Two Bees Wine

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Grape Glut?

A headline in the Napa Register announces astronomical yields of cab and syrah this year. In part, it’s traceable to a cold front a few weeks ago that stalled the rise in brix levels and pushed “hang time” and harvest.

I suspect an updated census of the vines would also account for the bounty.

Before the Charles M. Schultz airport lost commercial flights (which coincided with economic shut-downs after 9/11), I’d get occasional birds-eye views of the surprisingly sweeping fields. With pride, I’d spot my little house, which seemed about to be swallowed by vineyards. I liked it that way. When I moved in, my street had 1 winery. I’d draw a star on the winery map practically adjacent to the star for the winery, write in my address, and send it to my family. Now, I count 7 stars including my address.

A few years ago, when the Gravenstein apple orchards along the highway named after them were ripped out and the apple processing plant shut down, West County mourned its heritage. We all sympathized with the workers and felt a sense of loss – as for the Cheese Shop’s croissant recipe I wished someone would have written down before the old baker died, or for the mislaid map my sister and I drew to mark the buried time capsule we left for the future. We knew the apples would never be replanted. But it became difficult to lament the rolling, vibrant fields bursting with chardonnay grapes each autumn. Just before Crush, a hold-out barn along Gravenstein Highway stacks tables with bushels of crunchy, tart apples, and signs appear in markets touting the “local” crop. They’re not ghosts, but the remaining orchards, wisely, keep themselves hidden.

Eventually the traditional trek to Westside Farms for Halloween paraphernalia – field-plucked pumpkins, ornamental squash, popping corn crisped up on the spot – became increasingly complicated when they started charging for parking and required an army of teens to direct traffic. Then, one October, a lonely sign thanked passersby for loyal patronage. A vineyard came in the next spring.

Another summer, the scruffy blueberry farm that sent out annual “berries are here!” postcards so we wouldn’t miss its ultra-short harvest, sold its ancient bushes. The land, after all, proved ideal for a more opulent purple berry – pinot noir grapes.

I’d always felt content, before turning onto my street, passing an organic lettuce farm that sold only to specialty stores. Its 2 long greenhouses helped me spot my home from the air, and explaining it to out-of-town guests made me feel conscientious. For the first time this year, rootstock pokes up through yellow tubes.

They also sold the dirt lot just down the road with the grey-beige cows with floppy ears. I always felt a little sorry for them in their grass-free rectangle; in summers they’d crowd in the shade of a lone scraggly oak along the fence line, and in winter I’d see them standing steadfast in mud past their shins. Driving by the other day, I noticed a couple of burn piles, and the area seems to have been leveled. Instinct tells me that vines, on what must be a very fertilized acre or 2 of land, will soon thrive there.

The vineyards, my subdivisions, encroach. This sprawl of golden, green, and red every October beckons and the paparazzi come. We can’t escape the yeasty perfume of bulging, ripe grapes, nor can we deny their seduction. What new wine will we drink or hoard?

And when will we mind
what the vineyards erase?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Stirring the lees

We figured out that one characteristic we tend to appreciate in wines is mouthfeel. No doubt there are numerous technical ways to explain this concept. I think of cooking, when a recipe says that the texture of a sauce should change from pure liquid to a point where it just coats the back of a spoon. Not that we'd want wine to be similarly thick! But we like when it has enough body to be tasted and felt all around the mouth.

Anthony decided to try stirring the gross lees (the remnants after pressing that accumulate at the bottom of the barrel/carboys while the wine undergoes malolactic fermentation). This, we heard, is one way to enhance mouthfeel.
The 2 glass carboys reveal the sediment layer. It’s like a mossy seafloor at the bottom of an aquarium tank. The wine, the ocean, seems pure and vast by comparison. Soon, once malolactic fermentation finishes, we’ll siphon the wine away from the sediment in a process called racking. Stirring must happen now.

So, Anthony purchased a very special drill bit – a long metal rod with a whirly-gig at the far end. When attached to his Bosch cordless drill and inserted into the bung hole, the gizmo becomes a mini windmill that swirls the lees and gives them a chance to re-interact with the juice – hopefully a beneficial liaison. We conducted our 2 lees stirring ceremonies with great seriousness.

Subsequently, I’ve found scant and vague documentation of lees stirring for red wines. It appears to be employed with whites, in France, quite a bit. They call it battonage, and apply the custom to the fine lees (the dregs after the first racking). And the justification doesn’t necessarily relate to mouthfeel. Some internet conversations link stirring lees to enhancing flavor, and to oxidation to encourage malolactic fermentation. Apparently home wine makers needn’t bother with the practice; the indexes in our guidebooks don’t feature lees stirring as a chapter, sidebar, or glossary term.

We’re not daunted. Lees stirring becomes another prong on our flow chart of variables. It’s all experimentation. With luck, the wine angels will smile this direction. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Searching for gold

Early October brings the annual Sonoma County showcase event at the fairgrounds – Harvest Fair. It’s a gathering of the best made-right-here stuff – or at least that’s what everyone’s trying to prove. We make a pilgrimage to witness the most morbidly obese pumpkin, the spongiest lamb, the spikiest dahlia, and the supremely delicious jar of apple butter. People shine, too, for their prowess at spitting a watermelon seed farthest, crushing the most grape juice with their bare feet, or painting an area vista masterfully. The ribbons prove it: blue, white, pink, bronze, silver, gold.

