August, 2004 (San Diego, CA)

A dummy is someone who spends $1,500 to buy a ½ ton of grapes,
adds yeast, puts the mixture into a fine oak barrel and ends up with
60 gallons of vinegar. Just think: One thousand five hundred dollars
(not including time, labor, pain and suffering). You could purchase
100 bottles of $15 premium wine at one of our premier San Diego
wineries such as Witch Creek or Belle Marie. Why am I doing this,
when I like their wines so much, buying theirs would be so much
easier and 100 bottles would last me a year?

Everyone in the San Diego wine industry knows Lum Eisenman, who’
s written THE book on how to make wine. Full of details, and how
to's. He even teaches a half-day course on the subject, which the
wife and I took in July. We came away thinking: “I can do that…all I
need to do is find a barrel.” Here’s the rest of the story to Lum’s wine
making recipe -- what a beginning wannabe winemaker found on his
Quixotic quest with all the gory details not mentioned by the master
in the manual. Lum wrote for people with common sense, not for

The time we spent making wine reminds me of running the marathon
… it feels so good when you stop. And there’s something about the
painful process that triggers the thought, “When can I do this
again?” Why do I eagerly look forward to next fall’s harvest: The
family that makes wine together sticks together. Literally.

The Dream

Plant a small vineyard in the back yard, prune the vines, pick the
grapes and make your own wine. A fantasy that has run in our urban
family, along with the notion of jetting off to France to pick grapes
during the harvest. But when you live in Southern California, what’s
the point of going to Southern France? We have the same climate,
the same landscape, plenty of snails. And vineyards.
Contracting With The Grower (end of August, 2004)

Need to find grapes. We live in San Diego, and there are two
famous grape-growing regions within driving distance: Guadeloupe
Valley in Mexico, where the wife and I have been the week before on
a fact finding and barrel tasting expedition, and Temecula Valley. I
search the Internet; find a grower in Temecula. He has Syrah
grapes. Que sirah, sirah! And that will do fine. This is a relative of
the Shiraz, that wine from Australia that we enjoy so much, and the
name sake of our chien, an Australian Shepherd named “Bluey” for
the color of his eyes and the bluish tint to his mereled coat. Our
virtual “Winery” is named after him, and we talk of my wife’s
impressionist oil painting of Bluey adorning the label of every bottle.
We contract with Dennis for half a ton. The price is $500 for the
grapes, plus $100 for the picking and crushing. We finalize the date
… Sunday in a week.

When I first brewed my own beer 13 years before, I made it in 5-
gallon quantities. Lum said in the winemaking class don’t mess
around with small quantities, because it increases the chances of
oxidation and spoilage. He suggested making enough to fill up, say,
a beer keg which is an ideal container and readily available. When
visiting Witch Creek Winery and telling them about my inspiration,
they concurred that more is better and suggested that I make a
barrel. They said they could order an American oak barrel from
Kentucky for me with their next shipment. I decide to go for a barrel,
just like the casual jogger who said, “Next month I’ll run the

I’m in San Francisco during the week on business, and get a call
from Dave at Witch Creek … their new barrels are not coming in for
a few months, and he doesn’t have an old one to spare. “Where can
I find a barrel?” Check the Internet, he suggests. Yep, plenty of
barrels there …and I have a better idea. When driving back from
San Diego, I plan to stop by Paso Robles wine country. Two days
later, I’m on a wild goose chase, trying to reach a number of wineries
before 5 p.m., walking in, and asking for an empty barrel. I am
unsuccessful…the two places I reach before 5 p.m. don’t have one
to spare, and then it’s too late.


Budget For Beginning Winemakers

1,000 lbs. high quality grapes $500
Fee for crushing grapes $100
2-day truck/van rental with insurance + GAS $200
Used French oak barrel $100
5 @ 30-gallon food quality containers $160
Yeast, sulfites and supplies $150
Winemaking course $35
Bottle corker $75
Corks and bottles $250
Visit to chiropractor after pressing wine $50
Containers, supplies from hardware store $35

Inviting family and friends over for wine tasting directly from the
barrel: Priceless

I need something in which to ferment the grapes. I check out the
garbage cans at Home Depot. Then I remember Lum’s voice …
advising against regular garbage containers (which have the plastic
smell of petroleum and rubber) and recommending “food grade”
containers. I find a local brewery store … and just in time, their
containers have come in. Funny thing about those containers at the
wine store is they look exactly the same as the ones in Home Depot,
but more expensive. (I am assured there is less rubber smell.) After
purchasing five of them, I begin doing some math. One ton equals
2,000 lbs. and ½ ton = 1,000 lbs. and 1,000 lbs. of grapes divided
by 5 containers is 200 lbs. per container. I can comfortably lift 50
lbs. One hundred pounds would send me to the doctor, if not the
emergency room.

