Winter in the Home Winery – again

So it’s February or should I say Febrrr-ary? As in it’s almost too cold to be in the garage winery right now. This is also true for the barrels full of wine which are hibernating quietly. Too quietly as the malolactic bacteria that is supposed to be chewing up green apple-like malic acids and turning them into creamy lactic acids are also slumbering in the low temperature of the winery.

Is this a serious problem? No, as long as the barrels are kept filled and the chemistry doesn’t allow for spoilage to take place. The sleepy barrels will warm up in the Spring and will finish their conversion by summer. This has been and continues to be the traditional winery cycle for centuries.

The real work now is in blending and bottling – covered last month – and getting ready to prune the hibernating vines in the vineyard in advance of their awakening in March. We’ll document that process for you next time.

A Murder of Principal and Graciano

Author Saralyn Richard’s novel A Murder of Principal bears more than a little resemblance to Richard’s own background. Well, Richard never had to deal with her principal being murdered, even during the years she spent working as a high school principal, herself.

Cover for A Murder of Principal, by Saralyn Richard

She did have to deal with a lot of the politics that goes on in school administrations. But that’s what brings her novel to life.

Recently promoted to vice principal at an urban high school, Sally Pearce finds herself caught between her colleagues and a new principal determined to turn the school around. Only said principal gets shot after the school is set on fire. Sally works to help the cops while helping her students. But there are a lot of suspects to consider.

Richard suggested a red wine to go with this book, and we picked a graciano. Now, that’s not a grape you’re going to find too easily. No one really knows where it originated, but it’s predominately grown in Spain. It mostly gets blended with other grapes, thanks to its dark color and tannins, to give lighter wines some structure.

All of which makes it a nice fit for the complex, intricate story that is a Murder of Principal. Start drinking some with a grilled steak or lamb chop, then relax after dinner with the book.

Wine as a Business?

Because Michael makes wine, a lot of people ask us if we’ll go into wine as a business.

Wine bag filling machine featured at wine conference for Wine as a Business
Bag filling machine featured at the Unified Symposium

Uh. No. And as much fun as we had at the wine industry Unified Symposium this week, we became even more certain that we’ll keep our amateur status, at least as winemakers.

The Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, by the way, is the big wine industry convention that takes place every year in Sacramento. It takes place in late January because that’s when winemakers are the least busy at their wineries. We just took in the exhibit halls, but two floors of ancillary businesses dedicated to the growing and making of wine is a lot of wine as a business.

Back when we were new to wine, like many folks, we’d go to a winery, do the tasting, sit back, and think, “This is the life.” And the wine business is very much a lifestyle and a very attractive one. But it is also a business, one with high overhead, lots of risks, and even more competition.

Yes, that’s all swag

This is not to say that you shouldn’t consider going into wine as a business. Nor do you have to be a winemaker to be involved in the wine industry. We met lawyers, regulators, lots and lots of marketing people, scientists. All sorts. We had a lot of fun talking to all sorts.

And let’s not talk about all the swag. We didn’t even get the bulk of it, either. We let at least two-thirds of the pens, notepads, sticky notes, coffee mugs, and other ephemera go.

In the months to come, we hope to cover some of the different jobs and people in the wine industry because it’s the people who make the difference. The people are the most interesting and fun part of it. And their voices are what is about.

Bottling wine in the wintertime winery…

What’s Up in the Winery is Michael writing about his adventures as a home winemaker. This month he’s covering bottling wine.

Bottles on a wine rack waiting for bottling wine

I wanted to write about bottling wine this month because there’s less activity in the winery during the winter. Once the newly made wines are in barrels or steel containers, it’s not unusual for winemakers to take a skiing vacation or spend the summer in Australia.

But there are things to do in the home winery, including bottling a wine that’s been aging in a barrel for a long time. Part of it is that the wine was ready to be bottled. The other part is that I need the barrel so that I can fill it with fresh wine.

The leftover from bottling wine

Now I confess I am guilty of not remembering to document the process until it’s over. So I took these photos after the after I was done bottling. The bottles on the drying rack have been cleaned and rinsed with sanitizer. This very last fraction of a bottle shown ended up washing down a deep fried pupusa burger (just ponder that for a moment as a culinary achievement). The freshly filled bottles of nebbiolo are labeled and ready for storage.

There are bottling demos on Youtube. In fact, one of our winemaking club members created a bottle sterilization video and posted it during the COVID lockdown. We embedded it below, so take a look. The exciting part is how accessible the tools and practices are to the average person who is curious about the whole winemaking thing.

A Crowded Home Winery

What’s up in the home winery is written from Michael’s perspective since he is the home winemaker. Anne’s role in the winery is strictly quality control.

