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If we’re winter pruning, then Spring must be close

Maintaining a vineyard is a year-round enterprise.  Even in the winter, after the vines go into a dormant state, there’s work to be done.  In fact, dormant winter pruning is among the most time-consuming work of the year, and some of the most important as well, since it involves decisions that will affect not just the coming season’s growth, but the year after as well.

Vines before pruning - a bit of a tangled mess

Vines before pruning – a bit of a tangled mess

Most of the objectives of dormant pruning fall under the heading of “balance.”  Vines will grow just fine on their own, with no pruning at all, but most of their energy will go toward producing shoots and leaves, rather than grapes. Absent any intervention, the vines will continue to grow skyward for so long as they can find support.  The whole purpose of a trellis system and the pruning decisions that go with it are to force the vine to direct its energy toward the production of high-quality fruit rather than vegetative growth.

So we’re looking for balance as we decide which shoots and how many buds to retain.  Prune away too much and the vine will be undercropped, producing less fruit than it can reasonably support.  Prune away too little and it will be overcropped, producing a profusion of leaves and  shoots, as well as an abundance of fruit that is destined to be of low quality.

During the growing season, we’ll drop some fruit from the vine, again to direct energy toward the remaining clusters in the hopes of producing more concentrated and higher-quality grapes.  But the first decisions we make that will determine the quantity and quality of the season’s fruit are those made in the dead of winter.

Which is to say, when it’s cold outside.  Really, really cold.  Not to mention snowing every few days or so.  (Or maybe it just seemed that way this winter.) Which is one of the reasons we’ve put off pruning.

The other, more noble reason for delaying our pruning, has to do with timing.  It’s better not to prune too early in the season – the untouched vines will survive a cold spell much better than those that have been pruned back, and by waiting, you’ll have more options in the case of a late freeze that damages buds and shoots.

It’s helpful to be able to assess the vine late in the winter for cold injury before deciding which canes to remove and which few to retain. In our little hobby vineyard, we have the luxury of delaying for almost as long as we want to start dormant pruning.  Commercial vineyards that have acres of vines to prune, don’t have that luxury.  They need to start early enough to be able to finish the job before budbreak.  But many vineyards employ a technique of double pruning, going through once early in the winter to trim away the shoots they know won’t be used, and returning later to finish up the job.

Post pruning, these vines are ready to go.  Although we had hoped to cane prune everything, we settled for spur pruning when it was our only choice.

This cane-pruned vine is finished on the left arm, only partly done on the right. Click on the picture for a better view.

Our vines are all trained to a trellis system known as vertical shoot positioning, of VSP, and we have adopted a pruning method known as cane pruning.  In cane pruning, most of the previous year’s growth is pruned away, and two one-year old shoots, which have now achieved the status of canes, are retained and trained in either direction along the bottom, or fruiting wire.  These canes – the one-year old wood – will give rise to new shoots this summer, and these new shoots are the part of the vine that will bear fruit.

At the same time, we’ll be looking for renewal spurs below this year’s fruiting canes.  These will be pruned back to one or two buds to provide the fruiting canes for the following year.

I’ve taken a class or two on pruning, and I’ve done lots of reading and studied more videos on the Internet than I can count.  So, of course, I should be an expert.  And in theory I am.  I know a lot about the why’s and how’s of pruning.  But the actual pruning – the time when you come face to face with a vine and decide what to lop off and what to keep – that’s a whole different story.  I still remember my first pruning session.  I was sure that I was going to destroy the vine, and I stared at it for what seemed like hours before I worked up the nerve to make that initial cut.  I’ve gotten a little more confident, but only a little.  I still spend way too much time on each vine.  Fortunately, we only have 230 vines now, so I can get away with  it.

When the Vineyard Goddess and I got out a few weeks ago – and yes, we chose a weekend when the temperatures were in the 60s – we realized that we had not maintained the vines as well as we should have in the previous year.  No neglect, just the kinds of mistakes you make early on.  A number of the vines were just fine, but others lacked the kind of year-old shoots we were looking for to train to the cordon wire.

So, we made some adjustments.  On the vines that had perfect one-year old shoots, we cut away everything else and tied these canes down.  On those that didn’t, we resorted to a different pruning method called spur or cordon pruning.

