You Never Forget Your First Crush

October 31, 2014 | By | 6 Replies More

Scott Elliff of DuCard Vineyards once told me that harvest was a joyous time, the culmination of a year’s hard labor tending the vines.  And on September 21, after four years of planning, preparation, and hard work, we experienced that joy in our own vineyard, picking grapes from the vines we had planted with our own hands and nurtured like our own children.  If I’m at this ten years from now, I’m sure I’ll still find joy in the harvest, but I doubt that it will be anything like the euphoria I felt as we picked those first Cab Franc grapes this year.

Using a refractometer to check the Brix (sugar levels) the night before harvesting.

Using a refractometer to check the Brix (sugar levels) the night before harvesting.

To recap a bit, the Vineyard Goddess and I began this adventure some four years ago.  We took classes on viticulture and enology at Piedmont Virginia Community College, did lots of research on our own, debated which clones and which rootstocks to order, and finally planted our vineyard in the (very) early spring of 2012. Since then, we’ve invested a lot of sweat, a couple of tears and even a little blood (I snipped my finger with the pruning snips during the harvest) in bringing those vines to the point where they were ready to produce a crop of grapes worthy of picking.

And, oh my God – did those vines ever produce!

The Cab Franc and the Petit Verdot were absolutely magnificent:  nearly perfect fruit that proved irresistible to the bees that laid siege to those rows of vines.  The Merlot, for whatever reason, fell behind.  I had thought we’d pick the Merlot first among the reds, and by all rights we should have. But after accumulating sugar at a rapid pace, the Merlot vines just shut down.  We picked them October 5, and I’m hoping for the best.

Picking the Cab Franc. Started at first light, just finishing as the sun is starting to rise.

Picking the Cab Franc. Started at first light, just finishing as the sun is starting to rise.

The Viognier was disappointing.  Virginia-grown Viognier makes a wonderful wine, but it’s hard to grow.  For some reason it’s subject to something called primary bud abortion, and I guess our vines experienced that phenomenon, because the Viognier was the least fruitful of all our varieties.  The grapes looked lovely, but I had expected about 100 pounds or so, and we got about 20.  Other vineyards around the Commonwealth had the same experience, though on a totally different scale (the difference between tons and tens of pounds).

The last of our varietals is Petit Manseng, and those grapes looked beautiful when we harvested them two weekends ago.  We want to make a desert wine from them, and so we let them hang a bit longer than we might have.  We had hoped they would accumulate a little more sugar and lose a little more acid.  If we had known we were in for some pretty significant rain the week prior, we might have chosen differently, but weekend vintners like us have to make some tough decisions and then live with them. As it turned out, we didn’t get the extra sugar or the lower acidity. We’ll work with it.

But getting back to where I started, there are some things you never forget.  I can still remember the first crushes of my life – the first time I saw the Vineyard Goddess in the newsroom of our college newspaper, the first book I really fell in love with (thank you, James Joyce), the first time I saw my children, and the first time I saw Venice, walking out from the train station on a beautiful sunlight day to see the Grand Canal sparkling with life.  Some things you just never forget.

The Petit Verdot (and for that matter, the Cab Franc, could not have been any more perfect.

The Petit Verdot (and for that matter, the Cab Franc, could not have been any more perfect.

And so, I don’t want to get too sentimental about this, but when we had finished picking the Cab Franc on that beautiful September morning, the VG and I hugged and felt a sense of euphoria. All those years, all that sweat, and all that worry behind us; now we had the fruit of our labor in front of us, collected in a dozen five-gallon Home Depot buckets.  It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.

A little detail: we had gotten up at first light that morning to pick, and we finished before the sun hit the vines.  The early morning, especially this time of the year, is cool, and you want the grapes to hit the crush pad (i.e., our driveway in Fairfax) cool. The crush, by the way, is the term applied to the harvest and the process of preparing the grapes for fermentation.

As we picked, we stored buckets in a refrigerator we had purchased just for this task.  With the shelves removed, we could fit six buckets, stacked on top of each other, separated by the shelves I had pulled out and repurposed.  As we brought more grapes up from the vineyard, we pulled the buckets from the frig and dumped them into a 120 quart cooler from Costco.  When it was filled, we pulled out smaller coolers.  The grapes were cool to the touch right up to the crush, and the must came in at around 60 degrees or lower.

As it turned out, picking the grapes was the easy part.  I had done a lot of research and reading, a lot of planning, and a lot of online shopping for the equipment and supplies we would need.  But for all that work, when it got down to actually making the wine, I found myself in the weeks before the harvest feeling a bit lost.

A refrigerator full of wine grapes -- this is about half the load of Cab Franc.  We dumped these into the cooler and refilled the frig.

A refrigerator full of wine grapes — this is about half the load of Cab Franc. We dumped these into the cooler and refilled the frig.

