Monday, September 22, 2014

2014 Marquette Harvest!

Every year that I have been growing grapes has brought something different.  In 2012, I had the summer hail from hell which destroyed much of my crop.  Later that summer, I lost most of what remained to evil grape sucking yellow jackets.  In 2013, I switched to insect netting (instead of plain bird netting) in an attempt to exclude both birds and yellow jackets.  But the nets, with finer weave, do not tangle the birds up as much.  As a result, they are not afraid of it.  They persistently attacked the nets until they got in at the ends, and devoured at least half the crop.  I got a crop, but it was only 80 pounds from 30 vines.  (Admittedly, many were immature vines.  I was expecting about 150 pounds).

This year there was no messing around!  I stapled the nets at the end of the rows right to the posts of the trellis.  Taking the nets off took a little longer but no birds got in.  No yellow jackets ate my grapes either.  :-)  Happy Jacques.

But all was not perfect this year!  There is always something.

This year started with a fairly mild winter, but spring was late.  In fact, my Marquette vines budded more than a week later than usual, and flowering was over a week later than usual.  Veraison was more than a week late too!  On top of that, it was a cool summer.  Last year I harvested in the first week of Sept and the grapes were over-ripe.  This year when I checked the brix at that same time of the month, they were barely 16 brix!  So much for global warming.

So I let them hang.  Unfortunately, I have one of those things called a job, and for my job I travel frequently which often means I'm not home on the ideal day to harvest.  Last week I was out on two back to back TV shoots and when I got home, I ran out to check the grapes.  I expected them to be hanging another week, but in fact two of my "blocks" of vines were probably about as good as they were going to get.  (The third block of just 5 vines, in a slightly less sunny spot, was running a week later than the other two blocks).  While some of the grapes were only showing on the refractometer as 20 brix, others were raisoning up, so they were over-ripe.  I hoped that by harvesting then, I would get decent numbers averaging between those two.  My goal in an ideal world is 24-25 brix and pH of 3.4.  (In my limited experience, there is a fair amount of malic acid in Marquette and many cold-hardy varieties.  As a result, pH rises quite a bit through MLF.  If you want to end up in the ideal pH of 3.6, you need to start around 3.4.  Maybe even lower.)

So I put the word out to my friends via facebook that I was harvesting that day with last minute notice.  A few people even showed up to help!  (Thanks Suzanne, Chris, Mia and Peter!) We pulled off the nets and started cutting the fruit off the vines.  I have to admit, after 6 years of relentless work tending the vines, it was really cool to finally have a good harvest, and a few friends here to join in the fun! From the two blocks we harvested, I got 200 pounds of fruit!  Hey, that's enough to warrant getting out the crusher/destemmer!  So we crushed it all, and it nicely filled a single large "Brute" fermenter.

I added the requisite dose of meta and a dash of enzymes (need to extract those tannins!) and waited 12 hours for the moment of truth:  a solid analysis of the brix and pH.  And the result? 23 brix at a pH of 3.3.  A couple more days to get the brix up to 24 and the pH up to 3.4 would have been perfect, but honestly, I'm not complaining.  These numbers aren't bad at all.  I decided to make absolutely no adjustments to anything.  It's close enough!

I am fermenting with plain old BDX.  I love that yeast--wonderful flavor.  I tried 71B last year for its malic acid-eating performance, but I just don't think it's a great yeast other than that.  I ordered some VP41 MLB which will take care of that malic acid just fine!

So 200 pounds should give me about 12 gallons, more than enough for my 8 gallon barrel.  The real question is, how do I handle the piddly 30 pounds or so that will come off the last block next week?


Pulling the nets and time for harvest!
My daughter joins the harvest!

My friend Suzanne Nobile poses by some of the harvest.

Elise turns the crank and the grapes get crushed!  Neighbor Peter Brayton looks on.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What is Real Winemaking?

This simple question can be answered in many ways from a philosophical answer to a technical one.  But the issue I'm talking about is one that comes up all the time in home winemaker circles:  What constitutes making your own wine?  Is making wine from a kit really winemaking?  Do you have to grow your own grapes to be considered a real winemaker?  And of course the answers are all over the map.  Analogies are drawn between cooking and winemaking.  Comparisons are made between professional winemaking and amateurs.

The most common argument I like to make is a cooking analogy.  You should know that I make a mean Mac & Cheese!  My kids love it, they think it's the greatest food ever!  It's Kraft Mac & Cheese.  Anyone can make it.  It's a kit in a box.  You follow the directions and, in under ten minutes, you have a meal kids love.  Does this make me a good cook?  My kids prefer this Mac & Cheese to the homemade one that their grandmother makes.  If we entered our Mac & Cheeses in a competition and I won, would that be fair?  Would I really be an award-winning Mac & Cheese maker?  I personally have no problem with anyone who wants to make wine from a kit, but it's not true winemaking, just like making Kraft Mac & Cheese is not really cooking.  I personally do not feel that wines made from kits should be judged up against wines made from fruit in wine competitions.  They are different classes of winemaking.  I'm not saying that a kit can't be as good or better in many cases than a wine made from fresh grapes, or vice versa.  They are just different entities.

But when you make that argument, someone is bound to say..."Well...grandma didn't grow the wheat to make the pasta in her Mac & Cheese.  She bought the pasta at the store."  This starts the inevitable argument about what constitutes "home-made."  For example, my dad makes killer tollhouse cookies--we're talking the best on Earth.  But he buys all the ingredients (sugar, flour, chocolate chips, etc.) at the grocery store.  So are they really home made?  I can't seem to replicate them exactly right.  There is something he does that I can't manage to reproduce, so clearly there is skill there.  But he still didn't grow any sugar cane to make them.

We often have a classic "French chateau" idealistic view of the wine industry--where the grapes are grown on the estate and the wine is made in the cellar.  But here in America, let's face it, that's not as common.  Some people specialize in growing grapes and some specialize in making wine.  Sometimes specialization is better.  But that means that many of the popular brands we like are made by professional winemakers who didn't grow their own grapes.  They contracted with a nearby vineyard for grapes.  They may have been involved in the decisions made throughout the development of the vineyard such as which clones were planted, which rootstocks were grafted, how the grapes would be trellised and cropped.  They most likely had a say in when the grapes were harvested and how.  But the fact is they were grown by someone else.  Still, we can probably agree that these wines were made "from scratch."

As home winemakers though, is it the same for us?  I live in Massachusetts.  Until I was growing my own grapes, I bought them from a distributor in Connecticut that bought them from a wholesaler in California or Chile.  They were brought in from California or Chile on a big truck or ship.  By the time I got them, they were between 2 and 5 weeks old.  They were refrigerated, heavily sulfated, and usually not in very good shape.  They were most often over or under-ripe.  I always got the feeling that the home winemaker market is a dumping ground for crappy grapes that no commercial winemaking operation would take.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Anyway, I'm not sure that buying grapes from the back of a truck, 3,000 miles from where they were grown is a great idea.  To me, this is analogous to stopping down at the grocery store for some flour and sugar to make cookies.  You are making wine from scratch, but the ingredients are not fresh and local.

So I guess to me a "real winemaker" makes wine from local grapes.   I don't care if you grow the grapes yourself or buy them from a nearby vineyard.  Just as many people tend to agree that local produce is best for your health and the environment, local wine is the most natural expression of true winemaking.