Monday, June 21, 2010

One Romance (19)

The fourth day of Nick’s first harvest was given over to Spumante.

Spumante had been given that nickname when he was a child for his seeming effervescent personality—and it stuck all the way into his forties. His real name was Frank Guzzi, and his business was selling Finger Lakes grape juice at the New York City Farmer’s market.

The Mennonites went back to work for John’s winery, as he had a harvest coming due, so Nick got himself some family and friends to pick the fourth and final day of the Aurora harvest. He had to train everyone of course, and that made his day long and hard; but the picking got done, and the grapes were in good shape. All that was needed was Spumante to show up with his truck, which he ultimately did and only a few hours later than he promised.

Nick had heard stories of Spumante not showing up at all, so he considered himself lucky when the bubbling personality pulled his truck up by the side of the road. When he climbed down from the cab of the truck to get the lay of the land for backing into the area where the grapes were stacked, Spumante was too ebullient for a man his age. Nick expected that he was drunk. He wasn’t drunk. He was, in fact, a disarming fellow, one of those people who draws you in by the force of his personailty. Nick could plainly understand the nickname.

Behind the effervescence was a liberal man with a 1960s sense of revolution. He opened the conversation not about why he was late, not about what he was there to do, but about the economic mess that Reagan had perpetrated on the country with his “trickle down” theory that managed to trickle down the highest interest rates and inflation in quite some time. Apparently, Spumante was having business financial trouble.

After a few minutes of bubbling over, Spumante told Nick that he would not be able to give him the money that he was supposed to have brought with him for the grapes. Nick briefly thought about telling him to move on but then he figured that the work was done, there was no way he could sell the grapes to anyone else that evening and there was no guarantee that he could sell to anyone else at all. He had no choice but to give Spumante credit.

They agreed that Nick would be paid as soon as Spumante returned from New York City, where he claimed he would sell out the juice. To make Nick feel better, he also claimed that the fellow who would press the grapes for him also agreed to wait for the money.

“OK, Spumante, I’ll expect that you’ll be here with the check the day after you return home—right?”

“You got it Nick. No problem,” then, as is often the case with people who don’t know when to stop, he went on, “Art told me that you were a stand up guy, the kind of street smart fellow who could read a person, and I’m glad you can see that I’m not out to screw you…”

Nick cut him off, mainly because he knew that the rest would only make him uncomfortable and possibly annoyed, as he realized that he was being schmoozed by someone with no immediate ability to pay for the grapes that he was buying.

Spumante jumped back into the truck and proceeded to jockey it into position to back onto the property without having to set his two front wheels on the property across the road, which belonged to someone else. Unfortunately, the truck was too large for the number of “k” turns it took plus, Spumante didn’t seem to have a handle on gauging where his rear tires were at any given moment; soon enough, one of them wound up in the roadside ditch, a catastrophe that was made worse by Spumante’s reaction, which was to laugh uncontrollably.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Spumante? Have you got bubbles for brains?”

“Aw, lighten up Nick. I’ll get outta the ditch.”

After two attempts, Spumante was deeper into the ditch, with the truck looking precariously like it might roll over.

Nick started up his vineyard tractor and went to find the chain that was hooked on each end for towing and that he remembered seeing somewhere in the barn when he bought the place. Nick’s friends and family nibbled on fried chicken on the front porch and enjoyed the show.

Towing the truck out proved rather easy and as soon as he got the truck onto the road Nick told Spumante to stand aside while he would maneuver the rig onto his property and in front of the stack of grape boxes. Spumante made his way over to the front porch to eat some chicken and to enjoy the show himself.

Ultimately, it all turned out fine: the crew loaded the truck, Spumante sped off to his friend’s press deck, and Nick got to eat the last of the fried chicken before it was time to call it a day.

Two weeks later, Nick was on the phone with Spumante trying to be calm.

“Nick. I will send you the check soon. Things aren’t going right.”

“Spumante, I gave you credit when you needed it under the assumption that you would be here weeks ago with payment. This is no way to start a business relationship. You’re a fun guy, but you are not going to win me over with that stuff, not if you plan to screw me. I don’t take kindly to being screwed, and right now, things aren’t going right for my business either. So please, don’t hit me with your problems; find a way to send me a check.”

The check arrived two days later—post dated. When Nick deposited it, he expected it to bounce, but it did not.

It was a couple of years before he ran into Spumante again, at a wine tasting.

