Monday, December 22, 2008

End of the year for this amateur winemaker

The end of the year is an opportunity to reflect on what was good, what was bad, what was accomplished and what was left undone. And then, there were those things that just happened. Things which were not good or bad. Let's just call those things the "Filler". Kind of like those packing peanuts that go into the package to fill it out.

Although we tend to judge the year on the accomplishments and missed opportunities, the Filler is probably the most important. After all, it certainly makes up the bulk of what happened between the new years. So, as I go though it all, and put the accomplishments on one side of the scale and the missed opportunities on the other, this year I will not forget the Filler.

A glass half empty person might put the Filler into a category of "Things that didn't matter" or just "Stuff". But, that discounts all those things we did that make the year what it was. This year, I am going to put the filler into the things accomplished category. Not only does it seem like the right thing to do, it really makes it look like the year was productive and we all need those pats on the back, even it we give them to ourselves

Lets get it out of the way and start with the things that didn't work out.

Things not accomplished:

Try a wine from a different state each month
Kind of a virtual wine tour of the US, one state per month. Last year, I broke my own rule and made a new years resolution. I would try a new wine from a different state every month. That worked for January, since I happened to have a wine from another state on hand. Final Tally: 1 wine.

Wine Shack
My own "Wine Destination". A structure to separate the winemaking equipment and area from the drill presses, table saws and other non-wine related things. I had plans, actually still do, to separate off an area, insulate it, and make it a micro-miniature home winery. Time, money and logistics all conspired to keep that from happening in 2008. I have not given up on this, but it is not going to get started in 2008.

Wine and Fire
This was out of my control, but I had wanted to attend the Santa Rita Wine Makers annual event. I attended it in 2007, and it was one of the best oenology experiences I have ever had. Unfortunately, it was canceled this year. Probably for similar reasons as my Wine Shack. Next year will be another chance.

Wine Competition.
I never entered my wines into a competition in 2008 like I wanted to. This was simply a motivation thing. My bad. I take full responsibility.

Big Batch of Chard
Try as I might, I could not land a Chardonnay this year. At least, not at a decent price. The vineyard that I bought Chard from for the last 2 years decided to keep it for themselves (there prerogative). And the other couple vineyards seemed to have multiple buyers involved in a price war that quickly ran the price up well beyond what I was willing to do. In the end, I did find a small supply of Chard, but I was hoping to fill my fermenter.

Now for the positives
Things accomplished:

New Label
It is temporary while another new label is taking form. My previous label was cute, and interesting. But, it was an odd shape, with curved top and bottom, and wide, so as to wrap around the bottle. It always generated much interest and compliments, but each label had to be cut out carefully by had and applying took a lot of time and effort. My new labels are much cleaner and easier to apply. And, lets face it, I got into winemaking to make wine, not labels.

The blog started before 2008, but this year, I put all the pieces together and did a full site. Lets see where that goes

Petite Syrah
I never planned to do a Petite Syrah, but with all of the problems finding other fruit, when this came up, and at a good price, I took it. It won't be until 2009 to know if this is actually a positive.

Chardonnay was a challenge for me this year. I'm not sure if it was because I just expected it was going to be easy to do, or if the planets aligned and conspired against me. But I prevailed. With the help of a small vineyard in Carneros, I was able to make a smallish batch of Chardonnay.

Stemmer Crusher
Technically, it is a "Crusher de-stemmer". This is my pride acquired possession this year. This is now my pride piece of winemaking equipment. It is also at the top of the list of "Think I own that will remove a digit". But that sense of danger and the flashing of steel spinning on the inside is mesmerizing.

Bottle Filler
From a small winery in Oakland, going out of business, I found a small, well used, 3 bottle manual filler.
It had been used from their beginning and it was at the end of it's duty. Rust and corrosion, wear and tear, contributed to the bargain price. But lots of elbow grease, sanding, scraping, and acid etching helped. Then a few dollars in new parts and a couple coats of primer and paint. Tada! my new bottle filler. Final winemaking addition for the new year.

And of course, now the Filler.

My health.
I am starting to feel the aches and pains of someone approaching 50 years. A little bit slower up stairs, not able to bend quite the same. Most of the time it doesn't really slow me down. I think I am starting to work smarter now that I can't always depend on being able to muscle things into place. I have found that a half of a ton of grapes is heavy. It would have always been heavy, but now it takes a little more growning and a little more time to move things around. But I am healthy and able to do it all. Maybe there is some truth to the reports of the health benefits from red wine.

My Family
A supportive wife, two smart, healthy, great kids. My family deals with the smell of fermenting wine, boiling malt and hops, fruit flies, sticky floors, missing father for hours at a time, clinks and clanks in the garage all hours of the day and night. And they do it with a minimum of complaints and rolled eyes. Even when threatened with much misunderstood phrase "Just wait till all of this is yours" is sent out, they manage to keep from tossing back the a response along the lines of "Oh, I can't wait".

