John Lennon and I have the same birthday.
He would’ve turned 75 last week. I turned 27. I don’t know what Yoko would have gotten him, but Ben got me a big pile of grapes.
We went to the beer and wine supply store across town. Actually I walked around the neighborhood and pretended not to know what was going on while Ben got bombarded with advice from the old regulars. In the end he got me more and bigger carboys so I can up production, and we were sent down the road to a warehouse where the owner of the store was dolling out grapes.
This guy gets outrageous shipments of grapes and pre-pressed juice from California and Europe, and sells them to every old Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish guy in the city who has a few extra thousand to spend. I actually watched a man drop upwards of two-thousand dollars on juice. When we told the owner we wanted a single case of grapes, he shook both our hands, called us the customers of the day, and brought the grapes out himself. I suspect he may have been making fun of us. He was very good-natured about it, though.
One case proved to be more than enough. They’re Merlot, specially picked because they were the only whole grapes left. The real business seems to be in juice, because the average customer is in it for next year’s wine supply and not the authenticity of the experience. A very friendly man named Johnny explained his juice-filled SUV to me by working out the ultimate cost to three dollars a bottle. My bottles are going to be considerably more valuable when I factor in all the man-hours it took to separate the things from their stems. I’m smiling here, but by the time I was finished I was so sick of grapes.
Once the grapes were in the bucket and the walls and floors were de-stickified, It was time to smash. Everyone I talked to wanted me to do the old-fashioned foot method. I did consider it, but in the end I went with tried and true hands.
I mixed in some sodium metabisulfite and left it overnight to sanitize. The next day I added yeast, yeast nutrient, and a little sugar. I got pretty hung up on the sugar, since I have yet to find a good way to use the hydrometer. The whole point of the thing is to let it float free in the juice to measure the buoyancy and, therefore, the sugar content. I tried putting it straight in the bucket, but it was so full of grape skins I may as well have been sticking it in jello. I tried extracting some juice into the hydrometer’s cylindrical container, but it’s so narrow that any amount of sediment (of which there was a lot) can jam or buoy the hydrometer, making it impossible to read. I tried a champagne flute, but it was too shallow and too wide. In the end I got some semblance of a reading and looked up the amount of sugar it should take to raise the specific gravity to a suitable number. I threw in exactly that amount and washed my hands of the whole thing. There must be a better way.
I let the grapes ferment for a few days, punching down the skins about three times a day. That’s an aspect I’m not used to – the bubbling of the fermentation pushes the solid elements up, creating a cap that has to be pushed back down.
Finally it was time to rack to the carboys. It’s important, at this point, to press your grapes, getting all that good juice out. I priced wine presses, and they range from $80 to higher numbers I also can’t afford. I did a stripped down and maybe not kosher version in which I poured my grape goop into a bucket lined with a nylon sack, as you can see here. A birthday cake was being made on the table, so I was relegated to the corner with the cat toys. Don’t tell the health department.
Two types of wine come out of the pressing process: free-run and pressed. Free-run is the already flowing liquid that doesn’t need to be released by the press. In this case, it’s what dripped straight through the sack when I lifted it out of the bucket.
With some careful juggling and a lot of splashing, I got an easy gallon of free-run juice, which I moved to a carboy and set aside.
After that came the “pressing,” an awkward job of hefting a huge sack of grapes in one hand and massaging it with the other against the side of a too-small bucket braced between my feet. I’m not sure this is how they do it in Napa Valley.
My unorthodox method got me another easy gallon of juice, with some more still in the sack. If I’d really pressed, I would have gotten a decent amount more juice. But I only had two carboys on hand, and no effective way to press, anyway. So I left it at two gallons. One is all free-run, one is lightly pressed, and I have no idea from this picture which is which. Free-run is supposed to be lighter and less tanniny, so we’ll see at the next racking if I can tell the difference by taste.
Of course I have them labeled on the other side of the jugs. If I identified all my wines by taste I’d be in trouble, since nothing ever comes out tasting like what I put in.