Earlier this year, we expected the 2022 harvest to be on the light side. The ongoing drought in California promised us winemakers a shortage of grapes for our winemaking projects. But, speaking for myself, this harvest was very fruitful and bountiful and our home winery is pretty small. Which has allowed me (so far) to plan scaling back in 2023 and possibly 2024 as well.

An image of kegs and barrels in our home winery
Why we’ll be scaling back next year

Why scale back? I am fortunate enough to have wine in storage that needs more time in bottle to reach serious drinkability. That means there are several vintages of a Bordeaux blend (2016, 2018 and 2020) that are currently aging. Plus, I have several years of syrah, petite sirah, grenache and blends that, while they taste okay now, will taste great in several years. So, when your storage is full, what’s your backup plan? Make wine that doesn’t need much aging, like white wines and rosé and make fewer reds, but make good ones like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo that can take their time.

My garage home winery has two years’ worth of wine right that is designated to keep the barrels full (most important) and allow us to have our pick for dinner wines, charity pourings and special events for several years to come. What will I do in 2023? Make some whites and rosé we can guzzle. Take Anne to Italy in 2024, although 2023 isn’t out of the picture if the right deal comes along. A deal that involves wine, great food and visiting one of the greatest places on this earth.

What Gifts to Get for a Wine Lover

What a wine lover doesn't want or need.

This is a repeat post from a few years ago about what gifts to get for a wine lover – or more importantly, what not to get, but it’s still relevant. By now, you’re home from your Black Friday spree, putting your feet up (preferably with a nice, soothing glass of your favorite wine). But that doesn’t mean you got just the right gift for the wine lovers on your list. Or maybe you got the wrong one – sorry about that, but it happens and you’ve still got time to fix it.

This is the time of year when we get all kinds of pitches for wine accessories that almost unilaterally underwhelm us. There are so many products out there that are supposed to “enhance” the wine experience. Trust us, they probably don’t. Anne has already seen two different posts on what to buy wine lovers. Both of them mostly featured stuff that was useless.

You know what really enhances the wine experience? Good friends and/or a really good meal. That’s it. Aerators, custom glasses for each variety of wine, drip shields, wine charms, wine chillers, fancy cork pulls, fancier wine stoppers, all this stuff doesn’t do nearly as much for the wine as the folks pushing them would have you believe, and certainly not for the money they cost.

Anne even ran across an over-sized wine glass to store your pulled corks in. Uh, okay. Pretty pointless, and if you have an active cat in the house, doomed since it’s top heavy. Yes, we have a special receptacle for our corks. It’s actually a wine serving bucket that someone gave us that we don’t use as a wine bucket. But it’s next to the monster cork pull (one of the rare exceptions to the uselessness of fancy cork pulls) as a matter of convenience, not because we find pulled corks decorative.

The gifts to give a wine lover

If you want to give a wine-lover something he or she really, really wants, it’s easy – more wine. If your wine lover is on a tight budget, maybe splurge on something really nice that she or he wouldn’t normally cough up for. Something special and different, such as a Sauternes, for the truly adventurous wine lover.

And if you’re really unsure, check out this post on how to buy for a wine snob, just in case. Then go to your local wine shop and ask the nice person behind the counter. As always, if said person gives you any sign of looking down his or her long bony nose at your utter ignorance, leave. You don’t need to spend your hard-earned bucks someplace where they won’t treat you with respect.

A gift certificate can be a lot of fun. For example, our daughter and her roommates once got Michael a gift certificate for his birthday recently. Better yet, it was from a wine shop near where they live in San Francisco, meaning that we’d have to make the trek up there from Los Angeles. How sweet. Not only was it an invitation to come visit, Michael had a blast picking out the perfect bottles while there.

Stocking stuffers

If you need a stocking stuffer or for some other reason a bottle or gift certificate just isn’t quite right, there are a few things most wine lovers need more than one of. Such as cork screws or pulls. The basic waiter’s pull works very well. Rabbit pulls are supposedly pretty good, although Anne has never gotten one to work. Electric ones are usually more trouble than they’re worth unless your wine lover has arthritis or some other problem with his or her hands that would make a conventional cork pull a problem. Just beware, most of we wine lovers have a boatload of corkscrews already.

Decanters can be a lovely gift, and a wine lover can often use more than one. Decorative wine racks are less useful, although Anne talked with a woman who scatters hers throughout her small apartment for her wine storage.

If you really want to do something special for your very own wine lover, try a dinner out together at someplace with good food and a great wine list. After all, it’s the being together that makes the experience, not the gadgets.

Beaujolais Nouveau is a Winner

A lot of fuss is made each year right before Thanksgiving and not just about the dangers of talking politics over turkey. Everyone has an opinion on which wine is the best escort of all the different food and party guests who might grace the table? We have an easy answer: Beaujolais Nouveau!

Bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau
Yes, we enjoyed that year’s Nouveau!