My Day Job.
In this economy, many people are recently without a job. Some of my friends and coworkers have been laid off and are having a much less celebratory new year. That makes me sad. I feel a little guilty at being able to have what I do. I love making wine, but it would not keep my family fed and clothed at this point. And I have the luxury of having both a job and a hobby.

My Hobby, Wine making
This really fits well into the "Filler" category. Since it could fill in all free time and spare resources. Amateur wine making piques all kinds of thing for me. It lets me play scientist, artisan, laborer, foodie, winer. It gives me things to read, things to taste and things to dream about. And it gives me great gifts to share with others.

So, I will have to say that 2008 was, on balance, a ringing success. Now I am ready to start planning for 2009.

Happy new year!


Monday, December 15, 2008

The wine pod. I just don't get it.

I am not going to say that it is not worth it. Or that it is a gimmick. I was going to but then realized that that would be hypocritical of me. I have always believed that if someone things that something is great, and I don't, then it might be that I just don't get it.

I am talking about the "Wine Pod" ( ). It is a home winemaking appliance that allows you to make wine at home. Funny, I already do that. There has to me more.

It is attractive, and the nerd in me finds the large stainless steel pod, with a digital readout and data-port to a laptop is intriguing. I may not be a good judge of appropriate use of technology, after all, I wrote a controller for my spa using Java. What? Write once, spa anywhere.

In any case, I am missing a big piece in the whole Wine Pod thing. It seems that for some, undeclosed amout, which I have to assume is a bundle, you get the large, stainless, phallic looking thing, that sits in your living room and makes a small quantity of wine. Am I wrong? Please enlighten me.

Least Common Denominator

OK, lets just get this out into the open. I am a math geek. I always have been and I hope that I always will be. So, that is why the other day, as I was trying to think of why I find talking about wine so enjoyable, I immediately thought about math. Now, before all of you self professed inumerate followers tune out, please hear me out.

There is something about wine that appeals to so many people. People who may have no other common interests, people that work in completely different industries, come from different backgrounds, have different levels of education and never fly in the same circles, can sit together over a glass of wine and use it as a point of connection. It is almost like you can trace their family trees back to a common ancestor. Wine is the master key to the conversation. It is let beverage equivalent of the Least Common Denominator. The thing that, at some level, maybe the lowest level, we all have in common. It is the way that we all just fit.

Sure, it doesn't hurt that wine lowers peoples inhibitions, making it easier to talk. That may have hurt as many relationships as it has helped. And there are certainly times when wine is not appropriate. At least I assume there are. None come to mind right now but there has to be some, right?

Wine is one of the oldest beverages, and has probably change very little over the millenia. It is truly in it's simplest form. That is what makes it so perfect

So, in celebration of math and wine. Here is too you, or maybe us. Find a good friend and a great bottle of wine, or even just a good bottle of wine and a great friend. Or even better, go make a new friend over a bottle of wine.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dear Santa Claus

Dear Santa,

For Christmas this year, I would really love a little winery. Nothing big, nothing fancy. I realize that it might me hard to bring down the chimney, let alone fit into my stocking, but I have faith in you.

If you do, I promise to make you some ice wine that I can leave out instead of milk and cookies. I will even put out a bowl of a good Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay for the reindeer. I figure that it will help keep Rudolph's nose good and red.

I realize that you may not be able to bring this for me. After all, I already received such a great gift from the elections in November. But I figure there is a better chance of getting a winery from you than ever getting one of the wines from my wine club membership with Sine Qua Non. All I ever get from them is a postcard each year that says how sorry they are that all I am getting from them is this postcard, no wine.

In any case, if a winery isn't in the cards, I am still thankful that this year has left me with my health, my beautiful family, my friends, my job, and my hobbies.

Give my love to Mrs Claus.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Little Timmy Beauchamp

Monday, November 17, 2008

My least favorite part of making wine.

Making wine has it's fun, and it's not so fun, parts. That is pretty much true of most things. Cooking is fun, doing the dishes isn't. Going for a long drive is fun, filling the tank when you are done isn't. Having a bunch of friends over is fun, sweeping up after they left isn't.

Wine making is like that. Some people really enjoy the crush, others the fermentation, others the bottling and many probably just enjoy the end product.

I have to admit, that the end product is one of my favorite parts. Not the most enjoyable part, but it is way up there. And I don't even mean drinking it, I mean, just having it there for me to look at. Enjoying something that I made myself is very rewarding. My day time job involves working with software. It is very interesting and intellectually challenging. But at the end of the day, I can not hold it up in my hand and say, I made this. I tried to explain writing software to my mom one time. She uses a computer and understands that software makes it do the thing she likes it to do. But how it gets from people sitting at desks and writing words down on keyboards, to running on her computer is just one of those mysteries. Like "The Mystery Spot", we are not sure why people think that water is running up hill of people are different sizes there, they just do.