“Hey, Spumante. It’s Nick. Remember?”

“Yes, I remember you. Do I owe you money?”

“No. You took care of that.”

“In that case, how the hell are you Nick?”

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 14, 2010

One Romance (18)

Nick’s first summer in the wine business went reasonably well and reasonably quick. Before he knew it, one day he walked the vineyards to take stock in his still firm but pretty grapes and the next day, it seemed, the Aurora grapes were nearly translucent.

It was the next to last week in August after what was an unusually warm, dry summer in the region. An early crop to begin with, the Aurora had matured more than a week before normal. The time to pick had come and of course, Nick was ill prepared. He needed pickers, picking boxes and a truck.

John down the road contracted to buy the Aurora but he was not prepared for the size of Nick’s crop when he went over to take a look at it and to give the ok to pick. In the end, he needed about two-thirds of what Nick could offer. The other third was up to Nick to get rid of or to drop on the ground.

Since his vineyards were still maturing, John agreed to send Nick enough picking boxes and a crew of Mennonite women that picked for him. Getting the truck was Nick’s problem. They set a date for the harvest, the next Saturday, which was only two days away. Nick quickly called the local truck rental place to reserve a truck large enough to carry six tons of grapes. The rental place offered a truck that maxed out at two tons, which meant he’d deliver the grapes in three trips, which was fine since John had given him enough boxes to pick three tons.

That Saturday morning, at 4:30, Nick drove twelve miles to pick up the Mennonite family, as they did not drive vehicles. He marveled at the incongruity of religious thinking that forbids owning and driving a truck, but allows women and children to ride in the cabin and truck bed of someone else’s truck. What could God be thinking?

The Mennonite matriarch’s name was either Bensch or Wensch or Blanch—her accent was so thick that for three mornings, Nick understood only half of what the woman said to him. He explained to her that she would be in charge of the picking and that he and Theresa would be picking with them, and that they needed only to pick one acre each day for four days, which wasn’t too difficult for the number of people picking. She shook her head yes to everything, but later, after he noticed that she was ready to keep the crew going beyond the acre that he mapped out, Nick realized that she probably didn’t understand his New York City accent.

Grapes picked on the fourth day were for a fellow who sold grape juice in the New York City Farmer’s Market; he became Nick’s savior for the three tons of grapes that John couldn’t take, and he would pick up the grapes in his own truck, have the juice pressed for him and then bring the picking boxes back to John. Plus, he would pay the same price that John was paying for the grapes. It was too good to be true—literally—but that story will be told later.

Nick handed everyone a grape clipper and gave instructions. He showed them what to look for in Aurora that was perfectly ripe and what not to put into the picking box. He explained that as each box was filled it was to be moved from under the trellis where Nick had placed it the day before and taken to the end of the row for pick up on the cart that was hitched to the tractor and that Nick would drive around every so often for loading. This was the hardest part of the harvest; Theresa and he handled it. She had taken time away from her work to go through the harvest with him, and she was having regrets...

After the first day, Nick decided to switch from early morning to late afternoon picking so that the grapes would stay cool over night and he could deliver them before dawn the following day, provided he could make use of the scale at the large Taylor Winery. He called Taylor’s harvest manager and was told it would be fine to show up early, as they were also picking Aurora that week so they’d be there. Nick had to first drive the truck to Taylor to get the tare weight of the empty truck. He was to return to the Taylor scale with the loaded truck to get the full weight. Taylor would give him a slip that calculated the grape tonnage in the truck and from which John would pay Nick’s bill for grapes. Taylor was the only nearby company with a truck scale and the weighing was provided to local growers free of charge.

The first day of picking went without a hitch—until Nick drove the grapes to the winery to be offloaded into the press.

John had a reputation for being frugal. If something was serviceable, he used it until it fell apart. His wine sales people went on the road in what looked like stock cars after a race. John refused to spend money on blacktopping the winery driveway: too expensive and also develops potholes. He preferred crushed stone.

The driveway to the winery was about 200 yards long—uphill. Throughout the summer, thunderstorms and downpours eroded great volumes of soil down the driveway and by late August, it was like a bombsite. Passenger cars had to maneuver up the driveway slowly—trucks had to do it even more slowly. Nick made it about two-thirds of the way in first gear and at a speed of no more than 10 mph. But a few feet from the top, he hit a major crevice and even at that low speed the truck bounced and swayed crazily until he heard a loud crash in the bed. Nick proceeded to the press deck without looking back. He did not want to know.

