Two Bees Wine

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Today the label designs are ready. I solicited help from my office’s Graphics guru Dave, who cleaned up the image and worked magic to place our scanned drawing into an actual printer-ready label template. We’re waiting for the hard copy samples of the label paper to arrive from Canada. Semi-gloss or no semi-gloss, that is the question, impossible to determine from hazy internet images.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

I spent my evening at Kinko’s, cutting, pasting, sizing, reducing. I created a pile of scraps for the recycle bin, crumpling them to ward off spies. My goal was to render some sketches on scratch paper into the blank center of the front label template Anthony and I had already agreed. He hadn’t yet seen my drawing idea, and I somewhat worried it might be too whimsical for his sensibilities. I made extra copies of the final, put-together image so that I could experiment with color at home, stopping at Raley’s on the way back to buy a cheap package of vivid Crayola pencils.

The back label, meanwhile, was mostly ready, with some intended tweaks to font TBD.

Monday, September 03, 2007

We decided not to be so harsh in criticizing our wine. Jon had brought over a friend’s homemade tempranillo yesterday. He relayed that his friend gifted him with a full case, beaming at his accomplishment. We opened the sample Jon brought over and found its taste quite awful. Unsippable. The color bled cherry-red, like cough syrup. We poured out the remainder.

Lesson to us: be proud of our wine. It was far better than this example, which its winemaker introduced with fanfare no less, like a proud papa. So too, we pledged, would we pitch our wine – not down the sink, but to our family and friends. We’ll come up with a description, a flavor profile. We’ll discuss its style, how much we learned, refinements we’ll try next year, our expectations that 2007’s vintage will be even better.

And we will go forth with a real label, something to badge it with honor. The pressure toward this effort had been building for months. It faded when we thought the wine had. But now, brimming with renewed motivation and excitement, I couldn’t wait to sit down and draw some concepts.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


We set aside Sunday of Labor Day weekend to bottle, the day after our trek to Palo Alto to watch the mighty Bruins defeat Stanford. Jon, our winemaker neighbor, promised to help oversee the low-tech operation.

Our bottling line didn’t include a plain-wrap truck disguising an assembly line and automated conveyer belts. Instead, we borrowed a stainless steel contraption about the size of a cumbersome toaster oven that fills three bottles at a time. A suction tube feeds wine directly from barrel to the steel reservoir, the volume of which is regulated by a toilet bowl-type float. Anthony leans the necks of the bottle trio into three prongs. He presses these to draw the wine, which automatically stops at just the right level without overflowing.

I man the corking station, jamming down a long lever that resembles a bladeless paper cutter. This drives a synthetic cork into a secured bottle.

The afternoon hit the mid-90 degree mark, but we went at it diligently, sweating and sunburning, until one by one, we’d completed our caseload: 147 bottles, just over 12 cases of wine!
We stacked the boxes in the living room temporarily, posing for photos.

On the to-do list: adding the maroon foils and, most importantly, creating some kind of label.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A facelift never looks quite right. We decided not to interfere any further, other than to boost the SO2 level, hoping for better late than never.

We tasted again and started to get our heads right about our wine. Worst case, it turns the corner and keeps on walking, becomes undrinkable. Year #1 chalked up to R&D. Or, it stays as is – not the starry vision in our heads, but wine that people, including us, would still drink and possibly even enjoy. A wine we’d give an “A” for effort. Our first vintage, something to be proud of.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Today we thieved a couple of glasses, now that the wine had time to relax after the tumultuous racking we put it through, tubes spraying it from barrel to bin and back again. Now we could taste what our final wine might be like, touch its future.

The barrel had evaporated more than we expected, a bit troubling. We hadn’t wanted to open it to the air after racking, but apparently it had needed topping off.

Strangely, the color we witnessed just a couple of weeks ago changed. We held our glasses against blank sheets of paper to be sure. What happened to the juicy, voluptuous ripe raspberry color? The wine had started to take on an orange-brown hue, like a rose hung upside down. And the nose behind the heat of the alcohol seemed like poached cherries, more toward the port side of the spectrum than young wine. The taste matched. Our juice had become “reduced”.

Our hearts sank. Somehow it had begun to oxygenate. In hindsight: perhaps it was our rough treatment during the second racking introduced too much air…or the fact that we didn’t top off the barrel. Worst of all, our free SO2 level was low – one-third of what it should have been. We didn’t realize how fragile the wine was at this stage, how critical it was to check the sulfur dioxide again. A fatal error. But we simply didn’t know.

Neither of us spoke. It felt a bit like running to catch a flight to go on vacation – but arriving, breathless, just as they closed the gate, watching the plane pull away without us without being able to coax it back.

