Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Don't Care If It Hurts, I Wanna Have Control

In 2009, I made my first beer the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. It was a kit "Pale Ale" that sure-handedly delivered the Homebrewer's Epiphany, to wit, this shit ain't hard! From powders and syrups, fire and water, forty-odd bottles of malty, bitter quaff that no one would mistake for Sierra Nevada--in a good way or a bad way. Ten ales later the extract brewing process is automatic if not somnambulant, recipes make enough sense that I can twist them when they're begging for it, and the beers have gotten better.

There is more to do: kegging, lagering, all-grain, expansion. I just pitched my first yeast from a propagated starter. Contamination roulette, to hear it from the microbiologists. For three days a pair of loose-lidded growlers waited in my refrigerator, to the left a soggy carton of buttermilk, to the right a sourdough culture eager to make lactobacillic friends. When the moment arrived I sprayed grain alcohol on the vessels' mouths, ignited it, shook the bejeebus out of the yeast slurry, and let the wort have it.

Two weeks later it's fermented, conditioning, settling like a slo-mo snow globe. Nothing has gone wrong so all I can do is wait. Much of this is waiting. After a fury of labor when every thirty seconds dangles another chance to fuck up, I surrender the process to an army of millions. Get 'em, boys. At this point there are a hundred decisions I could have made differently--maybe better, definitely worse. But even if each was made with teutonic precision, what's to guarantee a nimble acetobacter won't slither into the fermenter just before I seal it?

The answer, obviously, is nothing. And nothing can guarantee the yeast I mail-ordered from Scottsdale last week will arrive alive. And nothing short of buying or building a mini-fridge will permanently put my mind at ease about the health of my homebrews during this infernal summer. Thinking about the beers between brewday and drinkday invariably leads to neg-head worrying, yet it somehow always works out (knock on cask). So it usually is with this sort of procedure that's theoretically delicate, but where nature seems to have your back.

I'll continue to do this because I want to imagine a beer and then drink it a month later exactly as it tasted in my mind. It never will, but by then I'll have forgotten enough of my initial vision that it won't matter. Assurance is knowing the gear was clean, the hops were fresh, the boil was strong, the vibes were good. If each brew session reveals the location of a new button I can or can't press, a new string I can or can't pull next time, I'm happy enough to follow in the dance for now. It's for that moment when the yeast is pitched and I decide to let cleanup wait a half-hour so I can drink one more from the last batch, leaving my footprints engraved on the kitchen floor in a sticky lacquer of wort.

Recent notables:
  • Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Juline" 2006: Grenache, Syrah, why bother with thirteen grapes when two will do? Purple and viscous with herby and tea-like aromas balancing huge red and black berries. Still some young tannins and finishes with the warmth you'd expect from a 15% Rhone bruiser.
  • Chateau Carbonnieux 1988: Acidity is at the forefront now for this one, having likely left its fruit in the Clinton years. Hay and dry grass emerge on the nose, with faint raspberry. Texturally on the toothless side, but there's still enough balance to make it worth drinking.
  • Sierra Nevada "Bigfoot" Barleywine Style Ale: Translucent copper-red color. Smells caramelly with pungent fruity notes. Intense hops lend a substantially bitter counterpoint to the residual sugar. Surprisingly food-friendly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I didn't make it. With ~500 out of ~9,000 patient tonnes of fruit still hanging I split New Zealand, leaving the Cabernet Sauvignon--the perennial rear guard of vinifera harvests--to be someone else's privilege, someone else's problem. My reasons for leaving were legitimate enough, but in this life you either finish what you start or you don't. At a remote gate in the Auckland airport, I catalogued my sunburns and scabs and questioned if I still "worked the vintage". I personally managed the crushing of at least 2,500 tonnes, established dominance over a curmudgeonly 6" diameter must line, plunged fourteen tanks every morning with a pipe taller than any building in my neighborhood, and now appreciate the lye-on-the-hand scene in Fight Club better than you hopefully ever will. I worked 50, 60, 70-hour weeks.

Not being present at the end of vintage can't discount the entire experience, but there is a degree of ceremony to the whole thing--some splash an ounce of last year's wine onto the first grapes to be crushed, others (men) don't shave until the last pressed skin is out of the winery, most mark vintage's conclusion with some riff on overindulgence. Missing the end means something is missing--nothing crucial, but nothing insignificant. Like I piously bared my soul for fifty minutes of Mass before skipping out on the Benediction.

I know more about making wine as a result of working this vintage, which is all that matters. I know what Rohavin is. I know that a T-valve is very useful in a winery. I know grape presses larger than many New York apartments exist. I can only anticipate the next harvest and then the one after that, ever in search of experience.