In spur pruning, a cordon is tied down to the wire and used year after year.  The shoots from the previous year are pruned down to two buds, which will give rise to fruitful wood for the current season.  It’s more like a haircut, and most people would say it’s a far easier method of pruning than cane pruning.  And it works well for at least the first decade.  At some point, however, these cordons grow thick from age and produce fewer spurs.  Moreover, they’re more prone to disease.  It’s the same with people.  The older you get, the more opportunity your body has to develop diseases.

Which method is better?  Well, they each have advantages and disadvantages.  Jim Law, founder and owner of Linden Vineyards, said he started with spur pruning, which worked well for years, but eventually moved to cane pruning, after the disadvantages  – disease in particular  – began to outweigh the advantages.

Our thought, however, is that we’ll spur prunes those vines that need it this year, while leaving some buds that we hope will give rise to canes that can be trained to the wire in 2015.  And while I remain hopeful that our vines will produce some wonderful fruit thisyear for making wine, I am confident that we’ll do even better next year and better still in each of the succeeding years.  After all, this is a learning experience, and Lord knows, we’re learning.

March 20, 2014 | By | Reply More

Wines that Won’t Break the Bank

Cheap Wine By Jeff Siegel

If you’re serious about wine, then Jeff Siegel’s volume on inexpensive value wine isn’t the only book you need to read.  But you might be better off if it’s the first one you read, and the wine-consuming world might be a better place if everyone did the same.

Why?  Because Mr. Siegel, known to fans of his blog as “The Wine Curmudgeon,” dispenses with the “wine-speak” blather that is meant to intimidate consumers and offers instead the Cheap wineradical notion that it’s okay to like wine that doesn’t cost a lot.  Not that there’s anything wrong with an expensive Bordeaux – depending upon the bottle, there will probably be a great deal to like about it – but it’s important  for novices to recognize that “Cheap Wine” can be good wine.  In fact, winemaking and viticulture techniques have improved to the point that the least expensive bottle of wine on the shelves at Costco or Trader Joe’s will likely be at least drinkable, if not actually enjoyable.  And with a little care, you can pick wine that is both inexpensive and good.

“Wine doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be enjoyable,” he writes.  “Call it cheap.  Call it inexpensive.  Call it a value wine.  But whatever you call it, it doesn’t have to be expensive.  Just $10 – and often less – will buy a perfectly acceptable and often excellent bottle of wine.”

What I like most about Mr. Siegel’s approach is that he makes wine approachable for folks that might otherwise stick with beer or vodka.  Wine can be intimidating for the newcomer, and too many wine writers, sommeliers, and even the staff in tasting rooms seem to delight in making in making wine something of a black art that only the initiated can understand.

As I write this, I’m sipping a $14 bottle of 2009 Barolo that I bought at Trader Joe’s.  As it happens, I had purchased this wine a few months ago and discovered last week when I opened it that it was “corked,” which is to say, inflicted with that wet-dog smell that comes from TCA taint.  I returned it to TJs, and without asking a question, they replaced the bottle.  So here’s a little side note:  trust yourself, and don’t be afraid to return a bottle that you think is corked or which otherwise suffers from a real wine flaw.  Chances are, the guy behind the counter knows less than you do about wine.

The replacement bottle was wonderful, and that brings me back to the real point of this story, which is that wine need not be expensive to be good.  Sometimes, in fact, cheaper is better — for reasons that go beyond the obvious. Continue Reading–>

February 14, 2014 | By | Reply More

A Holiday Book List for Wine Lovers

With the holiday season upon us, I can’t think of a better gift for someone you love (or even someone you don’t like all that much, but for some reason are obligated to buy a gift for) , than a book about wine, save perhaps for a bottle of the actual stuff.  In the time since I started writing this blog, I’ve read a fair number of books on this subject, many of them about the process of growing grapes and turning them into wine, others on the joys of drinking wine, and still others on some topical issue, such as the touchy subject of natural wine.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few books that might make a nice gift for a friend or stocking-stuffer (yes, I know, that would be some big stocking – but you can just leave it under the tree).  Most of these are books I’ve read and enjoyed, and some are volumes that I’ve put on my own list.  Among those in the category of books I’ve loved, I’ve either reviewed them or have plans (and yes, I have more plans than time) to write a review on Project Sunlight.  So, stay tuned. Meanwhile, here’s the list:

