Week #2 as Winemaking Parents - Or, They Grow Up So Fast

I've tried for days, but I just couldn't bring myself to write another update until our first vintage was safely put to bed. Now that the chaos has passed, and the wine's ensconced in barrels and carboys, it feels like it's time to tell the story of how our wine grew up over the past week and a half. (That was quick!)

No matter how well prepared you think you are for parenthood, something, eventually, will catch you off guard. You'll run out of diapers in the middle of the night. Your child will have an allergic reaction to the wipes you bought in bulk. You'll head off on a romantic wine-country vacation and send the kids 3,000 miles away to Grandma's -- and one will get chickenpox. (This is not a theoretical reference. In case you were wondering.)

Behold, Mr. Chickenpox, looking much better now than in Summer 2008, when I had to fly to Florida on 18 hours' notice, and ... oh, never mind.

After the chaos of pressing and barreling, this phase of our winemaking adventure holds the sense that Jody and I are like empty-nesters. We've come to that point where (hooray!) you don't have to monitor your children's every move and/or wait up at night to make sure they're OK -- but you're constantly aware that they're still very much relying on you (and costing you money).

The Prep Work

If you care about succeeding in college, you don't just wake up one day and show up for the SATs, right? You know it's coming well in advance. You take practice tests. You do everything you can to make sure when the day comes, you're as prepared as possible.

With fermentations moving speedily along, we needed our wine barrels put into action soon -- and they needed work. Oak barrels are the main way to go for long-term wine aging ... but they're somewhat high-maintenance. Before you ever think about putting wine in a barrel to age, you need to make sure those barrels are absolutely clean, and that they aren't leaking. (Because after sitting awhile with nothing in them, they're usually leaking.)

We Work the Black Seam Together

Swelling barrels: When you pump your barrel full of water, let it sit overnight, and see if it holds. (If not, you get to carve and whittle little pegs and poke them here and there. Woodworking fun for the whole family!)

Since we don't want to upset any neighbors (and since garage winemaking has in fact been mistaken for crystal meth production, we did our barrel swelling in the dark of night. A tiny halogen flashlight was all we had for light as we moved the barrels onto the front walkway, filled them with water from the chlorine-filtering hose, and moved them back into the garage (which sounds way, way easier than it was).

By the way: This is not illegal.

With leaks aplenty, Jody got his woodworking jones on, and it turned out that even the barrel we thought was a lost cause ended up watertight in the end (thanks to Wine Doctor Kevin, who encouraged us to keep trying).

Pigeage is fun to say (and do)

Pigeage: The process of mixing, by foot, the fermenting cap of grape skins and solids with the juice below. The common reaction to the idea is grape-stomping a la "I Love Lucy," but our -- well, my -- garage pigeage (say it five times fast) was a sensual experience I wouldn't give up for anything.

The temperature of the must when I climbed into the half-ton bin of Syrah was 84 degrees. A good 20 degrees warmer than the air-conditioned garage, the liquid and thick bubbles coated my feet and legs as I swirled them slowly, gently around the bin.

Syrah, a winemaker friend told us, sometimes needs a little beating up.

I had been monitoring the temperature in the middle and at the four corners of the bin each morning and evening with a thermometer after manual punchdowns, which suddenly seemed like a very inorganic way to interact with this miraculous, alchemical process. Now, with my own body I could feel where the juice was a bit cooler, and mix it in with the warmer juice just a few steps away. I could sense where the skins were drier, and plunge them with my toes back into the wetness where they belonged.

It was reluctantly that finally I climbed out, feeling grateful and more connected to the fruit than at any point during this journey.


Coming Friday:

"They Grow Up So Fast, Part II: Pressing Off and Barreling Down." Stay tuned, and thanks for reading! You can follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/emilyldt.