In which Kevin plants a vineyard and Lorin helps

by Lorin Michel Sunday, April 10, 2016 8:11 PM

Kevin and I are big winos. This does not come as news to anyone who reads this blog or who knows us. Even people that have just met us get a feel for our wino tendencies, especially if they come to the house. That’s undoubtedly because we have a temperature controlled wine room. We went to Stephanie and John’s house a couple of weeks ago and when I asked what I could bring, she didn’t hesitate before putting me in charge of wine. We love wine. We drink it regularly. When we vacation we go wine tasting. We’re rather boring in terms of what we like and like to do, but it works for us.

Years ago, I bought Kevin wine making equipment for Christmas. It was essentially the equivalent of a starter kit. It even came with a box of wine juice. It was very bad wine. But Kevin got hooked on the idea of making wine. Several years later, in 2012, we took the plunge and actually bought grapes, 100 pounds each of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. We fermented them, listening to the crackle and pop for several days. Eventually we pressed them, removing the skins and preserving the juice, aged them, bottled, corked and labeled them. Ultimately we got 72 bottles, 36 of each. 

Now we’ve taken another plunge and have planted our own micro-vineyard in order to grow our own grapes which we can them ferment, press, age, bottle and serve. I say micro because as of now, we only have six actual vines of Barbera. They arrived, wrapped in wet shredded newspaper and plastic in order to keep the moisture in until they got planted. For nearly two weeks, we worked to ready the area, pulling out weeds and bufflegrass, building walls – essentially making a 30 foot by 6 foot planter. 

On Thursday, we unwrapped the plastic, and saw our vines for the first time. They’re very unattractive. Knarly and long, skinny things that look and feel a bit like bark, with spindly, spidery roots. Kevin pulled out the old fermenter, filled it with water and put the roots into the water. They needed to soak for several hours before planting.

Next, out to the vineyard he went to dig holes. In a large vineyard – even a regular size vineyard – vines are planted in rows that are trenched by a machine. Each vine is planted approximately 4 to 5 feet apart. This is because they grow up and then have to be trained along wires in order to have lots of room to grow and to have grapes drop down.

The holes he dug were about 12 inches deep. We placed the vines into the holes, one vine per hole, put a six-foot stake in the ground next to each, then refilled the holes, watered, and stepped back to admire our work. 

This is the beginnings of our long hoped for vineyard. I say beginnings because we have plans to perhaps get more Barbera vines, maybe some Petit Sirah, maybe some Malbec. We have to get vines that do well in this kind of climate but those three do. Our current six vines will produce up to about 70 pounds of fruit, with each individual one capable of between 10 and 12 pounds of grapes. It won’t happen for about 3 years, but once it does and we can pick, de-stem and crush, ferment, press, age, bottle, cork, label. Drink. 

The vintner and his erstwhile helper; the micro-vineyard in the background

Michel Cellars, our fledging winery, will produce estate-bottled wines, meaning wines made only from grapes grown on the property versus wine made with grapes purchased elsewhere. Kevin has long wanted to be a vintner. He’s on his way. By the time he retires, he’ll have enough grape vines to keep him at least partially busy. Until then, and if all goes according to plan, we should have new Barbera wines to drink in about five years. 

That’s wining out loud.

Harvest time

by Lorin Michel Monday, September 1, 2014 8:33 PM

As wine lovers and sometime wine makers, we have long been fascinated with the harvest. It normally happens in late September into early October, depending on what happened with the winter and the summer weather. The grapes, which are perennial, blossom. The vines, dormant, twisted and black in the winter, get leafy and green. Grapes grow from the blossoms, small, round and green. They look like ball-bearings. As summer continues, they grow and ripen, turning deep plummy purple if they’re red grapes and deeper green if they’re white grapes.

The amount of rain received in the winter can affect how the grapes grow. Dry winters, like California has been experiencing for the last few years, leads to smaller grapes and thus a smaller yield. Smaller yields make wine more expensive for the end user simply because there isn’t the quantity to sell.

The heat of the summer also greatly affects how quickly the grapes mature. With the heat we’ve had this year, grapes are maturing earlier which puts harvest and crush earlier. Everything gets moved up. Like any crop, if you leave the grapes on the vine too long, they shrivel up and become unusable. As wine lovers, we’re always sad, when we’ve walked through vineyards, to see grapes that didn’t get picked for whatever reason. Sometimes only because they were overlooked.

Most harvesting is still done by hand, especially at smaller wineries. It’s too delicate a process to go through with a machine and cut grapes away mechanically. The machine would inevitably harm the vines, and vines take years to mature. Workers walk through each narrow row with clippers and baskets, just like in the old days, and pinch, clip and toss, pinch, clip and toss. Luckily not every varietal is finished ripening at the same time. A cabernet sauvignon might be ready on Wednesday, the Syrah on Sunday, chardonnay the following Tuesday or in a week. Winery workers including the wine makers are out there. The wine maker is the one who ultimately decides if the grapes are ready, tasting them for flavor. These grapes taste nothing like the grapes purchased in the grocery store. They’re not for eating. They’re tart; they make the back of your mouth contract.

