Local. Simple. Cheap.
These for me are good words. It’s no secret that my wife and I like to travel to far away wine regions to sample and learn but there is much to be gained closer to home.
We are lucky enough to have vineyards nearby in the embryonic wine region that is the Upper Hudson Valley Wine Trail. Every year, we help our friends prune, mow, and harvest — and in good years we can buy surplus grapes for our home winery. After raising grapevines for five years, I correctly concluded that a lot of people are better at growing grapes than I am.
North of Albany, New York, the short growing season and harsh winter limits the grapes that will last through the year and mature fast enough to reach phenolic ripeness. The University of Minnesota has produced some grapes that we consider “Northern grapes”: Frontenac and its sports, Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc, Marquette (which although a hybrid, resembles a French grape), and white wine grapes LaCrescent and LaCrosse. There are also the Elmer Swenson varieties and some hardy grapes from Cornell. I’ve gotten grapes from Victory View Vineyard and Amorici Vineyard in our area.
I can buy grapes from California or the Finger Lakes or Chile guided by my winemaking goals and how much I’m willing to pay for them. If you use a good distributor (we use M&M Wine Grape Company), they’ll look after the quality and hopefully, get them to you in good time and in good shape.
But locally, I can sometimes decide that the grapes I am looking at will get picked today or next week depending on what I see. My quantities are small enough that I don’t need to plan a large-scale operation balancing the grapes’ phenolic ripeness, weather, availability of help, and other demands. It stands to reason that I save money on shipping and save time from harvest to crush. We probably don’t save any actual money since we just buy more grapes.
That brings us to simple. Through friends in the area, I have access to motorized crusher/destemmers, power-operated wine presses, filtration systems, pumps, etc. However, I like the gentler approach of crushing the grapes with a manual crusher (or have them stomped by willing volunteers) and pulling the stems out later. As you can see from the photo at the top, I am not adverse to letting our grandchildren stir the must (in this case from our Chilean Malbec purchased earlier this month). We have a #25 basket press and a much older press (think Spanish Inquisition) that is composed of cast iron and oak and mysteriously marked with a “No.2.” I rack with gravity and sometimes fine but never filter. We make dry wines with few exceptions.
My neighbor Jared Raia helping with the crush.
Also close to home may be some local competitions. As it happens, some of the local contests are hosted by Italian community groups. Two that we have participated in are part of an elaborate meal. They are so much fun that for a while we decided we wouldn’t enter any wine contests that didn’t have a meal. (The Winemaker International Amateur Wine Competition is the exception since we profit by the judges’ comments.) Every year we enter our local contest that has both a professional judging and a popular judging. People familiar with wine, either as writers, merchants, or restauranteurs taste the wines and score them. Prior to the dinner, as many as 200 people then file past the wines, trying some and ascribing a score for each. Prizes are awarded for the wines judged the best and also for those that are the most popular. Those can be very different. Another contest in a neighboring town was particularly flattering when the judges liked a Cabernet I submitted so much they passed the bottle around for their friends to try! The gold medal was secondary to the enormous lunch and the cannolis that afternoon.
These contests are a good place to meet fellow winemakers and be exposed to winemaking processes very different perhaps than your own. It might also be worthwhile to form a buyer’s club to get grapes in bulk.