What’s Happening in the Home Winery: May 2022

Michael writing here.

Sometimes I get the Itch – the Itch that says “Make Wine” – even when there are no fresh grapes. There are kit wines, but that’s another post. So, what do I do?

photo of cherries becoming wine
Cherries in process

Find a fruit that will make a tasty wine even in a small batch of a few gallons and are relatively cheap to buy. This year, I am making a batch of cherry wine for the first time in 15 years or so. Why so long? No reason really, except that there is a bit of work involved that I wasn’t interested in pursuing before.

What work? Sorting cherries to get rid of any damaged or moldy fruits. Removing pits. Manually squishing them. Adding enough water to cover them in the clean and sterilized bucket. Measuring sugar, acid and and preparing whatever additions of sugar, acids and nutrients to bring the numbers up to allow the yeast to ferment. Grapes are the only fruit that can produce enough sugar to ferment on their own. All other fruits require some assistance in additives of sugar, acid, and nutrients. Anyone telling you their fruit wines are native ferments are liars. There – I said it.

What kind of wine will this make? Maybe a dessert wine or perhaps a sparkling wine for later summer or fall enjoyment. Right now, I can go either way but that will change with a couple of decisions over the next few days.

I’ll keep you informed as to what I decide.

Olivia Wright and Knotty Vines – Not Your Grandma’s Brand

In the interest of full disclosure, when we talked to the Knotty Vines publicists, they insisted on sending us four bottles of wine for free. We’ll be honest. We had some reservations about some of the wines.

Winemaker Olivia Wright started working for Rodney Strong Vineyards about four years ago, and started the Knotty Vines brand there.

“We’ve had four head winemakers,” Wright said. “A lot of tenure, a lot of tradition. I was kind of hired on as a transition.”

Photo of winemaker Olivia Wright, of Knotty Vines wines
Winemaker Olivia Wright

Part of the problem was the brand image associated with Rodney Strong.

“We’ve faced the facts. A lot of people see it as your grandma’s brand,” Wright said. “Part of Knotty Vines came about when I started. This was a great opportunity to reach a younger audience. So, they tasked me with trying to put together this brand.”

Wright feels – just like we do – that too many people see wine as too exclusive. Or as Wright put it, that you have to have a PhD to enjoy it. That you only drink wine with fancy foods and it must the “right” wine with the “right” food.

“We do Knotty Vines and chips and dip pairings all the time,” Wright said. “You eat what you like and you drink what you like.”

She does like breaking the “rules,” offering fried chicken and chardonnay as a great pairing, and even a Knotty Vines pinot noir with salmon, once. We hold the opinion that if a pinot noir goes with salmon, that’s the sign of a good pinot noir

Getting to what people like

She spends a lot of time talking to people about what they like in wines.

“They want wine that’s smooth or rich or fruity or spicy, but basically no more than three descriptors.”

An example of that might be the cabernet, which we found simple, easy to drink, and better as a cocktail than with food. We also liked the chardonnay. It was nice and crisp and played very nicely with the caprese salad we ate with it.

Wright’s favorite wine to make is the label’s Red Blend, which was our favorite also, and paired really well with the curry chicken and vegetables we had that night.

“The Red Blend is really my playground,” she said. “It’s kind of a free-for-all.”

You can get Knotty Vines wines on the website here.

Silver Lies and Angelica

When Anne first tumbled onto Ann Parker’s Silver Rush historical mystery series, she jumped on it and devoured book one, Silver Lies. She also discovered a mention of angelica in book three, Leaden Skies.

What fun! Parker’s series, featuring saloonkeeper Inez Stannert in Leadville, Colorado, mostly in the early 1880s, is a terrific window on the reality of frontier America. It was really tough, especially for a woman who has been abandoned by her husband. Anne loved that Inez is no wilting flower, but a strong woman determined to make it on her own (not unlike Anne’s character Maddie Wilcox from the Old Los Angeles series).

In Silver Lies, which starts in December, 1879, Inez finds herself on the hunt to find out who killed a local mining assayer. Given that the fellow was corrupt as all get out and that the town is filled with all manner of unsavory types, Inez has her hands full.

