A Winemaker’s Journey: Part 3 – An alternative approach

…continued from Part 2

OK, so there I was basking in all my glory and announcing to the Facebook world on how I just finished making “my” wine.  As previously discussed, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t a winemaker.  I was just a wine-payer and a helper for the real winemaker.  Don’t take this as a bad thing, just I didn’t make the wine.

An old friend and teacher of mine on Facebook took notice and started asking me questions.  Like, “what kind of yeast”, “how did I ferment it”, etc.  I had no clue, but when he said he just finished pressing several tons of Napa grapes I was intrigued.  I quipped, “Several tons, huh?  You don’t make that in your basement!”  His response, “of course we do, come join us!”

So I met my old teacher, let’s call him Marty for shits and giggles, and wanted in with his gang.  Marty leads a bunch of “amateur” winemakers, and these guys take part in all the action.  Besides being a great bunch of guys, they really take their winemaking seriously and as such make serious wine.  We’re not talking grandpa’s prison wine that you need to put fruit into or chill.   This is the real deal, with good grapes, good practices, and an artisan touch.  Full disclosure: my grandpa didn’t make wine, he was a pickle guy, being Jewish and all.

Crush was already in progress that year, so I was too late to join the fun, but I joined the action this year.

The way it works is it is a communal pressing and initial fermenting, and then everyone brings home their wine and finishes at home.   Everyone has 5 gallon glass bottles, called carboys, which get filled and make for easy transportation.  There are special crates to put the carboys in to make them easier to handle and less likely to break.  Supposedly you can get the crates from water dealers (like Poland Spring), but so far I have been unsuccessful at getting my hands on ’em and I need to use plastic buckets.  If you know of a place to find these babies, give me a shout out.

Stack of carboys in their crates (this is two deep — we make a lot of wine)

Before the grapes even arrive, the work begins.  Everything needs to be cleaned, and I don’t mean a quick wash with the hose.  Every tool, surface, bottle, hose, funnel, net, needs to be washed off with “meta” (Potassium Metabisulfite?) and some with “Brewery Wash” (not sure what this is, seems like foodsafe industrial Oxy Clean as it takes out wine stains in seconds!).

Carboys are a pain in the ass to clean out, so these guys made (MADE) custom carboy washers to help with the process.  A fountain of meta, and then fresh water to rinse them out.

The carboy washing assembly line.

Close up of the carboy washer.  Thar she blows!

A few weeks later, our grapes came in.  Each type of grape came in a different shipment, and there were some logistics to ensure there were guys to work, and room in all the vats for fermenting.  One of the early rounds was an Italian varietal called Primitivo, which I believe equates to Zinfandel.  We tasted the grapes right off the vine, and they were really good and nothing like the stuff you pick up from the produce section.  No wonder you never see expensive concord or seedless grape wine!

We helped unload the truck and proceeded to immediately get them de-stemmed and into the fermentation vats.  To this, we tempered the yeast and added some enzymes and cinnamon looking stuff to aid in color retention.

Napa grapes, right off the truck.  I am not sure if this was the Primitivo, Merlot or Cab grapes?

Here is a different load of grapes.  Look at how fresh they look after their cross country journey.

The red things are the fermentation vats.

During the initial fermentation the yeasts do their thing and the aforementioned “cap” rises to the top.  You’d be surprised at how things heat up during fermentation, it really gets hot.  Multiple times per day someone punches down the mix to keep things going and to get a nice even fermenting.  During this time the mix is measured for sugars, temperature, and a whole lot of other stuff I don’t get yet.  Maybe next year I’ll pick up a little more.

After a week to ten days, it’s time for pressing.  Here is when we gather up the liquid that has naturally been exuded from the grapes (called free-run) and squeeze the must up to three times to get all the wine out.  During each pressing the wine gets more of the character from the skins and starts to taste a little more bitter and tannic.  This isn’t a bad thing, we just don’t want irregular batches where one bottle is all free-run and another is all third-press.  So to overcome this, we evenly distribute the pressings into the carboys and make sure they all get a nice equal blend.

The pressing takes some muscle, one person cranks, one or two hold the press, and yet another passes buckets of wine to the two guys filling the carboys. You’ve got to stay on your toes lest you spill some and incur the wrath of the crowd.

Note the strategic choice of shirt.  You’ll never find a stain on this one.

A nice even pour.  Yes those are my carboys in the crappy buckets.  Did I mention I need crates?

Time for more cleaning?  We don’t want to introduce any bad bugs to the wine, so everything is meta’d, washed, rewashed, placed on clean surfaces, rubber gloved, washed and rewashed again.  We wash a lot. 

Once the carboys are full, we load up the cars, wash everything down again (including the floors), and sit down for a good home made Italian feast.  During lunch we get to wash ourselves down with samples from prior years’ efforts.  Not all of the tastings are good, but even the bad ones teach us about different characteristics and the reasons behind them.  Old leather, barnyard, fizziness, teeth cleaning, etc. What it really taught me is that it’s OK to dump crappy wine.  Marty really knows how to treat us well, maybe we’ll get him on a guest post for TJCC – he can certainly teach us a thing or two about cooking.  I never come home hungry.

Some wine gets to go home in style!  Who’d have known the utility of an A4 convertible?  No occifer, there are no open bottles in the car…

So, now I have the carboys home and in a nice warm place (in my boiler room), where they will sit and undergo malolactic fermentation for a few months.  You see the little clear things on the top of the carboys?  Those are airlocks, which once filled with a little water or vodka is used to let out the CO2 from the yeast but keep the regular air out.

What’s next?  We cold stabilize the carboys and “rack” the wine into a barrel (or back into another carboy).  This gets rid of the dead yeasties and any other sediment that may have been left behind.  Since I haven’t done this yet, I’ll end it here and write up another post after barreling.

By the way, Marty has his own blog on winemaking, which has a lot of great information on it:  http://www.westchesterwinemakers.com

Marty’s group is a great bunch of guys who are a lot of fun and mean business when talking or working wine.  I’ve purposely protected the innocent in the pics, but there are usually ten to twelve people working the line ranging in age from their 20’s to 70’s.  Really cool stuff.  I would be remiss in not mentioning Al Brush aka “the Corksoaker”.  Many of the pics you see here are from his diligent documentation of the event.  Thanks, Al!

Am I winemaker yet?  Not quite yet, but I feel that I am on the path.  I have 40 gallons of wine bubbling away in my basement (15 Primitivo, 15 Cab, 5 Pinot Noir, and 5 Petit Verdot), and a few barrels, now all I need is a 50 degree room to store the stuff.  This year I have learned a lot more by doing, and Marty and his buddies have introduced me to a lifestyle of winemakers:  harvest celebrations, tasting dinner dances, and who can forget the long lunches with food, stories, and plenty of vino.  Makes me long for the old country….

To be continued in part IV: The cellar