Last weekend, my best friend and I recruited a few enthusiastic volunteers (our husbands and one of our dear friends) and we pressed 400 pounds of grape must. I have been making wine from kits for about 20 years with pretty solid success. In addition to getting about 30 bottles of delicious vino for my troubles, I have always marveled in the process. In particular, I find yeast to be one of the most interesting organisms. The fact that it can turn sugar into alcohol is nothing short of miraculous. Don’t get me started on what it does to wheat! One tiny packet of yeast cells, a couple of weeks multiplying exponentially and out comes 30 bottles of wine. I had always wanted to start with grapes, though. Truth be told, I wanted to grow the grapes, harvest the grapes, crush the grapes….. you get the idea. We’ve never had the room to do it. Even though the yeast is doing much of the work, there is a lot of labor and we have never had the time. Last year, a friend of mine told me about his adventures in home winemaking from the vineyard and I was hooked. So, I did what I always do- I got a book. Then I asked about a million questions of my expert friend. Then I called up my best friend and said, “I am going to buy a couple hundred pounds of grapes and make wine. You should do it with me. It’ll be fun.” I always throw that last part in, even if it might not really be fun because, when we are together, we are always having fun. And she’s the best kind of best friend because she never says “No!” or “Have you lost your mind?” or “What is wrong with you?”. No matter how hair-brained my idea might be, she’s always in.
“We should ride up Mount St Helen’s to celebrate my 50th birthday. It’ll be fun.”
“We should go see Great Big Sea. It’ll be fun.”
“We should stand in the rain all day waiting to watch a 5-minute race. It’ll be fun.”
And even at 0400 on my birthday, standing next to our bikes white-knuckled and shivering, frost hanging from our noses, wishing we had dressed for winter not fall, fixing a flat tire on the side of the road, she would say, “It’s all good.” It was a bear of a ride. I know because it took three hours up and only one hour back down. But she never complained, and I talked her into a way worse ride eight months later (after her memories started to fade). Let’s just say they advertised a mostly flat 75 miles with a couple of hills and it was a mostly hilly 75 miles with a couple of flats. I think of us as a cross between Lucy and Ethyl (if Lucy and Ethyl had doctorates) and Thelma and Louise (if Thelma and Louise were not self-destructive and made better choices where men were concerned).
Like all other things, she was all in on my grape acquisition adventure. We ordered three hundred pounds of Sangiovese grapes and the real fun began. We spent hours planning how we were physically going to manage this. By the time we collected all of the equipment we already had and bought some things we needed, we applied what I call the “20-Mile Logic”. The 20-Mile Logic goes like this: If we can ride 40 miles, we can ride 60. If we can ride 60, we can ride 80. So, if we can ride 40, we can ride 80. And it only gets more absurd from there. So, a couple weeks before the harvest, we called the vintner and asked for another hundred pounds of Petit Verdot. Because, of course, if we can ferment 300 pounds, we can ferment 400 pounds. With each passing week, I watched the Brix levels come in with an intensity I only remember in the final months of pregnancy. When will the grapes be ready?!
When the day finally came, my husband volunteered to drive over to the Portteus Vineyard in Zillah to pick them up. We really had no idea what to expect as we made the long trek from the rainy side to the sunny side of the state. As we rolled through the vineyard, we passed row upon row of vines fat with clusters of grapes. Each variety was unique- some fatter, some deeper in hue, some hanging on the vine lazing in the sun, some seemingly floating off the branches. We stopped at the tasting room purely for scientific reasons. It is important to know what your wine is supposed to taste like, after all. Then we headed out a large cement patio covered in crates of grapes. With a short lesson on filling buckets from the crusher-destemmer, we jumped in the back of the pick up and quickly started laying out the buckets. I was given a 6-inch-wide hose which I surmised was going to be shooting out grape juice shortly as the crate was dropped into the bin. As I looked at my friend, I was picturing Lucy and Ethyl trying to keep up with the candy conveyor belt. There I was precariously perched on the tailgate, gripping the hose for dear life. Instinctively I crouched down against the impending force of 400 pounds of grapes like I was preparing to be on the receiving end of a charging foul. I imagined myself shooting backward from the pressure and the viral replay on America’s Funniest Home Video. It wasn’t quite that bad in the end, but we were working hard to keep the empty buckets coming forward and the filled buckets lined up in the back. That was the easy part it turned out.
My dining room furniture was pushed into a corner to make room for our winery. Barriers were erected to thwart my curious Boxer. In the following days and weeks, we perfected testing for the Brix level, pH and tartaric acid. I felt like I was back in CHEM101. After we threw the yeast, the cap of grapes skins that floated to the top of each bucket had to be punched down at least three times a day. The cap seemed to be swelling before our eyes each time. At one point, I put out an SOS when two of the buckets had grown mountainous caps like something out of a horror movie. When the Sangiovese finished days before the Petit Verdot and way before we had a bladder press reserved, I frantically googled and then hysterically called my friend to alert her that we had an emergency- Carbon Dioxide or Argon were needed stat. After a short and awkward silence which I was sure was going to be ended by “I’m out!”, she said, “My soda stream makes CO2. Why can’t we use that?” She is brilliant. Though we had seen countless ominous videos of first-time pressers covered in raw wine from head to toe, pressing was a breeze. We had a lot of help and it went off like clockwork. So now we wait for several weeks in this last phase before aging. It will be months before we bottle and more still before we know if all our efforts have yielded the nectar we hope it will.
This has been a learning process. Making wine is a lot like life.
- Sometimes the smallest things have the greatest impact: yeast cells, simple kindness, holding a baby, wiping a tear, helping someone up, cheering someone on. It is the little things that multiply exponentially- just like yeast. If you don’t believe me, try smiling at everyone you see tomorrow.
2. Think ahead and read the directions. There are a lot of steps in winemaking and they can come at you so fast. You don’t want to be standing with a siphon full of wine without a clean carboy.
3. Improvise- sometimes reading ahead just isn’t enough. Who would have thought we could use a soda stream and a fish tank tube in winemaking?
4. Have faith. Just because you cannot see something happening doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
5. Patience. Sometimes the greatest rewards take the longest time.
6. Most importantly, everything is always better when you have a best friend you can count on who gets you.