Some Books I’ve Loved

Of all the books I’ve read about wine, I’ve enjoyed none more than Authentic Wine by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW (Master of Wine).   authentic wine cover_editedThe book’s subtitle, Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking, gives a broad hint about where it’s heading, but one of the most appealing things about the book is its balance.  The authors clearly respect the idea of natural wine and sustainable viticultural practices, but their first priority appears to be good wine, and they understand that a business isn’t sustainable if it isn’t profitable.  Authentic Wine falls neatly into two parts, one dealing with viticulture and the second focusing on winemaking.  I’ve read this book twice (you’d think after that I’d have taken the time to write at least a short review), and I’ll will probably read it yet one more time.  They write intelligently and lucidly about a variety of current issues in the wine world, from reduction to the difference between natural and cultured yeasts to the trend toward riper fruit and higher alcohol levels.  The get into the science and technical issues, but the writing is accessible and easy to follow.  That’s quite a rare feat, and one of the reasons I’m so high on Jamie Goode.

Also high on my list is Mike Veseth’s wonderful discussion of current wine industry trends, Wine Wars.  (Reviewed March 28, 2013) Subtitled, “The Curse of the Blue Nun, the wine wars coverMiracle of Two-Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terrorists,” this book ranges over a great deal of history to put some of the trends into context, and provides a lot of insight into some of the things, like Trader Joe’s and Costco, that are right in front of our eyes.  Could a two-dollar (somewhat more outside of California) bottle of wine have succeeded if it had been sold anywhere else but at Trader Joe’s?  In a world in which quality is often equated to price, it might not have worked at a retailer that had not already won the trust of its customers.  And yet, in Europe, some perfectly drinkable wines sell (or at least sold recently) for a Euro a liter, making it effectively One-Buck Chuck.   Mr. Veseth writes with the authority of the wine economist (a profession I did not know existed prior to reading this book), he is, and it’s clear that he not only knows a lot about wine, but that he loves it as well.  The fact that his prose is both clear and engaging is just a bonus. Continue Reading–>

December 14, 2013 | By | Reply More

A Tough Year for a Weekend Vintner

It was a tough year to be a weekend vintner.

When you’re separated from your vineyard by a two-hour drive, you have to make the most of your time.  And we try.  But the weekends are short, and there’s so much to do. And every curve that Mother Nature throws your way puts you just a little bit further behind.  This year, Mother Nature was throwing curves, sliders, and the occasional spitball.

This year began with a late spring frost, followed by rain.  Not just a little rain, but lots of rain, which gave rise to all kinds of fungal disease potential.  Powdery Mildew, Downey Mildew, Botrytis, you name it.

And then came the pests:  Japanese beetles, birds, raccoons, squirrels, deer, and even bears.  Yes, indeed, bears.  No lions or tigers,though.  Just birds, deer and bears.  And yeah, racooons and beetles and the rest of the pests.

First came the Japanese beetles, but there were so many other predators that followed.

First came the Japanese beetles, but there were so many other predators that followed.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve not been able to pay much attention to this blog.  Another was that Chris and I took on responsibilities for editing Grape Press, the quarterly publication of the Virginia Vineyards Association.  But mainly it was the challenges of the growing season.  It seems like we spent all of our spare time each weekend keeping up with the vineyard.  Spraying, cultivating, pruning, and spraying.  Yeah, lots of spraying. It wasn’t easy.

Let’s start with the late frost.  I remember arriving at the vineyard early one Saturday morning to find our whites all but devastated.  Honestly, it looked as though someone had sprayed Round-Up and left them to die. For a while, I actually wondered if they had been the victims of spray drift from the herbicide we had used to clear a row for new the new vines we had planted this year.

Fortunately, that was not the case.

After checking the temperatures recorded nearby, I realized that we had probably experienced at least one and possibly two frost events in which temperatures had dropped just below freezing for a few hours in the early morning.  My reds were fine, but they are planted higher on the slope and there’s a good possibility that temperatures stayed a degree or two higher in their part of the vineyard.  Alternatively, bud break came earlier for the whites and they may have just been victims of bad timing.  I’ll never know.

It turned out okay, though.  Both the Petit Manseng and the Viognier had enough secondary buds left to generate growth for this year.  Within a few weeks, we were seeing buds break and shoots begin to develop.  And by the middle of the summer, they were looking like grape vines again.  So, all was well.

