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My Greatest Crush

Harvest tales: The story of me and Mr. Brix and the ratty pink blanket that saved Uncle Bobby's grapes from shame.


NAPA VALLEY — When the Cabernet bunches turn a deep blue-black and the sugar level is just right, it is the time of year the winemakers call crush.

Technically, crushing grapes is a step in the winemaking process, but the word "crush" has come to mean all that occurs during the winemaker's first go-around with the grapes. From picking to pressing, crush is the period when grapes are turned into a raw juice full of unreliable promise.

But crush involves more than simply process. For those who have experienced it firsthand, crush is about the inescapable anticipation when picking knives are laid out and bins are stacked, when the morning is cold and quite young. Crush has elements of agriculture and chemistry but, most notably, crush has magic.

Our first crushes were as home winemakers, far outside the multimillion-dollar wine industry that dominates this valley, even though we were using Napa grapes. Few of the thousands of tourists who visit the tasting rooms lining California 29 realize that some of the grapes that hang on the nearby vines will actually be left there to rot. This neglected crop, if reached early enough, is a home winemaker's bounty.

Harvest time is a protracted emergency, a race to pick grapes during the brief window of time when they're at their best. At most of the large wineries, picking crews are rushed from plot to plot--much like medical personnel in a hospital emergency room--when an instrument called a refractometer says the grapes have just the right concentration of sugar. If the sugar level in a particular plot refuses to hover around the magic number of 23.5 Brix, though, the pickers have to move on.

This is where home winemakers enter the picture. We collect the awkward bunches that have been passed over like wallflowers at a junior high dance. Through the years, we have come to rely on the generosity of several notable wineries for some of our grapes.

But our best source of fruit is a mail carrier in Calistoga. We call him Mr. Brix, for his uncanny ability to estimate the sugar level of grapes within one or two tenths of a point on the Brix scale, merely by placing a grape or two in his mouth. Mr. Brix's sugar-gauging skills may well be hereditary. His grandfather came here from a village in the hills above Genoa, Italy, and planted the first Zinfandel vines in Calistoga nearly 80 years ago.

On his mail rounds in the early fall, as the harvest builds, Mr. Brix carefully performs his sugar tests on the small grape plots--private and commercial--that dot his route. Next he works on the plot's owners, suggesting, if they don't mind his saying, that these grapes, more than any other on his route, will be ready for picking in a few days. In exchange for leaving a row or two for him to pick, they get his promise to return in winter with shears to trim back the naked, gnarled vines and to deliver a case of his wine from a previous year's harvest.

This is an offer that few on his route have ever been known to resist. Unless, of course, we're counting Uncle Bobby.

For years, we were not personally acquainted with Uncle Bobby. We had heard about him only through Mr. Brix. Uncle Bobby lives at the end of a long road at the base of Mount St. Helena. His well-kept house is buttressed by 100 acres of head-trained Petite Sirah vines.

Petite Sirah is a large, tough-skinned red grape, often made into port-style wines or a rather heavy table wine. The flavor is predictably grape-like, and the wines are massive and long-lived. Mr. Brix helped Uncle Bobby plant his entire vineyard by hand many years ago.

Year after year, if we happened to drive by the vineyard on our grape-picking rounds, Mr. Brix would tell of the vineyard planting in great detail, his words soft and distant. As we half-listened to this tale of the arduous planting task, we secretly coveted the outcome of his work--the heavy, oblong bunches that hung there.

Uncle Bobby never had much time for us when it came to crush, though. A top winery, gilded with favorable reviews from major wine publications, pursued Uncle Bobby's grapes. The whole vineyard was tied up by the winery in a contract that paid Bobby handsomely. We knew to look elsewhere for our handouts.

But then came the harvest of 1991. That year, the grape sugars at Uncle Bobby's danced up and down wildly as the days drifted between fog and heat. The contract winery instructed its picking crew to pass over much of the crop during its brief visit. A good amount of grapes were left hanging because the sugar wasn't the right level. We knew Uncle Bobby couldn't bear to let his prized grapes go to waste, so we moved quickly and had Mr. Brix make the pitch.

The sugar on the grapes was terribly high, 25 or 25.5 Brix. Even Uncle Bobby doubted that anyone could get them to "go dry"--that is, ferment to the point where the sugar is completely consumed by the yeast--but he agreed to let us try.

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