“Dear brothers and sisters, after our great pope, John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in God’s vineyard. I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act, even with insufficient tools, and I especially trust in your prayers. In the joy of the resurrected Lord, trustful of his permanent help, we go ahead, sure that God will help, and Mary, his most beloved mother, stands on our side. Thank you.” – Pope Benedict XVI, 19 April 2005
The Central Valley, around Modesto, is the largest wine-grape producing region in the state. It produces a lot of wine, equal to all the other California appellations combined. But the vast majority of this wine comes from the Thompson seedless or some variant thereof — roughly equivalent to a table grape — and winds up in boxed wine or the big glass jugs of Chablis at the supermarket.
We live in the northern Central Valley, far north of Modesto, and traditional wisdom has always held that the climate here is a major obstacle to growing quality wine. It’s simply too hot. Grapes will produce copious amounts of sugar and get very flabby because the acid necessary for balance takes a back seat. I suppose Thompsons would do just as well, but it seems rather pointless to grow something that will perpetually be destined for a plastic bladder rather than a proper 750 ml bottle.
In the autumn of 2011, we visited the New Clairvaux Winery. The Monastery and vineyards are about an hour north of us, where the climate is even hotter than where we live. I was very impressed by the quality of wine being produced by the Monks there, so much that I joined their wine club AND began thinking about the possibility of starting my own vineyard project.
I began some research. One wise decision that the Monks made was not to attempt any of the “tried and true” Napa varietals. Napa Valley winemaking established itself with the traditional French varietals, mirroring the success of famous French appellations, because Napa has a whole bunch of little microclimate areas that closely resemble the conditions of places like Burgundy and Bordeaux.
For example, the southern part of Napa Valley has a sub-appellation called Carneros. This region receives coastal breezes from the San Francisco bay, and the average temperature is around 10-15 degrees cooler than in the northern part of the Napa Valley. It is ideal for “Burgundy”: Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white) in the style of French Bourgogne. Perhaps in Carneros you will find more wines aged in oak barrels than in Bourgogne, particularly for Chardonnay which is almost always stainless steel fermented and aged, so that it retains a crisp, fruity character. When it comes to wine, it seems that Americans like their butter even more than the French.
In contrast, as you travel northward up Napa Valley you encounter the towns of St. Helena and Calistoga. Temperatures are much higher than Carneros, the coastal breezes are less prevalent, and the afternoon heat lingers a while after sundown. It still remains a good 10-15 degrees cooler on average than the temps where my family lives, but the warmth is more like Bourdeaux, where juicy reds blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, etc., have been grown for centuries with great success.
The Monks selected varietals that would be more appropriate in this climate, and therefore ventured further south, to the Mediterranean, for inspiration. Thus, the red varietals planted by the Monks included Tempranillo, Graciano, Barbera, Syrah, and Petite Syrah.
In the Spring of 2012, I went to a nursery in Napa Valley and purchased 24 Syrah rootstocks, which I planted along four homemade trellises, each approximately 50 feet long.
Since then, my vineyard management has been slightly lackadaisical. I’ve trained the vines, and some have grown more robustly than the others. I’ve lost a few, which will need to replaced in future years. Last year, I removed every grape cluster early on, so that the vines would concentrate energy on building up roots and plant structure. I’ve also been very stingy with watering, after reading that you can “train” vines to be more drought resistant. We are currently in a serious drought here, and I’d rather the vines grow more slowly if it means that they are sending their roots further down to look for water.
Between the beer brewing, meat curing, homeschooling, blogging, etc., etc., etc., the vineyard has really been more like an aspiration or hobby than true project.
This year, one quadrant of the vineyard consisted of vines that appeared sufficiently established to grow some grapes. I noticed that my trellis is going to need some serious work; the wires are not taut enough and the weight of the vines and fruit has caused a serious droop. But I let the vines continue to grow some grapes, in the hope that we’d get enough fruit to make a little wine this year, and see if this is worth doing.
I kept checking the grape clusters, and noticed recently that most of them were looking black. Tasting a few, they were delicious, but it seemed to me rather early yet for harvest. More sugar concentration was definitely possible.
Then, on Monday, I noticed that a number of blue jays were congregating around the vines, and approaching them I realized that the birds had already begun feasting on the ripe grapes.
Stupid early birds. And stupid me for not anticipating the need for some netting.
But all was not lost; I only crashed the first course of the birds’ dinner party, so the big question was whether the grapes were ready to pick or not. Grabbing a few berries and the hygrometer (a neat little device that measures sugar content in liquids) I was able to determine that the fruit was already within the range of 20-25 Brix, meaning that we could go ahead and harvest. I figured adding a little sugar (because not all the berries would fall into this range) was preferable to losing the entire lot to the birds.
The harvest yielded about 10 pounds of fruit (a rather small amount!), and the whole family sat at the kitchen table plucking each individual berry from the stems before crushing. Using a “potato masher”, I crushed the fruit. My final Brix was around 18-20, so I did add a bit of table sugar to bring it up to 26. I used a ground up Campden tablet to get rid of any wild yeasts or microbes sitting on the skins. I transferred the “must” to a nylon bag lining a gallon food-grade bucket, which will be the fermenter. After 24 hours, I pitched half a packet of “Pasteur Red” yeast for fermentation.
In about a week, the primary fermentation will be completed, and instead of a grape press, I will simply squeeze out all the liquid from the skins and seeds like a giant teabag, and transfer the fresh wine to a glass gallon jug to age until next fall.
In the end, we’ll be lucky if we manage to get just two 750 ml bottles of wine from this vintage. But, it’s a fulfilling project because the wine came from vines that I planted, tended (poorly), producing the grapes that I harvested, processed, fermented, and bottled. It likely won’t be very good, but it will be “ours”.
And, it’s just the beginning; an established vineyard can produce wine for up to 50 years! So, as long as this wine gives hope for future vintages (i.e., someone will drink it), we’ll keep going!