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.

Why Wine Ages in Oak Barrels

Some time ago, we got invited to a lunch and wine tasting featuring wines from Rioja, Spain. The lunch not only featured some amazing wines, the winemaker attended. He led us through a flight of the same red wine aged in different types of oak barrels.

Now, normally, Anne scoffs at tastings like this. Tasting wine based on what oak it was aged in is the sort of thing that wine snobs turn into exercises in precious without breathing hard. And they suck all the joy out of it in the process, too.

The other reason Anne scoffs is that the potential for groupthink in these situations is so high that whatever results you get are darned near pointless. What is groupthink? It’s what happens when people are in a group and someone says A, someone else agrees and the next thing you know, everyone goes along with it, us being the social critters that we are.

It’s how Riedel sells their variety-specific glasses. We don’t doubt their reps honestly believe that a type of wine actually tastes better in a specific glass. But we’ll bet they won’t let you do a tasting blind and/or by yourself, which we did. The wine works better in a specific glass because they keep telling you it will, and someone agrees and next thing you know, the whole room says the same.

But what made this Rioja tasting different is that the winemaker didn’t try to sell us on any one wine. He was merely trying to explain why he used different types of oak barrels to age his wine in.

Stainless steel versus oak

Once upon a time, all wine aged in oak barrels. Or wood barrels, but since oakwood, specifically, was good for making barrels, that’s what folks used. And with steel being insanely expensive and difficult to manipulate, it was put to better use as swords and other stuff. Even after the Industrial Revolution made big-ass metal containers easier to make and cheaper to sell, oak kind of hung on in the winery. Old habits die hard and using big-ass metal containers didn’t have any clear benefit. At least, not right away. That the wine picked up flavors from the wood, well, that was part of the flavor of wine.

Eventually, however, winemakers realized they could make white wines, in particular, taste really good without all that woody flavor. So, stainless steel tanks started showing up in wineries. But the stainless steel didn’t do so much for the reds, and they continue to age red wine in oak barrels.

What oak barrels do

Oak barrels add a certain creaminess (lactic acid) to wine. In addition, because they are not completely air tight, a tiny bit of the wine evaporates. The wine left inside gets left with more intense flavor.

The interesting thing about oak is that because it’s a plant, it’s affected by the same things that grape vines are. So oak from different places in the world adds slightly different flavors to the wine that’s aged in it.

It’s not a huge difference. It’s pretty subtle, in fact. You’re not going to taste a wine blind and know that it was aged in Hungarian rather than French oak. That’s the precious nonsense that makes Anne so crazy. But if you taste a wine that was aged in American barrels side by side with the same wine aged in French and/or Hungarian barrels, you can taste a slight difference. That’s kind of fun.

Grape Harvest 2022 Continues

Michael is writing this one solo, since he’s the one who makes the wine at the old homestead. And it’s part two of Grape Harvest 2022.

Last month I looked at the start of harvest. And after all the prep for the upcoming harvest, planning for every possible contingency, every detail in needed supplies and flexibility in scheduling… Here it comes: Harvest 2022: Agrape-ocolypse NOW!

Harvest 2022 with all the kegs and fermenters in the small winery space

The NOW! is the urgency which is always part of the harvest scenario whether it’s cabbage or Cabernet – when the fruit is ready, you pick. It won’t wait for you. It’s always been that way – long before climate change. But the current reality has changed the dynamics and rhythm of a process that doesn’t respond to human rationalizations.

So when Harvest 2022 got compressed, we ended up with 10 grape varieties harvested in 4 weeks instead of 8 weeks. That meant trying to find floor space and storage in the home winery (aka garage) that also serves as the file room and warehouse. Adequate floor space? NEVER! Adequate storage for fermenting wines? NEVER! Any thoughts of reducing production to deal with realities? NEVER!!! I bought more fermenters to hold grapes and supplies to feed the yeast and measure the chemistry of acid, sugar and alcohol.

Harvest 2022 with the fermenters in the small space

Only when I press the newly fermented wine will there be a real hint as to how much wine will be going into keg and storage for the season. There are ways to calculate yields, but I don’t bother with them. After all, I don’t depend on this hobby to make my living. It’s my Passion Project, and it’s not about saving money (I don’t). But I do get to express and share an expression of craft and dare I say it, “ART”? At any rate, that’s Harvest 2022 in a nutshell.

Wine Headaches and Scout & Cellar Wines

Please note that we don’t get wine headaches, so we can’t comment on whether the wines will prevent them. Also, we were sent two bottles of Scout & Cellar wine after the interview happened. We did not request them, but we did not pay for them, either.

With all the green-washing out there these days, it’s certainly reasonable to question just about anything labeled “clean” or “green.” Neither term has any official meaning with anyone. But it’s a term that has meaning for Sarah Shadonix.

“I’m super passionate and geeky about wine,” she said.

Passionate enough to give up a career as a litigator, then go to work for an ecommerce site, curating their wines.

“I was going out to Sonoma [County, California] once a week, refining my skills,” she said.

Getting wine headaches

That led to an advanced certificate from the Wines & Spirit Education Trust, (the WSET thing you hear sommeliers claim fairly often). But then she started to develop headaches when she drank wine. Like many wine-drinkers facing this problem, not all wines gave her headaches. But not like many wine-drinkers, Shadonix dove “deep into the rabbit hole.”

Label report from Scout & Cellar wines which helped Sarah Shadonix with her wine headaches

What she found was a problem with the labeling on a lot of wines.

“There wasn’t a clear package on the market,” she said.

Which sounds a little odd when you consider just how stringent the rules are when it comes to wine labels.

Creating the winery

Shadonix decided to create her own wine company, one with a mission to create clean wine. What this means in her case, according to the Scout & Cellar website, is wine that’s been grown “without toxic pesticides” (well, not toxic to humans), “artificial processing aids or ingredients,” and wine that is low in sulfites.

Shadonix said that it was probably residue from commonly used pesticides in some of the wines she was drinking that caused her wine headaches, and also the amount of sulfites in the wine. All wine has sulfites in it. It’s a natural by-product of the fermenting process. But Scout & Cellar wines are made to have 100 parts per million of sulfites. It’s on the company’s FAQ page.

As noted above, we don’t get wine headaches so we can’t comment on whether or not you will when drinking a Scout & Cellar wine. As for the two wines we were sent, they weren’t bad.

We tasted a 2021 Conte de la Terre Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Based on the very light color and lack of florals in the nose, it was probably a cool climate Pinot Gris. The nose did have melon and a hint of minerality. The medium body could have been a combination of steel and neutral oak. A hint of richness in the mouthfeel and a bit of acidity also supports the mix of wood and metal. A bit short in the finish but very dry which can be a challenge in some “native” ferments that tend to poop out before the sugars give out. Savory snacks like spicy nuts, hard and creamy cheeses, olives and charcuterie made this wine easy to enjoy without regard to its creation. It is good wine regardless of the yeast and/or chemical inputs.

One other interesting note, Shadonix obviously understands that designating a wine as clean has no official standing. Instead, the website touts the wine company’s Clean-Crafted Commitment – which is their proprietary designation and a trademark.