But then it started to rain. Continue Reading–>

November 26, 2013 | By | Reply More

Where Did the Grapes Go?

Five days ago, at the end of the holiday weekend, I was thrilled with the progress of our vines.  We hadn’t allowed a lot of grapes to accumulate, given that the vines were only in their second year, but we had left a few clusters, and they looked beautiful.  Moreover, they tasted amazingly sweet.

Alas, last weekend I had left my refractometer at the other house, and so I couldn’t measure the Brix, which would have told me how much sugar had accumulated in the grapes and therefore the potential alcohol.  Not essential, given that we weren’t planning to make wine from this grapes, but it would have been nice to know.  But I told myself, it’s Monday, I’ll be back on Friday, and I’ll be able to measure the Brix on Saturday morning.  What could go wrong with that?

Well, of course, lots of things could go wrong.  But what I wasn’t expecting when I returned this weekend was to find the grapes gone.  Yes, gone.  As in, missing.  As in, virtually none of them left on the vine.

You can see that most of the grapes have been picked off this cluster

You can see that most of the grapes have been picked off this cluster

It turns out I was right about one thing.  The grapes had ripened and accumulated a decent amount of sugar.  Which meant that they were not only close to being ready for the crush, they had become attractive to lots of the critters that roam through the country near our vineyard.  Birds, deer, badgers – who knows?  Almost any animal cruising near our property could have decided to chow down on our grapes.

So, a few lessons.

First, we didn’t lose quite all the grapes.  I had put bird netting up around some of the Cab Franc vines a few weeks before, and those grapes were largely intact.  I measured the Brix and it came in at about 21.2 percent.  Not bad.  Not quite ready for the crush pad, but getting there.  It’s been a horrible year with the rain and dark skies, but another week or two in the sun (assuming we get a week or two of sun) and they might have made pretty decent wine.

Second, among the grapes we didn’t lose were those in the “mother vineyard.”  These are the Cab Franc vines we had planted in the first year before we even knew where the main vineyard would be located.  We had purchased them for practice and never even really considered that we’d use them for wine.  These, the critters left alone.

But why?  Well, when I measured the Brix it was at about 16 percent.  Not even remotely ripe enough for wine.  So maybe these grapes were ignored because they weren’t sweet enough.  Apparently the critters that hang around our property are pretty choosy in what they bite off. Continue Reading–>

September 9, 2013 | By | Reply More

Tempranillo, Part III

On the eve of our departure for WineMaker magazine’s annual conference, hosted in Monterrey, California, this year, I expressed some regret to the Vineyard Goddess that I didn’t have a bottle of home-made wine to take with me for one of the tasting events.  I had bottled my Tempranillo some 35 days earlier, and while it was just past the bottle shock stage, I had not yet tasted it (and it was way too late to try it that night).  For all I knew, it was plonk.

My bottle is the one in the foreground with no label.

My bottle is the one in the foreground with no label.

“Take it anyhow,” the VG told me.  ”Take two bottles.  We can taste one on the first part of the trip, and if it’s good, you can take the other one to the tasting.”

Sage advice.  I packed two, using my newly minted method of wrapping the bottles in bubble wrap (replacing my old method of wrapping them in t-shirts), and told myself we’d taste the first bottle when we arrived in Sedona on the first leg of our journey.  As it turned out, I didn’t get to it until we reached the Grand Canyon for the second leg of the trip.

And what a surprise!  It wasn’t the vintage of the century, but it was definitely good.  I knew I had made some mistakes in the process, especially in the area of temperature control (overheating it at some points, and not keeping it warm enough at others), but it was still a good, solid drinkable wine.  So, I felt confident that I could hold my own with the other winemakers, or at least not get ridden out of town on a rail.

The comments were generally favorable.  The 100 or so winemakers who gathered for the tasting were seated at round tables of 10, and half the table rotated every ten minutes to be paired with new tasting partners.  We tasted each other’s wine and provided feedback.  I’d like to say that everyone was totally, if not brutally, honest, but I suspect we were more diplomatic than candid.

So, here are some of the comments:

“Young, but very hearty.  As it ages, it will become a very nice wine.”  (Oh, yeah, as it ages — someday it will be a decent wine!)

