Having just transferred our third vintage out of oak and into storage (read about it here), made me think back on our first attempt at winemaking lo these many years ago (three actually).

Scrounging back in my iPhoto Library — or what I could save from a really disasterous hard drive crash — I was pleased to find that these photos had survived. Well, maybe not too pleased. They are, at the least, a testament to how much I’ve learned about operating my inherited Nikon Coolpix 5700 in recent years. In other words, in those days I was just aiming, pointing, clicking and praying. Sometimes I remembered to take off the lens cap. But let’s view these photos for their educational content, not artistic and technical qualities.

Another shocker was seeing how really, really primitive our winemaking equipment was. Which may have something to do with how the Merlot turned out. But that’s another story. We’ve gotten much better at it now.

Lesson One: Get Good Grapes & Process Them Fast

If you stop at this lesson, you’ve achieved 90% of it. And I really can’t overemphasis how fast I mean when I say fast. If you can get from vines to vats in a few hours, that’s best. That didn’t happen for us. Two problems: when you are only buying half a ton of grapes, you stand in line behind all the big boys and you get the dregs. Anyone with great grapes has long term contracts with REAL winemakers. The best luck you’ll have as a small buyer is finding a local farmer without enough crop to warrant a big contract. I’ve heard that some winemaking clubs use their aggregate buying power to get bigger lots. And then there are places like CrushPad. Second problem: through some sort of mix-up, our Merlot grapes sat around on the truck for about half a day in the hot Sonoma sun before getting to us. Then we didn’t process them all that fast with our jerry-rigged equipment.

Lesson Two: Clean Absolutely Everything. Then Clean It Again.

You will learn that sulfite solution is your friend. Even though it cracks your hands like clay and turns your hair to straw. Sure, you can try to wear surgical gloves, but you’ll get it all over yourself anyway. But it stops stray yeasts dead in their tracks. And if there is anything you don’t want stray yeast to settle in, it’s your wine. So that means you hose out, wash out and sulfite everything: all utensils, your hands, your vats, all the hoses you are using, every piece of equipment. Anything that might touch the grapes or the wine. And if you are doing this outdoors and a bird flies overhead. . .panic.

Lesson Three: Spring for the Real Equipment.

Take a look at the chewing gum and masking tape rig we have going here. Now switch back to my earlier post on the Cabernet. Big difference in equipment. And it makes all the difference.

Lesson Four: Have a Workflow Figured Out.

Otherwise, you’ll be bashing into each other with bunches of grapes, kicking hoses out of vats and stepping on terriers. Or. . .you could have a situation like the one I’ve seen for the last three crushes. My husband, and whatever friend he’s roped into helping, stand around evaluating the equipment while I carry a ton of grapes, bunch by bunch, from delivery point to crusher/destemmer. And do you have any idea how heavy ONE TON of grapes can be?

Lesson Five: Rope in All Your Friends and Make Them Work

We continue to ignore this piece of advice. It involves telling every friend who thinks they might get a bottle or a visit to your “winery” that they are expected to work for that privilege. We sort of said this, nobody showed up for the work, we continued to hand out the wine and now all our friends know we are wimps on this issue. See the picture to the left. Our friend Rob is not helping. He’s drinking a latte and watching. Teach your friends that if they show up, they have to actually work.

Lesson Six: Keep All Terriers Locked Up During the Process

An easy equation. Winemaking = water, fluid, hoses, noise. Terriers = high pitched yapping, leaping, attacking in response to all the elements of winemaking. Terriers and winemaking don’t mix. This is a hard one for us as our working name is Two Terrier Vineyard. I mean the terriers are part of ambiance. They’re on the label. Then there was the time Founding Terrier Charlie leaped into a vat of primary fermentation and emerged as a rare brown, black and purple terrier. But we say (with a Gallic shrug) “Eet is part of thee terroir.”

So How Did it All Turn Out?

Well, let this story be your guide. After the oaking and a bit of aging, Andy happened to be hosting his Russian Sales Manager and took him up to the vineyards. He gave Phillip a glass of our Merlot. He thoughtfully swirled, tasted, then said, “Reminds me of the rough country wine you get in Ukraine.” Rough Ukrainian plonk? Not exactly what we were going after. We still haven’t had our Tribute to Bacchus Return the Wine to the Earth Ceremony, but eventually we’ll have to. No amount of aging is going to make this first effort turn into something Robert Parker would drink.

But we’ve gotten much better. I swear. The new equipment really helps.

Extra Notes

Find pictures of the first crush and subsequent processing of our Merlot here.

The Bibles of amateur winemaking are this book and this book.