Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Quick Lesson in Winemaking

Earlier I described the process by which we stomped some of our wine grapes to start turning grapes into wine. Here is where I’ll describe the next step of the process. This is highly simplified, but it’s about my speed. If you want more information, Gerald is your guy.

The white varietal, Marsanne, wasn’t stomped. Instead, Gerald and Uncle Pete pressed it until all the juices ran out. We aren’t interested in saving skins or seeds because we don’t want the tannins in the wine. Also, white skins do nothing for the color. As you can see by the photo, we are left with all the skins, stems, and seeds which are pressed tightly into a “pumice cake” when we are done. It is discarded in the compost bin.

The juice from the reds is left soaking in the skins and seeds which adds color and tannins. Sometimes the fermentation is started immediately, and sometimes it is delayed for a couple of days. Regardless, the mixtures are stirred twice a day to keep the skins and seeds in contact with the juice. They tend to float and dry out in a cap floating on the surface.

Once fermentation is started, we have to test the juice for specific gravity at least daily. Gerald pointed out a slim glass pipette for me to use. I spent over an hour trying to test the different juices because the seeds and skins kept clogging the tube. Peter suggested a much larger plastic pipette the next day. It was faster, but still took a long time. Finally, I was super frustrated at the amount of time and effort this was taking me every night. I wanted to quit the whole thing! That’s when my ever-calm husband provided me with the strainer and cup that moved me from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century and saved my remaining sanity. I still think there’s a better way, but I’ll leave that to an engineer to figure out.

While we were away in the Northeast, Gerald was able to press off the juices of the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. The resulting pumice cakes likely looked a lot like a purple or brown version of the photo above. Now the wines sit in carboys as they continue to slowly age in a cold room (50 degrees?) for a long time. I’m not sure what else happens, but I’m sure Gerald tinkers with it now and then. It will probably be bottled next summer.

Here is how the winemaker defines himself. Not only is timing important (harvest early or late, ferment right away or wait), but so is temperature (warm fermentation or cold), the yeast used (many, many choices). Does he want a single varietal wine or a blend? Does he want light tannins or strong ones? Red or rosé? Carbonated or flat? What other features does he prefer in a wine? The same berry can produce very different wines depending on how it is processed after it is harvested. Gerald tests different ways of doing each of these things to help him decide on the best way to make wine using our grapes. It’s a dynamic process, and we have a lot of variability from year to year.

We have homemade wines from our vineyard on both coasts. Join us for a glass or two!

Class dismissed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Sense of Peace

I have returned from my two weeks in Maryland with Peter. He remains there for another two weeks while I take care of life in Bellevue.

This was an unusual trip in that Peter and I were both in Maryland and we weren’t being rushed from activity to activity like so often happens when I visit. Instead, we got to taste what life will be like next year when it’s just the two of us. Sure, I hope to have a job and other factors will come into play, but it was a good rehearsal. It helped that some of our belongings were shipped on this trip, so we are starting to have familiar pieces of our life around us.

I’m happy to say that I feel deeply and confidently that all will be fine. I’ve fretted and complained and balked about moving, but it’s going to be okay. We have plenty to keep us busy at the farm and at the house, we have family nearby, and we have each other. At the risk of sounding mushy, that’s the best part. Even after over 20 years of marriage, we can happily spend lots of time together.

I’ve also started reading After the Boxes Are Unpacked: Moving on After Moving In by Susan Miller. The author moved 13 times in 18 years and has much wisdom to impart for amateurs like me. I look forward to reading the rest of the book, and I now look forward to moving to Maryland with Peter.

Monday, October 17, 2011

My First Real Crush

Crushed: Mourvedre, Tinta Çao, Touriga naҫional, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo (by Julia)
Pressed but not crushed: Marsanne

Though I stomped grapes one other time in a small metal bucket, Saturday was my first real crush. The two experiences were quite different. We started the morning at 7:30 in the vineyard harvesting the grapes. Some rows were easier to work with than others. As a newbie, I chose to stick with the easier work. I found the big bunches and snipped, expecting the clusters to fall heavy into my hand to be placed in the plastic lug for collection. Sometimes that happened, but more often some of the grape stems were wrapped around the support wire and needed to be unwrapped or otherwise freed from the trellis. I also found that some clusters were actually multiple clusters that had grown together. There might have been two or even three stems that needed to be snipped before the cluster was free. It wasn’t hard, but it was more tedious that my simple mind expected.
We hauled the lugs to our house where the men set up the stomping system while the women prepared the spa and began soaking our legs in the chlorinated water. I felt like it was a very important part of the pre-cleaning process. Also, the air was in the low 60s and the spa was 101. I won’t pretend that we didn’t enjoy the warmth.