“Good tannins, good acidity, nicely balanced.”

“Good color, very dry.  Nice tannins and structure.”

“Crisp acidity, not quite as much fruit as I’d like to see.”

Well, that’s as far as my notes go.  Nobody was talking about long finishes or specific kinds of fruit on the nose or palate, but all in all, for a first outing, it wasn’t bad.  As I said in a Facebook post, I had walked in with nightmares that my fellow tasters would spit my wine on the floor and then throw me out of the room.  It was a relief to see that they all stayed and finished their taste of Bob’s Tempranillo.

May 29, 2013 | By | 4 Replies More

Just off the Grape Press: New Editors

It’s a pleasure to announce that the Vineyard Goddess and I are now co-editors of Grape Press, the quarterly publication of the Virginia Vineyards Association.  Our first issue is the just-published Spring 2013 edition, and while we took over editorial responsibilities too late to have had any role in the planning, we spent lots of time collecting articles, working with the authors on final edits, revamping the look of page 1, and dealing with the hundreds (well, dozens and dozens) of little details that come up as you’re going to press.

We’re very excited about this opportunity for a number of reasons.  First, lots of folks in the Virginia viticulture community have been Grape Press cover 1very generous with us, giving hours of their time to assist in our education.  Early on, for example, I posted a note to a web site for the Central Virginia Winemakers group asking a question about how much time I should expect to set aside to manage a small vineyard   I got lots of responses, and two of the folks who replied to my query hosted us at their vineyard for what amounted to a seminar on growing grapes.

Secondly, we’re big fans of Virginia wine.  We attended our first Virginia wine festival some 25 years ago, and while the wines weren’t great back then, some were pretty good, and we thought they all had promise.  We were right.  The wines got better each year, and today, we think Virginia wines have really come into their own.  Virginia Viognier is a world-class wine.  Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng, Norton and a number of other grape varieties have been made into truly great wines.  My personal view is that a number of the Commonwealth’s wineries are making wines that can compete anywhere in the world, and their ranks are growing each year.

A major reason for the continued improvement in Virginia wine is the quality of the fruit that wineries have to work with.  As the old saying goes, wine is made in the vineyard.  And the quality of the fruit is improving in no small part because of the willingness of so many in the business to help each other out.  In this industry, people share knowledge.  Grape Press is part of that process, and the Vineyard Goddess and I are thrilled to be able to play a part, however small, in the continued growth of the Virginia wine industry

As I said, we can’t take credit for the range of high-quality stories in the current edition, but we did have a chance to work with the authors, and it was one of the best journalistic experiences of my life.  The writers were all involved in one aspect or another of viticulture, from the distinguished vineyard consultant Lucie Morton to grape pathologist Mizuho Nita to Ankida Ridge vineyard owner Christine Vrooman.

The writers were knowledgeable and intelligent, and their articles were infused with  personality and wit, which made them a pleasure to read.  I won’t try to mention everything from this issue, but Christine Vrooman’s series on sustainability, Andrew Hodson’s article comparing French and Virginia Viognier, and Jim Benefiel’s story on a VVA expedition to Bordeaux are among those I would recommend to anyone.  And honestly, there isn’t a bad article in the whole issue. Bill Freitag, Katie Hellebush, Pete Johns, Lucie Morton, Mizuho Nita and Dean Triplett contributed excellent articles, and they’re all worth a read.  For what it’s worth, I read the entire issue, word for word, at least twice, and I enjoyed it as much on the final read as I did on the first round of edits.

Membership in the Virginia Vineyards Association is a must for anyone involved in the Virginia wine industry.  But Grape Press is great resource for anyone interested in viticulture, no matter where you live.  It’s a great publication, and Chris (the Vineyard Goddess) and I will be doing our very best to ensure hat it continues to be great.

 

 

April 5, 2013 | By | 1 Reply More

Wine Wars: Terroir’s Last Stand?

Reading Wine Wars, Mike Veseth’s superb book about the forces shaping the modern wine industry, brought two memories to mind, one of fairly recent vintage, the other decades old.

