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Failure to Launch? Oh No!

Day 2 in fermentation wine-making

Wouldn’t you know it?

After six years of successfully adding yeast into the crushed grapes with nary a problem, I walked into the barn this morning to see if the hard cap of grape skins and pulp that is supposed to have formed at the top of the vat of grape slurry is there.  Nope.  Only “caps” in two of the seven.

How can that be?

I used the same exact yeasts I’ve used in past years, which were nice and bubbly (like they were supposed to be) when I added them.  All vats were treated equally, so why the discrepancy in progress?

“Oh geez. I can’t even call my wine-maker mentor, because he has “life” happening right now,” which is what he says when life’s big events take over normal days. Technically, the manuals say to wait until Fermentation Day 3 of failure to launch in the yeast before worrying. However, in the past, the robust yeast I’ve used has taken off after the first 24 hours.

Here are are some pictures shooting down into the vats to show you what I’m talking about.

Robust Healthy Cap

Inert Nonexistant Cap

Undecided Half Cap

After a frantic call to More Winemaking’s helpline and an order for more yeast to be Fedexed tomorrow (just in case,) I wheeled the lackadaisical vats into the sun to warm the yeast and to stimulate some action.

Results tonight were all four of the Cab vats had formed caps. Yee ha!

Two of the three Merlot vats had formed very flimsy, weak caps, and one vat was a half cap, which I will take as a hopeful sign.  After all, tomorrow, Day 3 in the yeast game, is the cut off day for a successful start to the fermentation, turning grape juice into wine.

So many people put their hearts and sweat into this project that I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to pull it off with a “best effort” of success.

Plus, as a Celiac person, I need to make my own red wine in barrels guaranteed not to contain one molecule of wheat in the barrel making process, if I am to enjoy any at all.  So, I’m pretty motivated to make a go of this massive hobby.

Wish me luck, and pray for energetic yeast!

*Note to all you home winemaker wannabes–More Winemaking–is a great resource of supplies, how-to manuals, and a live help desk.  www.morewinemaking.com

Harvest 2017

After the crush, we ended up with 100 gallons of Cab and 70 gallons of Merlot. Not bad for our 1/4 acre vineyard.

As you know from my last post, we struggled with the concept of continuing with the harvest in regard to the wildfires devastating the Napa area.

But, we carried on with an almost reverent tone in respect to and for our north bay neighbors. Each harvester seemed to cherish handling, cutting, and sending the grapes to my husband’s crushing machine…more deeply. Each seemed to enjoy the other harvesters more intensely.

No one hurried. Appreciating the fragility of the landscape lent a nearly Zen quality to this year’s harvest. (I know that sounds corny, but it was palpable.)

So…yes. It did feel healing for our little community of friends and family to come and to work together, and, of course, to raise a glass, or in most cases, several, for a job well done. 🍇🍇🍇

South Bay Watching North Bay Burn

The devastating North Bay Area fires feel and have felt personal. The evacuated and newly homeless people are our friends and relatives. The South Bay Area has been glued to KRON’s 24 hour coverage.

The Silverado Resort damaged? This is the place where my husband’s golf ball literally bounced off a goose’s back and landed on a green during one of the practice rounds in a pro am event. Memories!
We’ve seen beloved wineries on the Silverado trail, like Signorello, reduced to rubble. (Will we ever cherish the apron we got in their tasting room on one of our many anniversary weekends, now!)
Currently, the whole town of Calistoga has been evacuated and is at risk. What about the Lincoln Avenue Spa with those awesome steam tables where we have spent many a weekend sweating out the stresses of the 60-80 hour work weeks of Silicon Valley?
However cherished, our memories are insignificant in the face of the devastation and the complete life-altering changes the residents and businesses of the North Bay Area wine country have and are experiencing. The thing is…the fire continues day after day gobbling everything in sight in this cherished area. Unfathomable.

Our Harvest-
We are harvesting our backyard vineyard Saturday, which feels a bit odd in the face of the “real” wine country’s disaster. We will be wearing masks in the rows, because of the Napa/Sonoma fires’ smoke. Our grapes have begun to wither and show signs of stress from the big winds that have driven the North Bay fires and felt here.