Apparently, there are Frankenstein techniques to reinstate color. But with every manipulation, there’s a consequence that can’t quite be predicted.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Second racking...

We decided that double-racking would make our wine as uncloudy as possible, a measure to ensure thoughtful craftsmanship. We followed the same procedure as the first go-round. As it turned out, there was practically no sediment whatsoever, though we poured out perhaps an inch or so for good measure. This left crawl space in our barrel that needed to be filled in.

We turned to the assortment of jugs and bottles sitting on our counter by the microwave since the first racking in February. We’d filled them with overflow wine at that point, knowing it would come in handy to counter evaporation.

Only a couple of these bottles smelled and tasted right – the rest cooked, turning brown and foul enough to dump unceremoniously into the sink. We should have known better than to cork a couple of those bottles with silly Christmas-themed toppers, inadequate to keep out air. So, to top the barrel, we opened a couple of bottles of zin. A quick sampling of our wine still suggested high alcohol content. But underneath it tasted of bright fruit, and its color looked youthful, sassy, luscious.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

First racking...

Anthony bought a pump which turned out to be a fantastic gizmo for the task of racking. It looks like it could motorize all sorts of other projects – a go-cart perhaps, or a school science exhibit. At first the purchase seemed like folly: couldn’t we borrow one?

But we fed one side of the clear tubing through the bung hole of our barrel, which we rolled on its gurney out the patio door in case of spillage. We fit the other end of the hose to the machine, which was perched precariously on a hutch. Underneath the motor, a thick towel served as our sole protection in the event of leakage. The goal was to transfer the wine from barrel, minus the remaining dregs of solids lingering at the bottom, to an empty vessel (in this case, a sanitized food grade plastic bin). This would provide temporary haven for the pristine wine while the barrel received a thorough scrub.

I had some trepidation about the operation. I called to mind the plastic drip hose in my garden which springs tiny, hissing spurts of water. There the only consequence is a patch of weeds. Sprays of wine in the living room wouldn’t be so negligible!

We hit the switch. All systems go! The pump hummed, drawing wine from the barrel like blood from a vein – out one vessel and into the other. It took several minutes, and then we became more vigilant so that we could flick off the motor just as the solids entered the transparent tube. Mission accomplished. We repeated the procedure with the two carboys.

To the wine in the white bin, Anthony introduced sulpher dioxide to help protect it from micro-organisms and oxidation. We secured the bin lids to keep curious cats out while Anthony took the hollow barrel to the patio’s edge and gently heaved it sideways to drain out the leftover lees (solids).

It was impossible to know how much was really in there until it oozed out. A rather toxic purple goop the consistency of cake batter spread into the dirt, out toward the flowers. As it kept flowing, the unnatural vivid hue started to alarm me. Would this be fertilizer, or doom the plants it touched and the soil with it?

Too late to reconsider, we instead rinsed the barrel with bucket loads of hot water from the bathtub, sanitized the barrel, and then returned the ruby, pure, vibrant wine to its woody home with our motorized tubing contraption.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

It’s winter. The vines have long since shed their sunset of leaves, which crisped up and disintegrated with late fall rains, or were clipped and tossed unsentimentally into burn piles. Pruners, dots of yellow on misty hills in their rain slickers, tended to the vines' woody spines and arms in a coma during these cold months.

It’s a brown season at first, rows of spindly bark and rusty stakes in dirt. Eventually, clumpy fava bean plants, then vivid mustard, fill the void. These smiley-face yellow fields of February are as iconic to Wine Country as the lavender of Provence, and people who live here seem to emerge from their bleary hibernation simultaneously. We’re not too local or too oblivious to pull over for a photo to spruce up our cell phone wallpaper. Celebrations themed around mustard and olives foreshadow spring.

In the barrel and carboys clogging the entryway, our wine has been a passive household member. Our muddy boots and wet shoes dried next to the vessels. The cats paid them no mind at all despite initial worries they’d knock off the gurgling fermentation locks.

At Christmas, we passed around a glass of thieved wine for a toast and wondered how the alcoholic, port, and fruit tastes might evolve. I felt cautiously optimistic from its ruby color; Anthony declared it a future sweepstakes winner at the fair!

Topping off became a necessary and periodic activity. Though it pained us to do so, we added a half dozen foreign bottles of zin, 1 or 2 at a time, to counter the evaporation. A winemaker at Audelssa Winery who heard about our in-house storage guessed we’d been generous with our “angels’ share”; a toasty warm house with no humidity means high evaporation. The 4% non-house wine initially seemed drastic to us, but we’ve since made peace with the notion; next year we’ll have our own zin for topping off.

