Sunday, September 28, 2014

Memories of the 2014 Harvest

What a difference a month makes. Just a few weeks ago, we were up to our knees - and eyeballs - in grapes and a blasting heat wave. Now, the weather has cooled, the vines are fading and the 2014 vintage is fermenting, slowly, and so full of promise. New barrels have been ordered - hybrid French & American oak barrels - and when they arrive next month we will begin the process of racking and blending. We have plans for a tasty Petite Sirah - Tempranillo blend; an uncommonly good Grenache based wine enhanced with Tempranillo and Petite-Sirah;and a big, powerful, towering Zinfandel-Aglianico blend. Meantime, it's time for some battonage - stirring up the lees, or sediment, in the holding tanks of the new wine to extract more flavors and to create a fantastic mouth feel. And when I'm in the winery, I'll take the opportunity to top-up and taste the 2013 barrels - I barrel tasted the 2013 Petite Sirah yesterday afternoon - it was amazing!

In case you think I get this excited about all of our wines - then obviously we haven't met yet. I've made plenty of bad wine the last 10 years - so I'm grateful for the good.  And now with some experience, I like to think we've finally figured out what works, just in time for our winery's 10th Anniversary.

Don't you just love how easy it is to create video memories with iMovie? I couldn't resist, so here's a short video of the 2014 harvest. Thank you to everyone who helped. It takes a village to make - and enjoy - good wine. Cheers!

To learn more about Blue-Merle Winery please visit

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Wine For The People

A boutique distributor of fine wines looking for a local San Diego winery to fill out his lineup approached me at a wine tasting event and tried a sip of our "Merleatage." He, his spouse and their two companions returned to our serving table several times to sample them all and the tastes turned into glasses. The distributor's timing was perfect - as wine was piling up to the ceiling in the winery - aka our modest two car garage converted into a crushpad and storage area - we really needed to start selling more. But, occupied by my daytime job I don't have time to sell it - and our help don't speak English - while the daughter moved to San Francisco to be a comedian.  So, I had reached the point - as painful as it was -  to give up margin and to work with a distributor as our sales force to turn our inventory into cash. Besides, if I hired a sales rep, it would probably cost me as much. A distributor made sense.

At a follow-up meeting at the distributor's tasting room we re-tasted our wines and compared them with other wines he was selling. His wines were good and he was buying them at a wholesale distributor price of $12 a bottle. Good wines from Santa Barbara and Lodi and Napa.  At this price, there is no profit for us, but the inventory pressure was high, the wines in the barrels needed to be bottled and stored so I bit the bullet and we shook hands. "Charge my Amex card at the end of the month - we pay net 30 days," he said. His enthusiasm was infectious - no wine shop or fine restaurant would be able to resist his sales pitch for our wines. Soon, our labor of love would be available throughout San Diego County - and the cash flow would allow us to buy new barrels and more bottles and first-grade corks to produce and bottle the highest quality wines.

The next week I delivered eight cases with an extra case for samples. I produced a tri-fold brochure. I set up a PayPal account and sent my first PayPal invoice. The invoice was received by the office manager. At 15 days I emailed the distributor - "How's it going?"
"We have two placements already,"he wrote. At 25 days, I emailed the office manager, do you have the PayPal invoice? Yes she replied. On day 30 there was no payment. At 40 days they didn't return my phone message. At 45 days their telephone line didn't work. At the 46th day I drove to their office and it was closed.

The good book says to forgive your debtors and I have "let it go" and perhaps some of the wine will be a seed that someone somewhere will drink and contact us and become our best customer ever. I had an epiphany - wouldn't it have been better to just give it away?

And this is how the superhero named BootleggerMan - or is he WineMan? - could they be the same person? - began.

I gave away a case of wine to the church. And a case of wine to the office of my daytime job. And a case of wine to a reseller of our products from my daytime job. And another case of wine to the church. And to our business consultants and to the group raising money for breast cancer research and to the group raising money for Big Brothers and to ....

Wine for the People. Wine for the Teachers. The Bootleggers Express Always Delivers.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Winemaker's Notebook

Today there is no harvest. No pressing. No ice change. No bottling. No heat wave. Just an easy punch down for the last batch of fermenting Aglianico grapes. For a moment, I don't know what to do. What is this? Free time?

Is the fog in my head from being a Zombie Winemaker lifting? During my zombiehood last week I watched Netflix videos of Himalayan expeditions to relax. Winemaking = Climbing Mt. Everest.

