Sunday, August 22, 2010

One Romance (25)

With Gewurztraminer happily in the tank, and with the quiet at the tasting room between Labor Day and Columbus Day, when all hell breaks loose in the Finger Lakes, Nick figured it was a good time for that trip to Northeast, Pennsylvania, on the shore of Lake Erie. Based on past sales records, he chose the best day of the week to close the tasting room and make that drive.

Soon, harvest would be in frantic swing, and he would need a second transfer pump. His new Zambelli reversible pump served him well on his first juice run, but he was aware that equipment like that needs to be backed up, as they seem to come with an internal mechanism timed to breakdown at the most inopportune moments. He also decided that it was time to get himself a filter pump and some filters to have for the coming months—wouldn’t hurt either to bundle up on a few other wine-making items.

Nick liked Doug, who operated a winery supply business specifically set up for home winemakers and for tiny wineries—he also had his own tiny winery to tend to, plus many acres of grapevines along the shores of Erie.

The other reason Nick liked going to Northeast was the necessary three-hour drive along Route 17, once voted the most scenic road in New York (or was it in the whole country?). It’s a string of rolling hills, pastures, small lakes and streams, large silos, fields of grain, and at the close of the trip, grapevines. The trip takes you past some of the oldest settled land in the country, and some of the most active during the American Revolutionary War; you drive by the famed Chautauqua Institute, where intellectual pursuit joins artistic display; and you witness some of the most scenic waterways and secondary roads on the other side of a highway railing.

On his first trip to Northeast, to buy tanks, barrels, and sundry items, Nick stopped in Salamanca to grab something to eat and to fill his tank with gas. It was the first time in his life that he had ventured onto a Native American reservation, and it wasn’t until he saw the price of goods and gasoline when he realized where he was, as excise taxes are not levied on reservations, which remain separate nations of a sort.

The city of Salamanca is on the Alleghany Indian Reservation, which the Seneca Nation leases to New York State—until 2030 (who knows?). The same rules that keep excise taxes at bay also allow reservations to host gambling casinos: Salamanca would ultimately have its revenge on the white man when it, too, would profit from the weaknesses of gambling. For the time being, however, the area looked relatively viable but not overwhelmingly prosperous, and while many people looked Native American, with their colorful faces, vaguely Asian cheek and jaw structure, and jet-black hair, he saw many other non-native faces. There seemed to be more drinking establishments per square yard than in his neighborhood at Keuka Lake, but then, that might be true for any place on earth when compared to Keuka Lake. The price of wine at retail was also much less in Salamanca than anywhere other than his industry member discount.

On this second trip to Northeast, Nick left home at 6 a.m. so that he could arrive at his destination early enough to get business done and get back home before sunset. He filled his gas tank and chose not to stop along the way, but he drove relatively breezily so that he could take in the striking New York scenery.

When he arrived in Lucille Ball’s hometown, Jamestown, he was under an hour away from his destination, and it wasn’t 9 a.m yet.

Entering Northeast reminded him of childhood summers. He knew that Lake Erie is not an ocean, but its massive shoreline and wet horizon certainly gave it that appearance, especially when humidity was high and from a distance you could see the wet air hovering over the water’s waves, calling up a particular childhood memory as he and friends descended upon the Bay 14 beachfront at Coney Island in Brooklyn.

As he came closer to the shoreline, he could smell the breakfast grill at a certain diner on the corner of town just before the east/west shore road along the lake begins. They produced a fine breakfast of eggs to order and home fries, and they offered decent coffee, too, which is no guarantee on the road. He was to meet Doug at the winery at 10:30, so there was plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast.

Not known to Nick, that morning Doug had been called away by his vineyard manager to take care of one of the daily emergencies that take place during harvest season. When Nick arrived at Doug’s place, on time, he was made to wait, which he could do either outside or in the tasting room.