 I’ll start with the older one, which involves a college night with friends.  For reasons that I’m sure made good sense at the time, we decided it would be fun to buy a bottle or two of the cheapest wines we could find on the shelf at a nearby 7-Eleven.  I don’t remember exactly what we bought or what I drank, but the names Thunderbird, Boone’s Farm, and Blue Nun spring to mind.  I also can’t recall how much we paid for them, but it seems like they must have been a couple of dollars each, in line with the cost of a six-pack of beer in the late 1970s.  And, oh yes, I vaguely recall waking up the next morning with a killer hangover.

 The more recent memory involves a lunch in Madrid a couple of years ago.  On the way wine wars coverto the Prado museum, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for a quick lunch.  I ordered the menu del dia, or menu of the day, a common offering at Spanish restaurants that generally features a soup or salad, an entrée, a desert and a choice of beverages.  When I asked about the choice of beverages, I was offered soda of some kind, water, coffee, tea, or wine.  Naturally, I asked for red wine, pleasantly surprised, but realistic enough to expect nothing more than a glass of something that would be innocuous at best.

 A few minutes later, the waiter brought a bottle to our table, set it down, and said something that I took to mean, “this bottle is all for you.”  When I questioned him, he repeated the phrase.  And I understood.  Yes, it was mine, all mine.  The entire bottle.

 The meal probably cost 8 or 9 Euros, about $11 or $12 at the current exchange rate, at the bottom end of what I would expect to pay in any major U.S. city for a decent lunch at a nice, but inexpensive restaurant.  Two things struck me about that transaction.  First was the recognition that back home, the price of the meal would barely have covered a glass of wine, if that, along with a decent course or two of food.  But what really surprised me was the casual way they threw in the full bottle.  We’re talking wine, after all, not water from the tap.

 I wondered off and on in the intervening years how it could be possible to serve a bottle of wine with a meal as though it was nothing more than a cup of bad coffee.  Wine Wars gave me some answers.

 Mr. Veseth discusses three major trends shaping the world of modern wine: globalization, “the miracle of Two Buck Chuck,” and what he refers to as “the revenge of the terroirists.”  Continue Reading–>

March 28, 2013 | By | 1 Reply More

Tempranillo, Part II: The Hydrometer Never Lies

I was pretty excited last Monday when I began making six gallons of Tempranillo wine.  I thought I had been pretty clever in the way I had gotten the temperature just right before pitching the yeast, and I was pretty confident that things would go well.

The must on Day One, floating thermometer barely visible..

The must on Day One, floating thermometer barely visible..

And 24 hours after inoculating the unfermented must with yeast, I was pretty sure fermentation was well underway. The airlock was beginning to accumulate carbon dioxide, or CO2, bubbles and there was a fragrance in the air that I have always associated with fermentation. Also, there was a loud hissing sound inside the primary fermenter said there was something alive and growing inside. Yeast is a truly amazing microorganism.

Forty-eight hours in, I was beginning to worry. The airlock wasn’t bubbling up and down in  the vigorous way I had expected, and I wondered if the fermentation had become stuck. Or worse, if it had actually been stillborn, and I had only been deluding myself the day before. I punched down the grape skins for a couple of minutes (the grape skins are pushed to the top of the fermentation vessel by the CO2 released during fermentation, and they must be “punched down” daily to ensure proper contact with the must – more on this in a later post) and then checked the temperature.

The results were a bit scary – almost 90 degrees. Apparently the heater I was using was a blunter tool than I had thought. That seemed a bit unjust. The last time I made wine, fermentation took forever, and was briefly stuck because I had let the house get too cold. Now, I had apparently gone too far in the other direction.

On  Thursday, I was feeling even worse about the fermentation. I had shut down the heater, and the temperature had dropped to the low eighties.

twenty-four hours later, fermentation appeared to be clearly underway.

twenty-four hours later, fermentation appeared to be clearly underway.

Better for fermentation, but probably still a bit too hot to re-inoculate. I knew I could get the temperature down, but I wasn’t really sure how to go about reinoculating.

I had packages of two different kinds of yeast: RC212, which was the particular kind of yeast that came with the kit, and EC1118, a champagne yeast that is also supposed to be good for restarting stuck fermentations. I wasn’t sure which to use, whether I should rehydrate the yeast with some of the juice before pitching it, or whether I should get the temperature down first. So, I called the company’s technical support line.

I was using a Winexpert kit, and I can’t begin to say enough about their customer support. I got a real person on the phone in a couple of minutes, and she was terrific. Here’s how the conversation went (picking up after I explained the problem):

She: What was the specific gravity when you pitched the yeast?

