The Birth of Our First Vintage - Or, the Proud Parents of 1.5 Tons of Grapes

Great birth stories usually involve most of the following:

  • waking up at some ungodly hour;
  • a part of the plan that doesn't go quite according to plan;
  • lots of hard physical work;
  • a good amount of mess; and
  • the moment when you look at your newborn, and realize everything you went through was completely worth it.

This is our story.

Our very first vintage was born yesterday, October 9, 2009. It weighed a bit over 1.5 tons and came to us in the cold, windy, ethereal glow of the sun rising behind the mountains of the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard. It was perfect, and beautiful.

That's one ton of Alban-clone Grenache on the left, and a half-ton of Clone 877 Syrah on the right.

The Day Before

Jody and I both went to work as usual on Thursday. He picked up the refrigerated truck (hereafter referred to as the "reefer"), headed home, and we hit the road at 2:30 p.m., pointed north.

Take a look at those bad boys. (Both of them.)

Riding in the cab of an empty reefer is similar to the ride in an airplane as it taxis down the runway -- insanely bumpy, a little too fast for comfort, and with the sense of anticipation that you're about to launch (except that part never actually happens). We did chase the sunset all the way from Carpinteria to Los Olivos, though, which was amazing.

Sunset view on the 101 from the reefer - Mussel Shoals is just ahead.

Along the way, as the sunset's fierce glow receded into indigo, and then black, I reflected on our fruit's last night on the vine. I imagined it settling into the evening chill, resting until the 3 a.m. pick, where it would be scythed into a bin, its old, familiar life complete -- and its brand new life awaiting.

Each season -- each day since last year's harvest -- came and went in anticipation of this moment. More than just buying some grapes, our ownership of this fruit -- and what we do with it -- is the culmination of a purposeful mission, much larger than ourselves and our own dream. We are lucky to benefit from the labors of so many dedicated people. We hope in our winemaking to reflect the care and love endowed to these grapes from their beginnings.

We spent Thursday night with friends in Santa Maria, in anticipation of Friday's early pickup. We awoke at 4:30 a.m., headed out to pick up the fruit (two hours away in the SBHV), and had it loaded in our refrigerated truck just after the 7 a.m. sunrise. The black early-morning journey was exhilarating.

This is why we are alive; the words echoed in my head. These days of life, every one, are gifted to us. We are making the choice this day to do what we love!

Vineyard gate, crack o' dawn - the roosters in the nearby field were a crowin', while we were a freezin'...

Sunrise over the mountains - and a tired papa

Jose, SBHV weighmaster and midwife. He loaded everything into the reefer faster than you could imagine.

Before we knew it, we were headed the 210 miles home, with a full day of garage-winery work ahead, and some nice L.A. and O.C. traffic to enjoy before we arrived.

The reefer sure rode a lot smoother hauling 3,000+ pounds, though. We banged through some insane potholes on the freeway, and not a single cluster hit the ground.

And So It Begins

11:30 a.m.: Home. It's not the most obvious crushpad anyone's ever seen.

Ready for the crush!

The kids were at school, thanks to Grandma, who had come for a rare -- and impeccably timed -- visit from Florida. We had until 3:30 to start cleaning, scrubbing, and processing, and then one of us was going to have to leave to pick up the kids. I was hoping to find someone to bring them home so we could have an uninterrupted and seamless crush, but it didn't happen.

Onward! The unexpected is always a variable. We figured we'd figure it out when the time came. Meanwhile, Jody mixed up some citric-acid solution and started cleaning the borrowed crusher-destemmer.

Here's the crusher-destemmer we used. You put the grape clusters into a hopper that sits on the top. When it's on, the paddles rotate to separate the grapes from the stems. The stems shoot out an opening in the side, and the grapes and juice fall through the holes down a chute into a waiting fermentation bin. Jody used a bucket to transfer the grapes from the half-ton picking bins into the crusher-destemmer. I stood at the chute and guided the fruit into the fermentation bins, as well as picking out bits of stems and leaves that made it through the destemmer.

The crew at SBHV picks at night, so the fruit was good and cold, and thanks to the reefer, set at 40 degrees, it stayed that way. We processed the ton of Grenache first, before I had to run and pick up our Syrah crew (I mean, the children) after school. Our dear friends Vanessa and Jenn stopped by to help with the Grenache and document the experience on camera and video -- thanks, gals! Winemaking is fundamentally about the friends and the love. (Have I said this before?)

Jody getting ready to start sorting and processing the first half-ton of Grenache

Me, nice and sticky, working the bin in front of the garage

Can't make wine (soulful wine, anyway) without getting sticky, sweaty and messy.

After we processed the whole ton of Grenache, I had to rinse off my hands and legs and hop in the Element (which is, by the way, a great vehicle for beachside living and winemaking) and go get our kids. Didn't want to interrupt things, but it had to be done!

By the time I returned, Jody had cleaned the destemmer and added a mild SO2 solution to both bins of processed Grenache (keeps away mold and buggies). I wiped down the top and sides of the bins, and we covered them with sheets and bungee cords. Jody checked the Brix (sugars) in the Grenache juice with a refractometer. Nice!

Refractometer check!

I left and returned with sticky hair and clothing, so no need to waste time changing in the middle of the crush. Best of all, we now had more help -- er, kids -- around ... time to destem the Syrah!

We didn't have any extra photographers left around to capture the Syrah process (one kid was sorting in the reefer, and the other was sorting in the bin), but here's the finished product (before wiping down the inside). The destemmer loved the Syrah and left practically all the berries perfectly intact. It's beautiful fruit from the transitional-organic Mesa section of the SBHV.

At the end of the day at any winery -- garage or otherwise -- there's the janitorial work. It's an old cliche that winemaking is 90 percent sanitation, and it's true. Unfortunately, we don't have any harvest interns to hose, spray, scrub and sweep everything down -- just us and the kids, and so we worked into the night to get it all finished up.

That's Elijah, 6, manning the broom. (I think he actually may have been making a bigger mess by whacking at the puddles.)

After we got the crushpad, er, driveway, cleaned up and the Syrah bin SO2d and covered, it was time to return the reefer. We piled in four across; sticky, dirty, with grape seeds in our hair and juice-blackened fingernails, and took a wild bouncy ride back to the rental place.

We showered and crashed in bed as soon as we got home -- too tired for even a celebratory glass (reality!).

Fruit cold-soaking safe and sound (the Syrah bin now is covered by a fitted sheet with a cars-and-trucks motif)

It's been 24 hours since the end of crush, and we're really happy, extremely sore and still a bit exhausted! (Next harvest, we're definitely recruiting more friends beforehand to get dirty along with us. Who's in?)

Keep reading! I'll be posting more details once fermentation starts, and we do have quite a few friends young and old who are hoping to come help with punchdowns and pigeage... which should make for some fun photos, in any event. Thank you to every single one of our friends who have helped to make our dream a reality -- we never could have done this without you.

Lastly, without being maudlin, if you're reading this and you have a dream -- make it happen. This is why we are alive.