What to drink

We chose Angelica to accompany this little tale of greed and murder, partly because the guys at Inez’ saloon, The Silver Queen, would have been drinking angelica wine from California. Well, along with whiskey. They mostly drank whiskey. But Parker had found a manifest with angelica listed on it.

Label from a bottle of Angelica

Angelica is basically a sherry, a fortified wine. It can be pretty strong, like Inez, but it also has a softer side, also like Inez. Sherry is the sort of drink that people of refined backgrounds drank. Inez, herself, came from a family with money.

Admittedly, finding angelica these days can be a bit of a challenge. It will definitely be easier to find Silver Lies, as it’s available all over. But try going to Ann Parker’s website first. Then sit back, get a good fire going, a glass of angelica or sherry, and immerse yourself in 1879.

Lane Tanner Talks Pinot Noir and Ginger

Last March, we got the opportunity to go to the Women Winemakers Celebration (from which you will several interviews). But one of the questions we asked many of the winemakers there was who blazed the trail for you? Almost everyone said Lane Tanner, of Lumen Wines.

And when we told her that, Tanner laughed.

Lane Tanner pouring at women winemakers event.

“I just… I’ve been here a long time,” she said. “You never think of yourself as a legend or a trailblazer. I just happened to get here in 1980 and I’ve been here ever since and, you know, I’ve survived year after year.”

Tanner also credits Alison Green, at Firestone Winery, with being the first female winemaker in Santa Barbara County. Tanner became enologist at Firestone after Green became the winemaker. After that, Tanner went to Zaca Mesa for a year.

“Then in 1984, I started my own company making wine,” Tanner said. “And so I was the first independent female winemaker Santa Barbara County, so that’s kind of how that worked.”

Tanner started out making pinot noir because that’s what she liked.

“I just fell in love with pinot noir and that’s all I wanted to make,” Tanner said. “So, really the first 10 years of the Lane Tanner label, I made nothing but pinot noir, so I was probably the only winery in California that was a single type winery.”

Tanner’s current label, Lumen Wines, does include other wines besides pinot noir. In fact, one of her most interesting wines is Hey Ginger Chardonnay, 2021, which actually has ginger in it.

“You have to get a special permit to say that you’ve actually put ginger in it, so the people know there’s something in it besides grapes,” Tanner said. “This is just really unique in the sense that… Well, ginger. I mean, yes, it is used as a flavor, but it’s also used as a preservative. So actually, it’s doing two different things. I’ve been playing with this for years. The way I came up with it is I go to Hawaii every year after harvest. And I always bring back a lot of gingerroot. I just love it, but I always had a problem preserving it. So one day, I chopped a bunch of big chunks, put them in a mason jar, and put riesling over them, and then I kept them in my refrigerator. Then whenever I needed, ginger, I would pull a chunk out.”

Then Tanner noticed that the riesling was also keeping very well. So, she tried making the wine with ginger in her winery, and this year decided to make the wine on a commercial level.

And that’s Lane Tanner.

What’s Happening in the Winery: April

Michael is writing this one on his own. Anne doesn’t have much to say about the home winery, except when there’s quality control to be done.

Many things are seasonal in the winery – whether it is a commercial operation or a humble garage operation such as mine. Spring is generally when white wines are being processed in preparation for bottling for summer enjoyment and beyond.
So I am finishing cold treating my white wine in advance of blending (an art in itself and another show). Filtering is the next step to remove any elements that can cloud a wine such as dead yeast, fining agents such as bentonite and tartar crystals which appear as bits of glass in your wine.
Home winemakers have the blessing of equipment scaled down to smaller batches of wine – the Buon Vino wine filtration system is my equipment of choice.
Filters of cellulose are soaked in water and wine is sucked through them into a new container releasing CO2 gas while trapping tartar and debris.
The beauty of filtering in the Spring is that it frees up tank space, allows me to turn off a spare fridge until harvest, reducing my electric bill, and allows me to schedule blending trials and bottling before the next harvest in September.

