Thursday, September 19, 2002


We pressed tonight, Niko and I, with a little assistance from Mommy of course. She helped carry out the half-ton bin that's been getting in our way in the garage/winery (and which ought to be returned to its owner, Mr. Casey Hartlip of Eaglepoint Ranch, sorry Case). For her efforts I gave her grief about not reading my mind and knowing that I wanted her to turn that way with this very heavy and awkward box, while she was turning the other way. It's true, I can be an asshole.

Niko, meanwhile, was rapid-firing "Whys?" and I gave most of them good, solid consideration. A few, however, I measured to be not serious inquiries and brushed them aside without comment. Though it was 12 hours into his napless day he was a good companion, until something led Mommy to say "No!" and that brought tears. He is a sensitive lad, just as his daddy was when he was a boy. I feel a tightening in my chest every time I see this on display, a tug at the heart. And yet there's a part of my that will mutter, "What a crybaby." The psychology is obvious: I need to come to terms with my own vulnerabilities, need to accept the fragile nature of my own psyche.

Ah, maybe tomorrow.

We press right out in the driveway with the garage door open and the winemaking paraphernalia accessible. Folks passing by give the goings on a look. Kurt, our octogenarian next-door neighbor, did so, up close, and dropped off homegrown tomatoes while he was at it. We were grateful, for we are tomato growers and eaters and can never have enough. Who could? Back in 1997, Rebecca and I traveled to—of all places—the Flint Hills of Kansas in order that I might participate in the Death Ride, an 80-mile off-ride cycling race conducted in 90-degree heat and 85-percent humidity. On the night before the ride the organizers tossed a big party and we heard some sweet Kansas girl sing a song of her own called "Homegrown Tomatoes," in which she rhapsodized that in life only two things are free, and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes. Yep. And that was a sweet night, and a sweet trip, from the flat tire in Reno to Hasty Lake where we took that cute picture to the crappy coffee in those Plains states diners—thank you, my dear.

By the way, that ride featured the one true bonk in my life. Sixty or so miles into it, at the last rest stop, I got off my bike to put food and drink into my sagging self. It would be an hour before I would ride again. I ate a bit; my stomach did a few flips. I tried to drink a little and that came back up. Finally I sat in the cool creak to beat the heat, and fell asleep right then and there. A half hour later I stirred. I felt awful, still, but hungry. I ate something, can't remember what, and after a tense moment realized it would stay down. Drink, too. I noticed riders passing through, including one older fellow, a real live gray beard. C'mon, man, I said to myself. He's got to be 60! Off I went, walking first, then riding, then riding hard. I finished. Strong.

Another visitor as we pressed tonight was a neighbor whose name I have not yet learned. She and I have a history, however. One early morning during our first summer in Napa I scampered out to the sidewalk to pick up the newspaper. Clad, I was, in only my skivvies. It couldn't have been past 6. Was hardly a risky move. I wasn't naked, for crying out loud! So this neighbor lady, who I will guess has rounded the 60 bend, happened to be out for her morning power walk. She appeared just as I picked up the paper and turned back for the house. She wore headphones and, noting my attire, a look of ecstatic shock. I had on no less than I do when I go for a run, but apparently it makes a big difference, running shorts vs. white Fruit of the Looms. Anyway, tonight it was an evening walk for her and she wondered what was up. Funny that right here in the winemaking capital of the United States, in one of the great wine regions of the world, right here in Napa, a name known by little French boys and girls, there are people who view a fellow in the 'hood making wine a curiosity. Or maybe she just a had a certain picture of me stuck in her head.

The pressing went well and Rebecca, whose palate is tremendous, confirmed what I was beginning to suspect: This wine is not as horrid as I feared. I mean, just-pressed wine can be nasty and when I tasted this newborn Pinot a day earlier, I nearly gagged. But now? Hmm. There might be hope. Light-bodied but spry, with some bright hard-to-peg fruit prominent. Hmm.

I dumped the wine, all purple and teeming with yeast and disintegrating pulp, into four 6.5-gallon and two 5-gallon carboys. I sloshed the juice around quite a bit. Everybody tells you to be careful with Pinot but at this point I see no problem with giving young wine, any young wine, a nice dose of oxygen. It's going to be stuck in the damn barrel for months without racking (I rarely rack; don't much believe in it plus it's a pain in the ass), so this is its chance to breathe a bit. Macro-oxygenation, eat ease a leetle, how you say, technique of mine, no?

Niko was done before I was, and Rebecca took him upstairs to get ready for bed. A few minutes later I went up and read the story about the seal who gives her pup squid, then Niko hit the booba and it was lights out on another day of little-boy adventure. Rebecca disengaged to work on, a project nearly two years in the making, and I went back down to clean up. Got the gold nozzle that gives a good jet of spray despite our lousy water pressure and hosed everything clean, and it felt good. While cleaning, it hit me that I'd made wine again. We got up early one Sunday 11 days ago and with the help of friends picked grapes and now there was wine. This is life, I thought. Creating. Creating from the earth. Something of the earth. Way cool.