Today is irrigation day. The last big drip for the vines. Two hours of water yesterday blended with a cocktail of organic nutrients and enzymes to promote healthy roots. Another two hours this morning - which became three hours since I started writing this. That's it for water - no more - except for the baby vines who will get one final drink before bedtime.  The deep deep watering we did last Fall helped the vines get through this year's drought. Same strategy again next year. Already taking steps to make next year's harvest fruitful. Must order compost.

Our water bill for August was $150. I cut the water to raise the Tempranillo sugars.  My neighbor, who has no vines, no agriculture, has a bill over $200. Just sayin' ... yes, we're using water, but ....

As I walk by vines with fading and fallen leaves, canes emerge from once thick foliage. I lift my fingers as clippers and make practice air-cuts that will be made five months from now in February when we prune. I bend a long cane imagining it as a new cordon arm next year and begin stretching it down along the wire.

For weeks, I've been doing everything to keep the winery - a converted garage - cool during the heat wave where temperatures topped 100 degrees outside last week. Who invented the phrase "It's only dry heat"?  I'd like to employee that person outside here. The winery has an air conditioner. The house - and our cars - do not. Today, the morning temperature in the winery is 62 degrees from the natural cool air outside. I begin thinking "Hmm, I better let it warm up to 70 degrees today in the winery to encourage malolatic fermentation" of the new wine.

Yesterday, the spray guy came to do an injection into the irrigation line. I showed him how to cut off water from the new backflow device when he finished so I could head off to my daytime job to earn money to pay him.  "Is that the one you replaced after the building contractor broke it?" he asked. I nodded.  "And he charged you for a new one after breaking your old back flow device?"
"Some people."
"What would you have done?"
"Make him pay."
I remained silent for a moment and said, "It reminds me of the story of a man responsible for spraying a vineyard and he missed some spots and mildew grew.  The vineyard owner summoned the man to show him where he had missed and where there was a mildew infestation.  The spray guy went and bought some materials and came back and resprayed the area - charging the vineyard owner for his mistake." Silence..... I saved his life again by not strangling him on the spot.

Three generations from 82 to 5 years old helped pick the Petit Sirah, The patriarch accomplished something never before seen in this vineyard: with one motion he did a double-click and cut his hand with clippers in two places. Not a good idea for a Coumadin patient.  He survived and in two years we'll be drinking the blood of the vine at communion. Thank goodness I'm not a chip off the old finger.

All nephew Luke could say when he visited was "Uncle Craig, I hope we see a snake" and "Uncle Craig, where are the snakes?" She finally appeared the day after he left. A mathuesula. An 8-footer with over a dozen bands around the rattle cooling off under a Grenache vine the day we were planning to start picking our loveliest grapes. It guess it takes leviathan snakes a while to travel when called. She sure took her time leaving the Grenache as she sauntered into the riparian canyon next to our vineyard. My 1,000 year old cultivated snake friend from China, no doubt, who wished a few words with me.

This is the year we implemented night time harvests - at 6pm as the heat from the day passed we started picking grapes. The advantage to this was to get a headstart on the next morning's work - and - to give us a chance to photograph and pick some vines before the mad rush of the harvest and looking after the guests.  Do you know how hard it is to pick your own grapes while managing a harvest? We brought the grapes down the hill and let them cool overnight outside - or if the temperatures were not dropping that evening brought them into the winery and let the air conditioner run all night.  After the harvest and crush, my job was to drive into town to fetch blocks of dry ice - up to 20 lbs. - to cool down the grapes.  After the dry ice treatment, the next day and for a few days thereafter we added blocks of ice from the freezer - in water jugs. One of the daily routines is to change the ice in the morning and the evening. Could an ice bath be the secret to great wine?

Bottling wine is sure going faster this year - from not having to trip over the dog. Still, we miss him. During the harvest, we encouraged his ghost to eat all the grapes he wanted. Do dogs dream of eating grapes?

My vineyardmobile is approaching 300,000 miles and she says when it goes she wants to buy a truck. "I thought you wanted a Jaguar."
"No one will buy me a Jaguar."
"I bought your teeth." Her dentist bills cost more than a Jaguar. Unfortunately, he doesn't work for wine.

Did you hear about the winery in California being sued by the state for using unpaid volunteers? It seems wineries that pay their people complained about wineries that use volunteers because of an unfair cost advantage. Both the state and the wage paying wineries have it wrong. There's an old saying "there's nothing more expensive than free" and we've proven it in our vineyard. When we total the cost of food we prepare for people who help us at harvest - not to mention the time preparing it - we would save so much money hiring day laborers. For the record, if anyone from the state is reading this, we do pay our help. They work for wine.