Alicia Wilbur on Kosher Wine

We’ve written about kosher wine before as part of a Celebrity Wine FAQ with actor Mayim Bialik. Then we got the chance to interview Alicia Wilbur, winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars, and we jumped at it. With Passover starting this Saturday, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn more about kosher wine and wine that is also kosher for Passover.

As it turned out, we had to do the interview by email – and it worked out great! Our questions are bolded, with the responses by Alicia Wilbur.

What makes a wine kosher?
Photo of winemaker Alicia Wilbur, who shares about kosher wine
Winemaker Alicia Wilbur

Grapes on the vine are inherently kosher – our job is to ensure they remain kosher throughout the winemaking process.  The fundamental difference in the kosher winemaking process is who does the physical work:  anyone who handles the juice or wine must be Shabbat observant.  There are some further considerations with winemaking ingredients (such as yeast) which must be certified kosher. And lastly, our calendar follows the Jewish calendar, which prohibits work on the Sabbath and holidays.  In general, one can say that Kosher is a high level of scrutiny, or attention to detail.

Is there a difference between kosher and kosher for Passover when it comes to wine?

Being kosher for Passover is another level of detail, making sure that any winemaking ingredients are not only kosher, but kosher for Passover.  Our barrels must also be kosher for Passover!  The traditional glue used in barrel heads is made with flour – obviously this isn’t possible for KLP wines, so we have our barrels specially made for us with Rabbinic supervision.

How do you know a wine is kosher?

The best way to tell a wine is kosher is to look for the certification.  The Orthodox Union (OU) and many other agencies certify wines and wineries and their labels will be displayed on the label.

Photo of the Variations line up of Herzog kosher wine.
Herzog Wines
Two things we have heard about kosher wines is that they tend to be sweet, or that they have a cooked flavor (as we understand it, from the meshuval process). Do you as a winemaker go with the sweet or how do you work against it?

When Jews arrived in the United States, they settled mostly on the East Coast.  The grapes they found growing wild are type Vitis labrusca, native eastern North American grapes, as opposed to Vitis vinifera which are native European grapes.  Vitis labrusca grapes are commonly known as Concord and have a distinct flavor profile.  One way to make the juice taste better was to allow for lots of sweetness in the finished wine.  Since wine and grape juice are required for Jewish ritual observance, the wines our early American ancestors made was from concord grapes made extra sweet and this style was associated for many years with kosher wine.  

Nowadays especially for us at Herzog sweet wine is a stylistic choice and made intentionally. Some of the wines we make are sweet, bust most of the wines we make are not sweet at all.  And all of our varieties are Vitis vinifera (Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Muscat).  It’s important to note that fruity notes or expressive fruity flavors do not mean the wine is sweet!  Our palates/taste buds often equate fruity and sweet, but they are different tastes and sensations.

As for making wines mevushal, this generally has no perceptible impact on the flavor of the wine being made.  It is absolutely possible for mevushal wine to be age-worthy, point worthy, impressive, expressive – our 2014 Alexander Valley Special Reserve was written about in Wine Spectator, receiving a 92 point score and hailed as a 20 year age worthy wine.

What are the best wines to pair with a Seder dinner, which has a lot of varying flavors?

For Seder, I love starting out with lighter, lower alcohol wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine.  Then I move into a rose or more structured white such as an oaked Chardonnay for the second cup.  Third and fourth is when I bring out the big, opulent red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, depending on the main course.  The meal is long and relaxed, and the perfect opportunity to try new things.  

And so, a special thanks to Alicia Wilbur, a winemaker at Herzog Wine Cellars for her thoughts.

Important Reminder – Always Bring Your Corkscrew

Fred is, alas, no longer with us, having lived to a good, ripe old age. So this picture is actually a few years old. But Fred, being the great little guy he was, used to say that it doesn’t hurt to keep a corkscrew in the glove compartment of your car. You never know when there’s going to be that impromptu picnic or when someone else forgot theirs.

Fred and the Corkscrew (click for bigger image)

Of course, you don’t want any open containers of alcohol in your car and designated drivers are important. We couldn’t let Fred drink – he was such a mean drunk – or drive. He couldn’t reach the pedals and see over the dash, and then there was that problem of no opposable thumbs.