Meanwhile, I had the tube a-glowin' and it showed Livan Hernandez getting slapped this way and that by the Dodgers to the tune of six runs in the third. When I finished my work I stuck with the game, despite the hopelessness of it. The garage door up front was open and the back door at the other end was too, and after a 97-degree day the cooling air was beginning to stir, moving through, brushing past, and so I watched the game, and looked at my wine, and sipped a decent Cab from Yakima Valley. Life is good, I thought. But … it would be better with a sandwich, so I scurried inside and sliced some fresh tomatoes, mashed some avocado, grabbed some turkey and cheese from the fridge, and threw it all together. I was back in front of the tube in 3 minutes, baby wines by my side. This Pinot Noir. Might not be bad.

Monday, September 16, 2002

The Crush

So, yeah, we crushed the grapes. New crusher from Napa Fermentation and with three guys manning it, 700 pounds of grapes became 70 gallons of pulp and juice in less than a half hour. Intending to do a cold soak, I put a frozen gallon-jug of water in each bin and it was time for pizza. (Sometimes, winemaking really is that simple.)

Next: Fermentation Fun

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

The Harvest Begins

I had no intention of making Pinot Noir. After playing with Merlot, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon in recent vintages, this year my mind was running toward Zinfandel. It's the classic home winemaker's grape, said to be easy to handle, forgiving of errors—and if you're going to end up with 22 cases of wine to drink and give away, Zin's the one. Ain't a person alive who doesn't like it.

But along comes an email message from a grower friend in Mendocino saying the Pinot Noir is at 23, 24 brix—want some? My first thought was of my buddy Casey Hartlip at Eaglepoint Ranch, who told me once that Pinot is fine but personally he'd rather make and drink red wine.

Pinot is, typically, lighter in color and in body. Moreover, it is widely seen as the feminine counterpoint to the masculine Cab. Even big, powerful Pinots retain a slinky, sexy side. Think of Serena Williams in that black tights-jumper outfit: big and powerful, yes, but very much a woman. Likewise Pinot. And anyway, the probability was that my Pinot would be less than mighty: the vineyard I'd be sourcing from is a warm site and the vines are young. But, then again, with Pinot you never know. The word most often used to describe it is "mercurial," and winemakers who have worked with Pinot vintage after vintage can be counted on to profess their continuing curiosity and surprise at its behavior. So what the hell did I know? Maybe Pinot from this spot would surprise me and be delicious. Anyway, it was September. It was time to make wine. I said yes.

So on Sunday, Sept. 8, we picked 'em and squished 'em. My friend Dan, a veteran of many a battle with the dreaded rented crusher, came up from Berkeley and got his first taste of vineyard action. And this year my wife, Rebecca, and son, Niko (three weeks shy of his third birthday), along with three wonderful new friends—Dawni, Kevin and their little boy, Jacob—also joined in the fun. We tossed several food-grade plastic garbage cans into a minivan and a Subaru wagon and headed through the valleys Napa, Knights and Alexander. We regrouped in Hopland, where the Phoenix Bread Company sells an apple turnover for 5 bucks, I kid you not. (I thought it was $5 for a half-dozen. Dan thought maybe for the whole baking sheet of pastries. Nope. Each.) Then we regrouped again just a few hundred yards past Hopland, when a high school physics exam that Kevin was grading flew out the Subaru window, and they stopped to fetch it.

Greg Nelson's vineyard is a hill or two past Hopland and a hill or two before Ukiah, right off 101. He grows everything. Pinot Gris, Chard, Merlot, Cab, Merlot, Zin, the list goes on. He's a good grower, smart and always looking for ways to do better, keeping an eye out for what's hot, asking questions. He told me he would be around, but water problems on the ranch—"Always the water," said Greg's wife, Missy—had him on the road looking for parts. No matter. Missy directed us to the block and told us to pick away.

(Before I go on, I should say a few words about the importance of the picking of the grapes in winemaking. What is the primary factor in producing wines that dazzle the senses, sway the intellect and woo the heart? There are people who believe that great wine is all about the grapes. They say things like, "You can make mediocre wine with slightly below average grapes, but you can't get your teenage son to mow the lawn for less than $15, and that's an outrage." This is the Grape School. And there are those who say the winemaking techniques employed hold primacy (this is the Winemaker School, which no winemaker in the history of alcoholic fermentation has declared allegiance to—publicly). Lesser known, perhaps, is a third school of thought: the Picker School. Under this thinking, it is the picker, ultimately, in whose hands vinous fate is cradled. I am agnostic on this question, as I have great respect for growers, winemakers and pickers—and, truth be told, I think the barrel cleaners and the bottlers are pretty darn important, too.

Time had slipped past 11 a.m. and the sun was high and strong, but we were a day ahead of the heat wave. For us, warm temps; tomorrow would bring sizzling heat. This picking was more difficult than I had remembered picking to be from my experience in Oregon. Pinot's tight clusters wrap themselves around guide wires, shoots and canes and hide behind other bunches, posts and huge webs guarded by vicious spiders. Mercurial? Ha! this grape is a pain the ass. The five adults worked away, the vineyard quiet save for a whirring remote control car and the chatter and occasional screeches and wails of little boys. Most of the time, one of the wiminfolk kept an eye on the lads and their car while the guys picked (and, it must be said, the little guys were great through a very long day).

When you throw that first bucket of grapes into a 44-gallon garbage bin you think it's going to take forever to fill it—and it almost does. Despite the size of our contingent, it took more than two hours to gather in about 700 pounds, an amount that would fill a 26-gallon barrel and allow for the making of about 5 gallons of rose as well as, quite probably, the spillage of several gallons (I am the world's sloppiest winemaker).

Next: The Crush