Do we cancel the harvest in honor of the loss in the North Bay’s wine country or carry on to honor the grape-growing/wine-making traditions started there?

Our harvesters have called to tell me that they need to get in the field and work with the grapes, in order to lessen the horror they feel for our North Bay neighbors. With heavy hearts we will soldier on (bringing baby food, dog food, toiletries, etc to the harvester that will take these supplies on Sunday to the eight, now homeless, families she knows in the North Bay.) We will celebrate everything this California soil has to give to each of us no matter where we live: grapes, artichokes, strawberries—a fruit and veggie basket for the nation.

Please uncork a Napa or Sonoma wine this weekend to honor the men and women who have created and continue to care for our original wine country and for those amazing disaster fighters hard at work to end the burning of the North Bay area.

Ways to Help-#WineCountryStrong

SAHMmelier

cropped-798.jpg Photo taken from the hills behind Gundlach Bundschu

To write about wine while the wine country burns feels wrong to me.

And yet finding the words to do the tragedy justice seems impossible.

When I look at the devastation, see what has been taken, how can I respond? When I start to realize the enormity of the situation, all words seem trite.

Each photo elicits the same few words: devastating, heartbreaking, unbelievable.

Each new days brings more reports of loss and not enough containment and evacuations.

Each feed brings different reports of heartache and heroism, of loss and resilience.

It is a place that I’ve never called home, but every time I visit, it sure feels like one. It is home for many friends and for my father-in-law. It is the heart of our country’s wine industry, a place where people dream of living. A place where people have spent…

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Start Where You Are

Start where you are…admonishes the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron.

My pen moves across a yellow writing pad for the first time since my husband’s sudden, near-death experience.  Nothing can prepare a person for standing inside a real life Grey’s Anatomy scene of life support machines; beeping, wheezing, and blinking.  How fitting that on my husband’s birthday the urge to write finally returns after months of not being able to or wanting to do anything but read.  (By the way, I highly recommend the book, Nightingale by Kristin Hannah; one of the best books I’ve read in ages.) As I see my husband’s huge zest for embracing life return–laughter, teasing, strategic planning and dreaming–my own interests resurface.

I want to thank the community of wine bloggers, loosely brought together by The Drunkin Cyclist’s monthly wine writing challenge, whose posts have been a huge comfort to read over the last few months.  My good intentions at the beginning of 2016 to log the monthly activities of a non commercial wine maker and grape grower came to a halt early in the year.  (Oh well.)  As my wine mentor, Ted, says, “Life happens.”

Consequently, the aging wine in the barn has languished along with my pen.  I hope I can salvage any ill effects of my neglect, as my husband and I dedicate August weekends to wine recovery efforts.  (Fingers crossed.)  Hopefully, as we plow through the work, I will have enough energy left to chronicle our progress in blog posts.

Bare bones things done to keep the vineyard and winery afloat:

  1. Regular topping of the wine in the barrels.
  2.  6-8 week SO2 checks and corrections.
  3. Hire a trusted crew to thin the overgrowth of canes, etc. in the vineyard as needed.
  4. Hire the mold/mildew prevention spraying.
  5. Plow between the rows to keep unwanted weeds controlled.

That’s it.  Hope it was enough to keep us from having to scrap a whole year’s harvest.  I’ll keep you posted, hopefully.

How happy (ecstatic, really) I am to be celebrating my husband’s birthday today, a symbol of recovery, of hope, of a wonderful future together!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016 January Vineyard Update

I am determined in 2016 to track, month by month, a whole year in the vineyard and the winery. For those of you who have lost sight of our operation, because I haven’t posted or kept up this blog for about 2 years. I just want to share what it is like to live in a California wine region (the south, south Bay Area) and to learn to manage a small vineyard and wine making operation on our plot of land. We have about a third of an acre of Cabernet and Merlot grapes. With a group of very committed friends and relatives, we installed a lyre system of trellising and stuck the twigs we purchased from UC Davis in the ground, 10 years ago this coming April.

