I have decided to make wine again this year. Last year was incredibly harrowing; my inexperience compounded with my vision of perfection led me to be a complete mess for the latter part of the year. Why I have decided to do it again? Mostly because I want to give it a good shot before I decide whether or not it’s for me. I owe that to myself. It’s expensive, time consuming, stressful, messy… but unbelievably rewarding.
I found the fruit for this year’s winemaking attempt on Craigslist of all places. I got very lucky; I bought the grapes from a retired accountant who moved to Santa Rosa to be closer to his grandkids & to start his own vineyard with his wife.
He planted a couple of acres of vines for his own use and to sell to home winemakers. This worked out in my favor because a) I am a home winemaker and b) Finding premium fruit for home winemakers was next to impossible this year due to supply & demand. I was getting high quality Russian River Valley Zinfandel for a dollar per lb. from a guy I found on Craigslist. High potential for failure? Yes. Too good to pass up even with the risk? Also yes.
Above: Joe Tembrock’s beautiful Zinfandel vines
One of the benefits of working directly with the grower (vs. buying the fruit from a broker or a brew shop) is that you can spend time in the vineyard to actually decide when your fruit is ready to pick. This can have a huge influence on the style of the wine you want to make. I took it as an opportunity to learn and I learned quite a bit… such as how to use a refractometer (the monocular-looking thing below-center):
…and how to use my fancy Vinmetrica SC-300 SO2, TA & pH analyzer (on right).
I have to be able to do these tests on my own since lab-work on such a small scale is not economical. These tools allow me to decide if the grapes need to be adjusted in any way prior to fermentation and how to know how much sulfite to add to protect the wine.
Being able to experience this has made me much more comfortable with the science behind winemaking, which at first can be very intimidating with it’s complicated arithmetic and scary chemicals that you shouldn’t touch or breathe.
Anyhow, usually it’s not the winemaker or vineyard manager that decide when the grapes come in; it’s Mother Nature. We had a very mild, sunny summer with very few heat spikes up until the tail end of the varietal’s growing season. We had one heat spike that launched the numbers into the ripe zone and that just so happened to coincide with a weekend. I was lucky enough to have four of my lovely, wonderful friends help me on the day of harvest (below).
We had to pick all 750 lbs. of grapes by hand which is a pretty big undertaking if I’d done it by myself. This was actually the most fun out of all the things we did that day. It’s not often you get to go outside and pick wine grapes from the vines to make wine with… the weather was gorgeous and foggy, the grapes were nice and cold and us city folk were having the time of our lives.
Colleen (above), one of the few people crazy enough to get up at 5 in the morning to pick grapes.
A beautiful, ripe bunch of Zinfandel grapes from 23 Oaks Vineyard
Thoughtful Colleen, pondering grapes & fog.
The owner of the vineyard was so nice he was even helping another buyer pick his fruit. This guy was really living the dream. He was loving every minute of it and helped us all crush our fruit with his crusher-stemmer, helping us schlep giant buckets full of crushed grapes, laughing at our stupid jokes and generally just being awesome.
We loaded up our crushed grapes & supplies into the back of my trusty pickup truck and started the long drive back to San Francisco. We didn’t hit a single bit of traffic, the weather was nice and cool and we even got to see a stealth bomber fly over the Golden Gate Bridge on the way back home.
Once we got home, our awesome friends were kind enough to stick around and help me with the rest of the process. Good thing because I was T-I-R-E-D, and if it weren’t for their rallying cry I wouldn’t have made the saignee that I wanted to. They did all the work for me… when they asked “how do we make rose?” we collectively googled the question and bled off about 5 gallons of fresh, pink Zinfandel juice into a separate carboy to ferment into pink wine.
Airlock bubbling, above.
Crushed Zinfandel grapes getting ready for a cold soak.
Three and a half days after I started the cold soak (keeping the wine below 50 degrees with dry ice in order to prevent native yeast fermentation with the intent of trying to extract as much color from the skin as possible before starting fermentation) the grape goo was warm enough to pitch the yeast into so I could start the primary fermentation.
Yeast starter - waking up the little beasties.
So far, I have added the yeast to both of my big fermenters and as of this evening the fermentation is warming up and bubbling like crazy. This is called “primary fermentation” and it should last 5 days to a week, depending on how warm it gets.
The aromas produced by fermenting grapes are something that can’t be compared to and any person who loves wine should experience this aroma at least once in their life. It’s like all of the complex aromas that will eventually show up with a little rest & age are punching you in the face all at once.
Should anyone be interested in seeing/smelling this first hand or even doing a punchdown (I know, thrilling!), you are welcome to come to my house and see it. Act quickly because this wonder of nature only lasts a short week and it’ll be over before you know it.
More updates to follow!