Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A meditation


Here's a sorting table during a vintage I worked a few years ago. Somehow the tension in the air during crushing does not come through in this video I shot. Will the must hopper overflow? Am I forgetting to make an enzyme addition? Is there too much botrytis on the berries?

No, none of these things are happening, except in my head. And yet I am crouching under the grape conveyor with my little camera. 

I've done the hardest part of my job--I was out on the crushpad at sunrise, fortified with Marmite and espresso, my hangover from last night's Chenin Blanc present but irrelevant.  I set up the sorting tables, the conveyors, the crusher, got the tank ready, and made sure we got the right amounts of the right grapes. 

Then I walked down the line, flicking the switches on, before waving my hand in my best Morpheus-impression "c'mere" to tell the kid to start dumping the Grenache boxes on the first vibrating table. 

And I trust him and all the sorters, the way I hope my boss trusts me. I'm still keeping my eyes--and the third eye of my lens--on everything, but this is a system whose fitness I believe in by now. I've been overseeing this crew for weeks, and everything is going great. There is nothing to worry about. 

Watching this now is very calming to me. The berries keep falling at the same intervals, a few get yanked out, the rest become wine. It's all part of somebody's well-conceived plan that, to nobody's surprise, worked. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Missing South Africa

I took this photo in Stellenbosch (almost in Paarl) in February 2011. The mountain is Klapmutskop. We made really good Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, and other wines that season.

I was so nervous about going to South Africa. It sounded like a scary, dangerous place based on the sensationalist, out-of-context news stories I sought out and obsessed over in the two months prior to leaving.

The reality didn't match my expectation. The reality is this picture, which I somehow forgot about and let sit on my iPhoto for almost three years. Tell me a more beautiful place exists anywhere on earth.

I'm going to blow this picture up and hang it on my wall as a constant reminder of the yawning gulf between my worries and reality.

Gelukkig wynoes broers.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Val de Mer Petit Chablis 2012

Dear Harry,

I know that this is probably going to arrive in your mailbox just after you arrive in Fond-du-Lac and then sit there for weeks, but if I don’t write it now then it’s just going to sit in my brain, which I think you’ll agree is not as sturdy as your mailbox. And no less likely to have a baseball bat swung at it, at least if I don’t come up with that money I told you about.

So I didn’t run off into the woods after you dropped me off at the meeting; I didn’t run off into the woods that stretch along I-35 and start drinking the dregs of the beer cans and forty bottles that are never going to get cleaned up. Thanks for trusting me not to run off into the woods.

No, I went inside and I sat in the back and listened to this ponytailed Guatemalan guy and this beautiful waify blonde with a man’s name tell these stories about heavy metal music and whiskey for breakfast and speed for lunch and asskickings and betrayals and vomiting--there was so much vomiting in these people’s stories. It was like they whenever they forgot what they were going to say they just said something about how then they vomited everywhere.

The last speaker was this older broad who said she turned it around after she got tackled to the ground in Tampa airport and there were thirty pounds of cocaine in her luggage. Like, she seriously just put thirty pounds of cocaine in a suitcase and walked it into the airport and put it on the conveyor and figured everything would be fine and she would get paid on the other side so she could buy more drugs.

That one was hilarious. And she said she had been going to meetings the whole time she was running cocaine all over the country. I wanted to raise my hand and ask why we should believe she didn’t have thirty pounds of cocaine in her car right now.

And I didn’t.

Anyway. I’m still fucked in at least five of the seven senses of the word, but I’m glad you helped me or else it would be six of seven. Carol isn't coming back, big surprise. That really good Petit Chablis you brought over is still almost 2/3 full in my refrigerator. What the hell should I do with it? It probably tastes awful now. Maybe I’ll just leave it there for ten years.

Thanks Harry. I'll try to write you again in FDL, FML.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Off-site Writing

The only time "cloudiness" was  a positive quality in a glass of red wine.

I have a new review up on www.americanwineryguide.com with a couple of on-site photos of the beautiful Duckhorn Vineyards. Please check it out here, and come back next week for part two of the story in the previous post. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Folie a Deux Menage a Trois Red 2010, Part I

Since there were no more grapes hanging in the vineyards, you could say that harvest was over.