Doug’s tasting room and retail space was small. Nick perused it for ideas that he might use to make his space more efficient. At the tasting bar, cheese accompanied the wines to taste. After watching a couple of transactions, Nick saw how serving the right cheese with each wine boosted how much consumers liked the wine; it was a lesson he was sure to take home with him.

When Doug finally arrived, time had been running out and so the two made a fast walk through the warehouse to look at inventory and through the winery to see how Doug put to use some of the equipment that he thought Nick might want to consider. But for this trip, only the backup transfer pump, a filter pump system and filters and other supplies were all that Nick was prepared to buy, although he did have his eye on the bottling system that Doug assured him would be there in the spring when he would need it and also the Yugoslavian oak barrels that Doug used instead of the more expensive French barrels, but that would also have to wait for another time.

He settled on a transfer pump that was cheaper than the Zambelli he already had; this one was not reversible, but it was for backup and for certain racking jobs so he was comfortable getting it. For the filter system, he wasn’t going to produce enough wine in the first year or two to invest in a plate filtering system, so he bought a small cartridge system. Doug had assured him that the new technology of the time provided cartridge filtration to a nominal .2 micron, which was pretty tight.

The system was simply a small pump with a truly slow rate, and a stainless steel cartridge holder. Plastic tubing connected to the tank being emptied of wine to be filtered into the cartridge holder on one side and then a plastic tube coming out of the cartridge holder on the other side and into the tank that would receive the filtered wine. He bought a number of rough filter cartridges, 1 micron, a few .45 micron  cartridges, and a smaller number of .2 nominal cartridges for the final filtration before bottling.

He packed a large box with various wine-making chemicals and supplies plus some cheese and bread that he bought from Doug to eat on the drive home, and a few bottles of wine that Doug gave to him to sample.

He was home by 5 pm, enough time to unwind for the following day, which would prove to be an active one.

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
August 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

One Romance (24)

Jim’s phone call was expected. In fact, Nick was praying for it. He wanted so much to get his first commercial fermentation started.

“Nick, we are picking Gewurztraminer today. You can get it late this afternoon.”

“I’ll be there at about 5. Ok?”

Jim gave the green light for a 5 pm pick, provided of course that everything went well and no massive non-forecasted rainfall swept in.

Of the Vitis vinifera varieties, Gewurztraminer is among the extra sensitive to a Finger Lakes volatile winter; it is also among the early maturing varieties in the region. The variety is not known in the region for low pH and high acidity, and if you wait only briefly after the crop matures, the pH can shoot up and the acidity plummet, a case for flabby wine.

In the good old days, when the large wineries ran the vineyards, they trained local growers to pick grapes at what the winery considered optimum Brix (sugar) levels for each variety. This mindset is fine for producing wines with no particular depth of character and no particular reason to be anything more than quaffers, but it is not a useful way to deal with the desire to produce premium wines that make a singular, personal statement about the variety’s characteristics. For that, you need to develop the experience to analyze all the numerical stats for sugar, acid and alkalinity plus, you need to develop a palate for analyzing the future wine possibilities of a few clusters of grapes pulled off the vine and crushed into juice—the samples that provide you with a taste of maturity.

Not only is the aroma of fermenting Gewurztraminer among the most pleasantly heady of grape fermentations, the taste of mature Gewurztraminer grapes is a delightful simulation of sweet ginger. Being among the most educated and dedicated of grape growers in the region, Jim spent many years as vineyard manager for one of the local large wineries and he also operated with his wife his own vineyards that they used in their business to supply home winemakers with products.

When Nick realized his financial straits prevented him from making an initial investment in a good bladder press, he made a deal with Jim to contract grapes from him and then to pay a pressing fee; Jim had the latest in bladder press technology for his business. It was a fine arrangement, as Nick had no plans to produce red wine, which, unlike white wine, was pressed after fermentation.