A highlight is the wine competition. Held in a colossal Quonset hut, each appellation’s wineries pour their newest vintages for a rabid public. We surrender perforated tickets to taste the best, according the booklet with the judging results.

Navigating the room can be tricky, if seeking particular winners from the hundreds. It’s as though someone shook up and dumped out each dot on a winery map like Yahtzee dice. Every year, there’s a new, unannounced system to locate a table featuring a coveted label: a serpentine alphabetical arrangement this time, or clusters by appellation, by medal color, or by varietal. It keeps us sober.

But the more tastes, the less critical medal holding seems, and we veer off our carefully plotted course. Underdogs become secret treasures, and we sneer at the sprawl fronting stations with gold medal pours.
This year, we factor in time to scrutinize the amateur wines exhibit. A glass case displays bottles from dozens of would-be vintners. They compete for taste, and only a handful get singled out for best in show. Almost all the rest still wear Olympian-style medals around their bottle necks, we assume for encouragement. Only a heartbreaking few, along the floor, go unadorned, scorned for having the audacity to show up.

The entire lot of novice bottlings undergoes judging for label design. These range from handwritten white file folder stickers slapped on for identification not artistry, to high-tech graphics printed professionally. For our Two Bees wine, we’ll shoot for something in between. We take a few photos of ones that catch our fancy, for inspiration. Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 16, 2006

A side note: the walnut harvest!

We don’t have grapes to gather on the property (though some hardy vines thrive along the fence line and supply us with an assortment of mystery varietals good for eating if you don’t mind spitting out seeds). But we do have walnuts, and autumn also cues their debut.

The September prognosis of an anemic yield this year was too hasty. Perhaps the rush of crows pecking the still-green orbs from the treetops fueled rumors of a poor walnut season. So did the ratio of hollow shells versus whole nuts at the feet of the 2 trees – at least initially. The single day of rain a few weeks ago seemed to lob the final blow; any hangers-on would turn moldy and end up as burrows for ants and pincher bugs.

But then one day we noticed beneath our neighbors’ tree a carpet of walnuts, perfectly intact, their green casings shed and buried under fallen leaves. We wondered what illness had stricken our trees?

A skeptical double-check proved miraculous. Russet-colored wrinkled globes, unscathed and naked without their green sheathes, littered the shadow beneath our smaller tree. I stooped to gather handfuls of them into my shirt, but needed a satchel. Foraging required no more than lightly brushing aside leaves to reveal the nuts, as though they had been tossed generously from a parade float like candy.

Through my rubber flip flops, the shells could have been river rocks pressing into my soles. I felt like a robber with too-easy pickings as I moved between both trees, almost guilty at how easily I collected a bushel basket of the loot, then another. At the same time, the thought of overlooking any of the perfect nuts seemed an unpardonable crime.

They’re in the house now, near the wine barrel. A couple of weeks’ time will dry the nuts, firm up their prize interiors, and enrich their earthy toastiness. This vintage 2006 crop, at least, will soon be ready to enjoy.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Anthony’s grandfather was a beekeeper in Croatia -- by hobby, not by trade.

One springtime, a hive bursting with the weight of bees, broke in two, cascading a bowl of bees down from their treetop perch. Anthony’s grandfather, Vice (pronounced “Vee-tseh”) Zaper, discovered this renegade colony, stuck it in a bucket, and transferred it to a box with a vacant honeycomb. The bees took up housekeeping chores and stayed the season.

Meanwhile, Vice honed his bee-keeping savvy. He scrutinized books on the craft, and spent quite a lot of time observing his bees, prying off the lid, getting to know them. The first winter, when cold set in, a mold developed in the honeycomb and sickness overtook his bees. He learned to prevent this plague. Vice beguiled his daughters with stories of who the bees were – the queen, the busiest honey gatherers, the lazy freeloaders. He’d instantly identify these out of the swarm of hundreds.

Wildflowers on the land, profuse in spring and summer, kept the bees spellbound and industrious. They produced a vivid yellow honey that Vice scraped out of the comb before spinning chunks of the wax in a machine to more efficiently drain the nectar.

Jarfuls kept the family and neighbors through winter. They’d sweeten wild chamomile tea with it, slather in on bread, or bake it into pastry and cakes in place of sugar. But nothing tasted better than the raw honey, sucked or chewed straight from the waxy honeycomb.
The honey served an important medicinal role, too. A spoonful soothed a sore throat. More serious ailments called for a potion of honey and cloves, simmered with wine, rum, or cognac.

Vice’s actual business involved nectar of a different sort. He made wine – rosé pressed from both white and red grapes on the property. He’d put his grapes in containers to ferment; 3 days for sweeter wine, 5 days for drier. Weights on top helped keep out air and minimize spillage from the froth. Vice let the natural yeasts have their way with the juice, never adding anything. When ready, he’d press the juice and siphon it into barrels – made from oak he chopped, then forged himself.

