When the Winemaker says “Stomp!”…You Better Wash Your Feet!

by Debra Chappell

View from the vineyard:

Mood Reading: ZZZ’s (fairly good night sleep after walking, biking, and a few brews at Undercover Ale.)

“The Brix level on the Marquette grapes is at 27, all hands on deck to crush — tommorrow!” So the call to arms came through on this Labor day weekend while we were spending some leisurely time at the mountain cabin. Hey, when the wine master says “crush”, you don’t argue!  We jumped in the car this morning to make it back home (and to the vineyard) by noon to help with the load.  When you are part of a wine co-op, it comes with the territory – the grapes wait for no one, least of all lazy holiday makers who would otherwise be downing a few micro-brews with their bar-b-que.

Our friend and neighbor John,  master winemaker and vintner extraordinairre, had texted from his vineyard after testing the sugar level last night.  Usually our wine co-op which John founded 3 years ago, buys about 500 lbs. of grapes (for each varietal, we usually do four) every fall from Cooper Vineyards, located just over the Sierra Nevada’s on the western side of the mountain range, in Amador County – premium California wine country.  And though we will buy grapes again this year come harvest time, this is the first time “we” have crushed grapes grown in John’s own vineyard. He daringly planted vines in the high desert facing down doubt, skepticism, and some otherwise smart a** cynicism after researching varieties hearty enough to weather our brutal climate. For those unfamiliar with our altitude, temps, wind, variety of wild life, and suck-the-life-out-of-anything dryness, take it from me, this is no mean feat.  Most of us have a hard enough time with petunias, marigolds, and the odd delphinium let alone the nectar from the historically sacred fruit. 

But John was relentless.  He researched, cultivated, nurtured, whispered and implored the vines to grow and this year…they finally did. Not without a lot of bird netting and babysitting mind you, but today… today we finally had the fruit from all of his labor.

When John started this venture – a longtime passion that grew into an elaborate hobby – he soon enlisted the help of a few friends, neighbors, and one friendly realtor (yours truly), the lot amounting to nothing more than an odd collection of entirely ignorant, oblivous beginners who made up for in enthusiasm what they lacked in viticulture experience. But we were willing to work for cheese and crackers, a few giggles and perhaps a premium bottle of hearty Zinfindel at the end of it all and that seemed enough.  Now, we are a well oiled machine who know the routine, the value of teamwork and a damn good Petite Sirah when we taste it.  Last month we bottled 524 bottles of wine (44 cases) in just under 6 hours.  We set up two different stations, one for bottling and corking, the other for labeling and packing, and held time trials against each other using the highest of technologies to begin and end each cycle, a policeman’s whistle once used by John’s father.  We even managed to get as much wine into the bottles as we did on the floor and in the “over-flow” vessel (which turned out to be whoever’s glass was nearest.)  Needless to say it was a productive and entirely convivial way to spend an afternoon.

And now for the first time ever, John and company have crushed his debut heritage grape.  This will be followed by days and weeks of punching down,  adding yeast, tweaking chemicals, testing  tannins, and hopefully, if all goes well,  bottling this time next year or a little sooner. We celebrated this evening with some burgers on the barbie and a full bodied, long-legged Primotivo we bottled from 2009.  As John said over dinner, you can’t beat a full body and long legs at the end of a hot summer day.