That afternoon, Nick closed the tasting room a little early and drove his 2-ton pick up to Jim’s place, which was almost directly across the lake from him, but of course he could not get to it in a straight line. With the truck bed empty, he made the trip in about 25 minutes; with the bed full, the trip back took a little over an hour, as Nick usually maxed out the truck’s capacity on the juice runs, and that made for one of the rare times when he drove both carefully and slowly. On this trip, he would pick up 500 gallons of juice, which is about 2 tons in weight, so he emptied the truck of anything that was unnecessary, checked tire pressure, threw in a few small plastic receptacles to augment the two 250-gallon tanks, in case there was excess juice and made off at 4:30 for what would be his first commercial wine.

When he arrived at Jim’s place, he was told he’d have to wait in line. He hadn’t gotten to Nick’s Gewurztraminer yet, but was just ready to get it going after it had been crushed and sat on the skins for a little while to absorb its spicy characteristics.

Jim shot the juice with 30 parts per million of sulfur dioxide and then pumped it into Nick’s 250 gallon tanks as well as one of the plastic receptacles that accepted the excess and handed Nick the final stats for the juice plus a bill for $2500 to cover the cost of grapes and a fee for pressing. The juice was at 21 Brix (21% sugar by weight), .75% total acidity (by weight), and measured 3.4 on the pH scale (approaching the high side, but within the acceptable range of relative alkalinity for wine and its long-term stability).

The juice tasted exactly like Nick expected—ginger ale without the fizz. He knew that the pH might rise and the acid might fall some during the winemaking process, but only slightly. He also knew that he would have to add sugar to the fermenting juice, so that he could increase the potential alcohol to offset the relative softness of the higher pH then, say, regional Riesling, which usually hovered in the 3.2 range. He kept a bag of Dominoes on call for these times. His plan was to increase the Brix to 24 and shoot for 13% alcohol in the finished wine. To do that, and to retain the wine’s spicy fruit character, he would need to select the proper cultured yeast. He decided on Steinberg yeast for its ability to draw out aromas by fermenting slowly and to dryness. The yeast does well at cool fermenting temperatures, which led Nick to open the winery doors in the evening to let more cool air brush the sides of the stainless tanks. Having no coil refrigeration for his small tanks, he cooled them during the day with frequent applications of cold water from a hose.

One afternoon, while waiting for customers to find his tasting room, Nick sniffed a most delicate, pleasing aroma that emanated from his small winery. He walked over to the winery where the Gewurztraminer was still fermenting, taking in the wonderful aroma as he came closer and it became stronger. He grabbed one of the many step-ladders he kept around the place, climbed to the top of the fermentation tank, opened the top door and stuck his head into the fermentation tank. Initially, he was greeted with a marvelous intense aroma of rose petals that was quickly followed by a blast of carbon dioxide that nearly knocked him off the ladder. He made a note to never do that again…

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
August 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 2, 2010

One Romance (23)

Nick’s close friend, Fred, owned a printing company. He volunteered to provide Nick with printing his promotional material and labels for free, but Nick would have none of that. They agreed on a price, which included a few cases of wine. Fred phoned to talk about the label design and to arrange for a trip to the Finger Lakes.

Talking with Fred always made Nick feel good. They met in the fourth grade, shared a birthday—only 15 minutes apart—and spent the better part of their youth in and out of trouble together. Fred had the silver tongue and Nick had the good looks; they were a great duo for picking up girls on the beach, in the park, at the Italian feasts that came through the neighborhood, and in school, on the days that they didn’t play hooky together. Each was best man at the other’s wedding—more than once!

“So, Nick, now that you are going into harvest and getting ready to make your first vintage wines, are you also ready to talk about the label design? I’ve got a few ideas for you.”

“It’s still a little early for that, Fred, but to let you know what I’m thinking, our logo has to be prominently featured at the top of the label, and I was hoping to get a drawing or picture of our property in, too.”

“I see, old friend. I was thinking modern graphics but you are thinking Old World symbolism. Right?”

“Right, Fred, for now.”

The name of the winery was Noah’s Slope. It was a biblical reference to Noah’s first activity after the rain subsided and he was able to leave the ark to explore Mount Ararat: he planted a vineyard.

