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Syrah

My pal Dave is a fucking genius with wine. Since we’ve slowed down on housebuilding tasks this fall, I volunteered to be a winemaking helper bee this season for him.

There’s a thriving winemaking industry in Woodinville and a significant number of smaller wineries are in a strip mall/industrial park. Winetasters show up in little vans and trip around the parking lot from tasting room to tasting room. They have nice little tasting rooms in the industrial park, but it’s still an industrial park.

Shorter: it ain’t no chateau. I like the setting myself,but I see stuff like winemaking as an industrial activity and find the picturesque in machinery, process, result, and so on. But I’m weird. Regardless of the setting, some of the wine is good. Some is very good. All of it is expensive.

Most vinifera grapes won’t set on the western side of the Cascades, so they truck the grapes in from California or Eastern Washington. They do the crushing, fermenting, blending, bottling, etc., over here.

Dave makes excellent wine, most of which comes from grapes grown in Eastern Washington, and this year he’s fermenting syrah and cabernet sauvignon. The process is exactly what you think: crush the grapes, let the crushed fruit and juice ferment until you get the balance of sugars and alcohol you want, stop the fermentation. But the challenges are in the details. How long should the crushed fruit sit on the juice? What kind of yeast? What’s a good balance? And this is where experience, skill, and talent come into play.

But the first stage deals with crushed fruit and is essentially, yeast wrangling. Yeasts are amazing and complex organisms, closer to animals than plants, and it is their waste products that make bread rise and juice ferment. Dave’s goal is to create an enironment where the yeasts will thrive while simultaneously extracting the flavors and color of the fruit. It’s a nice balancing act that, combined with the mercy at which he finds himself regarding weather, unforeseen mechanical challenges, and so on, is one reason why winemakers drink so much.

But this is all very theoretical. Fact is that winemaking, like any industrial activity, requires physical labor. There’s a lot of shoveling, pulling, toting, and cleaning. I already helped with some shoveling, but now it was time to punch down the must.

Must is the crushed fruit, stems, seeds, and whatever else that’s solid inside the fermenting vat. The wine yeast expels so much CO2 that the must rises to the top and forms a cap. (Interestingly, this cap helps keep the juice warm and yeast perform better in a specific temperature range.) The must needs to be punched down to release more sugars, color, and flavor and to keep the yeast happy.

There is nothing romantic about punching must. You have a steel rod with a couple of handles and a flat end and you punch that sucker down to the bottom of the vat, and then rake. Wineries with larger fermenters don’t even bother punching as it’s too difficult physically---they use a system by which they pump the juice from the bottom of the vat and pour it over the top of the cap. But this is a small operation and so it’s done the old-fashioned way.

The process starts by removing the lid and the fitted bedsheet along the top of the vat. The bed sheets are there to stop fruit flies. Anyway, steam rises out of the vat, full of enough CO2 that in a larger vat, you have to be careful you don’t breathe in too much, pass out, fall in, and drown. The steam smells like grapes and yeast. Just like heaven.

Dave checks the temperature using a non-contact thermometer. Ambient temperature is about 60 degrees and the cap is close to 70.

Dave pumps in O2 using a long steel rod poked through the cap to the bottom of the vat. Yeast needs oxygen and this is one way to get it down to the bottom. One of the other reasons you punch yeast is to agitate and add O2 to the entire vat. Stabbing the cap yields a massive amount of purple foam.

Foam

The foam’s temperature is over 80 degrees. Dave has heating blankets around and floating aquarium heaters in the vat to help keep the must within a specified range, but most of this heat energy is from the yeast. I get first hand knowledge of just how warm it is when I punch. It’s all upper body and while Dave is freakishly tall, I am not. I stand on a little step stool to get some leverage. Punch down, rake it up. Punch, rake, punch, rake. I get it done pretty quick.