And finally, quietly, malolactic fermentation stopped. There were no more crackling sounds when we put an ear to the bung hole. The taste softened. A paper chromatography test confirmed that malic acid did indeed convert to lactic acid.

Next step: racking!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On a plane back from Philadelphia today, a spunky flight attendant with a crystal bobby pin in her hair and perfume I could detect 3 rows away (oddly, it smelled of cigars when she passed by) escorted a young man of 8, Daniel, down the aisle. He was conducting a poll for school, and she broke the ice for him with unsleeping, headsetless passengers. It was the “Favorite Meat Survey”, and the choices were meatballs, chicken, hot dogs, steak, bacon, sausage, pork, lamb, and meatloaf – a list he recited in one quick breath. He permitted me to choose two: lamb (when the mood is right) and bacon (of course). I wonder about his final tallies.

It started me thinking about my favorite wine (probably because my blog entry was overdue and I was captive and agendaless). If I had to choose, which varietal would I have Daniel record?

I’m inclined to name pinot noir for its soft fruit, flexibility with food, drinkability solo, and for aromas that deliver the same pleasure that Jolly Ranchers did when I was a kid – the more I inhale or taste, the greater the bursts in intensity.

Yet my annoyance at its mass popularity due to Sideways (I liked it before the trend – really!) may suffocate my initial response.

My desire for originality means I’d need to pinpoint a rarer grape. And unfortunately, occasional ones I’ve sampled don’t stick in memory because I can’t pronounce them.

I’d probably choose a wine I can easily appreciate without food – though complementary pairings always surprise me when they’re orchestrated for me. This seems consistent with how I eat: with certain dishes, I strive to fork up all key elements into a single bite – they’d each taste delicious separately, but together the mouthful becomes divine. I tend toward pizza slices with evenly spaced toppings, calculate how to finish off my plate so that the last forkfuls carry representative ingredients, and loosely track M&M colors as I munch to ensure rotation. Alternating back and forth between wine and food can yield equal satisfaction – and might even heighten the individual elements. For instance, I’m not a foie gras fan, but at a celebratory dinner the other night I tried Anthony’s with a minced apple strudel chutney and a Royal Tokaj – a Big Bang effect.

But this philosophy depends on the particular food, making it impossible to choose a favorite wine.

My default answer: champagne or sparkling wine. I can drink it any time. With or without food, any season, morning or night, special excuse or not. It’s interactiveness almost flatters – given the slightest chance, it fights to be unbottled, to rise out of the glass, and its sparkles hypnotize like fire. The awe it inspires from enthusiasts and from those afraid to make it a habit, the patience it commands of vintners, and its link to milestone events further its mystique. It’s like the ficus tree in that sushi place in the mall that blinks with Christmas lights to the beat of the music, or a song by the B-52s – impossible to experience without feeling an inner smile.

And that, Daniel, is my final answer.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wine Country window shopping

Living in Santa Rosa, one can’t help but notice ads, posters, flyers, and newspaper blurbs trumpeting imminent wine tasting weekends. They tend to draw the city and Marin folk looking for a getaway or Bay Area backroad. They range from the still-complimentary barrel tasting weekend in spring, to elaborate soirees with fine chef buffets, silent auctions, and a pricetag to weed in the proper attendees.

The wineries, of course, hope to lure potential buyers with samples. We locals know better than to fall for that trick – delay gratification and shop at the Bottle Barn. Stick to window shopping.

Locals who pay attention also know which events to pick and choose – weighing cost by such factors as number of participating wineries, munchies possibilities, and likely crowd sizes. My neighbors invite me along for the Wine and Food Affair, a post-harvest celebration where wineries pair a dish with a spotlighted wine. Participants take home a cookbook of the feasts. It’s not a bad deal for the Sunday-only pass, at $35.

Here’s a run-down of the day’s noble attempt to hit the 64 possible winery choices. I'd planned to go easy on trials until my friend volunteers to chauffeur; so, I surrender to impulse:

Harvest Moon

At 5 minutes to the 11AM kick-off, I collect my cookbook and glass at Stop #1. Chicken curry spooned onto leaves of endive plus just-thieved viognier jostle my palette. Not yet released, the wine is poured from an unlabeled bottle, shaken and frothy. I blame the early hour for not tasting the zins right – they seem acidic and too thin.


We cross over to this hefty salmon-hued facility and find Sunday brunch: banquet trays of zucchini frittata carved into checkerboards, platters of paper thin soppressata, and my beloved cheese of the moment, Fiscalini. I try a wine or 2, but it still feels too early to appreciate them.

