One vineyard manager says not to hedge your vines because it promotes lateral growth while other vineyardistos hedge their vines. Then there's Pete Anderson whose answer to most vineyard questions is, "It depends" and I'm appreciating the wisdom of his phrase as I gain more experience each year. I let the vines grow nicely this year and given ample winter rains withheld water (not only to conserve our precious wet resource but to slow the vines) and thinned lateral shoots from the fruiting zone.  As summer arrived and temperatures rose I figured the longer shoots facing sunset would protect grapes from blistering afternoon sunshine so I let them grow.  In fact, they offered too much protection as the vines grew long and thick they blocked not only the sun but flowing air and despite the best efforts of spraying every three weeks, and given the fact that neither neighbors Merlot Mike nor Coyote Karen on the very same spraying regimen have not one spot of mildew on their grapes, we have incubated mildew galore in the jungle areas. Armed with clippers in the pocket and hedgers in hand that put less repetitive stress on these aging joints, I snip, I trim, I cut, I hack and the Queen says the vineyard looks beautiful and I don't disagree and the purpling grapes have been opened up to airflow and sunshine and I make a note to not let the vines grow out of control next year as the Queen starts singing a song about how I should pick up the cuttings.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Vineyard Triage

Hedged Vines
Can good wine be made from hedged vines that have 6 only leaves per cluster in midsummer? Can a cocktail of Rubigan and organic JMS Stylet Oil be applied to combat and eradicate existing mildew on grapes?

Make no mistake. This vineyard is loved. But there comes a time in a man's life when it's difficult to walk up and down that hill, when it's difficult to raise those clippers, when it's difficult to lift that 5-gallon carboy and when it's time to say enough. It was a good run and it's time to pass the baton.

Half the vineyard is a jungle providing shelter for mountain lions, bears and you can imagine the rest. But the other half was hacked, macheted and hedged into submission. "I like to look at it," says the owner about those neat, cleanly shaved rows. The Queen often says the same, "I just want a vineyard to look at," she says, singing a song about how all I ever talk about is temperature and the mildew index. There has been a good grape set (the owner did manage to prune the rows during Winter), but there are only 6 or so leaves per cluster, instead of the usual 12 - 15 after the rows were given a crew cut.
Jungle Vineyard 

Can good wine be made from hedged vines that have 6 only leaves per cluster in midsummer? Can a cocktail of Rubigan and organic JMS Stylet Oil be applied to combat and eradicate existing mildew on grapes?

Beware the Prayer of Jabez, the one that goes "Lord, please increase my land, please multiply my blessings." Be careful what you wish for. I will grab that baton. I will step up. I will take care of this vineyard for you. Behold, my land has been increased.

The clusters of Petit Verdot and Malbec are plentiful, but the vineyard has not been sprayed all year and powdery mildew, something I know much to much about, is in evidence. Since we have Rubigan left (in abundance), I'm thinking a good shot of Rubigan will offer mildew protection for up to 3 weeks, so that one spraying may get us through the season. And, Stylet Oil is said to be an eradicant for mildew.  Can they be combined for one spraying?

Very Neat Rows - Eye Pleasing
I adore this vineyard. It is scenic and the vines, now in their 13th year, are mature and have produced subtle, delicious nectar. We have spilled sweat and blood over this vineyard and Bluey, the Australian Shepherd, cellar master of our winery and our muse, overindulged on grapes from these same vines and somehow survived to tell about it. And the wine, that floral Petit Verdot that inspires scentologists to replicate its fragrance, this is worth the effort.

The vineyard was "dry farmed" last year, meaning no irrigation was used in summer, and plans are to continue the same this year.  With the winter rains we had, and based on last year's results, I don't believe irrigation will be necessary. And the owner says since they were hedged, the vines have been growing back.  On average, about 6 or so leaves per cluster now. My guess is that more leaves will emerge and that in a month there will be longer shoots and that there is a possibility these grapes will ripen and who knows, produce the vintage of a lifetime.

What do the experts say?

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Dog's Nose For Sniffing Wine

I like to think I've taught Bluey (the Australian Shepherd who runs this place) something about wine tasting while he's taught me a few things about wine & cork sniffing. I'm not exactly sure how many thousands-of-times more powerful a dog's nose is to ours, but I've learned to trust Bluey's judgement of wines by the number of times he smacks his lips, the higher number of licks correlating to better wines.