Nick envisioned the slope of his vineyard that surrounded his home as the right image for Noah’s vineyard and he figured that his house nicely represented the ark, as it was both a home and an old wood frame structure circa 1827.

Fred envisioned a modern graphic treatment of the concept of the ark and the land. Fred saw everything in graphic treatment.

“Listen Nick. I’d like to come up for a visit in two weeks or so. Why don’t I Fedex you the drawings I made so that you can look them over. When I get there, we can discuss it. Fedex goes to your region, right?”

“Geez, Fred. Where do you think I’m living—in the Amazon forest? Of course, we have Fedex delivery service.”

“What I meant is that since you have a rural box address they may not come to your door.”

“Oh. Good point. Maybe I’ll have to pick it up at the nearest Fedex office, which is about 40 miles away.”

“Forty miles away! Manhattan takes up less than forty square miles. You ARE rural. Never thought I’d find you living that way.”

“I never thought so either, Fred, and sometimes it does wear me down to have to drive forever just to shop for groceries or go to the movies. But you can’t operate a vineyard without land—lots of it—and you can’t be too far away from the vineyard when you make wine.”

It certainly was a lift to talk to Fred and to know that he will pay a visit soon. Nick felt so good after hanging up the phone he almost forgot about Sassy.

Sassy was Nick’s vineyard dog. She came with the property. The previous owners were retired and moving into a small retirement community. Sassy had been with them for many years but they could not take her with them, and they didn’t think she wanted to go either. She loved the vineyard land. When they suggested that Nick and Theresa take Sassy, the couple agreed without hesitation.

She was a mutt, a mix of Labrador and some small Spaniel type. Her body was husky and round but it rested atop four extremely short legs. When she walked, she dragged her feet and wobbled wildly; with jet-black fur, the walking dog looked like a land seal.

Sassy knew that Nick was going out to the vineyard when he put on his winter overalls and high boots and then grabbed the pruners and the Walkman. As he made his way to the rows, Sassy wobbled close behind. When he stopped, she plopped down at the head of that row and waited patiently for him to move to the next row where she established herself all over again.

Although Nick and Theresa had two dogs of their own when they moved in, he had taken to Sassy. He knew she was old and near the end of her time, but he didn’t think about that until that morning when he could not find her. Normally, she was right there whenever something was going on in the vineyard. He figured she’d be there for the Catawba harvest just as she was there each day during the Aurora harvest a few weeks earlier. But when he made his way to the vineyard to meet the harvester, Sassy was nowhere around.

After the harvesting was complete, Nick looked around for Sassy in the many usual spots that she liked to lie down or explore. He called out her name a number of times, something he usually had to do only once to get her to come wobbling to him, but she did not come.

After talking with Fred, and still in a heightened mood, Nick decided to look once more for Sassy. This time, he took the two other dogs with him. Sheba and Elf were also mutts and as far as he could tell, they had no hunting talent in them, but they had noses and they had ample time to familiarize themselves with Sassy’s personal smell. He hoped that they might help find their stepsister.

After the better part of an hour stalking the property and beyond, there was no sign of Sassy.

When the previous owners handed over the deed and Sassy to Nick and Theresa, they told a story of an earlier vineyard dog that they once had. As the dog grew older and closer to its end, it seemed to stalk the property more and more, vanishing for hours and even for days at a time, until one day it walked away and never returned. Could Sassy have taken the same route? After three days, Nick figured that she had.

A few days later, while walking the vineyard to assess how best to start pulling up the Catawba vines, as he turned the corner of one row to make his way to the next he instinctively looked toward the end of the row as he had done every time he worked in the vineyard to signal to Sassy that it was time to get up and follow him. This time, he saw only an empty row through blurry tears.

It would be only a few months before Sheba and then Elf were gone. A few days after that, Nick and Theresa had a new vineyard dog; his name was Henry and he was just in time for the spring season. But before that day, there was the winery’s first fermentation to attend to.

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
August 2010. All rights reserved.