After two disastrous attempts to make wine from our grapes by simply following directions from an instruction manual, I was lucky enough to start mentoring with a professional wine maker, Ted Medeiros from Medeiros Family Wines (formerly from Sycamore Creek Vineyards.) We live within three miles of most of the south Santa Clara County vineyards. While these wineries do not have rock star status like Napa, Anderson Valley, Sonoma, and Paso Robles, there are some very good vintners. Ted happens to be our favorite. His style of wine making honors the terroir and the integrity of the grape as it speaks of the weather and soil’s influence in any given year. Apparently, we are not alone in our appreciation of his detailed attention to vineyard management, to wine making and to the quality of wine he produces, as evidenced by several of his wines receiving the coveted Best of Show, Gold and Double Gold medals in the prestigious San Francisco wine competition a couple of years ago while he was winemaker at Sycamore Creek. Long story, longer, he has generously given his knowledge and his time over the last few years to help me learn to make a decent wine. (And I have to tell you, the process is much more complicated, than I ever could have imagined when beginning this journey.)

First, we had to re-balance the vineyard, which took a couple of years. Then I had to hone and to learn all kinds of subtleties in the wine making process that are not mentioned in the home wine making books. Go figure. I know I could have taken that correspondence course from UC Davis in wine making, but, frankly, I have been going to school or teaching my whole life, and I am just done with the academic scene.

The one-on-one tutoring has been wonderful. Many an afternoon, I have put out an SOS for help after tasting the aging wine in the barrel and been horrified by where the taste was headed. Over Ted would come in his mud caked boots from his own vineyard work, probably dog-tired, to help me out. My husband would come home from a long commute from his Silicon Valley day job to find Ted and I in the barn with our noses in a glass or in the bung hole of a barrel trying to figure out how to salvage a year’s work that probably should have been scrapped because of mistakes I made early on in that year’s production. Ted’s wife, a super taster, would bring us back to reality, and pretty much tell us the wine was crap by the way she wrinkled her nose. (Ah well, not every year is salvageable.) She has also given me the wonderful gift of interpreting Ted’s techno speak into a simpler version that even my math/science averse mind could understand.

Of course, we have loved it all: the wine-filled compost pile in the first years; the brutal advice; the out and out lies of our devoted friends, who swore the wine was “not that bad;” the wild and raucous annual harvest work-parties; the assembly-line efficiency my husband created to bottle and to label the wines; the new looks of shock and wonder on our friends’ faces the last couple of years as they tasted the wine and enthusiastically went in for a second sip. We are doing it. We are finally making a good solid Wednesday night wine. Yee ha!

We love this hobby. We love living in a state obsessed with growing grapes and making wine, where sniffing, swirling, sipping, pairing never gets old.

Ps. The vineyard was quiet in January. The vines are dormant.

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Winery Update-2013 Cab Bottling

288 bottles of Cab have been bottled
288 bottles are done
We took one down
And  passed it around…
287 bottles of Cab have been bottled.
287 bottles of Cab have been bottled
Wondrous looks abound
We want second sips
To hit our lips
Looking forward to 24 cases of Cab being bottled! The joke has always been that I will know when my wine-making is becoming successful when my husband wants a whole glass. Turned out that happened last Saturday when we bottled our 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon.  He had three.

Saturday’s bottling was also a pivotal day, because it was the first time we had any group vineyard/wine work party without my “much-loved” father-in-law, who passed away in March.  Normally, we would have bottled somewhere between March and June, but stalled because of the difficulty of facing it without him.  However, with the grapes veraising on the vine and the harvest tick-tocking quickly towards us, we had to get the bottling done to free barrel and storage capacity for the 2015 grapes.

To keep the mood light, we over-filled a bottle for each of our bottling crew and sipped the wine down to the correct level for corking, in memory of Jack, my husband’s father.