I have never tasted "chocolate" nor "espresso" in wine (although I do not deny their existence), and I'm the first to admit that my palette is unsophisticated. I know what I like and that's good enough for me. As a winemaker, my aim is to make wines that I (and Bluey) like. And if you like our wines, follow-me. I know I liked those bottles of 10-year old Chateau Montelena Cabernet I won in bets from Coyote Karen and Celestial Sandra last year, and I know that I liked that Chateau Brion I tasted in 1976 at a tender young age. Although you're unlikely to find me on a wine judging panel with Robert Whitley (though we're both from San Diego), I have developed an uncanny ability to identify "salt" in wine (this is handy when evaluating grapes from Guadeloupe Valley) and to identify "oxidized" wine, which some of you may refer to as "corked."

How is it that Mr. Unsophisticated Palette can identify bad wine faster than a Bloodhound can sniff out beef jerky at JFK customs? Because I've made my fair share of bad batches (let's just call those learning experiences) and I know what a good wine gone bad tastes like. Furthermore, when we moved inland to the country and experienced our first heatwave and I left a 5-gallon carboy in the garage of our first batch of 2004 Syrah, our neighbor, a member of the Royal Order of Wine Tasters of Burgundy, was diplomatic enough to observe, " Reminds me of medicino." I quickly became all too familiar with what high heat and insufficient sulfites can do to good wine. Another formative moment in the development of my nose was when Joe the Wino gave me a case of 1970 Chateau Lafitte for Christmas one year with the level of wine below the neck. When poured it revealed a light, brownish, color -- that wine and its aroma defines oxidized in my mind. (By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of that wine, thinking back to the year 1970 when it was harvested and what on earth I was doing way back then, but the taste was well past its prime.)

So on a visit to New York City last weekend I sat down at a counter inside Eataly, a new, fashionable Italian all-in-one cafe, delicatessen & restaurant establishment that's great fun, and noticed Italian Nebbiolos on the menu. They were pricey, but in the mood to splurge and as a maker of Nebbiolo wines for Bishops, company CEOs and women who trade hugs for wine, I ordered a glass for $25 (that's $25 a glass, not for 750 ml). The waiter brought a bottle to the table and poured a taste that resembled the off-color rust of that 1970 Chateau Lafitte wine more than the purple majesty of Blue-Merle's Nebbiolo and a taste quickly confirmed my suspicion. "That's oxidized," I told the waiter, who took the bottle to the Maitre d' for evaluation. The Eataly's service was fantastic and the staff fetched a new bottle that was better and later as I was eating the waiter came back and told me yes, the wine was corked (what about those people who had spent $75 on the wine before me?) and then the Maitre d' came by and told me he had tasted it too and yes, it was off. What did they expect? Of course the wine was no good -- I have too much experience making no good wine. When Mario the proprietor reads this and invites me back, I propose carrying a 2006 Blue-Merle Nebbiolo with grapes grown by Camillo in Guadeloupe Valley (Cetto Winery) and let's have a shoot out of the Blue-Merle vs. Eatly's $50/glass of old world Nebbiolo. If I loose, I'll pay $50 for his glass. If we win, Mario should pay us $250 for our 5-glass bottle plus Bluey's airfare.

We'll need a neutral judge for this shoot-out and I have the perfect person in mind: Mademoiselle Salud Scents, the world famous scentologist who has created a line of fragrances that combine the building blocks of wine essences: fruit, flower, citrus, pepper, et al. I wonder if the Scent Sommelier could fashion for me an aroma that evokes that elusive wine delight, chocolate?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Before Palm Sunday Feeling The Pain

In 2008 with the darkening clouds of The Great Recession gathering on the horizon the Queen took the last of her life savings and purchased 48 Canary Island Palm trees, known to academics and master gardeners as Pheonix Canarienisis, but known to my friends by the more common name "my favorite palm tree." There was something Jack-and-the-Beanstalkess about spending your last dime on a worthless plant and having that lead to the Goose that Lays Golden Eggs but those palm trees for which she paid less than $49 a piece are on their way to being worth $10,000 each (before deducting the costs of hiring workers to dig them out, renting a crane to lift them up and paying commissions to a sales broker to find them homes), which is to say they are growing and need a hair cut.

What better time to trim them than in preparation for Palm Sunday, and besides, the needles on the large fronds closest to the trunk of the palm pose a threat to Bluey who enjoys watering them with his hose each morning. "Would you please cut those palms," requests the Queen, who starts singing a song about how I do nothing in the vineyard, and don't take care of the weeds, and how it's her vineyard and her palm trees and don't you care about your dog who's always going pee-pee at the foot of the palms and is about to be impaled (if not circumcised) by them.

