Have you ever walked in the kind of fog where you cannot see your own outstretched hand one moment, only for the breeze to shift in the next, leaving you standing in the blinding sun? This is winemaking — a shifting series of revelations clouded by conundra.
As I enter my third Crush, a vineyard double entendre for the harvest-to-winemaking madness that grips California between late August and early November, I’ve learned much about the process of turning grapes into wine. But each of these seasons has shown me just how little I still know — and ultimately will need to grasp if I am to make consistently good wine.
And on a deeper level, this enterprise has taught me that — short of becoming a viniferous monk dedicating himself to the lore of the grape — I will never fully understand the process in one lifetime, let alone be able to control it.
So I ride the dragon.
Start with the grapes. Let’s forget varietals for a moment. Has it been a hot year or cold? How much water did we get last winter? How much have I used to water the vines this summer? Did I prune the grape clusters? If so, how fiercely? Has the vineyard been attacked by chupacabras? Did those clusters get enough sun to fully ripen? All of this determines when to pick.
This year in my little vineyard of a dozen vines, my four Zinfandel vines produced a good crop, as did two of my Graciano vines, which are a year younger. Graciano, if you’ve never heard of the varietal, is a Spanish red that is darker and burlier than the Tempranillo you may have tried. All my other vines are too young to produce.
Last year’s crush was far too early, and the single five-gallon bucket I picked yielded a mere gallon of hyper-acidic, undrinkable wine. I wound up blending it with Touriga Nacional from Lodi, which was low in acid and benefited from the boost. This year I picked my own grapes two weeks later, knowing that it was still a little early.
I had no choice. I fly to Canada to hunt ducks in Winnipeg next week, and so cannot be around to tend the fermenting wine. Could I have waited until October? Probably. But I know that birds can descend on a vineyard en masse and denude it in an evening; I did not want to take that chance.
Sure enough, when I tested, the sugar levels were low. But the acid levels were textbook perfect. Ride the dragon. If I had waited until after my Canada trip, the sugars would have been better, but I would have lost acid. This is winemaking, and it can be maddening.
What now? Add sugar. There, I said it. I added sugar to my grapes, which is apparently illegal in commercial winemaking. Sue me. But if I did not, the wine would not be strong enough to survive several years in the bottle, and would taste thin in the glass. Next year I prune my grapes better and give the clusters more sun. Hopefully that’ll help. Hopefully.
I still had to get the grapes off the stems, because if you ferment on all the stems the wine becomes impossibly tannic: Imagine sucking on felt. Last year was easy, with one bucket. This year I had three, which took me an hour to destem by hand.
What am I destemming into? Why a 15-gallon earthenware crock of course. You mean you all don’t have one? Yeah, I know I am freakish in any number of ways, but this one I come by honestly: The crock belonged to Holly’s mom, who used it for pickles decades ago. Many washes later and it is fine: clean and uncracked. It’s a rare find.
So is Holly, for that matter. While I sat there destemming, it dawned on me that the potato masher wasn’t going to cut it for crushing this batch. Why did I not rent a crusher/stemmer? I’m too cheap, and besides, it’d be a huge pain in the ass to haul it to and from the brew shop and clean it afterward when the machine would handle three buckets in about 3 minutes. The answer to our crushing dilemma was Holly’s feet. We’d crush the Old Way.
It took her less than 10 minutes to crush the grapes. And yes, she washed her feet before (and after) she smushed our future wine.
Once it was crushed, I added sugar and yeast. Which yeast to pitch into the grape must is hotly debated, but it’s a debate a lot like that surrounding Gucci salts: People say that Maldon salt is better than fleur de sel, but there is very little science behind it. Ditto for yeast, with a few exceptions.
Yeast wranglers like to tell winemakers that their strain will bring out “chocolately, zinnia-like notes, redolent of teenage girls and juicy, dry-aged steaks.” Or something like that. Really the only thing you want to do is use a yeast that will not blow off a huge amount of hydrogen sulfide into the air — and the wine. Farty wine is no bueno.
I’m now at the stage where I punch down the floating cap of increasingly wan-looking grape skins into the fizzy, very much alive, yeast-filled wine. The seeds are beginning to drop to the bottom of the crock. Punching down is vital to give the wine better (meaning darker) color and to let any yeast farts escape. To a point, the more you punch down, the fuller and cleaner your wine will be. I like to go four times a day, but alas, I have a day job. So it’s more like three times. Oh well.
Once the ferment is done, I move the wine to a five-gallon jug and let it rest, slowly clarifying it. More decisions await: How often to clarify the wine? Oak or not? If so, what kind and for how long? So many decisions.
Too many, in fact. This is why I call the process riding the dragon: Any given batch of wine is going to take you wherever it wants to. I can draw up complex “wine plans” all I want, but those plans often get tossed once the grapes are in the crock and fizzing away. Better winemakers than I know how to wrestle good, even great, wine from every vintage. I honestly don’t know if I will ever get to that point — there are things master winemakers control that I am probably not even aware are controllable.
Letting go is not something I do easily. I crave control in my cooking, down to the individual ingredients I use to create a dish. That’s why I do crazy things like make my own paprika or kill and butcher by hand almost all of the meat I eat. I can’t do that with wine: It is going to be what it’s going to be, like that piece of marble Michaelangelo saw David in.
So I need to get my Zen on and learn to free the wine that lives within my grapes. Maybe this year won’t be a grand cru or a Barolo. But it’ll be my wine, from my land, made with my own hands. And that’s good enough to drink.