Recent notables:
  • Sixpoint "Bengali Tiger" IPA: Seen-it-before bronze color. Aromas skew towards grain instead of fruit and obvious piney hop stuff, though the latter are there as well. Crisp and not too malt-sticky, opens with a serious snap of bitterness, with the hops gradually revealing themselves as the long finish takes shape. Solid example of style.
  • Ravenswood "Zen of Zin" Zinfandel 2007: Not a particularly chunky Zinfandel, sharper acidity than is typical. Distinguished blackberry, raspberry are nice but taste stifled. There might also be some spiciness in there trying to escape. Not much of that soul-warming Zin heat at the end. "No Wimpy Wines"? Careful, RWood. Could probably have benefited from decanting.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I watched a stewy must ooze up the inclines of the funnel-shaped hopper, seventy percent sure that it would trip the pump's automatic pressure switch before an embarrassing and costly overflow. I imagined I had personally selected the vineyard block, argued for its excellence to the check-writers, and finally declared it ready for picking on this date. The resulting wine would be a referendum on my instincts and ability as a winemaker. The level continued to rise and I wanted to switch the pump on manually, overriding the automatic sensor and interrupting the communication between the three separate machines performing the crush. Less than three inches to overflow now. My hand on the knob, my head turning to see who was watching. Beige foam reached the hopper rim and wobbled over the precipice just as a futuristic hum signaled the pump coming to life. A six-ounce trickle of magenta juice drizzled to the floor and then the must sank towards the hopper outlet, faster and faster, on its way to the fermenter tank as someone else's Malbec.

Recent notables:
  • Mountain View Zinfandel 2002: No, it's not from Lodi. It's from New Zealand and is the last thing I expected to find, much less find excellent, on the North Island. Dark but translucent the way a good Z should be, pleasant alcohol-heavy nose, all jam and spice and heat on the palate with some Pinot Noir-esque bright red fruit notes finishing con brio.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Harvest is late, held back by rain I never saw. Time to scrub and spray and imagine the winery alive--augers twisting, presses inflating, pumps grinding. Soggy grapes basking in late summer heat, rediscovering their balance. Botrytis tossed aside. I get nervous. It feels like the groggy ten minutes before taking a standardized test, settling in the hard chair, arranging my pencils.

Recent notables:
  • Trinity Hill "The Gimblett" 2007: Rich and soft, red berry flavors with darkness to spare. Chocolaty finish. Impeccable Merlot character and maybe the best red wine I've had in NZ so far.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Through the ozone hole, the sun's intensity is amazing. In a violent flash, a crusty pipe fitting finally gives in to a desperately torqued spanner. Two feral bite marks scar the worker's thumb, one pumping bright, thin blood across his palm and down his wrist, the other turning sickly black under the almost-broken skin. It's OK, despite an onlooker's concern. It has to be OK. Lift with your legs. Righty tighty.

It is a lot of juice and wine, a lot of value lost if the brain is in the wrong place at the wrong time. There will be little cuts and strains and caustic burns, but skin and ligaments regenerate faster than confidence.

Recent notables:
  • Allan Scott Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2008: Refreshing but still substantial mouthfeel. Great white-gold color without much green. Fruit over grass and herbs--melon, fig, pear. Excellent.
  • Gunn Estate Pinot Noir 2008: Very dark color suggests overconcentration, confirmed by the stewed aromas and gummy texture. There are some intriguing flavor elements here--jam and minerals--but in the end it's too graceless.
  • Monteith's Summer Ale: Ugh, the first loser from this otherwise great Kiwi brewery. Watery and dominated by a cola off-flavor.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Updating this from Napier is going to be tricky because I'm limited to coin-op internet kiosks, which are expensive and usually block access to this site when they pick up the word "fisting" in this post. I'm starting work on Monday--not sure if fruit is coming in yet, so not sure if it's going to be a smooth or brutal transition to doin' it in a big winery. Stay focused, stay focused, stay focused. You are not afraid of the Merlot, the Merlot is afraid of you.

Recent Notables:
  • Kilkenny: Not exactly Guinness Lite, but a similar soft mouthfeel and subtle bitterness. Cream ales are OK by me if they usually taste like this.
  • Speight's Golden Lager: Somewhere between a crappy American adjunct-infested pilsner and the real thing from Deutschland, this is a good thirst-quencher but not worth the NZ$7 it costs in bars here.
  • Macs Sassy Red Ale: I don't get why this is billed as a bitter--it's vigorously but elegantly carbonated, very clear, and has intense aroma hopping reminiscent of good IPA's back home. This is probably my go-to beer for the next couple of months.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

E noho rā

Off to New Zealand for the next ten weeks, with no intention but to make excellent wines.

