The time had come to press my must. The grapes weren’t completely done fermenting, but alcohol and time had extracted enough of color, flavor, and tannins from the peels to suit my taste. I had found an old, manual wood press in the barn, a little worse for the wear perhaps, but still beautiful, and I intended to use it for my wine. Using this gentle method for pressing grapes would reduce a little of the petite sirah’s normally forceful tannins. Besides, I always had a penchant for old farm equipment.
”But you make natural wine, you cannot possibly use chemicals!” Taka, the vineyard manager, exclaimed when I came to him desperate, looking for oil for the old machine. It wasn’t until he broke into a big smile, which told me I’d never win this fight, that I realized he was just pulling my leg. Oiling a wine press has nothing to do with making wine without additives, after all.
The basket press took most of the day to wash and disinfect. Being thorough is of outmost importance, especially with porous wood. It would be a shame to get bacteria, or harmful yeast like Brettanomyces, into the wine after the fermentation went so well. But the cogs were stuck, which is why I asked Taka for some oil, to no avail. It isn’t easy being known as the “natural wine girl” when you have team members who can prank you with a straight face.
Well, I wasn’t going to beg. It was time to show these vineyard workers, all men, what a determined Swedish woman could do. It didn’t take long for me to be sweating in the hot Californian sun, blisters on my hands and a growing pain in my back, but at least the press was working! Al Stewart played from a speaker someone had been kind enough to mount on top of a fermentation tank. And the juice coming out of the press was delicious. Powerful and tough, but adequately acidic, with nice overtones of dark berries.
Toward the end of the day, I had at last earned Taka’s respect. He came by to give me two bottles of his own “port wine” and a cold beer. Chief winemaker Zach helped me dump the last heavy grapes out of the press, and then my wine was barreled! What a feeling! I sat down, watching the last warming rays of the afternoon sun, leaning against the barrel with Taka’s cold beer in my hand. This was what satisfied feels like.
The barrel was taken by forklift to the stone vaults to ferment dry in a cool space. Little carbonation bubbles on the surface proved there was still active yeast in the juice, and sugars left for them to eat. Morning and night, I checked on the barrel, singing to it a little as I measured the sugar levels. They continued dropping slowly. I’ll no longer roll my eyes when I hear winemakers calling their wines their babies; the relationship you create with this clearly living product is highly personal.
But my barrel and I still had five brix left to work off, and there was nothing to do about it but wait. In the meantime, I spent my days helping out with other things in the vineyard: shoveling grape stems under the destemming machine (which feels like standing on a sticky trampoline), learning about filtration, clarification, and calculating how much nutrients (essentially nitrogen) to feed the yeast in commercial fermentation. Zach the winemaker and I wandered miles upon miles through the vineyard to taste the grapes, look for pests, and try to gauge when it was time for harvest. It’s harder than you think: the vines are differently exposed to sunshine, and one sun-facing side can be nearly overripe, while the shady backside may still be full of bitter tannins and strong acidity.
One large vineyard we visited in a humid area had been severely attacked by rot. “Look here,” Zach sighed. “This grower has a long-term contract and isn’t worried about correct pruning. The vines have far too many grape clusters each. They grow too close to each other and become neither ripe nor tasty, while they trap humidity. With a long-term contract, the grower gets paid by the ton and doesn’t have to be concerned with quality, only quantity. But we can’t turn them down when we have a contract,” Zach continued disappointedly, explaining that the Napa and Sonoma growers have so many potential buyers for their grapes that they can do essentially what they want. The vast majority are proud of their work and want to grow great grapes on healthy vines, but it’s definitely possible to get away with far less if you have a long-term contract. “I have to sell this juice in bulk, it won’t work for our brand” said Zach, seeming just as annoyed that the expensive grapes were unusable as he was that the vines were unwell.
Luckily, our moods lifted again at the next vineyard, where it was time for Zach to harvest his contractual allotment. The 62 hectares of the Bedrock Vineyard are some of California’s most historic. The first vines were planted here in the heart of Sonoma as far back as 1854, by General Sherman. Most of the vines currently growing are 120 years old, gnarled and incredibly beautiful, practically majestic. I tasted a handful of Zinfandel and was instantly ecstatic. Imagine being able to make wine off this! Zach laughed. He’s allowed a few tons, but they are very expensive, and very desirable. He was happy to have a few hectares under contract.
The connection between grape flavor and wine style became clearer to me with each of these tours through the vineyards, a lesson it would be hard to learn from a textbook. Same with how clearly the quality of the grapes will shine through in the wine. A wine is built off every step of the process, down to the soil in which it grows and who makes choices for it along the way. If it takes a village to raise a child, it seemed to me it took a whole wine country to make a wine.
Continue reading the "Winemaker For A Harvest" Series:
>> Part 1: A California Vineyard Calling My Name
>> Part 2: The Grapes Are Ready!
>> Part 3: The Troubles Making "Natural" Wine Were Only Beginning
>> Part 5: Coming Soon!