At the press deck, John’s vineyard manager looked at the mess of turned over grape boxes and grapes splattered here and there in the truck bed. He looked at Nick and the two shook their heads. Then the vineyard manager looked out at the driveway, looked back at Nick for confirmation, which Nick gave him with a nod. The vineyard manager went into a tirade of curses against his cheap boss then he buckled down and got his crew together to clean up the mess and salvage the grapes that could be pressed.

When Nick handed John the weigh sheet and his bill, John told him that they would have to guess at the loss and then subtract that from the bill for tonnage, to which Nick replied, “Not if you value your life, John.”

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

One Romance (17)

Settling into the American Wine Society (AWS) meeting turned out to be more difficult than Nick expected.

First, there were the inside jokes to endure, as there usually are with groups that have a long history. If it weren’t for his gregariousness, he would have been bored as surely as the look on Theresa’s face told how bored she was.

Second, there was the fellow responsible for many of the aperitif wines.

The focus of AWS wasn’t just toward home winemakers but it certainly was skewed that way. Still, one of the functions of membership was access to the AWS training to become a wine judge. Those who successfully completed the training were allowed to judge home winemaker as well as commercial winemaker competitions that were held at the AWS annual meeting.

A few of the local Finger Lakes chapter members were trained judges; one of them, Sal, was responsible in part for operation of the commercial wine competition. Sal was also what Theresa liked to refer to as “a wine bore,” someone who drones on about his cellar, his trips, his stellar palate, and his absolute intellect.

Nick did not like this man from the moment they shook hands; it had something to do with the way Sal introduced himself.

“High, I’m Sal. I hear you are starting a winery. I hope you produce better wine than some of the local stuff I’ve had.”

It wasn’t only a nasty thing to say about the local wine industry, it was presumptuous for Sal to assume that Nick knew or agreed with the man’s opinion.

The next thing that Sal said solidified Nick’s disdain.

“Come and taste some of the left over wines.”

Nick asked, “Left over from what?”

“From the commercial competition. I figure since the competition’s over and we didn’t use every one of the three bottles the winery’s send us, it’s fair game for me to take them for our meetings—for education purposes (wink).”

Soon the host for the evening called out for everyone to take a seat at the table for the Cayuga White blind tasting. Nick made sure not to be seated near Sal and his quiet, subservient-looking wife. For the rest of the evening he tried to avoid conversation with Sal, but he was also grateful to have met the man, as he learned something about a process that he was sure to address later on in his career.

The host gave each taster this note to read:

The Cayuga White grape was developed at Cornell University’s Geneva New York Experiment Station in the 1940s. Its direct parents are the French hybrid Seyval and the experiment station hybrid Schuyler. Seyval is a cross of the Old World Vitis vinifera species and some American species. Schuyler is a cross of Zinfandel (true vinifera) and Ontario (a hybrid of American species grapes). The first Cayuga experimental wine was released in 1955.

The result of all that hybridizing was an extremely fruity and acidic grape that gives the winemaker a fruity, crisp wine that reminds of grapefruit. Most Cayuga White wines are produced with a noticeable volume of residual sugar to offset the high acidity.

In fact, the wines at the blind tasting fit the above description except one, the one that Nick brought.

Oddly, the winemaker who once told Nick that sugar is the opiate of the masses, produced a Cayuga with so little residual sugar that it not only stood out at the tasting, it stood out badly. It was all acid and it was all rather horrible. Since this was a blind tasting, and since Nick had no idea what John’s Cayuga would taste like, as he had never tasted it before, he wound up making truly harsh remarks about the wine that he brought to his first AWS meeting, which in the end endeared him to the group for his indoctrination into bad local wine.

Sal was particularly pleased at the spectacle; he expressed to Nick his hatred for the grape and for hybrids in general. Nick uncommonly did not respond.

Nick found the other Cayuga wines pleasant to sip, but they weren’t much else. These were not complex or depth-charged wines. They were fine quaffers, and if that’s what the Geneva Experiment Station intended, then they had done a good job of it.

The food came out soon after the blind tasting ended. Some truly odd concoctions were placed on the table, and the oddest of all was a block of Philadelphia Brand cream cheese topped with a deep red cocktail sauce of some kind. It scared Nick.

