Two Bees Wine

Friday, September 29, 2006

We brought our science project inside. The nights have cooled considerably, dropping into the 40s. The energy of fermentation defies the weather to some extent; our grape juice has held around the mid 60 degree mark.

The goal is for the sugar levels to drop to slightly below zero (from their original highs of almost 30). If this fails to occur, fermentation “sticks”, and will require the addition of a new strain of yeast to kick-start, then finish off, fermentation.

We’re in the home stretch – around 5 brix. But 3 factors worry us:

(1) The BM45 Brunello yeast we added to the grapes to attack the sugars operates at 64 degrees or above – fermentation subsides otherwise. We’re riding the line, it seems, keeping the bins outdoors.
(2) Our nightly monitoring of brix levels indicates sluggishness in the sugars’ march toward elimination. Last night, we recorded just 1.5 degrees of change, half as much as the prior readings.

(3) Another kink: we plan to press in 3 days. This corresponds to Anthony’s day off and my last day before a business trip. But we can’t press with sugars still present.

We decided to bring the bins into the living room to provide warmer, predictable shelter. The cats certainly found this intriguing, sniffing where the lids snap on, and discovering new cliffs for pouncing.

To rally the fermentation further, we employed a trick. We bought an aquarium lamp to submerge, bin by bin, in the juice. As we prep dinner or watch a movie, we’ll pause to shift the lamp’s position within and between the bins, using barbecue tongs. Healthier bubbling already suggests the effort might pay off.
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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Signs of Autumn in Wine County:

The mythic quinces dislodge themselves from the hardy stump near where I park my Jeep. I collect them for a planned Moroccan lamb stew. Rubbing off their blonde, dusty fuzz reveals a lemon-like membrane, and under that a subtle rose flesh that only blushes after patient roasting or braising.

The chorus from the black and white speckled birds invisible in the tip-tops of the redwood trees hits crescendo levels. Callers hear the din through the earpiece and wonder where my jungle is.

The pink naked ladies queued up along the driveway wither, keel over, and disappear for the cold weather months, covertly plotting a glorious prance for next summer.

Sluggish dwarf tractors occasionally drone by. They knot traffic on our street, which normally offers swift passage between rural arteries. These not-so-state-of-the-art machines are needed between vineyards and stubbornly insist on the right of way. With no shoulders for passing, they teach drivers endurance (and possibly respect).

Meanwhile, the corn maze along the highway rivets with its “how high?” sign. Answer: 10 feet!

There’s an indelible stain on the insides of my thumbs and fingers as though I varnished wood; actually, it’s from prying walnuts’ green casings to dislodge the nuts and dry them in a bushel barrel in the living room. They’re a tad early this year; I’d heard the late rains might damage the crop. My task is to beat the voracious crows to the fallen bounty beneath the trees in back. Often, I’m too late and I find punched-out shells littering the ground while the crows taunt me from a safe vantage point.

Anthony’s hands, this year, look more stained than mine. He’s been helping Jon with his crops of grapes. The viognier skins, after a few hours pressing, turned his palms dark. He tries to hide his dirty nails at work, though I suspect he’d be proud to explain them.

And of course the leaves begin to morph to reds and golds – mostly, in this region, those in the vineyards. The patchwork of leaf hues between fields seems impossible. They hop some fence lines and dirt paths, but not others, and hillsides don’t match their floors. Is it due to different varietals, soils, or a minute shift in the sun’s angle between microclimates?

Summer shouldn’t have left so soon…and yet these teasing tastes of Fall soothe the regret. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Fermentation Update:

Living in Sonoma County has allowed intimate snapshots of Crush. We might luck upon a winery in action, and watch a bladder press squeeze purple rain out its belly. At Navarro Vineyards in Andersen Valley, they let us sip a wine glass of this first run juice -- ruddy, hazy, and wincingly acidic. We've donned plastic gloves running past our elbows, as though about to birth a calf, and plunged them into massive bins of fermenting grapes. It demonstrated extreme internal temperature variations between the chilly newly pressed mash and the warm batch just a few days more rested.