The villagers in Vojniče ("Voy-nee-cheh") knew where to come for their alcohol – about 150 cases of wine a year, in unlabeled bottles. They also bought his heftier stuff, grappa derived from leftover grape seeds and skins, boiled and distilled until clear.

Today, the family land in Croatia remains. But the vacant bee boxes and barrels rot in the yard, and the grapevines were set on fire years ago. There’s no vintage magnum of wine locked away, dusty in a cellar. And yet a stash of sweet nectar exists, devoured occasionally by Vice’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren: the legacy of quainter times and distant kingdoms.
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Monday, October 02, 2006

A milestone: we pressed our grapes today.

Anthony brought home a rented mini contraption for assembly: 2 half-moons of vertical wooden slats, loosely aligned. Clasped together, they formed a barrel that held our 500 pounds of grapes (a few pounds at a time). This sat atop a red metal base with a moat along the perimeter.

The 2 of us formed a bucket brigade on the patio. We transferred the rich, pulp-free, red-purple liquid as it ran freely out the crevices in the press, through a pasta seive, and into a pail, to a funnel, then into our oak barrel.

Of course it wasn't so efficient and simple. Step 1 in the morning was to cleanse the barrel with scalding water and citric acid. But, by odd coincidence, the hot water ran out during Anthony's shower, and we discovered a broken water heater. It turned out to be our hydronic floor water heater, but the delay as we investigated set us back.

Then, the patio hose broke, followed by a rusted out replacement, until the last hose on property held. At this point, Anthony stuck the nozzle in for what seemed like forever (will we really end up with that much wine?). He rolled the bloated barrel back and forth to bathe its insides, drained it, and repeated the process.

Finally, at 2PM, we began pressing. Our immature wine, for the first time cut off from its mother grapes, seemed to relish the freedom -- it flowed fast and hard, garish in hue, unsubtle with its alcohol. We paused to dip in 2 shot glasses to toast our first vintage and hope for the best.

The barrel didn't quite hold all the cache; 2 extra carboys finished the job. Finally, we guided the barrel up an improvised ramp and navigated it through the living room into the foyer. Topped with fermentation locks to permit release of carbon dioxide and prevent air from entering, the barrel and its 2 glass cousins rest.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Thomas characteristic

Two days before pressing. It proves difficult to ignore the blockade of bins next to the TV. We have brix on the brain. Is the juice warmer? Is it gurgling underneath the dry cap of skins? I insert a thermometer at mid-day, cheating, pleased as I ring Anthony with news that they’ve reached nearly 70 degrees.

In the afternoon, I swish the batches around one at a time, then decide as documentarian to grab the camera for a daylight shot. I remove all 3 lids at once and admire the majestic purple.

Suddenly, I witness my little kitten Thomas leap from the hardwood floor up to the top of bin 1. Only this time there’s no lid.

A chain of events unfolds in what must have been microseconds. Thomas disappears into the darkness of the vat, sucked in like a meteor. Juice and solids spray out, and the surface flattens again, empty. I lunge forward, feeling instantly sickened and panicked, not wanting to believe, to thrust my arms into the murky depths to find him. Everything seems to be happening simultaneously. Out of the black muck, Thomas flings himself, like a spawning salmon, almost into my face, and I grab the air for the wriggling, clawing, inky, unrecognizable life form. He’s not just wet from liquid, as he might be if caught in a wine spill – he’s coated in blue-black grape skins, soaked so that the bits stick to his bones and scrawny body, his entire head, inner ears, nose, tail, legs – everything – thickly masked. The horror!

My mind thinks only of saving Thomas, of getting him to the kitchen sink to free him of this shell of must and alcohol. I blast on the water, trying to adjust the warmth, while holding him in place and checking to make sure he’s not choking or going into shock. He’s disturbingly still and quiet as I douse his skinny body. I realize as the muck washes into the drain – stems, seeds, skins – that I need to soak his head, too, which he takes without protest, trusting my hands.

When his orangey color finally emerges under the faucet, and I see him starting to shiver, I pull him to me, still sopping, and shuttle him to the bathroom to swaddle him in a red bath sheet. He’s brave, and doesn’t bite, yowl, or fidget. He just looks up at me, puzzled, trembling from the chill.

I hold him like a baby, both of us in trauma, as I call Anthony who just finished work. I reassure him, and perhaps myself, about Thomas and the wine, though I survey the room and the fallout with dismay.

It’s a crime scene. Red coagulated spatters of juice leak down most of the sliding glass door next to Bin 1. There’s a dense trail of it from the living room all the way to the kitchen on the blonde wood floors and streaks flung onto the cabinets. Random purple speckles stain the white stucco walls, even 10 feet away from the immediate vicinity. As Thomas licks at his clumpy fur, I mop up the mess and restore order.

As for the zinfandel, we wonder what character Thomas will impart. A certain je ne sais quois that will mark vintage 2006. Posted by Picasa