That is what I enjoy about wine. After a year of waiting, after crushing, pressing, fermenting, racking, adjusting, bottling, aging, and mostly... waiting, But in the end, I have something I can hold up and say: "I made this." It is something tactile, solid, mine.

But, some parts are more enjoyable than others. I have always been a math and chem guy. The lab work and formulas always were a very enjoyable part. The crush and the pressing are high points too. And even bottling is enjoyable, especially when it is done with friends over.

But the thing that I get no enjoyment from, what so ever, is labeling the wine. I have always bottled the wine and put it back into the cases without a label. Then when I need it, I print a couple labels, cut them out and afix them to the bottle. But as my volume of wine has increased, I have been left with a very large number of unlabeled bottles. From now one, labeling happens at bottling time.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Better Living Through Chemistry

I love chemistry and math. I always have. Tinkering with pH meters, test tubes, pipets. Doing titrations, mixing, measuring, stirring, taking notes, it just really pops my cork.

I am sure that I would still enjoy wine making if it was lower tech, like baking or cooking, but I really enjoy the chemistry aspect of it.

I don't want to give the impression that a wine needs to be heavily manipulated. Wine can be made from grapes with almost no adulteration. It is almost a perfect is process. Grapes from the field can be crushed and fermented as is, no additions, no adjustments. If good vineyard management and cultural practices are used, and the climate and stars all aligned, the juice will be well balanced. Many areas are natural hosts to wild yeasts that will produce a phenomenal wine.

But, lets not kid ourselves. This "natural" wine is not solely a product of nature alone. Those grapes are not wild. They are the result of centuries of manipulation, selection, hybridization and cloning by man to accentuate the traits desirable for winemaking and suppress those traits that are not. Current wine grapes would nearly kill themselves from over-cropping would it not be for the vineyard worker pruning and thinning. This vine is not propagated as it would be in the wild, from the seeds of a parent plant. They are all genetic clones of a single mother vine that was identified, possibly hundreds of years ago.

We are not all blessed with perfect climate in all regions, every year. Some years give us grapes that are low in sugar, low in acid, high in acid, any number of deviations from an ideal crop. In these cases, it might call for an adjustment of acid, or sugar, or water.

Those "Natural" yeasts are really not wild either. They can more accurately be described as feral. Over generations of both yeasts and vintages, the local wine makers have encouraged stains that work well, discouraged those that did not. The strains of yeasts that produced good wines would be the ones that populated the winery and communities where they were enjoyed. On the walls, in the rafters. They are spread though the fields with the discarded grape skins. Over time, they have come to dominate the local area.

The wine makers found, through trial and error, accident and happenstance, that some things made wine better, other things made wine worse. Oak barrels were good, clay pots, no so much. Burnt sulfur made the wine last longer, elemental sulfur kept the mildew away.

Louis Pasteur was instrumental in identifying organisms that caused fermentation, and others that would would make wine go bad. He developed a procedure for reducing the effects of the bad and allowing desired organisms (yeast) to dominate.

So, winemaking has been improved through close cooperation if science. Better winemaking through chemistry. Making wine does not require a love of chemistry or math, but for me, it has always been the added bonus. Not that it needed it.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Making wine just for me

Being an amateur wine maker, you would think that there isn't the pressure to make wines in a style other than your preference. That you can experiment with new techniques, practices or varieties that may be of interest only to you. The absence of market pressures to produce a wine that appeals to the broadest cross section of the population should permit you to be bold if bold is what you want to be, or conservative if that is your desire. But, that really is not completely the case.

Trying an interesting wine, made in a way that appeals to you, and you alone could result in cases of wine that only you alone want to drink. Or, maybe you find out that there were good reasons why Army Worm wine has never really caught on
commercially. Natural fermentation or carbonic maceration may not turn out an end product that even you are interested in.

Not having to sell your wine to wholesalers, or to tasting room customers only takes away half of the economic pressures. Just because no one pays you to make your wine doesn't mean you get to make it for free. The vineyard probably doesn't give you their grapes at no cost just because you are not competing for shelf space against them.

Bottles are expensive, even though you may be re-using used bottles for a portion of your wines.

Most of us don't make wine just for ourselves. We share it with our friends and family. Our family puts up with the smell of fermenting must seeping up through the floor from the garage. Our spouses smile politely having to share space with carboys and racking canes.

Our neighbors kids have to hold off on basketball occasionally because the stemmer crusher is set up beneath the hoop. You don't want to impose all of these inconveniences on them,abuse their charity of tolerance with out producing a wine that they can all enjoy (the neighbors, not their kids).

