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.