Made from the gamay grape native to Burgundy, gamay wines are known as easy drinking, fresh and fruity and meant to be drunk young. But while some gamays can age a bit, the most famous and notorious is the enfant terrible known as Nouveau. It’s new wine that was just made a month or two before the release.

Originally a local specialty for the working class, Beaujolais Nouveau found a champion in Georges Duboeuf, an ambitious wine seller and negociant who transformed the image and accessibility of a wine not respected outside of its home region. That respect took on several forms that have become legend/folklore/mythology. One of these was the New Beaujolais Run: a race from the Duboeuf winery in Romaneche to the Time of London office on the other side of the Channel.

Reading up on Beaujolais Nouveau

There is a great book on Georges Duboeuf, Beaujolais and the Run called “I’ll Drink to That” by Rudolph Chelminski that recounts the race from France to London among many other well-told tidbits of wine lore. It’s a great read and would make a great episode of a racing competition program. It would go nicely with a glass of purple gamay after dinner in a quiet chair away from the clamor of the debate over who-knows-what that started between the green beans amandine and dessert.

Another great bottle we had

The Beaujolais Nouveau has fruit to handle the sweetness of yams, the soft acids to balance the fats of butter and cream, the ability to tame cranberries and bitter greens in salads and refreshing enough to lift the driest turkey breast after all the dark meat was gone. The French peasants of the Beaujolais region knew a winner when they made it, and thanks to Georges that the rest of us can enjoy it as well.

Jane the Quene and Sparkling Wine

No. We didn’t spell Jane the Quene wrong. It’s how she spelled her name on the birth announcements for her son, Edward Tudor. The book, by Janet Wertman, is a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s journey from lady-in-waiting to the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, to her marriage to King Henry VIII. Told mostly from Jane’s perspective, it’s book one in the Seymour Saga trilogy.

Cover of novel Jane the Quene

The reason almost everyone knows Henry VIII is that he created the Church of England when the pope wouldn’t annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon after Katherine couldn’t give the king a son. Okay, Henry also had a thing for Anne Boleyn, too, and eventually married her.

The book starts when Jane Seymour first comes to court under Katherine. Then it jumps forward to the last year or so of Anne Boleyn’s life. Jane still served as lady-in-waiting, which apparently, was kind of odd. But she did manage to attract Henry’s attention before he set up Anne to be executed.

The story brings the history of England in the 16th Century to life quite nicely. We’ll leave it up to you to decide how much of a schemer Jane Seymour was, or her brothers, for that matter. However, it is a sad story. Jane just barely gets to enjoy being married before worrying about producing the son that Henry VIII so desperately needed. Then when she does produce said son, she gets sick and dies. Historical fact, not a spoiler.

Early sparkling wine

We did ask Wertman what wine she would recommend for drinking while reading the book. She suggested a blanquette de Limoux. It’s a sparkling wine from Limoux, France, and they may have invented Methode Champagnois before Champagne (only don’t tell the Champagnois that).

Wertman suggested it because that’s what Henry’s court was drinking back in the day. Wertman knows because she found it listed in some of the royal household documents, including an inventory. Inventories don’t sound all that interesting, but they are gold for folks who write historical fiction and have to figure out what folks were having for dinner way back before people posted to Facebook.

If you can find blanquette de Limoux, try it and let us know what you think. We’ve never seen it before, but it is still being made. Oh, and enjoy the book, too, perhaps with some other bubbly.

Wine for Your Big Holiday Dinner

This post was originally about picking a wine for Thanksgiving Dinner, but then we realized, not everyone wants to celebrate Thanksgiving. Some folks would prefer to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. And there are other big holidays coming up during this time of year, many of which involve special foods and cooking turkeys. So why not look at picking a wine for a Big Holiday Dinner? So, we are.

Wait. Isn’t this the middle of October? Uh, yeah. So why worry about what wines to serve for a Big Holiday Dinner now? Well, we’re offering an easy way to figure that out. Catch is, it takes some time to make happen. Besides, you don’t want to be drinking three to four bottles in one night, do you? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

All you need to pick the perfect wine for your Thanksgiving Dinner.
All you need to pick the perfect wine for your Thanksgiving Dinner.

If you’ve never made a Big Holiday Dinner before, you can check out Anne’s series of blogs on the process, starting here. If you’ve simply been asked to bring the wine, then you can also use this post.

Now, the trick with wine for holiday fare is that not all of the traditional foods are all that wine-friendly. Sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, anything sweet, can make even the best cabernet sauvignon taste sour and icky. Think sipping orange juice after a big syrupy bite of pancakes. Blech. And wine experts will recommend all kinds of different wines. Some love pinot noir with turkey, others insist on a robust syrah, still others prefer merlot. Almost any of those will do quite nicely with a turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. With the sweeter elements of a meal? Not so much.