Once the bathtub-sized tub was set up, the grapes were weighed and poured into the tub, it was time for the women to get to work. (I’m not going to hide the very obvious division of labor here.) Three of us would finish cleaning our feet and legs and then climb into the tub. The idea is to stomp all the grapes in the tub in order to free the juices from the berries. We only stomp the red wine. White wine doesn’t have the skins and seeds mixed with it. The process is chilly, slippery, and stimulating. The entire cluster is in the tub: berries and stems. The stems provide an invigorating sole massage while we stomped on the berries.

Gerald provided attendees with wine tastings using previous vintages of the varietal that we were currently crushing. That was a nice touch, but not one that I really took advantage of. First, stomping is slippery, so my hands were preoccupied holding the edges of the tub like gunnels of a canoe. Second, I’m really not supposed to drink wine because it can trigger migraines. Third, I wasn’t ready to add alcohol to my already uncoordinated body. There’s nothing classy about falling down in a tub of grapes. I am proud to say that I never did. It’s all due to my upper body strength as my arms kept me upright while me feet took off in their own direction.
If you think stomping grapes is all fun and frolic, let me introduce you to the workout benefits. First, stomping is similar to walking up a set of stairs (very shallow stairs, perhaps). That up and down movement works the legs while the shoulders and arms sustain the body weight during aforementioned coordination issues. The last part of the stomp is to lift up all the crushed clusters and run them through a coarse screen to separate the stems from the rest of the crush. It involves a lot of bending and massaging in a way that is similar to kneading bread. Trust me, it works the shoulders. As proof of the workout, I had an enormous appetite on Saturday night. On Sunday, my body ached in ways I didn’t expect. (My hands hurt from stomping grapes? Yes, they were holding tight to the sides of the tub for extended amounts of time.)

After each stomping session, the women hosed off the grapes skins and detritus and headed back to the spa. There’s nothing like warm water to ease the muscles. The men processed the crush and cleaned up the stomping area.

If you would like to participate in a future crush, send me a note. Crushes can occur between the end of August and the end of October, weather permitting.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Checking In

It’s been awhile since I last blogged because, well, life got in the way. Mostly, I’ve been taking care of my family – and other families. I have also completed four quilts, one of which is headed to Maryland right now. Peter has been to Maryland twice since that last blog (he was here for the earthquake and Hurricane Irene), and now I’ve joined him for a trip of two weeks.

As early October rolled around, I rented a Relocube from ABF. I was able to fill it (with the help of Allison’s male friends) with furniture and belongings that we don’t need to keep in Bellevue any longer. There are some desks, chairs, bookcases, china, and lots of Erin’s stuff. I even managed to get the Dogloo thrown in at the top.

The cube takes about a week to get from Bellevue to Charlotte Hall, so we anticipate its arrival on Friday of this week. You could say that the move is finally becoming real to me. We still have plenty of stuff left in Bellevue, but having some of our belongings in Charlotte Hall will start to make it feel more like ours. The house is currently furnished with second-hand goods, and it doesn’t really feel like our home.

I’ve worked a little in the yard earlier this week and seen all the trees that came down in Hurricane Irene. I also picked up a bunch of black walnuts and osage oranges, risking my life in the process. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but not overly so. As I was picking up these fruits, others were dropping around me. I really don’t want to describe what it feels like to have a 10” diameter fruit fall on me. I was tempted to wear a bike helmet during the 30 minutes I was picking up black walnuts. They are less likely to knock me out, but I still think they can cause a good bruise.

I’ll write plenty more in the next couple of weeks. This entry is more to let you know that we’re still alive and slowly working on the moving process.