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Falling for a divine nectar

September 20, 2013|Chris Erskine
  • Joe Hart examines the season's harvest at his Temecula family winery, which produces 4,000 cases a year.
Joe Hart examines the season's harvest at his Temecula family winery,… (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles…)

God's fingerprints are all over this place. You see it in the curl of a grape leaf, the camber of the harvest sun. Even the oak barrels are inviting. I want to cut one in half, fill it with leaves, climb in to read a long, difficult book.

This time of year always seems to connect with me. I was born in autumn, and I will probably die in winter, over sadness that autumn is gone. They can bury me in oak leaves and robust sports sections filled with football scores and World Series headlines. My friends will circle 'round, and one of the idiots will fumble his cigar, and the whole thing will go up in flames.

"Went out with a bang and a bonfire," someone will say, then they'll all shuffle off to some saloon with my Visa card.

"Helluva guy."

"What was his name again?"

"Don't know, but I sure like these wings," someone will answer, probably Eisen.

Those are the kinds of friends I have, and I wouldn't trade them for the world — such is the state of the world these days.

What will go wrong next? They say the price of chocolate is going up, and maybe wine now too, given the shortage of grapes down here in Temecula this year.

Social lubricant and truth serum, wine goes back about a billion years. Far as I can tell, the dinosaurs drank it, then sat around speculating about "global cooling."

"There is no hard evidence," some of the dinosaurs insisted, and they of course were right and wrong at the very same time.

OK, here's how you make wine, oversimplified, in the way I oversimplify everything. I think in metaphors, I speak in parables. The result is a form of dis-communication that is wordy yet visual. As if Tolstoy had written porn.

Step 1: Take a humongous bucket of grapes and separate out the stems, till you pretty much have just juice. You want to keep the skins if you make red. With the white wines — or as I call them, "the Caucasians" — you remove the skins.

In either case, you put the whole mess into a silo, where you will add yeast. This, as yeast is prone to do, creates some sort of cataclysm by which alcohol is produced.

Step 2: Pour it into pricey oak casks — and BOOM! — you've got happy juice.

Simple, right?

Oh, there are steps in between. Temecula winemaker Joe Hart, who's been at this for 40 years, says it's as much an art as a science. What do I know of art, except that Sheryl Crow is definitely art, the burnished glow of God all over her, and a Chrysler 300 is not.

That's the feel of Hart's winery. It seems of this Earth — organic, back lit, a little dusty. Like hand pumps and millponds. Like autumn itself.

This year's grapes are good, though a tad scarce, says Hart, whose family winery produces 4,000 cases a year. This season started early, in August, and the Harts are midway thorough, his son, Jim, doing much of the heavy lifting.

Making wine, Joe says, "gives you a chance for creative expression in a world that doesn't allow for much."

In front of him, his paint — a kettle full of grapes, still cool from being hand-picked overnight.

After weighing them, we rake four tons of zinfandel clusters down a steel chute, where a crusher/de-stemmer spanks the vegetation off them, and the juices and skins are piped into a large temperature-controlled silo. (These days, actual stomping has gone the way of the dinosaurs.)

Once the yeast is added, and the sugars have fermented, it will move to a press, where an expandable bladder removes all the liquid possible. After moving to another tank to settle, the wine is poured into oak barrels, where it will age before being bottled on site.

The whole process is resonant and beautiful in all the ways you'd hope. Originally, I wanted to be a center fielder for the Chicago Cubs, then the steel-guitar player in Gordon Lightfoot's band.

Now, though, I think I want to make wine for a living, with a tasting room like the one Joe and Nancy Hart run, rustic yet inviting, a place where pilgrims stop on the way to San Diego to wet a whistle and hear the story of how a glass of wine is born — right here in this little family winery, under the steady gaze of God.

What: Hart Family Winery tastings
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily
Cost: Tastings of six wines, $10
Where: 41300 Avenida Biona, Temecula
Info: (951) 676-6300,

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