Next we check the brix (Bx). Brix is a measurement of the amount of sugar in a liquid, which is good to know as yeast converts this sugar converts to alcohol during fermentation. Dave needs to know approximately how much sugar is in the juice so he can figure out when the yeast has finished doing it’s job, how quickly the yeast is doing it’s job, if there’s something wrong, and so on. He’s balancing the action of the east with other requirements for his wine and finding the Bx is a way to learn that.

Finding the brix

Out comes the hydrometer. I didn’t get pictures of this because I was actually doing the measuring, but essentially, we got some of the juice (and it was bubbling like shaken soda pop under the cap) and tested a sample. A hydrometer is a bulbed glass rod you slip into a sample and then spin to clear any foam or bubbles. Dave said to get the reading quickly and don’t fuss because this is an approximation.

We got the number and he did a quick calculation. He then helps the yeast along by adding DAP, a product that delivers yeast-available nitrogen, and Fermaid, which is a yeast nutrient. I tasted the Fermaid and it was not so good. But I am not yeast.

He had a little extra time so he let me try my hand at finding total acidity (TA) of a 2004 syrah and a 2007 cabernet sauvignon I helped him cap and move a few weeks ago. He has all this lab equipment in his cellar and it’s pretty cool. And I love this kind of crap---standing around talking about making stuff can be fun, but after a certain point, it’s time to do. You can’t talk a bottle of wine into existence anymore than you can swear drywall into flinging itself on the ceiling.

And Dave really knows what he’s doing. The proof is in the bottle.

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chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i've had a great deal of home-made alcohol. like, quite a bit, in fact. even Estate grade stuff. i have a pretty low opinion of most of it. there. i said it. organic. hand made. small batch. etc. there's a weird fine line i can't articulate (and thus bow to those who can) in which i find the small batch cottage stuff (esp wines) to be, well, undrinkable. ymmv, of course. but my advice? let the shit age. for a nice, long time. same with beer, liquor, and a lot of other products that take what you can grow, and turn it into what you can drink.

frankly, i'd rather grow, juice and store the health food type stuff: carrot and apple juices, green spinach based juices, that sort of thing, and pressure cook it and store it. that stuff tasted great this year! i sucked it right down, what tomato juice based stuff i canned last year. but the guy who traded me same for some "organic, home grown, home processed X wine?" um... wow, i've never had a worse hangover. i'd rather drink stoli. not talking about you, K (nor of course you, Ohio). but you know who you are, hangover guy. we won't be trading again, as i told you that morning i was so much in pain i couldn't spell my name, let alone yours. never. again.

Submitted by ohio on

That's our label. It's the fruitcake of wine. We made it years ago from some grapes from a friend's backyard. We literally stomped them in a container, so it was foot wine, and chucked the must into a bucket. I followed all the instructions and it turned out to be...

Horribly horrible. Not ice-stabbingly terrible, hell no, it wasn't strong enough for that. Just simply, gloriously awful. So bad it had a certain majestic quality. The fab GF took it to an office party white elephant Christmas trade thing and there was fierce compeition until she explained how bad it was. The competition was even fiercer.

When I helped Dave bottle the 2007 cab (he ages most of his reds for years---I have ten bottles of a 2001 merlot and a case of 2002 or 3 claret he just gave me), he gave me a tasting glass. I swallowed two sips and man, it was bracing. Way too fresh too enjoy, though it had great flavors and should be pretty good when it opens up. Anyhow, the fab GF noticed my eyes were swelling and the next day, I had a Stay-Puft Marshmallow man face.

I'm really really sensitive to sulfites, but that's never happened before.

I'm learning about his process mostly to understand it. I'm a lot more interested in the distilling part of alcohol production for both consumption and fuel. And frankly, his wine is really top notch and he gives a lot away.