Iron Horse

Tablecloths peeking from a side barn signal that we arm-banded tasters can bypass the standard tasting outpost for a more exclusive venue. A chef doles ice cream scoops of raw ahi onto sesame chips, while a bright-eyed woman with poetic vocabulary explains the chardonnay.

Marimar Estate

Past Graton, up a windy driveway, stands a Spanish-style villa overlooking vineyards – a new find for me. A stately woman, the winemaker, greets newcomers with efficient politician smiles. I prefer the welcome by her spotted dog Chica, who follows after me and my plate of sausage and fava bean stew (a stand-in for the listed paella). She has ties to the prince of Spain, as evidenced by photo-ops at her family winery overseas, blown up onto posters near the tasting bar. A young man pouring wine inquires about the symbolism of my golden Avon bee pin, but my Two Bees story gets cut short by the baroness, who tugs him toward more promising guests. We pass a tipped over metal cow sculpture on the way down the hill and wonder – Halloween prank or intentional?

Taft Street

My friends snap up their only memento for the day – an entire case of Peka pinot, a soon to be extinct label for their higher tier wines. Pressured at the thought of missing out on something big, I buy 2 bottles at their 30% off trade discount.


I’m intrigued to taste at this mega millions winery not open to the masses without
appointment (I was once turned away politely when I showed up uninvited, spoiling a private tasting in progress). It sits on the footprint of a pumpkin patch; a few years ago, I raked their field and stuffed my Jeep with Halloween Eve orphans – their donation to handicapped kids for painting and adornment. Now, I sit in their alfresco living room sipping pinot and overlooking ordered clumps of grasses, vegetable beds with mammoth specimens, and vineyards. A sign announces weekend pumpkin patch hours, but a tasting room attendant says it’s there “for nostalgia sake”.

Dutton Estate

I don’t recall the wine now, though I know my friends and I sipped some at a picnic table on their deck, speaking intimately about the pros and cons of having and not having children.


Last stop. None of us like the wine we try particularly. The soup they ladle seems a cop-out. The staff shows disinterest in us latecomers. We hang out on their patio for a bit, then fold, with 10 minutes to spare before the event weekend’s official conclusion.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Dreams of a wine cellar

Last weekend, some out of town guests prompted a day of wine tasting. We shaped an itinerary around a picnic (smoked salmon fillets from the morning’s farmer’s market, shaved turkey sandwiches, olives, hummus, orzo salad, edamame). These friends had never seen Dry Creek or Russian River, so we surrendered to the glory of the amber leaves and hushed roads of autumn. We managed to hit 5 wineries on a par 3 course. Unbeknownst to us, a case of wine accumulated in back of the Jeep by day’s end.

This followed a recent 11-bottle binge, post Harvest Fair acquisitions. Where to store the stash?

Long ago, in an L.A. apartment far away, I felt sophisticated with my coiled metal wine rack on display next to the microwave. A move to Sonoma County quickly rendered the rack garage sale fare; 6 slots seemed amateur.

Next, a closet fit 4 cardboard wine crates sideways, a more important way to assess storage capacity than one’s shoe collection. Their 48 roosts flipped frequently.

But guilt following 100-degree summer days, along with a suspiciously raisin-like wine or 2, ultimately pushed the futon in the spare bedroom aside to make way for the real deal: a wine refrigerator.

Ah, the sleek splendor of polished stainless steel, a glass door to tease, a new hum from the bedroom… This was Wine Country living.

The manual touted a storage capacity of 60 bottles. Yet no amount of fuss achieved this sum, and I felt as flummoxed as when wrestling with a dismantled 3-D puzzle. A more careful read of the brochure revealed the secret to maximizing space: load only those bottle silhouettes that mimic a traditional sloping Burgundian design (e.g., pinots and chardonnays) – no long necks (gewurtztraminers, rieslings), no tall shoulders (merlots, cabs, sauvignon blancs), no chubby bottoms (champagne). These trouble-makers ruin the watertight design.

And so, tucked under a bureau, overflow cardboard carriers keep the excess, the inevitable misfit varietals, and we try our best to rotate stock.

Anthony logs occupancies and vacancies in the refrigerator as they might track guests at the resort where he works. He keeps a clipboarded grid with all names and arrival dates (of the grapes). Some bottles move in for an extended stay, while others may only be in for the weekend. This summer will be sold out; that’s when bottling happens. With 12 ½ cases of wine – about 150 bottles – alternate accommodations will be necessary. A refrigerator expansion? Perhaps a new sister property? Or, if the spare bedroom is to remain a spare bedroom, an off-site rental unit for the wine? It doesn’t seem too early to plan.