But harvest wasn't over. We were all still working twelve hour days, and would continue to until Christmas. There were thirty-nine tanks in various stages of fermentation, and it was our job to get the wine in bottles and on shelves by this time next year.

The early ferments were done and we had spent last week pressing the last gritty gallons of wine from their exhausted skins. Now it was time to add the oak chips. I'll never forget the first time an eighteen-wheeler backed up to the winery and delivered twenty pallets, each stacked five feet high with bags and bags of oak chips.

Granted, this was a big winery. But it still blew my mind how many oak chips were delivered each year. They would be dumped into the tanks to release their sawdusty aroma and flavor compounds, and eventually composted.

Obviously buying new barrels would cost more, especially the best French barrels as the dollar endured continued humiliation at the hands of the Euro. But God, there were just so many oak chips!

The bottom line was that they were the only cost-effective way of getting something approximating oak flavor into wine. And oak flavor--well, oak flavor and alcohol--were what kept the cases zooming off the Costco shelves.

Today had been day one of oak chips. Day one of clocking in at dawn, forklifting pallets of chips from the warehouse to the winery, weighing out the quantities, and finally tying the chips up in big muslin steeping bags. I called them Satan's Teabags. I would lug each one--some weighing upwards of thirty pounds--to the top of each tank and heave it into the wine to steep for months and months.

It was 6:45 PM and I was fried. I was the most resilient of the cellarhands--I'm not above saying I was better than they were at ignoring wet clothes, strained ligaments and the occasional chemical burn at the end of the day. Maybe they were a step ahead of me in the morning, but when they were flagging late in the afternoon I was always hitting my stride.

The exception to "always" was today... as always. Three more bags of chips to go. A fierce tiredness was setting in on me.

The worst part was that I should have been done by now. Just after lunch, the main floor drain started backing up. I had wasted two disgusting hours trying to locate and clear the blockage before throwing my hands up and getting back to the chips. Now there was a half-inch of water over most of the floor, and I was definitely not going home until I fixed the drain.

Go, go, go, just go. I grasped for whatever willpower I had left, threw a heavy sack of chips over my shoulder, and ascended the side of a giant Merlot tank with only one hand on the ladder. This was the sort of little danger I had come to accept as part of the job.

I opened the lid and heaved in the bag. The tank was two-thirds full and the chips landed with a satisfying *plunk* that resonated in the empty space. When I'm a head winemaker, I thought to myself, no one's going to throw a bag into my red wine. My red wines are going to luxuriate in new French barrels every year--beautiful Seguin-Moreaus, Sylvains, Dargaud & Jaegles. There would always be money for more new barrels, because I would be able to name any price for the wines.

The primitive, perfect engineering of a barrel never ceased to amaze me. From wood and metal and fire, the most ergonomic, functional way there would ever be to store wine. No one would ever improve on the original design of a barrel. And without barrels, there would never have been a wine industry.

And what were oak chips? Shattered barrels. Maybe not literally, but they were a suggestion of what would happen if you took a sledgehammer to a barrel. A jeering insult to barrels. You are not necessary. You can be broken.

I realized I was going to start looking for a new job in January.

This daydream went on a little longer before I was snapped out of it by the door at the far end of the winery clicking open, then shut. It was far away, but sound traveled through this cold, damp space like electricity through a puddle.

There was no line of sight connecting me to the door--I couldn't see whoever came in and whoever came in couldn't see me. It wasn't the assistant winemaker, who I saw go home two hours ago. It couldn't be Paul, Tony, Ignacio, or any of the other cellarhands--they would have come through the other door.

Footsteps--that sounded like more than two feet--clicked on wet concrete. 

"Come on, this way," someone said. It was Craig, a wiry townie who worked the closing shift in the tasting room three nights a week, usually leaving the actual responsibilities of closing to whomever had the misfortune of sharing the shift. Craig was content to know fuck-all about wine.

"It's freezing in here," whispered a girl's voice. 

I decided I would wait on the ladder.