The last few years have been terribly dry in California. Dry winters are followed by impossibly hot summers. The lack of water and the increase in heat has created grapes nearly ready to be picked and it’s only September 1. In Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez and Paso Robles, grapes are heavy on the vine. Even Napa, still recovering from the earthquake a week or so ago, is showing ripened grapes.

Today, one of the wineries I follow in Southern Arizona posted a picture of their grapes, also heavy and purple, hanging from the vine. It will only be a matter of weeks, even in the great heat of Sonoita and Elgin. The grapes are ripe and will make some great wine. Maybe we’ll go down for the harvest. It’s not far, and there aren’t that many acres. Maybe we can even join in, grab some clippers, pinch, clip and toss.  Pinch, clip and toss. Then we’ll get to taste some of the wine from last year as this year’s crop gets crushed and readied for next year’s bottling. Definitely worth celebrating. 

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live out loud

70 bottles of wine on the bar, 70 bottles of wine

by Lorin Michel Sunday, May 18, 2014 8:32 PM

Sometime in the 14th century, somebody in England penned a song called Ten Green Bottles. It was mind-numbingly stupid and repetitive – Ten Green Bottles hanging on the wall, And if one Green Bottle should accidentally fall, There’ll be Nine Green Bottles hanging on the wall – which is why American’s crafted their own version sometime in the 20th century. We upped the ante a bit though, to 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall because we’re Americans and we do everything bigger than everyone else. It’s our way.

99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer. Take one down, pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall.

There is also a 99 Bottles beer store in Federal Way, in Washington state. They carry over 1000 ales, lagers, hard ciders and meads from 50 countries. Not sure how they get 99 when it’s a 1000 but whatever. 

I bring all of this up, not as a lover of the song or a connoisseur of beer, though I do like an occasional Smithwicks, and just this week was introduced to Shock Top by my son, but because yesterday, we had 70 recently filled bottles of Michel Cellars wine on the table/eat-at-bar here in the kitchen.

The winemaker, otherwise known as Kevin, filtering the syrah

In the spring of 2012, Kevin announced that we were going to buy grapes and make our own wine. In the fall of that year, we did just that, securing about 100 pounds of Syrah grapes from Santa Barbara County first and then, a month of so later, 114 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Paso Robles. We bought them from a place in Camarillo called Custom Crush that caters to people wanting to private label their own wine. They also sell grapes to people like us who want to make their own. On two separate Sundays, we drove to Camarillo with our fermenter in the back of the Range Rover. There we met several other home winemakers, participated in the crushing and destemming of the grapes and finally, loaded up our fermenter, added some yeast, put it back in the back of the car, and drove home. For the next week or so, Kevin engaged in a ritual called the punchdown. Fermenting grape skins rise to the top of grape juice and must be hand mixed back into the juice in order to get the two to comingle and give the best color and flavor.

Once each wine was done fermenting, we had to press it which is just as it sounds. You scoop the grape mixture, called the must, out of the fermenter and into a machine that you tighten down. It has a flat wooden surface that screws down into the must, pressing all of the juice out of the skin. When you’re done, you’re left with dried, flat grapes that are then thrown away.

From there we racked the wine several times, transferring it into barrels and then into carboys, so it could age. In the end, we had seven gallons of each.

Yesterday, we bottled. We started with the syrah, which we ran through a filter to eliminate any sediment, or at least as much sediment as we could. Kevin created quite the system using a vacuum pump, several hoses and a number of carboys in order to pull the wine from one container into the other. Once in its final container, we then siphoned wine into 750 ml bottles. 100 and 114 pounds of grapes created seven gallons of wine respectively which each created 35 bottles. 35 bottles of Michel Cellars 2012 Santa Barbara County Syrah and 35 bottles of Michel Cellars 2012 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, each a 100% pure varietal. A total of 70 bottles of wine on the bar, 70 bottles of wine.

The first 35 bottles, of syrah

We corked and put all 70 bottles into six case boxes. They’re now standing up in the wine cellar. Next we label. It’s on my list today, to write the backs of each. And then, eventually, we drink.

Our first batches of homemade wine. So far, it’s pretty good. We know this because we sampled both yesterday to see what we had. We’re pleasantly surprised. We might even see about entering each into some amateur competition. Until then, we’re celebrating our 70 bottles of wine, and looking forward to starting the process all over again. We’re thinking of getting some Petite Verdot must from a place in Pennsylvania. They ship it frozen, just 3 gallons. Might be the perfect bridge between the spring and the fall, when California grapes are harvested and available again. Sniff, swirl, sip; ferment, punch, rack. This is living it out loud. 

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live out loud

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