Tomorrow I’m tasting a group of homemade wines from the 1980s and early 1990s, several of which I played a very small role in making. I helped pick the grapes and occasionally hopped in the fermentor, applying my size 13 stompers to the freshly squeezed must.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the wines have aged. I don’t have any great expectations, since these were homemade in the truest form, with no special bells and whistles. We did use a lab, though, to keep an eye on evil microbial demons.
I’ve never had any aspirations about being a winemaker or grower. I don’t have the patience or mindset to oversee what is a very complex process that requires the greatest attention to detail.
All of the wines were weekend picks, since my friends and I worked during the week. This was also a time before kids for all of us, so we had an occasional Saturday in the middle of harvest where we’d target a pick date and hope we caught the grapes on a sunny day at the desired sugar level. Over the course of about 10 years I had a chance to witness the making of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
We typically started early in the morning when the grapes were cool. Picking enough grapes for a 15- or 25-gallon barrel proved more labor-intensive than we realized until we were done, exhausted, starving, thirsty, and still to crush the grapes and initiate the fermentation. We had plenty of cold beer on hand.
Since I knew little about winemaking, this, for me, was an opportunity to learn more about grapes and fermentation science. My friends were more astute and detail-oriented. They were, for instance, far more attentive about what grapes made it into the picking bins. No leaves or caterpillars were allowed into the must.
We used an old beat-up crusher/destemmer machine, positioned over a plastic trash can or bin, that crudely separated the grapes from the stems and the juice ran into the fermentor. Once the free-run juice drained we took the skins and pressed them in yet another rather ancient basket press.
We used a half-bucket of wine that had already started fermentation to begin our fermentations and I think we added some commercial yeast. Since we didn’t have refrigeration, we were careful about where we set up our crush pad. It had to be in a shady spot so the fermentor wouldn’t get too hot. But September and October harvests have cool nights and by late Saturday afternoon, our infant wine was on its bubbling away.
We let the wine ferment a week, since we needed another Saturday to finish the process and move the wine from fermentor to barrel, whether it had gone to dry or not (which meant that we occasionally barrel-fermented our reds and whites). My friends attended to the daily punch-downs, where the grapeskin cap forms on the top of the must.
Then it was more or less a waiting game. My friends attended to the wines with tender loving care, topping the barrels up at the appropriate times. I remember how different each of the wines were. Cabernet was the easiest—the grapes were firm and tight when picked; Merlot was similar. Pinot Noir broke down easily once picked, so by the time we’d filled a bin many of the berry skins were either mushy or had already broken, leaving juice in the bottom of the bin.
Zinfandel was the most challenging pick. We harvested an old vineyard, where the vines were stumps, spread out with gaps of 10 to 30 feet between some vines and with precious little fruit. The clusters were classic Zin, with everything from perfect berries to raisins to plump, translucent pinkish berries.
Red wines are far more forgiving than whites; one thing you learn early on about whites is the control of oxidation is crucial, and therefore you need to keep the juice in a cool, cool cellar.
We had our share of mishaps. The first white, as I recall, was a Sauvignon-Sémillon blend that turned our really good. Next came a Chardonnay, but half of that harvest was lost when someone accidentally backed a forklift into our carboy.
We had one vintage of Merlot that turned to vinegar, but more or less avoided any serious bouts with brettanomyces, although I won’t be entirely sure of that, or how well the wines aged, until we uncork the wines tomorrow. It will be a blind tasting, with ringers, and I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — January 11, 2008 8:16pm ET
Larry Parker — Wesley Chapel, FL — January 12, 2008 12:35pm ET
Frank Ostini — Buellton, CA — January 14, 2008 10:38am ET
Brandon Redman — Seattle, WA — January 14, 2008 3:47pm ET
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