And Fred was… Well, he looked like a dog, but we think he may have been part Martian.

What’s Going on in the Home Winery

One of the reasons we love writing and talking about wine so much is that Michael is a home winemaker. So we see a lot of what the professionals do, although on a much smaller basis, and starting this month, we’re going to pull the curtain back on how wine is made. Or at least, how we do it.

A home winery – or in our case, a garage winery – runs on a calendar similar to that of a professional winery.

Fall, of course, is harvest, when the grapes are picked, and the wine is made. It’s a busy, almost frenetic time, with fermenting going on, wine getting pressed off of the grapes and put into whichever containers it will be spending time in – steel beer kegs, glass carboys or wood barrels.

But after all that’s done, there is a different sense of time. Our wines move from one container to another either when space opens up or when racking needs to happen.

So, this March, we’re looking to make some space in barrels for wine sitting in steel kegs. Red wines benefit from barrel time thanks to a bit of oxygen from the wood breathing and a bit of concentration from water evaporating through the wood. Our white wines are being subjected to 32 degree refrigeration to stabilize them before filtering and blending and eventually bottling.

All of this requires a schedule. And in our home garage space, it normally works like a game of Tetris with moving pieces fitting just so. Timing and having supplies in advance to complete an operation in one sitting. Does a domestic life allow for this? Stay tuned.

Picking Wine for the Wine Snob

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One of the biggest problems with all the elitism and snobbery surrounding the world of wine is that it makes the simple gesture of bringing a gift of wine to dinner so fraught with terror. Or otherwise offering a gift. And it’s so very unfair and unnecessary.

Wine geeks that we are, we have gotten our fair share of kindly-meant white zinfandel (and if you’re not a wine person and don’t know why this is not a good thing to do, relax, you’ve hit the right page). Yet we have not mocked anyone who has ever done so, nor have we cut said people off or thought less of them. But then, we try to be nice and accept the gift as an attempt to respect who we are.

At the same time, we recognize that there might be a boss, a future in-law, or just somebody you would like to know better and you’d like to please and/or impress said person and you know this person likes wine. And the sad truth is, this person may also be a wine snob.

The problem is, there are wines that are pretty “safe,” in that almost anybody who likes wine will be reasonably impressed with a bottle of, say, a cabernet sauvignon from Silver Oak winery. But you’re talking about wine that can get pretty pricey. And, truth be told, there are those who think Silver Oak is trading on its label, so you’re still not safe, as it were.

So the first thing to do, if you’re not a wine drinker or know much about wines, is give up on the notion that you’re going to be able to convince a real wine snob that you “know” wines. Because no one knows wine like a wine snob does, unless that person happens to agree with said snob often enough. And that includes people like us who make wine and know what “fine” wine tastes like. That’s what a snob is and why we generally don’t cater to such people. We get that said snob may have a son you’re planning on marrying or may be the manager you’re hoping will promote you. We’re just pointing out that you’re not likely to get on said snob’s good side by trying to impress this person with knowledge that you don’t have (and you can’t have it because the only knowledge this person counts as valid is his or her own).

That doesn’t mean you can’t give this person a gift of wine that shows some thought and care in the giving. After all, it’s the thought that counts, and while you don’t want to send the message that you weren’t thinking, the vast majority of people out there, including wine snobs, are willing to accept that you made an effort on their behalf. As long as it’s clear that you made the effort. Again, we recognize that there are some people willing to attribute the worst motives to you no matter what you do, and at that point, you may want to start looking for another job or settle in for a rocky relationship with the in-laws or re-think the potential relationship. But the following tips should help you with the vast majority of folks.

So when you don’t have the knowledge, sometimes the easiest thing to do is ask. If you really, really want to keep it a surprise, you can try framing the question as a request for another friend who likes wine. But simply saying you don’t really know that much about wine and want to learn will generally warm the cockles of even the grinchiest of hearts because there are few things wine snobs love to do more than pontificate about their preferences. You might try asking where a good place to get wine is or what’s a good wine for someone who’s really into wine.