To give you the background…the very first time we attempted to bottle wine, Jack, my husband, and I used the siphon-through-a-hose method of filling each bottle.  For any of you who have tried this, you know it is a primitive process rarely resulting in the wine arriving at the correct level in the bottle in prep for the corking which follows.  Of course, “the only way” to correct the situation is to sip the wine down to the desired level.

The then 81-year-old, Jack, after double checking that was “the only way” to do it, enthusiastically swigged, sipped dribbled wine down his T-shirt until he staggered into a plastic chair behind him chuckling, “I just can’t do any more!”  That was about 40 or 50 bottles into the process.  Now, you have a picture of why this fun-loving man is missed.

Jack would have loved tasting this batch of wine.  After nine years of helping us with our vineyard and vintner endeavors, we have finally come up with a drinkable Cab.  There is hope for producing a stellar, rich, balanced, full-bodied Cab and /or Merlot…someday.  Until that day comes, we will keep enjoying friends and family at work parties, sharing lots of laughter-filled meals, and raising a glass to the fruits of our labor.  Cheers!

 

          The 2013 A Sniff and Two Sips’ Cab is dedicated to you, Jack!

Vineyard Update – A Photo Journey

The first six months of 2015 in the vineyard – a photographic journey:

No rain this winter.

No rain this winter.


February's tangle of canes.

February’s tangle of ca

6-2015 7726-2015 197Pruning the canes.

Bud break. And so it begins...
Bud break. And so it begins…

Explosive growth.

Explosive growth.


Teeny, tiny grapes.

Teeny, tiny grapes.


Thinning.

Thinning.


Look at that pile. All this just to give the grapes some breathing room.

Look at that pile. All this just to give the grapes some breathing room.


That's more like it.

That’s more like it.

 

Beautiful, full crop this year.

Beautiful, full crop this year.  Aah, fruits of the land and nectar of the gods.

The fruit is continuing to develop. To see an actual crop of grapes emerge, fill out, and ripen on the vines is exciting.  Our friends, whom I make walk up and down the rows, every time they come over, may not agree, but they put up with my “want-to-be-a-farmer” quirks. (Thankfully.)  They do draw the line at viewing the bat house on the back of the barn beside the last row of Merlot.  Funny, they don’t seem to care a bit how great a fertilizer bat guano is. Redemption comes at the end of the tour with pulling a cork and sipping a glass of wine on the deck. Gotta love summer!

Cook to Eat/ Crisis Management

Paleo Update Saturday, my father-in-law was released into hospice care to begin his end of life days. When these times of intensity happen in life, it throws us into a different dimension of activity outside our normal routine. “Regular” life stops for a bit to be replaced by weird schedules, by unusual demands and activities only needing to be done a few times throughout a whole lifetime. How many times does a non medical professional order a hospital bed, empty a catheter bag, etc.

I am learning a few key survival skills for times of intensity or crisis, especially if you are on a “true” Celiac diet, which is no grain whatsoever, ever:

1. Keep safe snacks on hand and packed in a “to go” bag that you can grab at a moment’s notice. You never know when you will get a chance to eat or find a restaurant or store where you can get safe food when jumping in the car to be by a loved one’s side. (I like bags of plain plantain chips, Trader Joe’s marcona almonds, and an apple as a bare minimum. If I have more time, I make a meal-salad in a mason jar, Paleo chocolate cookies, and a shaker jar with a scoop of Paleo friendly protein powder, and little snack baggies of each meal’s vitamin supplements.)

2. Do not skimp on good nutritious foods. Make yourself drink that veggie or protein drink, even if it is the last thing you want to do. Your body will keep you going in good form throughout the duration of intense stress because of it. (Do not cheat on the diet. It will only weaken your ability to handle the stress. The stress is making your body work overtime already.)

3. Get fully presentable (shower, wash hair, make-up, etc) every morning. You may have to go to a group gathering at a moment’s notice where you would be embarrassed in schlocky sweats and ratty T shirt.

4. Keep the gas tank of your car full at all times.

5. Bring enough water bottles to get through a 12 hour period. Hospitals and emergency agencies hide the water; I swear. Plus, even though you are doing essentially nothing–at least nothing physical—when sitting by a sick person’s bed, time disappears. Your thirst can rage. Your blood sugar can drop.