I had this Folie a Deux Menage A Trois Red 2010 at a party, but according to wine-searcher.com it retails for an average of $10 and is widely available.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Feature Article I Wrote For Honest Cooking

If you are part of the iPad set, please use it to grab this free download of Honest Cooking’s inaugural feature-length magazine and check out my article on dining at a North Korean restaurant. It may or may not be viewable on other platforms.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cave Saint Cyr Beaujolais 2010

Abbé Bertillon could smell a fierce fire.

It was far away, maybe even in Chambolle, but he was not mistaken. His sense of smell was his greatest physical gift. It was the reason his abbey never had a barrel of wine go sour, the reason they never sold a wine too early or too late, and the reason that they only acquired perfect vineyard parcels--Abbé Bertillon simply needed to put his nose to the earth and breathe deeply to know everything about the wine that would eventually come out of it.

Now he smelled a fierce fire, fed by wood and cloth and leather and other things that homes were made of.

It was the last week of June, 1790. May been rainy and humid, and fruit set was uneven in the easternmost rows of Pinot Noir.  If the summer continued like this, Abbé Bertillon knew rot would be a severe problem at harvest time.

His brother in Reims had written to him two weeks earlier, telling of riots in Paris that were spilling into the countryside. Peasants were smashing shop windows and burning anything that stank of nobility. Priests and even nuns had been threatened, but not harmed--as far as anyone knew.

Georges, to the chagrin of their parents, had not entered the priesthood but Abbé Bertillon knew he was still a more devout Catholic than most of the clergy. He said a short prayer for the safety of his brother's family, then put on his boots and went outside.

Today was one of the first beautifully clear days of the summer. As Abbé Bertillon walked the rows of vines behind the abbey, he brushed his increasingly unsteady fingers against the bark of the thick trunks. These vines were getting too old, the yields would be unacceptably low in just a few years.

Two decades earlier he had planted many of them himself and now he thought of how difficult--physically difficult--it would be to pull them out. He mumbled I Corinthians 4:12:

And we labour, working with our own hands: we are reviled, and we bless; we are persecuted, and we suffer it.

Georges in his letter had called the Abbé Sieyes a traitor and a heretic for siding with the revolutionaries. Abbé Bertillon was not so sure. He found it harder to think ideas through to their conclusions as he approached seventy.

He still believed the King ruled by the grace of God, but he did not believe that fact would save Louis from the grace of the guillotine. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it would happen. Abbé Bertillon was no politician and certainly no revolutionary, but he could smell the desire for regicide in the pages of the newspapers describing the growing chaos--the same way he could smell what a wine, or a vineyard would become long before it became that thing.

He kept this to himself, despite his certainty.

Down the slight grade that ended at the road to Dijon, he came to some younger vines. Two rows of Gamay, his secret. He was sneaking the grapes in with the Pinot Noir at crush, and once the wine was made it was it was indistinguishable to anyone but him.

Abbé Bertillon had a special affinity for Gamay--he suspected that it could be as good, or nearly as good as Pinot Noir could be if planted in exactly the right place and handled exactly the right way. He had no doubt that this was exactly the right place, where it smelled like moss and wind and water and something else no one, not even he, could describe. With a few more rows of it he could bottle a 100% Gamay and show everyone the truth.

And maybe soon he could have a few more rows of it. Duke Philip the Bold had called Gamay "vile and disloyal" nearly four hundred years earlier and that was that, the end of Gamay in Burgundy.

But now that every French ideal of "loyalty" was being immolated, revolutionaries were killing revolutionaries for not being revolutionary enough, and the Dukes were lucky if their property was the only thing they lost, maybe the decrees against Gamay were also running out of time.

The fire smelled stronger now. Was the revolution in Burgundy already? There were enough intellectuals and brutes in Dijon to do serious damage. Abbé Bertillon decided that if they came for him, he would simply ask them to spare the vineyards. He touched a little unripe green berry and said Hebrews 6:10 to it:

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.

As long as his head was on his shoulders, Abbé Bertillon would continue to help.

I bought this Cave Saint Cyr Beaujolais 2010 at Falletti Foods in San Francisco for $18.99. The importer is The Sorting Table in Napa.