Recent notables:
  • Allegrini Valpolicella Classico 2007: At first taste, grandstanding sharp red cherry stuff almost suggests Sangiovese. Then an out-of-left-field peardrop note awkwardly evokes above-average Beaujolais. Ending on a vanilla plot twist worthy of M. Night, this McValpolicella has some typicity but ultimately takes too long making its point.
  • Hill of Content Shiraz 2005: Rich, coughdroppy black fruit quickly asserts alpha status over listless, dull acidity and tannins. Sawdusty oak cheers from the sidelines.
  • Allan Scott Wines Pinot Noir 2007: The slightly funky berry flavors that make this varietal interesting are well-represented here, but it was impossible to ignore the obvious bubbles quivering around the bowl of the glass and breaking for the surface every two seconds. This wine was fizzy. Maybe, hopefully, a one-in-a-thousand flawed bottle.
  • Homebrewed "Spin-Out" Stout: Multiple freak-outs over the health of this beer's fermentation have proved unwarranted. The end result is a dark, brooding, espressoesque brew that delivers great enjoyment week after bottling. Beneath a creamy tan head, six different hops counter the primally sweet, savory malt with a bitter jolt of electricity.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I Thirst

Between November 2007 and October 2008 I tasted 1500 wines, give or take. Not a number that's gonna make Vaynerchuk weep with jealousy, but it puts in context the fact that claiming 200 more between October 2008 and now would be a stretch. I won't say that changes in my fortunes and circumstances this past year+ have made me more ignorant of wine writ large, just that my intake of the stuff has become way more... protectionist.

This is tough to deal with. I miss discovering my way through flights of this and verticals of that, knuckle-slapping my palate into obedience. As someone who does very little traveling, my window on foreign and wonderful terroirs is now opaque with grime. Selfishly, it stings knowing the wines I would have had access to last year are still out there, and other people are tasting them.

Worst is the plaintive wail of a goal abandoned. When I was doing loads of tasting, I thought I was finally going to get the autodidact thing right for once. I can blind-taste an apple and know what it is because I've eaten thousands of apples. It works the same for grenache, right? The more you taste it, the better you know it.

It occurs to me now how many times I've used that last sound byte--true as it may be--as a cheap excuse to get hammered. And to save this post from total dishonesty, I can't deny that my "new" "life" has fostered a far deeper understanding of a few varietals from root to glass. I appreciate the reminder that a shift in focus is rarely the same as failure, but I still miss the hell out of drinking Burgundy three times a week.

Recent notables:
  • Chateau Bel-Air 2007: The cheapest Bordeaux I could find--AOC Bordeaux, of course--came on strong with a tartish blast of vague fruit, revealed two glasses in to resemble grape soda. I found myself imagining a scrawny plot of merlot forced into fire-sale Bergerac soil, and dust clouds blowing across the vast obscurity of the Bas-Medoc. Hard to finish.
  • Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: Dark stuff with decent wood tannins providing structure where the low acidity falls short. Incredibly intense berry flavors, but not a wine that's going to make CA believers out of old world snotties.
  • Indaba Shiraz 2008: Warm (at any serving temperature), sweet, a fruit bomb with a little gamey depth, this wine pushes all my buttons. Anyone who whines about "overripe" modern reds can just keep walking--they won't be missed.
  • Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz 2009: A polarizer, this. Though not as sticky as the av-er-idge Port, Jam Jar is heavy, sugary, and sure to freak out drinkers who aren't expecting this sort of thing. Priced for everyday consumption, it has varietal character and ultimately makes perfect sense--basically a marginally sweeter version of the Indaba Shiraz. Surprise! They're made by the same guy.
  • Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale: The only pumpkin ale I had in fall '09 I didn't want to spit out, i.e. the only one I had that prioritized pumpkin flavor over cinnamon/clove/allspice bullshit. The 7.9% ABV demands you sip slowly, which is the only way to get everything that's going on in this exemplary ale that would be great with or without the cucurbita.
  • Homebrewed "Easy Tiger" Kolsch: When I whip out another post a year from now, it will be about my odyssey into homebrewing. This one, that I've been drinking constantly for the past month, is IMHO a respectable stab at a German pilsner without the temperature-control capabilities necessary for lagering. Light body without sacrificing maltiness, complex hoppy finish?