Now, if said snob responds with several different preferred wine shops and asks about budget, or asks what your friend likes, then you’re probably not dealing with a true wine snob. Which means you can go to yet another wine store and ask the person behind the counter to guide you to a good bottle of something unusual. If said snob says things, “Well, the only place to go is…” or “Obviously, your friend will only want….” then you are, in fact, dealing with a snob, and it might be time to check out that tie or purse.

You can also respond with the “Gee, I’m not sure what my friend likes. What do you like?” Listen carefully, because your target snob will give you plenty to go on. As soon as you feasibly can, write down anything you remember. Then you’ve got two options. If your budget is wide open, then you can go to said snob’s preferred store and ask the salesperson to help you. Most are pretty cool and get it. Sometimes you’ll run into a fellow snob, but then you can walk and shop elsewhere.

Any decent wine store will have someone willing to help a newbie purchase a bottle for someone else. And the good ones won’t make the noob feel like an idiot. Because you’re not an idiot. You’re trying to please someone with a bottle of wine and it really shouldn’t be this complicated. And it shouldn’t break the bank, either, because there are lots and lots of great wines for under $20 and several under $10. If you get a really obscure label from a truly tiny producer, you can also proclaim it a boutique wine, which might forestall some lip curling.

Now, you’ll note we’re not recommending any specific wines here. Why? Because there are far, far too many to list and every time we read one of these lists, we find we have a heck of a time finding a given label – which doesn’t help when you’re looking at the rows and rows of bottles without a clue what to buy.

So worst-case scenario? You don’t know what the target snob likes, just that he or she likes wine. Go with a Bordeaux red, if the person tends toward stuffiness. Go with a premium California cab sauv if the person loves labels and status, Go with a red made from something unusual, such as negrette or tempranillo, if your giftee likes taking chances and adventure. And, again, try and ask your friendly wine store employee for suggestions. They can offer you ideas even we haven’t thought of.

The only hard and fast rule (unless you know for a fact otherwise) is never, never buy white zinfandel for a wine snob. As a wine, it tends to be just dreadful, sick sweet stuff, which is why we don’t like it. There may be good ones out there and you might even like it, which is cool. But most people who like wine don’t tend to like white zin.

Oh, and for the record, there’s a reason we’re the OddBallGrape. We love trying stuff we’ve never heard of.

Tiquette Bramlett and Changing the Face of the Wine Industry

Tiquette Bramlett

For Tiquette Bramlett, President of Vidon Vineyards in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the Pandemic spurred her to take action.

“It’s been a slow burn,” she said. “I think because of the stereotype of what wine has been.”

Namely, that it’s been made by White men and advertised to White men. As a Black woman, Bramlett knows first hand that not all winemakers and even more consumers are neither White nor male. So, she, her mother, Charlotte Bramlett, and friends Diana Riggs and Britt Kemper founded Our Legacy Harvested, which will help match interns who are people of color with wineries both on the production side and the Direct to Consumer (DtC) side.

“If you want to get into the organization, if you’re curious about the industry, this is the organization for you,” Bramlett said.

Bramlett, herself, has worked in tasting rooms and as a brand ambassador since 2015 and became president at Vidon in 2021. In 2020, with everything shut down and the Black Lives Matter movement growing, Bramlett and her friends wanted to take action.

“We had been talking about wanting to go do something, bringing some levity to the community, but also fostering the community,” Bramlett said.

Inspiration from her past

She took her inspiration from her grandfather, who was one of the first Black general contractors in the state of California.

“I always respected the way that he would foster and mentor people,” Bramlett said. She asked him why he did and he explained that the people he chose were “Our Legacy Harvested.”

So, when Bramlett decided the time had come to foster people who looked like her in the wine industry, it was only natural to use her grandfather’s phrase.

Applications are currently open for the first group of six interns, who will work harvest 2022, with a deadline of March 15, 2022. Bramlett is working with several wineries in the Willamette Valley to find the right mentors for the interns. She expects to announce the interns and the wineries around May 7.

“I love to make wine approachable and just share how unintimidating it is,” Bramlett said.