Tracking and living the maturation process is completely new. It rewards because development unfolds daily, strikingly. While photos offer the only proof that our new kitten doubled, then tripled, in size after a couple of months, the grapes can't hide their flux.

Ours began as heavy berries, densely packed in plump clusters. No doubt they were shocked at the rough treatment they received after picking, when their stems were yanked away mechanically, haphazardly and imperfectly leaving bits of stem and leaf. They were still mostly identifiable as grapes, not juice. After the shock of the day, they slept, exhausted, pressing in on themselves. Later, at the first punch downs, the raft of pulpy fruit floated atop an ever-accumulating pool of liquid.

Temperatures in our bins have stayed fairly steady and warm. But the drama lies in the brix levels. We need the sugars to disappear, for the yeast to consume them. In 5 days they've gone from about 30 brix to last night's dip to 11-12, a slide of about 3-4 degrees per day.

Telltale foam also captures the wonders of fermentation. The first couple of days of punch down yields some gurgling, much like a baby's lazy dribbles. And then, as the grapes start to surrender their precious juice, the suds kick in, a vibrant magenta bath.

The bins look almost rabid with froth, as the puncher sloshes what's left of the solids. They're now so laden with juice that it's easy to whip up the cap, and care must be taken to avoid spashing the ink overboard (though there's some nobility to this stain on one's jeans or sneakers).

The yeast's sugar feast has calmed considerably, the salivation subsiding and subtle. We don't know yet when it'll be time for the next phase -- pressing. But the oak barrel we just moved onto the terra cotta tile in the entryway, an upgrade from the plastic, awaits. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 23, 2006

My mom’s arm was almost amputated because of a bee. When she was 3, her arm ballooned from her wrist to her shoulder. They chose to cut into her to drain the blood before the poison spread to her heart or brain. It worked, but my mom still lives with 3 scars down her arm. She hasn’t been bitten since.

I inherited a fraction of my mom’s susceptibility. A histamine reaction, meaning that I swell up and bruise dramatically.

Bees periodically remind me of their hold over me. It started when I was a toddler in Toronto, during a family vacation. When I call to mind this trip, my memory only encompasses the handful of photos from a creaky green mottled album: my aunt and cousin Howard at a picnic table; my sister pointing at Canadian geese, awestruck; my mom holding me by a Shamu stroller; a zoomed-in photo of me on an aerial tram.

In this last one, I’m squinting and somber in a chestnut brown and white checkered dress. A dark ring encircles my left eye like that dog in Little Rascals. The whole photo seems cast in sepia, as though the bee's venom leaked over the whole day. Apparently, the incident closed out our trip; there’s a subsequent photo of me in pigtails and a fuzzy pink sweater smelling a gigantic crimson rose on a bush along our driveway in Cleveland, sweet but for my black eye.

There were a couple of traumatic and nauseating extractions of stingers by tweezers from the bottoms of my feet. A consequence of running around our swath of lawn barefoot to access a plastic wading pool, oblivious to the hundreds of dandelions and their attendant bees. No swelling, though, when one endures a tonging.

In college, when I worked the mobile lemonade stand along the busiest part of Bruin Walk near the student store, an itch drew me to crush a yellow jacket into my ankle with my shoe. My foot bulged so that I couldn’t wear anything but flip flops for several days. The emergency room doctor prescribed OTC antihistamine, ignoring my hysteria.

This past spring, while touring some gardens, a bee flew up my skirt and understandably panicked. I made a beeline (ha) for the restroom which thankfully was deserted so that I could verify in the mirror a bright red sting on my rump. Two days later, the venom inside turned hard and seeped into most of my right cheek. Though I'm long healed, I still sit atop the appended pillow when at my desk chair.