Armed with hand clippers, a saw and a loper and I begin the task and quickly feel that a knight's shinning armour would provide better protection to my hands than canvas gloves. A poke to the forearm here, a poke to to the hand there and the shirt I'm wearing exhibits expanding stains of blood, not wine, which I don't think too much about until I remember stories about flesh-eating bacteria entering innocuous cuts and it's probably not a bad idea to wipe the punctured flesh with an alcohol swab, which I do, and consume a shot of grappa for extra protection. A few days pass and I notice in the mirror that my whole right forearm looks like a rotting banana. A spreading infection? Since I'm heading to a reception where a few doctor friends are likely to be, I decide to ask them. My college classmate Ted Hendershot from Lexington, KY is there. "Ted, what kind of doctor are you?" I ask as I pour him a glass of Blue-Merle wine, which I gladly share in exchange for advice.

"Infectious diseases."

"Perfect, take another pour and have a look at this, will you" as I roll up my sleeve to expose my arm.

"That looks like a bruise, not an infection. Keep an eye on it."

So I keep an eye on it and each night lay my good hand upon it and recite a healing prayer. Palm Sunday is here. The bruise is gone. Praise the Lord.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In the Vineyard Women Are From Mars, Men Are From Heranus

Chemical Ali is alive and well and living in our vineyard, spraying anything green between the rows of vines with Round-Up. In the words of naturalist Barabra Kingsolver, author of Vegetable, Mineral, Miracle, "The more we use pesticides, the more pests have appeared." I subscribe to the principles of the sustainable vineyard, which suggests planting a cover crop to control erosion and naturally replenish the soil. Although the barley seeds I sowed in December's rains failed to take root, I've been nurturing nice weeds such as mustard plants and dandelions but as soon as the dreaded foxtail appears, which is a mortal threat to Bluey the Australian shepherd who swaggers through the vineyard as if he were the Lion King, the Queen dons her backpack sprayer, mask, and gloves, and mixes a few ounces of Round-Up concentrate and heads off to the weeds. "If we didn't have Bluey I wouldn't spray," she says. "The foxtail problem is all your fault. You don't pull out the weeds and you don't check Bluey's paws everyday," she complains. The foxtail is like an arrowhead that can't be pulled out once it enters the skin. It works its way through muscle piercing the lungs and has been known to enter the ear and cut through to the brain causing death. "There's a green patch over there between rows 1 and 2 and in front of row 1 without weeds, so please don't spray there, OK?" I gently suggest. "That green space is good for the vines." And I reminder her, "Please don't spray over there by the fence, because that's where we're going to plant the garden." We're planning to grow our own vegetables and eat better and live a greener, healthier life. She heads off to do her work in her vineyard and I go inside to make some calls and make some sales because there's work to be done in the daytime job to pay for all of the joys of weekend vineyarding. Ninety minutes later I take a break and go outside for a moment to soak up some sunshine and inhale some fresh air and there she is, a descendant of Chemical Ali, spraying the weedy cover crop I asked her to leave in peace. "What are you doing?" And with those are fighting words she rips of her mask and tosses the cap off her head and throws the $219 sprayer to the ground all in a huff and informs me that I never do anything and that she's the one who does everything and that I can go and pull all the weeds out myself. (Fortunately, her English is not good enough to instruct me to perform anatomically impossible and perverse acts with the sprayer nozzle although her tone of voice would indicate a desire to learn such vocabulary to unleash on her useless spouse.) "Calm down. There are no weeds in that area. I told you, I'll knock down those weeds myself with a shovel. Why are you spraying?" "There could be a snake on the ground. I want to be able to see it." "Look, the perfect camouflage for a rattler is the clay earth. It blends right in. But a snake in the short grass will stand out." Do you sometimes think women are from Mars and men are from Heranus? Are we just asses in our wives' vineyards? For the sake of Bluey, for the sake of not stepping on snakes, for the sake of maintaining matrimonial bliss, sustainability can wait. After all, the journey to a sustainable vineyard is a process.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What's Your Story?

