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.

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.

GRAPE HARVEST Time (or Armageddon by another name)

Michael is writing this one, since he’s the one doing the grape harvest.

If you had but one word to describe the simultaneous occurrence of the entire baseball post-season plus the entire football season and post-season and let’s throw in the Stanley Cup and the NBA Finals – coming down to a single do-or-die event played out with no cheering section and no audience support but also no second-guessing commentary – it’s Grape Harvest Time, 2022 Edition.

grape harvest photo

Always a tricky proposition because you can’t bet on weather or growing conditions, unlike being able to predict the fall of the SF Giants and SD Padres against our mighty LA Dodgers – yes I’m in LA, deal with it – because if you make travel or vacation plans in September, you’ll taunting the vineyard gods into throwing you a curve ball.

The curve ball this year is an early harvest from areas not known for August harvests.

The Antelope Valley in the northern Los Angeles County had been a predictable bellweather for the rest of the season. The month of August was typically a few days of harvest spent in triple digit temperatures picking grapes. For the record, Barbera was and is the best grapes to come out of the AV in my opinion. But the loss of several vineyard properties due to generational changes helped create an illusion of a harvest-free August until…

This year’s challenges

grape harvest photos of the work in the winery
Grapes ready for the crusher de-stemmer

Tempranillo (a red grape grown in the warmer climates of Spain and quite a tasty wine) from Ramona Valley came in a couple weeks ago. Albariño, a white Spanish grape known for pairing with seafood) arrived from Lodi last week, and Italian varietals from Murrieta such as nebbiolo, sagratino (look it up – it’s hard to find) are on their way. Last year, these all came in early September, but not this year. This August will end with chardonnay and pinot gris from the Paso Robles Eastern section with yields down by as much as 40% from last year.

Why is this happening? In a single sentence, it’s drought and climate change.
Drought reduces the ability to water the grape vines to their potential. Reduced watering can lead to an instinct bent on surviving until the next winter and its promise of abundant rainfall. This year’s grape harvest will be recorded as a short vintage, meaning fewer grapes and possibly a shortened or compressed harvest cycle. Add to that a labor shortage no less challenging in agriculture than it is in construction or any other industry you can mention, and an increased use of harvesting machines (which means more stuff like leaves and branches from the vineyard that need to be removed before the grapes get processed into wine).

Pondering grape harvest

So why do I do this? I usually have a moment during the annual ritual of turning blood and sweat into wine where I consider whether I need to do this. Can’t I be content with $7 wines from Trader Joe’s or Grocery Outlet (an LA wine drinker’s prayer answered).?

Our friend Gregg Orgozelec pressing whole clusters (something that is normally not done at this point in the process)

But I also have a ready answer to that existential crisis. What would a writer say? An actor? An artist of any other classification? Can they do anything besides what they do for a living? I have the option of following a passion that I don’t need to do to survive. I can back off on the winemaking if the thrill is gone. But so far it isn’t, even though the effect of certain longer days wears off a bit slower at the age of 61 than it did at a youthful 41.

Every year is different and I only really get to do the craziness of grape harvest once a year. Do I have another 20 years left? I hope so.

Summer Time in the Home Winery

By the beginning of summer, the home winery is a bit crowded. The white wines were blended and filtered earlier in the Spring and are waiting to be bottled. Some early red wines are also waiting for their turn to be bottled or spending time in barrels. The most important thing to remember is that all barrels must stay filled at all times. Outside of that, finished wines are ready to be bottled for aging and future enjoyment.

So, knowing that viognier, pinot gris, albariño and sauvignon blanc grapes (we hope) are coming our way in this September’s harvest means that July and August are times to bottle.

We fill one bottle at a time in the one-man winery. That means two or three days consumed by selecting bottles, washing bottles, filling and corking each bottle by hand. Labeling happens later and then storing to age and being ready in the year or two ahead or longer if the wine shows strong potential to improve over time.

Interestingly enough, all this work at the front end seems to have faded away by the time a bottle or two are pulled and shared. Curious how that happens.

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.

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.

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.