So, we do all feel pressures to make wines in a style that may not always be our preference. My wife like big oaky chardonnay. I occasionally add more oak that I would normally because I know that is what she likes.

We don't get to make wine just for ourselves. And if we did, we probably would not enjoy making it as much either.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

You say tomato, ...

No more renting a crusher destemmer for me.

You can not even imaging my excitement at having a crusher destemmer of my own. No more calling up the winemaking shop, trying to schedule a rental last minute because the grapes are ready. No more having to spend half an hour cleaning the last renter's crud out of the equipment before I can even start.

Sure, there are some downsides.

Ummm, I am sure there are. I just can't think of any. But, I would bet my wife could name a couple. Like another large piece of winemaking stuff taking up space in the garage.

That is here name for it, "garage". That is so quaint, don't you think?
I prefer to think of it as a "Non-commercial Winery" that I allocate some of the space to close family members to park in.

It is the whole: "You say tomato, I say ..." thing.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Paso Robles

Paso Robles.
This ain't your father's Paso

I hesitated with that sub-title, because in that statement, I am the

Since my college days in San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles has changed from a
sleepy little community of cattle ranches, grain farms, western shops,
what seemed like a disproportionate number of fishing boat shops, and
probably 3 wineries. Now, you can count over 200 wineries in the Paso
Robles area. The downtown was recently described as the next Headlsburg.
That is almost spot on. Paso now boasts several nice restaurants, places
to go for a bite to eat, hang out, have a great glass of wine or beer,
and even a few microbrewery pubs.

Everyone is always tempted to separate wines and wineries into
categories, by their style, their varieties of grapes, the viticultural
or enological processes that they employ, their value, or their
perceived quality. These classifications help us to compare wines or
wineries with others we might feel are similar. Sometimes, it is not
obvious in advance, what group one will fit into because what causes the
wine to have the determining quality is not obvious. But, as we began
tasting our way around Paso Robles, a distinction became apparent. We
quickly noticed that there was an obvious geographical boundary between
two distinct categories of wine in the area. Looking at a map, that
geographic boundary has a label, US interstate 101. The freeway runs
north-south through the middle of town and divides the Paso Robles AVA
into two haves. Comparing the topologies of the two areas, they are
equally distinct.

The east side of the AVA is flat, warm, sunny and arid. In many ways, it
is not too different from the central valley, and their resulting wines
are reminiscent of the wines of the central valley. Higher volume,
higher brix and therefore higher alcohol, less color, less aroma, and
less varietal character. That is not to say that there were no stand out
wines. We enjoyed some from the eastern half of the area, but they were
fewer and farther between. Eberle winery was one of those stand outs.

The west side of the AVA is very different from it's eastern half.
Starting at the freeway and moving west, you quickly move into the
hills. Flat vineyards give way to steep slopes, much less land plantable
with vines, more trees. The fog from the coast, just over the hills,
hangs around in the mornings. The temperature is noticeable cooler, the
soils are different. Where the other side was much sandier, the west
side is much more solid. Limestone and granite make the vines work a bit
harder for their nutrients and water. I am sure it makes the winemakers
work harder for each gallon of juice too. The yields are much lower on
this side, where the east side cal easily pull 4-6 tons of grapes per
acre, one winery on the wast said he was getting less that a ton per acre.

Will the area be divided into two areas, east and west? That subject
never came up while we were there. It may be that the area is keeping
any internal divisions from becoming obvious to the public. Probably a
good move to work together and get name recognition for the area.

A few other observations that we found interesting, huge blends or non
traditional varietal blends were common. A blend of 4 or more different
grapes was common. One wine maker had put together a blend of 7
different varietals. It is hard to believe that this wine was the result
of a methodical and meticulous sampling to find the "sweet spot" where
any change of percentages in one direction or another would diverge from
the optimum blend. It seemed more like it was the result of going
through your refrigerator at the end of the week to find out what you
can put into the pot for a stew to use up what you have on hand. That
kind of blend had no identifiable character.

Many wineries gave their wines "pretty names". These were things like
"Renegade", "Sundance" and "Radiance". This was probably because of the
extensive blending, not allowing them to use varietal names like "2005
Sarah", and a name like "Eight Completely Random Wines Mixed into One
Bottle" doesn't roll off the tongue.

The other interesting aspect of the blending, many winemakers were
blending Bordeaux and Rhone varieties together like Cabernet and Syrah,
or even red and white wines together. Some worked, some didn't. Our
favorite winery of the weekend, L’Aventure. I got the impression that
the owners and winemakers made the wines the did because that was their
choice of wine. Well though out and excellently executed.

Our weekend down there coincided with Zinfandel Festival. That brought
in a lot of tourists. But staying to the
smaller wineries off the beaten path kept the crowds down.

A trip to Paso Robles from the bay area is a short 3 hour drive. Well
worth it. Make a long weekend out of it