Week #1: March 22-28, 2009
Waking Up to a New Vintage
(and perhaps a few frost alarms...)
Well, it's Friday the 13th 2009 in the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County and the dormant buds on the vines are just starting to push a bit, but are stil quite tight. This is very good, considering we've had frost 7 of the last 8 nights here at Clos Pepe.
Once bitten, twice shy: 2008 was a devastating year for frost. I still remember the feeling of helplessness as parts of the vineyard that had never been threatened were burned to a crisp one freak April morning last year. And then again a few weeks later, and then again. The vines recovered, burned and then some were even burned a third time. Ouch. These are the moments that test our resolve. Two thirds of our crop was destroyed--we harvested a total of 20 tons off of 30 acres last year.
So now it's 2009 and we have a new year and a new chance to produce a healthy and economically viable crop here at Clos Pepe. Lazy budbreak is just fine--the vinecan sense forthcoming weather patterns far better than I can--so I figure they know what they're doing being a bit lazy.
Frost moves downhill like water, and then 'pools' in valleys and swales and does the worst damage there. In our lowest spots we have overhead sprinklers that can coat the baby clusters with water that will freeze and keep the interior in the 30's while it goes into the 20's in the atmosphere outside. Freezing the clusters actually saves them--that's how sprinkler frost control works....
There are a few affecting things about writing for the same magazine for so long. First, going back to read things you wrote early on can lead to cringing, and doubt that you were ever so naive, or optimistic or just plain dead wrong about an issue or a technique. Fortunately I've got a massive and overweening ego, so such moments of doubt don't last long.
Another, slightly spooky side effect is getting recognised in public places. Not that I'm a celebrity, unless there's a category of 'nano-celebrity', or something, but I was on vacation in Mexico last week and a voice called out, 'Tim? Tim?'. It was a member of the Amateur Winemakers of Ontario who recognised me from my picture in Winemaker (AWO members get a subscription). I don't feel famous, but it does feel different to know there are folks out there who recognise me, but I haven't met yet.
One of the best things is how often certain of your old articles get referenced to you by readers. By far the piece I get the most interest in is Making Your Kit Wine Shine, from way back in Summer 2001. Even though it's eight years old, and a bit dusty, people reference it to me from wine sites, chat forums, and in emails from all over the place. They're full of questions, requests for clarifications, and bits of debate about the techniques and ideas I laid out....
We're only a few weeks into the New Year, but we have yet to get a drop of rain out here on the Central Coast of California. Sure we have the benefit of irrigation and good, clean groundwater, but rainwater is much better for the vineyard, and here's why.
In general rainwater flushes salts and washes clean the salts that accumulate around the root zones. Ground water may have other issues as well: from chlorine to boron to high calcium levels.
The radar shows a nice wet system rolling up the Pacific Coast, and I am challenging nature to do her worst. Bring it on!
On our soils, which are sandy loam, we need about 12 inches of rain between harvest and bud break to fully recharge the soil profile with moisture. We're way behind on our rain, and have just finished a freakish warm-streak where temps were in the low 80's for over a week....
I made my first batch of wine back in 1978, partly as an act of curiosity, and partly because I was too young to buy alcohol at the liquor store. The kindly gentleman at my local homebrew shop accepted my assurance that the kit was a father’s day gift. I can’t remember the batch, so it was probably awful-but-alcoholic, which would have pretty much met the criteria of my value system. I went back to making beer, which you could drink ice-cold to numb the taste of a failed batch, and was far more ‘manly’ to my peers.
The next time I made wine was in about 1987. Times were a bit lean, and I thought it would be a good time to economise by making a batch of wine, ‘just this once’. Much to my surprise, not only was making wine much easier than I’d remembered, it was actually pretty good: nobody keeled over and clutched their throats, nobody poured it into houseplants, and some people even had a second glass without urging.
With a success like that, I was hooked. And I rapidly found out one of the great truths about home winemaking: even while you spend less on wine, you get a lot more out of it.