As far as aging, well, some wines benefit from it but historically, wine was drunk within the year. Aging requires tempering and maintaining the cellar temperature, which can be hard if you don't have room. Proper bottling is a huge part of it and of course, avoiding the microorganisms that give you a corked one. "Corked" wine is where these microorganisms that grow on natural cork grow inside the botle and absolutely destroy the wine. Unfortunately, some municiple water processing plants use chlorine and other chemicals contain the precursors to the chemicals that the microorganisms produce to create this failure. That is some nasty shit.

White wines don't for the most part, benefit from aging. Some reds don't either. I don't know about fruit wines. I do like calvados but as I recall, that's a blend. (I know one guy who makes a fruit wine I refuse to drink, not just because it' way too sweet for me---Sauternes is way too sweet for me) but because he thinks properly washing the tools is somehow beneath him. Three-rinse technique is a real thing but if you don't care about making people sick, go ahead and do a half-assed job.

Funny, I have a half gallon of hard cider from our first batch fermented with wild yeasts. As soon as we get down to the alst glass, I use it as a starter, let it sit out sealed for a few days and then pop it in the fridge to slow down the fermentation. It's very fizzy from the natural carbonation but doesn't have a super-high alcohol content.

Anyway, it's fun and he's a good guy so I enjoy it.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

it's right up there with my other favorites of the wonderfully majestic english language.

thanks for the info. i guess i don't know how people can make better cottage wine. if aging isn't going to do the trick, well. it's hard to mess up growing pot, i guess that's my contribution. ;-)

Submitted by ohio on

The regulatory requirements to grow hemp for fiber are, well, bracing is a good word for that, too. We had some discussions about it, did a back of the envelope budget and then just stopped after seeing the numbers. I cried a little. Too bad. Hemp is an amazing plant that can grow just about anywhere.

I don't smoke dope so that part doesn't interest me. But the plant fiber and oil potential are huge. Grr. Extremely frustrating.

The fermentation process is pretty simple and people can make a good wine if they follow some basic principles. I'd like to do that---make a good red wine, simple and delicious. Dave's in a different class as he is a master winemaker---we have to go set up some Viognier grapes for fermentation for a winery sometime in the next few days because he helps some wineeries with their white wines (white wines are harder to make than red). And I'd like to develop a local cognac/armagnac/brandy such as calvados or even apple jack that is distinctive for this region. I'd like to do it with blackberries---I'd call it Black Jack.

Hahahaha. It'll be good. We can open craft distilleries here since the law was changed and one of my bestest pals in the world is really interested in setting one up and I'd do that with her.

Fuel alcohol regulations are a lot looser than craft distilling, so we're going to do that no matter what, probably the summer after next. I really would like that to have a solar component for our energy use as well as rainwater filtration for water.

Or not. Life is full of adventure.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

the risk is of course the Feds, but in this state, it's damn easy to be a licensed to grow and sell for medical use. there isn't exactly a lot of money in it, but it's a useful item and can be easily traded and bartered for essential services. many (most?) people my age and younger are very amenable to pot, like booze during Prohibition, there is always a demand and i don't know a broke pot dealer/grower.

Submitted by ohio on

I'd be interested in working out a deal to get bast from plant stems. The bast has very very little THC but especially the main stems have a tremendous amount of fiber in them. (The Canadians sell bast for paper pulp but the fibers are very short and they're no good for spinning.) I don't know about shipping bast (or even stripped stems) without turning it into pulp or fiber, but I could find out if you wanted. I could also tell you how to create the pulp or fiber, but is a very time intensive process (or cash intensive if you want a hollander beater) that only the deeply disturbed would do.

Seed oil also has a billion uses, but I don't know the regs on that.

Regardless, use of some parts for medicine and use of other for compost and bast make the entire plant economically attractive. This fits our business plan for Paper Jam totally---use of homegrown plant and other fiber by local reps to supply other local reps who make paper and paper products to sell.

(Sorry---obviously I want you to do it because it may help me expand my empire, which, right this very minute, extends from this keyboard to the door about eight feet away. Disregard if this is of no interest to you as normal people would find selling pot to ingest cooler than spinning the stems into fabric.)