The table included a number of different crackers swiped with spreads of varying colors from pink to green, shrimp drowned in cocktail sauce, fried chicken wings in mustard, knock-off European style cheeses from Wisconsin, and deviled eggs, a food that Nick spent years avoiding at gatherings; he could not imagine why anyone would make an egg into something so hard and tasteless. He ate the shrimp, but only after scraping off all the sickly, sweet cocktail sauce. He was pleased to learn that Cayuga happens to be a fine match for shrimp.

On the way home, Nick mentioned to Theresa that considering AWS people are wine people, one would think the food at a meeting would be if not stellar at the very least edible. She knew that he was already planning the food for the meeting that they would host in the future.

Aside from his horror at the food and his distaste for Sal, Nick got what he wanted that evening: he saw first hand how consumers react to many wines. He also saw a way that he could meet a demand for easy to drink, fruity wines with a touch of sweetness that could be produced at a reasonable enough price to perhaps produce that cherished thing every business needs: cash flow. If he could find a supplier of the grape, he was prepared to add Cayuga White to his product mix.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2010. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 4, 2010

One Romance (16)

Some smart bastard once told Nick that before starting a winery he should decide who his customers would be.

It didn’t take Nick long to understand what the man had told him. The problem was that he didn’t start trying to understand it until he spent a few days behind the tasting bar, well after starting his business.

The tasting room “customers” were not at all how he imagined wine drinkers would be as customers. Truth be told, he didn’t like a lot of them, the true tourists, the ones with time on their hands, money in their wallets, and not an ounce of natural curiosity; the kind that came to the Finger Lakes of New York looking for wine that tastes like a massive red from Napa Valley, California.

From not liking them much, Nick segued into having to figure out either how to sell to them or how to change their minds, if he was going to have a successful winery, that is.

One way to start, he thought, even as late as he was at it, would be to join the local American Wine Society (AWS) chapter. The organization had a reputation for mixed membership that included general consumers, home winemaker hobbyists, and professionals in the wine business.

True, there was a decided academic slant to the group, but that might have been for two reasons: the organization certainly appealed to home winemakers and a lot of those people turned out to be profs at universities, especially the ones in the microbiology department; second, thinking in the theoretical suits those who would tell others how to make wine commercially rather than to actually become entrepreneurs themselves—those kinds of people like to congregate and jawbone.

Still, the local AWS chapter had its share of general consumers. The cross section of people surely would give Nick experience in learning what consumers seek and how they can be approached.

AWS allowed members to bring guests to one meeting so that the guests could experience before joining. Nick and Theresa became the guests of one of the local winemaker members of the organization. The meeting was large—about 20 people—and the cross section of members went from grape growers to high school teachers to retired corporate people (mostly engineers) to college professors to winemakers, most with a spouse, a few as singles.

For each meeting, members were to bring a bottle of wine to share as an aperitif tasting before the meeting began and a bottle of wine for the blind tasting/evaluation that would take place after the business of the group was completed. The blind tasting was usually a theme that was announced in advance. For this meeting, the theme was Cayuga White, a local hybrid grape that at the time was readily available and popular in the Finger Lakes.

Nick had tasted a few Cayuga wines and liked some of them, but he certainly had no idea that he was an expert at the stuff. What Cayuga he had tasted inspired him to refer to the wine as “the Chenin Blanc of the East.” He also had no idea which was considered the best Cayuga producer, as he wanted to bring a bottle of the region’s best for the blind tasting. He took someone’s word for it and brought the Cayuga that John down the road from him produced.

In addition to the wines, people were asked to bring a dish to pass. At the end of the meeting and blind tasting, everyone ate the food and slurped the remaining wines. Usually, there was a semi-orderly mostly mad rush to the bottles as soon as the tasting ended because everyone knew that the top wines in the blind tasting emptied quickly.

Nick hated potluck dining and he saw it as a cultural failing to ask guests to bring their own food to your home. The food was served buffet style—something else Nick hated—but he could do nothing to change the local AWS custom, so he went along with it in someone else’s home but vowed to offer sit down wine and food evenings when his turn came to host.

With an evening of wine and conversation in front of him, Nick was excited at his first AWS meeting. He didn’t get to do much consumer study as everyone gathered for the greeting and then the meeting, but he figured that would come after he settled in, and so, after sampling an insipid home made wine that someone had brought, he found a sink in which to dump it, headed for a commercial wine to taste, and began to settle in...

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2010. All rights reserved.