Me: 1.082

She: What is it now?

Me: I haven’t checked, but since it doesn’t seem to be fermenting, I assume it’s still right around 1.08.

She: You need to check. Give me your number, and I’ll call you back in ten minutes while you take a reading.

Me: OK.

After about ten minutes, she called back.

Me: I just finished sanitizing the hydrometer and wine thief and I’m just filling the tube (for the hydrometer).

Here's the hydrometer, still bobbing up and down a bit in the test tube.

Here’s the hydrometer, still bobbing up and down in the test tube.

She: OK.

Me: Uh. . . Can this possibly be right? It looks like it’s 1.02.

She: You got it! It’s working.

Me: Uhhhh . . . yes, it is.  (but thinking, yes, I am an idiot. . .)

What I learned from her was to rely on the hydrometer, not my visual checks. She was good enough to stay on the phone with me for another five minutes to talk about winemaking and to answer a few more questions about the kit. Honestly, it was one of the best customer support experiences I’ve ever had.

So, I let the wine continue fermenting. Twenty four hours later, the specific gravity was down to 1.011, and the night after that, it was just a hair over 1.000, maybe 1.001. Sunday morning, I’ll check again, and I think it will be time to rack it into a carboy for the secondary fermentation.

Meanwhile, I’m planning to start making a new batch of wine in a week or two, this time Winexpert’s Lodi Ranch 11 Cabernet Sauvignon.  And I’ll be relying less on visual observations and more on things I can measure, like temperature, pH, and specific gravity.

After all, your eyes may deceive you, but the hydrometer never lies.

February 25, 2013 | By | Reply More

Making Tempranillo, Part I

So much of what I’ve written on Project Sunlight has to do with the vineyard – planting vines and tending them until they’re ready for that first harvest. Well, okay, we’re actually a long ways from that first harvest, so in fact most of what I’ve written has to do with that first year in the vineyard, from preparing the ground to planting and caring for the vines over the course of that year. Someday soon, I hope to write the next chapter, the one that has to do with turning simple grapes into something noble. But we have at least another two years before we take that step and make wine from our grapes.

And yet, I want to make wine – now.  So, what to do? I am very hopeful that next fall I’ll be able to buy fresh fruit from somebody else’s vineyard, and make wine from those grapes. But that’s a long ways away, and I’m feeling a need to get some experience with the whole process of fermentation before I start playing with freshly harvested grapes.  It’s also possible I’ll be able to buy some grapes shipped in from Chile in the next month or so (the southern hemisphere runs opposite to our world – our fall is their spring, and their spring is our fall), but I’m not sure about that.

Here's the 7.9 gallon fermentation bucket next to the box containing the juice and grape skins

Here’s the 7.9 gallon fermentation bucket next to the box containing the juice and grape skins

Wine kits, though, offer a world of possibilities – literally.  You can get kits that contains juice and crushed grapes from Argentina’s Mendoza region or South Africa’s Western Cape. You can buy Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon or Australian Shiraz or Oregon Pinot Noir, for that matter, and make those wines at home whenever you want.

Years ago, I turned my nose up at the idea of making wine from a kit.  But from what I’ve read over the past few years, kits have gotten better and better. Two years ago, after receiving a starter set with all the equipment from my daughter as a Christmas gift, I tried my hand at one. I made so many mistakes that I should have been grateful to have ended up with decent vinegar.  But I worked hard at it, and when I was finished I decided that the very least I could say about it is that it was honest to God wine.

I wondered if that would be the most I would ever be able to say about it as well, and I suppose the answer is somewhere in the middle. It wasn’t great wine, but my kids liked it well enough to ask me to bring a couple of bottles with me when I traveled out to visit (in California, no less), so it at least found an audience. And every time I open a bottle, I tell myself, “Hey – this ain’t so bad.”  And yes, I know – that’s a pretty low hurdle.

In any event, I decided to try my hand at it again. This time, I’m making a Spanish Tempranillo, one of my favorite varietals. The kit was made by Winexpert, and it came with a bladder of juice, a smaller bladder of crushed grapes, and of course all of the yeast, fining agents and the like that one needs to turn the juice into wine. Continue Reading–>

February 20, 2013 | By | 1 Reply More