So, before we picked the first grapes, I started making a cheat sheet.  It went something like this:

First, add sulphur at a rate of 50 parts per million (.33 grams per gallon), which kills off unwanted natural yeasts and protects the must (the mix of juice, skins, seeds, and stems that will turn into wine) during those vulnerable hours before fermentation begins.  Next, check the brix, pH and TA (titratable acidity) of the must (add a dozen steps here). Rehydrate the yeast (add a half-dozen steps here).  And so on.  (Add dozens and dozens of individual steps.)  And for all that, I found myself furiously reading the instructions (again) on my lab test equipment to be sure I knew how to test the TA, and reading other literature on hydrating and preparing yeast.

When we arrived back in Fairfax, we started with the easy stuff: the sorting table.  We had purchased a folding table, which turned out to be the perfect place for the family and friends to gather around for some work and talk. Kind of like what I imagine a quilting bee was like a century or so ago. We pulled some chairs around the table, and the VG and I, plus daughter Kate and a couple of neighbors, sorted the grapes. That’s easy and straightforward, but it’s also very time consuming.

The fruit was amazing, so we didn’t throw away very much at all.  Mostly, we were looking for MOG – matter other than grapes.  We found the occasional spider web (with the spider, in most cases, which elicited a few screams), and some extra leaves and such. But the fruit that went into the crusher was just about perfect.

The crusher-destemmer was way more of a machine than we really needed.  It crushed the fruit faster than we could drop it in, and we were finished with that part of the process in maybe ten minutes.  Honestly, cleaning it took way longer than the actual crushing.  But I’m still glad I bought it.  More on that in another post.

In the end, the Cab Franc yielded some 20 gallons of must – juice, grape skins, seeds and some stems that fell through the destemmer.  As luck would have it, I had a 20 gallon bucket on hand to catch it all.  Again, we’re still on the easy part.

The cooler is getting full!

The cooler is getting full!

I weighed the sulphur (potassium metabisulphite), mixed it with distilled water and added it to the must. And then, I spent hours measuring the pH and TA and brix, deciding whether to adjust the sugar level or acidity (I decided not to), and preparing to pitch the yeast.  And in between, I cleaned out the crusher, the extra buckets, and everything else I used in the process.  Not to mention sanitizing everything that came into contact with the must.

I have always used potassium metabisulphite for sanitizing, but now, with my own grapes at stake, I worried a bit.  I had used sulphites at 50 ppm to protect the must, and the mix for the sanitizing solution was much stronger than 50ppm. So I decided to go with Star San, an acid-based sanitizer that requires no rinsing afterward.  Pretty much every bone in my body was calling for sulphur, but I resisted.

It was some day.  We were in the vineyard at about 7 a.m., and it was close to 10 before I pitched the yeast, which started the fermentation (Not right away mind you; no, the yeast played with me, waiting days before they actually began to ferment the must).

Much of the time spent that day involved nothing more than anxiety – wanting to get everything just right and worrying that I was getting everything just wrong – but another part of it was the actual physical labor involved. By the time the day was over, I was exhausted, and the memory of hugging the Vineyard Goddess at the end of the harvest was just that – a distant memory.

Well, I suppose in the end, it’s like dating the first girl you had a crush on – the hopes, the anxiety, the desire to get everything just right, the certainty that you have gotten everything totally wrong, and the physical exhaustion that comes from working so hard.

But I’m hoping this crush is like the time I laid eyes on the Vineyard Goddess for the first time.  If this crush is as perfect as that one, we’ll have a wine for the ages.

 

 

 

 

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Category: All Posts, Wine, Winemaking

Comments (6)

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  1. Steve Bozzo says:

    Fabulous post. Can’t wait for the next one. Congrats to you both.

    • Bob Garsson says:

      Steve, thanks so much. I knew the vineyard would be a lot of work, but I had no idea how much physical labor would go into the winemaking. Bill Tonkins from Veritas commented on a Facebook post about the Cab Franc that the pressing (or maybe it was the crushing) was the easy part – where, he asked, are the pictures of the cleanup?

      Hope all’s going well. Will you be at the winter technical?

  2. Bill Tonkins says:

    Bob, congrats on your first crush and a great blog post and with an ending like that you cannot lose no matter what the outcome of the wine.

  3. Frank says:

    Excellent post here, Bob! Thank you. As someone who consistently vacillates whether or not I want to move my chips in to the center of the proverbial wine table by planting a vineyard, I appreciate your perspective. Cheers!

    • Bob Garsson says:

      Thanks, Frank – If you ever do think you want to try for the vineyard, I can offer some (hopefully useful) free advice. But I think you know a lot of vineyard owners near you, and you may want to see if you can work for a morning or two at one of them to get a feel for it. Chris and I find the work rewarding, but even so, there are days….

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