We were contacted by a nice young man from Winemaking magazine who found "our story" interesting and asked us to send him some more details about how we got started, our trials and tribulations and where we are today for an upcoming article. Here is his response: "Craig, Thank you for the document. Unfortunately I cannot run this - there just isn't enough to run. Have you ever read winemaker? I would need 1 -2 pages of "your winemaking story.' Blue Merle, how it started, tips and tricks, trials and tribulations, and where you are now - that kind of thing. Unfortunately, I would need something by the end of the day at this point to make deadline. Thanks again, Cheers! Jeremy" Not enough content to run? Hmmm..... here's my response: Dear Jeremy, Don't give up yet.... There's 6 years of "content" on the Internet, and we can cut and paste. Just tell me what you want (or you grab what you want). On this website: You'll notice a link to our very first winemaking effort in 2004 (very well documented), then year 2 and so on. As for the vineyard, our vineyard installation experience is documented here: I have to be honest with you: there's only so many times you can write about what it's like punching down the cap and the crush and the harvest ... believe me, those are wonderful life experiences ... but we've been there, done that ... so, our writing has changed ... in the beginning, the writing was about the grapes and the wine and how amazing it was and what a gift from the Lord the grape is. We've written about that. It's always there and doesn't change. Now the writing's about people (Coyote Karen, Merlot Mike, Joe the Wino, that rascal Fidel and of course, Bluey, the Blue-Merle Aussie that runs the place) and friendship and betrayal and marriage and the economy and life framed around the vineyard, the grape and the wine. And that's a big part of "our story." Where we are now? We're a bonded winery by the TTB and a licensed winery by the California ABC. Our wines are for sale. Where are we going? The U.S. Constitution says that congress shall make no law interfering with free trade among the States. However, the grape is held hostage. There are Australian Shepherds in Oklahoma who want to buy our wine, direct from Bluey at the winery. We are not allowed to ship to them. That is the next frontier. And finally, at the beginning of the recession, the Queen spent the last of our savings account purchasing 47 Canary Island Phoenix Canaries palm trees in 15 gallon plants. Well, the drought in California was officially declared over yesterday, the economy is growing and the palm trees are getting bigger. Maybe it was a good investment.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Let's Get Down To Business

The economics look like this:

Some $50,000 invested in the vineyard.
Some $10,000 invested in winemaking equipment & barrels.
A thousand here and a thousand there and finally this has added up to real money.

The weather looks like this:
Nice and cool with bottles aging gracefully in their place.
Summer is a few months away, and heat waves could accelerate aging of some unsheltered bottles.

The inventory looks like this:
Bottles up to our ears.

What to do?
Time to sell some wine.

Other than Australian Shepherd owners, who's going to purchase a premium wine they've never heard of? The solution, make them an offer they can't refuse. So, we're announcing introductory pricing of $15/bottle when purchasing an assorted case. And, as an extra incentive for customers living within driving range, we'll include a bunch of our magnificent yellow pincushion Protea flowers pictured above. We are promoting this special on our Facebook page (targeting local residents) and also via Twitter, using the hashtag #SanDiego to attract local peeps. One of our aims is to be "your personal winemaker." This has certainly worked with family and friends. Now, let's see if we can turn this into a micro business before we run out of room and before the next heat wave.

(Editor's Note: If you're a California resident and would like to learn more about purchasing a case of award-winning, hand-crafted wines for $15/bottle follow this link: )

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What Are You Eating?

I know Facebook and Twitter are not about what you're eating right now, but do you remember that gopher carcass the Queen asked me to clean up after one of my trips a few weeks ago? I took a shortcut (as I often do being in favor of finding the most expedient, most efficient and most organic way to handle matters in the vineyard) and promptly buried it in his hole, where he rested peacefully, keeping the other critters away with his stench and providing natural fertilization to the soil until 2" of pouring rain and sleet and hail flushed him out this morning. Ole Bluey just found the emerged zombie and despite my protests as I spied the stumpy tail sticking out of his mouth scarfed him in one bite and just licked his satisfied lips ignoring my admonishments. Would you let Ole Gopher Breath share your bed this evening? (If you believe in the law of Australian Shepherds then there will be no denying him so I might as well just give up trying to keep him off.)

This March rain is the icing on the cake of 4.5" of rain in February -- a dry and very beautiful and very warm January -- which followed 10" of rain in December and a wet October and November. In all, we're thinking that we will not need to irrigate until (or unless as the case may be) the vines show signs of stress in mid-summer.

The vines were pruned in February, mostly, and hand-painted with a "dormant spray". If you were cooking popcorn and you're beyond the first pops when it starts sounding like a machine gun, that's where we are with budbreak right now, with baby shoots emerging all over the place, except in the Zinfandel block. Although the fragile shoots are ever so easy to break off by hand (which I have done accidentally on many occasions in previous years) I'm pleased to learn that they have held up well in the harsh pelting rain. There could be even more rain at the end of this week, which will be toasted merange on top of this cake's icing. It's back to the vineyard while still light (thank you daylight savings time) to dig those holes and form those berms and shape those mounds in a foolish attempt to control water flowing down a hillside. Fool on the hill....