July 4th marks the most recent encounter, when I prepped my first South Carolina pulled pork. At the appointed hour, I reached under the grill to twist on the propane. A sharp jolt tossed back my hand, an apparent electrical charge -- or so I thought until a couple of irate yellow jackets crisscrossed the vicinity. I peeked under the grill overhang, and discovered a busy hive just above the crank for the propane. After cursing the creatures, blasting them with inadequate dregs from a can of hornet spray, and bravely diving in to turn on the tank, the propane can proved empty and the hour too late on a holiday for a refill. I salvaged the night by hauling my 5 pounds of pork butt and bloated hand to the out-of-town neighbors’ grill.

My mom says she doesn't fear bees; in fact, the bottle brush in her yard breed them, and you can't sit on her patio in the summer without hearing their faint buzzing underneath the breeze. Perhaps respect fits better. They co-exist. Posted by Picasa

Friday, September 22, 2006

It's almost midnight. Anthony stands at the counter with 3 ramekins, divying tartaric acid and nutrients which will be incorporated into the 3 bins of grapes.

We got a late start because I underestimated the prep time for my dinner of salmon steamed atop an heirloom tomato and sweet pepper stew. And then the neighbors called us for an ice cream run to Screaming Mimi's; impossible to pass on homemade strawberry and galaxy chocolate chip scoops.

The sugar level (brix) of our grapes is higher than we'd like, so some corrections need to be made or else fermentation will stall because excess alcohol will kill the yeast. After 2 days of calculations and debate, Anthony determined that 1 gallon of water should be added to each bin to reduce the brix and reach a reasonable potential alcohol level.

Fortunately, he's handling the algebra. My chief duty is punch down. I cover the AM and afternoon shifts. Like clockwork, at 10AM and 4PM, I rinse off the mammoth metal tool that resembles a potato masher and press it through the dense must of seeds, stems, and skins that rises to the top. Sweeping it through the grapes to tumble them draws in air and encourages a purple froth to swell up through the mishmash. Day by day when I uncover the bins, there's a thicker mass of seeds and stem remnants jacketing the juice below.

Anthony calls out initial temperatures and brix levels and I jot them down: Bin 1, 76 degrees and 26.2 brix; Bin 2, 76 degrees and 26 brix; Bin 3, 75 degrees and 26.2 brix. He'll input all this data into a spreadsheet later.

There's quite a lot of tension as he adds the carefully allocated water, nutrients, and acid. Thomas, the orphaned kitten we found living behind our barbecue, relentlessly climbs the screen door facing our patio crush pad, putting more strain on our nerves. What will happen to the sugar levels?

Magically, brix drops within minutes of the prior readings, plummetting to 22.8. I hear a sigh outside, but don't know if it's from relief or worry.

Turns out Anthony had hoped to shave it by 3 degrees, so we appear to be on track again. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

One summer afternoon a couple of years ago, I slid a chair into the sunlight filtering in through the sliding glass door of the living room -- a better spot to work that particular day. While typing away on my laptop, I noted a single bee a couple of inches outside the screen, hovering at about my seated eye level.

This wasn't the usual brown and yellow honeybee variety. It was one of those mini bees, darker in color and less angular and technical looking. I've noticed this type of bee before. It always seems to float in some random spot mid-air rather than absorb itself with the task of robbing nectar from flowers like its compadres. These bees have the habit of facing forward, aiming straight at me, and bob languidly, vertically.

This particular one behaved the same way. I felt its eyeballs on me (dozens of them I supposed). It seemed a little heavy for its size, so that when it swayed, it bounced back and forth sloppily, like a marshmallow stuck to the end of a pipecleaner. Sometimes it appeared almost motionless; then it would shoot up or down about a foot, always tracking along my silhouette, and always oriented toward me, observing.

