When one thinks of wine being produced, usually France and California spring to mind. Maybe with a little Argentina, New Zealand, or Spain thrown in for additional flavor. Oregon and Washington, however, have been developing their wine industries for several decades and there is some pretty good stuff coming out of the Willamette valley and Walla Walla area.
I’ve long been interested in fermenting, so when our friend Burt asked if we wanted to go help him pick grapes at Courting Hill Winery just like last year, we jumped at the chance. It’s a guaranteed good time, frolicking in a vineyard at one of the prettiest times of the year. This year had something extra, though- Burt suggested we buy some grapes of our own, and follow him through the process of making Chardonnay. He’s been making his own wine for years, and is interested in passing along his skills.
We looked at the budget, and decide we could afford it, so I told Burt we’d love to. I had some of the equipment on hand already, and bought a few small items like tubing and yeast at the brewing supply store. Bill gave us a few of 5-gallon glass carboys that he had laying around in his garage, and we were off to the races! As I write, I can hear the gentle blup-blup of bubbling fermentation locks on the wine fermenting in the mudroom, right next to the hard cider. Five gallons of wine is a lot for us, 24+ bottles, so I don’t think there will be any shortage of spirits in the coming year. Plus as much cider, and several cases of wine we’ve been given by various friends this month… maybe we need to build a wine cellar.
Then, last week, I got an email from a friend of mine. Jason is a professional second-generation winemaker in the valley, and we’ve been kicking around ideas for a new winery building design he wants me to help him with. His family brought Pinot grapes to Oregon in the sixties, starting the wine business in this region. They’re well known in the winemaking community, and their Eyrie Vineyard produces high quality wines. “We’re crushing grapes this week”, he said. “Would you like to come spend a day with me and see the operation?”
So I did just that. It was fun to see the differences and similarities between making 24 bottles of wine and 100,000. The equipment is of course much larger and more expensive, such as the press in the picture below. Bigger than a car and several times more expensive, this press and ones like it come from Italy and are the centerpiece of the winery. It has a computer to control it, as it cycles through the grapes several times to get the most juice possible.
But the general process is the same, and hasn’t changed in millennia. Jason took me to punch down red wine in the early stages of fermentation, an extra step not required on white wines like the Chardonnay in my mudroom. Using a glorified plunger, one pushes crushed grapes down into the fermenting mush, to keep them moist and deter the “bad” bacteria while encouraging the good, hydrophilic yeasts.
He then took me into the barrel room, to listen to the wine. Yep, listen. In a dark barrel room, you can actually hear a sizzling sound as millions of tiny bubbles rise in the wine. He took a cork out of a barrel, and we peeked in with a flashlight to see the golden liquid and millions of tiny effervescent bubbles. Wine Magic! As he continued explaining the biology and chemistry of the wine, I moved to another barrel, this one apparently a red from the staining around the bung. Curious to see the difference, I leaned over and pulled out the cork… and the wine exploded everywhere, showering my face and head with a spray of bloody red alcohol.
There was an awkward pause in Jason’s monologue, and we looked at each other. I was worried I’d offended him by spraying his hard work all over the cellar, and he was probably worried I’d get mad that I was covered in red wine. “That’s why I take them off slowly,” he said with one eyebrow raised. We both smiled, shrugged, and we got a bucket of water to wash me (and the barrel) clean.