6. Try to get a good amount of sleep.

7. Try to keep up with your exercise routines. (I must admit; this is the one that I let slide most often. Sleep always seems to win over exercise.)

If you can keep on top of just these foundational things, it will help you manage the unusual time and activity demands in fairly good form, relatively speaking, until normal life can be resumed. This post is for all those attending last days of loved ones, attending births, or going through any of a myriad of life’s intense once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Below is the recipe to one of my favorite Paleo cookie recipes. This recipe by Carol Lovett is from her cookbook, The Grain-free Snacker. Check out her blog, Ditch the Wheat.


Double Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients

2/3 cup coconut palm sugar

1/3 cup extra virgin coconut oil

2 large eggs

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

3 tablespoons sifted coconut flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

1/2  cup dark chocolate chips, (I use Enjoy Life big chunky chocolate bits, because there is no soy, no dairy, no grain. Plus, who doesn’t love a big chunk of chocolate in their cookies.)

Yields 14 cookies

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350* F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Using a mixing machine, mix together the sugar and coconut oil.

3. Slowly add one egg at a time to the mixture. Add the cocoa powder, coconut flour and vanilla, and mix until incorporated. Lastly, stir in chocolate chips.

4. Drop the cookies by spoonfuls onto the baking sheet, at least 2 inches apart.

5. Bake for 12 minutes.

6. Let the cookies cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet before moving them to a wire rack to cool.

Note: Check out her blog or cookbook to get the extra notes for the prep of these cookies. I just included the basic directions. She gives more detail in her official recipe.

My Directions: In all honesty, I melt the coconut oil in a Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave; throw the rest of the ingredients sans the chocolate chips in a big Tupperware bowl; then add the oil when melted; stir like crazy with a wooden spoon; add two handfuls of chocolate chips; stir; plop on the parchment paper and bake. They always turn out great (except the time I used an egg substitute for my grandson who is allergic to eggs. Flat as a pancake that time.)

As you can tell, I usually cook without recipes. When I use them, I rarely follow directions completely, which does not always make for great baking success, but these cookies turn out in spite of my cavalier ways. (The Naked Chef, Jaimie Oliver, epitomizes my style of cooking. Love when he says in his cookbooks or on his show…”pour in a couple of glugs” of the designated liquid, but I digress.)   Seriously, these cookies have become my Paleo comfort food during times of stress. I recommend always having a batch on hand. I know I do. They freeze well, too.

Hats off to Carol Lovett and this yummy recipe!

Jedi Wine Making – Chemistry can be fun?

OMG! Who knew?

Apparently … Lab tests on wine are fun. The test subject (wine aging in our barrels in the barn) matters. I have been a chemistry hater from way back, even changed my college major to avoid chem classes.

2015/01/img_1368.jpg

But … When you know the tests you are about to learn can keep your wine on track, you will do just about anything to chase the dream of making that elusive, perfect, full-bodied, balanced glass of vino, especially if you’ve slaved all season tending the vines.

So … Ted of Medeiros Family Winery, my Yoda mentor, hosted this morning’s foray into his lab to determine how much free SO2 was suspended in each barrel’s wine. SO2 is the substance that can protect the wine from oxidation, basically keeping the “bitter” under control.

2015/01/img_1369.jpg

During … There were test tubes hanging from a science-looking contraption, pipettes, rubber tubing, things bubbling, substances dripping one drop at a time into a wine-colored solution that suddenly turned green. Very cool!

2015/01/img_1367-0.jpg
All the precise measuring and scary looking equipment my free spirit hated in high school, became a welcome, fun endeavor getting me ever so slightly closer to that sigh of delight I want to feel and to see on family and friends’ faces when they take a sip of our wine. Someday, hopefully. Currently, we have progressed from an out and out frown and searching look for a spittoon to a neutral look of wonder and a “hey, this is not bad.”

All in all … Not a bad way to spend the morning.