Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Joe Dressner

Joe Dressner and I met once and talked once more on the telephone. Each time, it did not turn out well.

Fact is, Joe and I didn’t much get along, and I am sorry for that, because I am certain that his crazy sense of humor and his impeccable taste in wine, not to mention his outspokenness, would have helped me to solidify a personal relationship with him. I am less certain that my personality would have done much to get him to that same point with me: Joe held a grudge as tenaciously as he held his passion for “real wine.”

Joe Dressner died on September 17, 2011 after almost three years living with brain cancer and all the injustices that the disease throws at those who have it. During that time, Joe was gallant, funny, morose, vicious, beautiful under fire, which is to say that he was not much different than he had been before the diagnosis.

The most telling thing, to me, about Joe and brain cancer was his passion to stand up to it. He was a passionate man to the end.

Now that I have been dealing with prostate cancer for almost a year, it’s time for me to admit that I looked forward to Joe’s entries on his blog, the Amazing Misadventures of Captain Tumor Man. When he addressed the cancer and not a member of his family, the blog was inspirational, not for any insights about the disease but insights about how to handle it. (There were times when I wanted to comment on his blog, but my IP was blocked.)

When faced with our own slow demise, many of us get religion. Not Joe Dressner. He was gruff, strident, and irreverent at times, but he was not a hypocrite. I particularly liked his attitude with those who wished him well—he objected when someone placed the weight of God on his shoulders, as he professed no belief in such things.

As I’ve said, I am sorry that Joe Dressner and I didn’t get along; I guess I figured that it was his loss, and I assume that he figured it was my loss.

What I know for certain, however, is that his death is the wine world’s loss.

It is for Joe’s taste in “real wine” that we wine drinkers are compelled to offer a farewell toast, and we should do it often.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Definition of Insanity

For the past two weekends I have been cleaning out the cellar, for two reasons: it badly needed to be cleaned and organized; I need space to make wine.

Yep; that’s right; you didn’t misread. After nearly 20 years away from it, I am planning to make wine this vintage.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not going to apply for a commercial winery license—never again for that. But I do miss the smell of fermentation, especially if that fermentation is the floral-spicy Gewurztraminer.

My plan is to produce Gewurztraminer and Riesling, about two cases of each. It isn’t much, but it will be enough to stimulate me, and if the wines turn out to be both potable and palatable, it will be a fine personal achievement.

Cellar cleaning ended last weekend, followed by cleaning a couple of old glass carboys to get them ready to receive the juice that I am buying from a supplier, Tom Mitchell, located directly across the lake from me and who was my supplier when I operated the commercial winery. Tom was a vineyard manager at Gold Seal and then at the Taylor Wine Company. He also has operated his own vineyards for decades, as well as, along with his wife, Marcy, a supply business for home winemakers named Fallbright Winemakers Shop.

While scrubbing the inside of a 6.5-gallon carboy, I had flashbacks of the old days at the winery. I particularly remember that 20 percent of winemaking is making wine; the other 80 percent is cleaning up.

I also remember my first crop of Aurora grapes that went into that first Finger Lakes wine (I had produced wine at home before moving to this location). That first batch was not commercial yet.  I had secured my federal permit as bonded winery number 713, but was awaiting my license from Byzantium (the New York State Liquor Authority).

The Aurora vineyard was already in operation when I bought the homestead, but the Taylor Wine Company contract had been pulled out from under me, so I grew the grapes and sold half the crop to a small local winery and the other half to a small grape juice operation. Aurora is probably better for grape juice than for wine, but it was decent blending material, mainly as a stretcher at the winery.

For me, the small amount of Aurora grapes that lingered at the lower end of the vines, where the mostly volunteer family and friends enlisted as pickers either could not bend to or would not, became my crop for my first batch of Finger Lakes wine.

In preparation for the arrival of the state’s stamp of approval on what would inevitably become my errant venture into commercial winemaking, I bought some equipment, but no wine press. The press that I wanted (a bladder press) came too big for both my production level and my wallet. For the Aurora, I settled on borrowing a screwpress from a neighboring winery that recently had bought a bladder press. The screwpress contraption came with a number of slats with cloth stretched across each where grape juice was pushed through by the screw while the pulp and skins was held behind—had to clean those damned things every few minutes.

Luckily, I had a small crusher/destemmer that split the grapes and removed the stems, without which pressing would have been virtually impossible, unless I wanted to spend about a week pulling garbage out of the juice by hand and produce wine that tasted like putrid plant material.

My first “employee” was an accident-prone brother-in-law who has spent most of his 50-plus years in emergency rooms across the United States. While residing with us for a few months, he managed to fall off a horse, dent a truck—my truck—and slice a piece of his leg while cross cutting a two-by-four with a circular saw; these many years later, I still find it hard to understand how anyone but a contortionist could position his leg right at the end of the path of a circular saw, but he did it.

The worst of all of my brother-in-law’s accidents was when he dropped a 5-gallon carboy filled with fermented Aurora. No one was hurt, physically, but my mind played many tricks that day, all of which had to do with crime and punishment of some sort.

I did manage to produce enough Aurora wine so that there was upwards of ten gallons in storage that winter, and when the wine was ready for bottling, its major flaw was that it was just a little too sweet for my taste—I had not learned the necessity of doing stringent and regular tests throughout the process to determine the true nature and makeup of the finished product, and that was because I was still learning to make wine; I simply hadn’t thought of everything—yet.

This year, I will buy already pressed juice from the reputable “juicer” Tom Mitchell so that one situation will be handled well enough. I also plan to handle the rest of the process by applying what I have learned over the years—that gives me a reasonable shot at producing stable and tasty wine.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress. Gewurztraminer is due for pick up on October 1 and Riesling on October 22. Stay tuned, or at least stay in the feed…