This sounds odd, but it stayed there in front of the glass, in front of me, for over 2 hours, and maybe 3, though I almost doubt that could have happened when I reflect back. It never landed on the screen, and never turned its body sideways. It crossed my mind that it was monitoring me, feeding calculations to a mother bee elsewhere, or to the government. Even so, I somehow felt comfortable with that thought, a willing participant in its grand data-gathering plan.

I kept working, and there were short spurts where it did seem to disappear from view, but whenever I looked for it again that day, there it was.

Individual data bees periodically return for updates when I'm out and about, though they never stay long; I suppose I've been tapped, much like ancient zinfandel vines that eventually lose steam, having already given away their bounty to generations. But I smile when occasionally I see someone else get that strange sensation that they're being watched and shoo away a tiny, nosy, out of place bee.

Monday, September 18, 2006

So why the name Two Bees for our wine? Grapes require little to no pollination from bees; wind does the job. And usually it's the greedy yellow jackets rather than the gentle, well-meaning bees that show up during harvest time, attracted by the sweet scent of mass quantities of sticky, juicy grapes.

We sing the praises of bees nonetheless:

They symbolize productivity, cooperation, organization.

They've been associated with gods and royalty since the ancient Egyptians.

They fly with purpose, take time to smell the flowers, create buzz.

Working together, bees transform one natural product into another, resulting in something wonderfully delicious and complex that others gather and enjoy. Likewise, we Two Bees hope to make a honey of a wine!

Harvest! It’s 2 days later than expected, but the grapes are in – 500 pounds of them, spread across 5 bins along the back of the patio.

It’s 10:30PM, and Anthony’s winemaking day started 12 hours ago. He took off from work to help Jon cleanse his macro bins, lids, and all pieces of the de-stemmer-crusher, and then to await the arrival of the grapes.

Luigi, the grower, delivered them at 2PM – 3 tons all together. Luigi is tall, grey-haired and beared, his hands rough, a man of the land. Anthony told him that he hopes to make him proud; Luigi wished him likewise on behalf of his grapes.

Our batch was the last to be processed. Anthony stood atop an improvised ladder, stabbing clumps of grapes with a pitchfork and heaving them into the raspy, screechy machine. As it spit out the stems to one side and plunged the purple berries straight down into a plastic bin, I dipped a finger in the accumulating juice and sampled one bruised grape. Sweet, intense nectar, delicious and drinkable right now. Can’t wait for daylight to see how they look as they await the fermenting process.

We celebrated after dark (and before the bins were trucked to our patio) with champagne and a Cote Rotie, a precious last bottle from a stash Barbara and Jon carried back right before September 11th. The women folk cooked: an Alsatian tart with gruyere cheese and smoked ham, a salad with figs and proscuitto, and chicken mole with brown rice and zucchini. The guys needed it more than we did, but we all revived with laughter and stories of our nerdy teen years (we'll keep this anonymous: our foursome includes a classroom's designated AV guy always in charge of the projector and tech issues, such as they were back then; a girl whose mom sewed her clothes, buying Gloria Vanderbuilts to get the signature correct on her copycat jeans, then returning the store-bought pair; a guy whose dad crew-cut his hair and who played soccer when it wasn't a cool sport; a girl whose mom drew all the boys' looks when they'd drive around).

Yeah, just look at us now! Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

White plastic bins, buckets, and lids fill up our entire spare bedroom floor area. Crush is supposed to happen in 3 days – at least our crush, a 500 pound batch of Alexander Valley Zinfandel grapes. The plan is to de-stem and crush them with a borrowed contraption, into the bins. Anthony spent his day off sanitizing the containers with soda ash, citric acid, a power washer, and large scrub brush. I worried about whether these powders would wash into the surrounding flowers, but so far things are still in bloom. His hands, though, suffered; the abrasives rubbed some of his skin raw before I could insist he don latex gloves plus a hat to shade him from the 90+ degree heat (a mini heat wave in September).

This is my 9th year in Wine Country, but my 1st making wine. Hard to believe that soon we’ll have a barrel aging in our living room, and 12 1/2 cases of homemade wine!