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HOBBIES: Ventura County

A Crushing Success

Timing is crucial for home winemaker intent on bringing grapes to fruition.

September 04, 1997|JUDY WILLIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The grape harvest of 1997 begins with an early morning phone call from Fred Brander summoning me to his Santa Ynez Valley vineyard. I am about to join professional and amateur winemakers up and down the Central Coast, participating in the grape harvest, aptly called, the Crush.

This is the most crucial, intense, hectic time of the year, when grapes ripen on the vines and must be harvested, de-stemmed, crushed, fermented, pressed and poured into tanks or barrels.

I am fairly well organized and coordinated. I can walk and chew gum simultaneously. Yet during every Crush for the past five years, I have felt as if I was walking blindfolded on a rope bridge across the Grand Canyon. Despite the intense and challenging nature of the experience, I look forward to the grape harvest all year long.

Brander's phone call proclaims some of his grapes ready for harvesting. Like an expectant mother feeling labor's first contraction, I am excited and anxious. Just as contractions start out slowly then accelerate in intensity and frequency with no turning back, the grapes once harvested must be attended to with dedicated focus. I will need to tend to them with timely foot stomping, crushing in the press, and addition of yeast to successfully ferment their juices into tasty wine.

My entry into home winemaking followed volunteering with my husband Paul at the Santa Barbara Winery. For the 1991 crush, our medical and chemistry backgrounds qualified us to be trained as wine chemists, under the tutelage of winemaker Bruce McGuire. During six weeks, as eight varieties of grapes were harvested and fermented, we analyzed juice, and later the fermenting wine, once or twice a day checking sugar, alcohol and acid levels.

The next year we tried it for ourselves and experienced the Crush firsthand. That year Bacchus was with us and we succeeded in making a tasty Zinfandel. But each harvest time has its own unpredictable challenges. Once the whims of nature--including rainfall, temperature, time of day, and sugar content of the grapes--combine to bring the fruit to maturity, each subsequent step of the winemaking process must be critically timed.

Further complicating the equation, we now produce more than one wine varietal. Thus, while the Pinot Noir juice fermenting in vats needs punching down (similar to vertical stirring) four times a day, the Syrah grapes ripening in the vineyard reach critical sugar content and need to be harvested, crushed and inoculated with yeast.

Are you beginning to get the picture? Lucy and Ethel had it comparatively easy on their candy assembly line.

The timing of harvest is determined predominantly by the number of hot summer days. Brander describes this summer as one of "excess." The early June hot spell produced high grape yields, with unusual July cooling permitting their ripening to slow down. The record-breaking August heat intensified flavor and sugar levels, resulting in a grape crop abundant in quantity and quality.

Our own preparations for Crush '97 began several weeks ago when we scrubbed down the collecting containers (new, restaurant-quality trash bins), washed out the carboys (5-gallon glass bottles), and spread tarps in our garage-cum-winery.

Up and down the coast, winemakers are altering their routines. Many have stopped shaving. Chris Whitcraft has attached a camper shell to his truck in anticipation of sleeping at his vineyard and winery. Award-winning home winemaker Antonio Gardella hones his focus and dexterity by practicing his juggling.

Paul and I now drive up to meet Brander at his Brander Vineyard as the morning temperature in the Santa Ynez Valley climbs well into the 80s. Unlike previous years when we collected our grapes from the bins filled by the vineyard workers, this year we will do our own harvesting.

It is exhausting work. The clusters of grapes are embedded deep in the vines and our unskilled technique yields splinters, scrapes and only 20 pounds of grapes in one hour. We learn firsthand why vineyard workers wear long pants, long sleeves, gloves and scarfs while working in the hot fields: Wasps and bees are as fond of the grapes as we are. Our thirst finally propels us inside the winery where we discover the meaning of the phrase, "It takes a lot of beer to make a little wine."

Driving back to our home in Santa Barbara we consider what to do with the day's harvest. We have not collected enough ripe grapes to fill our 30-gallon barrel and the grapes we did harvest are of four varieties: pinot noir, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Paul reasons that we could use the blend to try our hands at making champagne. Our photographer friend Kirk suggests the perfect name for our novel varietal, "Collage."

Once home, our 9-year-old daughter Alani begins the foot stomping of the grapes. When fatigue sets in, we reinvigorate her march with rock 'n' roll music.

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