We had previously been spending a lot of money on wine—my wife is a chef, and I was a banker with delusions of grandeur, so we spent very freely on at least a couple of cases of wine a month. We subscribed to Wine Spectator, read books, attended festivals and generally snobbed it up with wine-loving pals. All good things, alas, and the bank and I mutually agreed that I was unsuited to a long-term career in the financial industry (my take was ‘dying of boredom’ theirs was ‘guilty of insubordination’). When I abandoned my desk to become a pearl diver our circumstances changed, so I did some research, planned a little cellar and got cracking.
I thought I’d need three reds, a pink and three whites to cover most situations: a heavy Cabernet or Bordeaux blend, a Pinot Noir and maybe a Rhône-style, some Rosé for training-wheels wine, a big Chardonnay, a crisp fruity dry wine and an off-dry Riesling to round it all out. I cobbled together bits from my old beer equipment, borrowed carboys from friends and fleshed out the rest of it from a lucky garage-sale score, and then hit the supply shop, intent on getting those wines done so I could relax and drink them up at my leisure.
Best laid plans and all that. By the end of my first year I had nineteen batches of wine under my belt, four 46-litre (12 US gallon) carboys, six 57 litre (15 US gallon) demijohns, glass carboys, jugs and bottles everywhere. Most importantly, however, I had a real cellar, and an attachment to the idea of owning, storing and using wine in a far different way than I had been before.
Previously I bought wine and pretty much drank it within the week. I put a few very special bottles away, but rather than actually planning to drink them at some definite point in the future, I was merely hoarding them, like a miser, with no plan except to rub my hands together, cackling gleefully over them.
But now I was planning a month, a year and even three years ahead, lining wines up for the changing seasons, for birthdays and holidays and gifts. And I was doing all of this with less money than I’d previously spent for a few bottles a week. I was learning to judge wines as they evolved, from green, bottle-shocked infancy, to rough-edged and brawny youth, to powerful prime of life, to the lyrical refinement of full maturity, to the dusty echoes of past glory.
I also found out that the more wine you shared with others, the more you learned. Drinking with friends is invaluable because everyone tastes at different levels, and everyone has flavours and aromas they like or dislike to varying degrees. Shared experience enhances the enjoyment of wine, and while there’s only so much you can drink before it negatively affects your behaviour and health, there’s no limit to how much you can talk about it. I got friends making their own wine, organised cookouts, dinner parties and potlucks where everyone brought a dish matched to a wine and found I was enjoying wine more than I ever had as an aficionado, not just because I had more wine, but because I was enjoying it with more people. Before we all made our own wine we would have gone out to dinner at a fancy restaurant: now we were sharing things we made with our own hands, in good company. I remember it as one of the happiest changes I’ve made in my life.
The world is entering another one of those economic thingies where times are tightening up and everyone is looking to cut back and make the most of what they have. But that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy your life less, or be deprived of good wine and good company. For the cost of a single case of mid-priced wine you can buy all the equipment and supplies you need to make your first batch.
Best of all, unlike my first efforts in the dawn of time, modern wine kits make good, palatable wine virtually every time. Some of the best of them are worthy of years of ageing and compare well with commercial bottles. And the variety is tremendous, with regions, grapes and styles from all over the world available to you.
And there are lots of levels of support out there. Heck, there wasn’t a home winemaking magazine in existence until the late 90’s, and even that one was terrible (which one? That’s a story for another blog). There are winemaking clubs and online forums, and today’s kit manufacturers are eager to interact with their customers, smothering them with information, tips, suggestions and websites full of FAQ’s and helpful hints.
I don’t know if living well is the best revenge (I always think of revenge as a dish best left unserved and kept in the freezer until it’s all dried out and you have to throw it away before it stinks) but living well within your means is very satisfying, making necessity into a virtue, and virtue into pleasure. And as usual, I’ll drink to that.