Some Hands-On Wine History Education

Grapes before they become wine - from the Olvera Street vine
Grapes before they become wine – from the Olvera Street vine

When we started OddBallGrape.com, we did not want the blog to be about us. Frankly, we’re not that interesting. Well, we weren’t, until Michael jumped into a wine history project that seems to have gotten all kinds of people more than a little excited.

In Real Life, Michael is the archivist for the city of Los Angeles – an insanely cool job. And as part of that job, he’s been working with Chris Espinoza, who is the director of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the oldest part of the city. The two have been trying to find ways to connect what they do, since Michael has the paperwork and the history in his vault and Espinoza has, well, a state park, in which is located Olvera Street and one of the oldest buildings (if not the oldest) in the city, dating back to 1818. And way back when the adobe in question was actually being lived in, someone planted three grape vines, one across Olvera Street which was then known as Wine Street, one in the adobe’s courtyard and one just outside the adobe.

And last year or so, Michael asked Espinoza if he could trellis and prune the vines and see

What makes wine happen - yeast and yeast food.
What makes wine happen – yeast and yeast food.

if he could get some grapes off of them. Espinoza said yes, and Michael spent all last year, carefully pruning the courtyard vine, keeping an eye on things and consulting with Wes Hagen, a professional winemaker, who for years made the truly awesome Clos Pepe wines out of the Santa Rita Hills. Clos Pepe is now gone and Hagen has moved on to another venture. But he and Michael did convince the nice folks up at University of California, Davis, to do the DNA analysis on the vines for free and it turns out that these three vines came from the one remaining vine at Mission San Gabriel, one of the 21 missions founded by Father Junipero Serra in the late Eighteenth Century. For the record, the vines are known as “Vina Madre” a cross of the European vitis vinifera and a local Southern California grape called vitis girdiana.

Then in September, as Michael was beginning to harvest the few grapes there, Hagen ratted him out to S. Irene Virbila, the wine critic for the Los Angeles Times. Well, Virbila, being the good reporter she is, smelled a story and wrote it up.

Now, everyone is checking in and offering ideas. What Michael did decide to do is make a wine called Angelica (which we just heard was named for the city of Los Angeles). It was what the winemakers in L.A. were making up through the late 1870s, when Los Angeles was the primary wine growing and making region in the state (take that, Napa). Angelica is a sweet wine that is also fortified by adding brandy or other alcohol to the mix. We have about 25 pounds of grapes, so we won’t be getting very much. But it will be interesting and we promise to add updates in this space as we get them.

We're on our way! The yeast and yeast food being added to the grapes.
We’re on our way! The yeast and yeast food being added to the grapes.

Pinot Days Means Lots and Lots of Pinot

Courtesy Pinot Days

Tasting events are an amazingly cool way to find out about a lot of wine at one time. Most feature a region or even a single grape, such as Pinot Days, dedicated to the heartbreak grape that is Pinot Noir. Based in San Francisco, the organizers have also taken the show to Chicago and, for the last two years, Santa Monica, California. Michael was lucky enough to get involved as a volunteer for the recent Santa Monica show, which also allowed him to attend the event and mingle with the winemakers.

Imagine a beehive of four thousand people inside a large metal airplane hangar. Tablecloth draped tables with signs for each label present. Most are staffed by the winemakers themselves, sometimes the marketing staff. One ounce pours of as many as three hundred pinot noirs by seventy-five producers from California, Oregon, Washington and one from Tasmania this year.

Sustenance in the form of bread and cheese made the task of tasting every pinot almost manageable. Okay, not even close to manageable. Don’t even try tasting everything. It’s physically impossible. Some of the lines for one or two cult labels can take a half-hour and the entire tasting is only 4 hours. Besides, how much fun is it when you can’t taste the flavors of  a great glass of wine because you’ve already tried 30 others? Moderation, please.

Pinot fans are given to superlatives and plenty of rhetoric. But the winemakers themselves are not. They’re more interested  in telling the wine’s story and sharing its’ history, which you’ll read about in the weeks ahead.

Unknown Winemaker pouring, courtesy Pinot Days

Any wine event where the winemaker is there is worth the experience and the crowds. Winemakers seldom staff tasting rooms because they’re too busy making wine. And, trust us, having the person who made the wine pour you a sample and tell you about it is a blast. You can ask them anything from the most basic beginner question to the most obscure geek stuff, and they love it.

And if the high price of a tasting event like Pinot Days is beyond your budget, try volunteering. It’s a great way to support the program and you can almost always get in plenty of tasting time. Michael had an entire convention of great wine and fascinating winemakers at elbow’s distance for the price of a few hours of sweat equity. Nothing but the best for the readers of OBG!