Fail-safe wine

Our two fail-safe holiday wines are dry sparkling wines (including Champagne, Cavas and California sparkling) and Beaujolais Nouveau. The Nouveau is the first wine released in France and it always comes out the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Since it’s literally new wine, from this year’s harvest, it’s light and fruity, which does well with some of the sweeter parts of the meal. Plus it’s not so in-your-face heavy. That’s great for those of your guests who are new to wine, or even red wines. Bubblies are wonderful because they are already associated with celebrations, and dry bubblies go with just about everything on the planet.

So your options are boundless. And so are all the variations on a theme on the shelf at your local wine store. It’s a bit overwhelming, but fear not. You’re not going in blind and hoping the wine will work. You’re going to buy a sample bottle or four and taste them before you buy however many you need to serve your guests. And you will know how many bottles that is because each bottle has about four to five glasses of wine inside, bubblies have five to six glasses of wine.

Note, we will taste even our standard Nouveau because not every year is that good. It’s not as big a deal because there are usually only two or three brands available. Also, while whites are nice to serve with salads and soup, you’ll probably want a red to go with the stronger flavors of the main event.

The Big Holiday Dinner test tasting

For your test tasting, you’ll need three to four bottles of potential wine. You’ll also need samples of some of the different foods you’re going to be eating. For example, if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, you might want some turkey potpies, a couple sweet potatoes and some cranberry sauce. If you’re making a brisket for Channukah, then some beef stew, some potato and onion cooked together, and whatever dessert you’re serving. Finally, you’ll need a note pad and pen or pencil.

Cook or reheat your food samples, open up one of your bottles, pour a splash and taste it while eating the pot pie and the potato. Check the nose or aroma, look at the color, but most important of all, does it taste good with the food? Write down why you think it tastes good or why it doesn’t. Is it really sour with the sweet potato? Does it taste harsh on the back of the throat even after a good mouthful of beef stew? Does it taste even smoother and more delicious with the turkey?

Then repeat the process with the other bottles. You may want to do one a night, and have someone help you finish the bottle. Or you can try sealing the bottle and putting it in the fridge and finish it some other evening. If it’s a white, just seal it and pop it in the fridge. Just don’t serve it with Thanksgiving Dinner. Red wines tend to oxidize after they’ve been opened and bubblies lose their bubbles. And whites will sometimes go off.

Once you’ve got your notes, you may have a clear winner. You may not. But that’s not such a bad thing, especially if by the time you get back to the store, your preferred wine is gone. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen sometimes.

No go and taste and let us know what you’re tasting. We can always use a new idea.

Native Ferments with Marlen Porter, Amplify Wines

Native ferments are getting to be a more popular style of winemaking these days, but they can also be a little controversial. Especially in our household. Anne loves them. Michael enjoys well-made native ferments (although not “natural wines” which is a grab bag of marketing hooey).

Marlen Porter, of Amplify Wines, on native ferments
Marlen Porter

So, when we got a chance to talk to Marlen Porter of Amplify Wines, we asked her about them. Porter and her husband and fellow winemaker, Cameron, named their winery after their love of music.

“We basically make all native wines from organic vineyards,” Porter said. “Sourced from Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria and now San Benito County. And so our idea is, we are inspired by music and want to create wines that are amplified through native fermentation.”

As Porter pointed out, native ferments are wines that have not been inoculated with human-produced yeasts to ferment the grape juice that becomes wine to dryness.

“Native fermentation is used with the yeast and the flora that lives… comes from the vineyard or the winery.” Porter said. “So it’s basically something that starts itself.”

Native ferments make each wine different

Wines made with native ferments by Amplify Wines and Marlen Porter
Amplify Wines

If you see native fermentation on the label of a bottle, Porter said that you can expect a very unique wine.

“Well, with native fermentations, you have a lot more of a unique style, unique representation of that wine because you’re not manipulating it in any way.” Porter said. “You’re not choosing something from a grade of yeast that’s gonna say, I want this to taste like apple. So… it’s coming from the grape. But then, again, natural fermentation is nothing new. They’ve done native ferments in the old world for years, and that’s basically how wine started. It made itself.”

Porter mentioned that native ferments have gotten to be more of a modern style of winemaking, even though it really isn’t.

“People have been making wine like that for hundreds of thousands of years,” she said. “So for us, it gives us an ability to be a little bit more creative with the ferment, a little bit more creative with what we make, because it really depends on the vintage, the weather, the soil and you really get to taste that in native fermentations versus using commercial yeast.”

Okay, wine has only been around for ten-thousand years, but you get the idea. However, cultured yeasts have only been around for the past hundred years or so, so not very long at all.

One other point regarding native ferments, Michael has tried to make to make several. However, two of the three most common yeast strains create vinegar and we clearly have those strains in the air of our garage winery.