At the back of the store I notice a wooden barrel with French writing.
How much? $100. A new one is worth $800. (It's not until after I've
bought it and I'm about to fill it that I read in Lum's manual NEVER
BUY A USED WOODEN BARREL because they are next to
impossible to clean.)

The solution for transporting half a ton of grapes is to rent a pick up
truck – another one of the family dreams … to own a pick up truck
loaded with palm trees in the back (which I’m taking home to plant)
with a dog riding shotgun. Couldn’t find a pick up on short notice,
but Enterprise has a van. I make the reservation to pick it up on
Saturday (since I’ll need it before dawn on Sunday). Cost of rental,
$69 day, plus, plus, plus. (Oh yes, I definitely want the extra
insurance just in case driving that monster!)

I go to pick up the van, and the back is full of seats. Not a problem
the rental agent says … I come back to Enterprise an hour later,
and the seats are out. Another thought crosses my mind …5 @ 200
lbs. of glorified food grade trash cans in the back of van … what
happens when you turn? Or stop suddenly? Then, there’s the
distance from the ground to the floor of the van … about 3 feet …
how to get the 200 lbs. containers up there (ok, maybe some of the
workers at the farm can help?) … but how to get them down once we
get home? Details, details. There is only one answer: “Lord, please
bless this undertaking …I have no idea how I’m going to do this … it’
s in your hands … please bless this wine that we seek to make …
that it may bring joy… and give thanks and honor to you for the
grapes, the grower, your children who picked the grapes, the
bountiful harvest, the miracle of fermentation …”

Grape Harvest & Crush (Sunday, August 29, 2004)

The wife and I are up before dawn, get ready, run the dog (we
decide to leave him behind) and get in the van for the hour drive to
Temecula, the outskirts of San Diego’s outer suburbs. It’s been 10
years since we traveled these back roads in Temecula, passing farm
lands, and what seems to be winery after winery. It’s a sunny
morning with pleasant temperatures (the heat is coming later) when
we arrive at Charlie’s place … a vineyard situated on 5+ acres with
sweeping views of valleys and scenic hills anchored by a
Mediterranean-style house. He’s living our dream and sharing it with

By the time we arrive the grapes have been picked and are divided
into two lots. The fruit is sweet to the taste, and for the next hour, I’m
squeezing the nectar from fecund grapes into my mouth. Lum says
the key to good wine is to start with good fruit. And that we have. It’s
ripe. The brix, or sugar content, is exactly where it should be. The
grapes have been picked at dawn, and are cool (Charlie’s made
sure to keep them in the shade as the sun has risen.)

The original idea was to have friends, family and maybe a teen-age
group from church come out to the farm, pick grapes, and then
stomp them with our feet. Seeing that the 15-year-old daughter
wants nothing to do with any project of her father’s , and there really
wasn’t enough notice to pull the church group or our friend’s
together, it’s just the wife and I … and Charlie.

Charlie has offered us use of his crusher, an electronic machine that
will squeeze the grapes just enough to break the skins, so that the
juice can be released. We set up the crusher in a refrigerated “wine
shack” that is a separate building. Then Charlie gets his Kubota
tractor and drives over to the pallet of grapes to bring one over.
Problem is, the tractor tips precariously as Charlie commands it to lift
the pallet, and he’s an accident waiting to happen with the tractor
balanced and about to topple over at any moment. Fortunately,
Charlie puts the load down, and we come up with plan B. (He
manages to lift the pallet onto a pick up truck and drives the grapes
to the wine shack.) Nothing’s ever easy.

The crushing moves more rapidly with the assistance of the machine
rather than our feet … the wife and I bend over the grapes, scoop
them up with buckets, pour them into the crusher, and out come the
crushed grapes filling up first one, then another, then a third then all
the containers. Our hands are covered with juice, and we simulate
the stamping of feet with our hands, crushing some grapes by hand.
I had heard stories about the things found in piles of picked grapes,
such as birds’ nests and the like. We did see a few mean-looking
spiders trying to escape. Some of them didn’t. When the crushing is
done, we divide up a solution of sulfites we’re brought along, which
are added to the fresh grape must to prevent natural fermentation
and also inhibit the unwanted manufacturer of vinegar.

Charlie, the true hero of this story, gives us advice about adding the
yeast, the fermentation process, and so forth, and with great effort,
manages to help us lift each container into the back of the van. “How’
re you going to tie that up?” he asks, and answering our prayer,
fetches a roll of strong string from the garage.

Picking grapes the same day are members of the San Diego
Winemaking Society, and I sing the praises of its members who
answered my questions about fermentation, acidity, secondary
fermentation. Like giving birth the first time, the process was a little
messy, and we weren’t sure what to expect, even after reading Dr.
Lum and the other baby books on wine.

The experience of purchasing grapes from Charlie reminds me of
grandparents who get the grandkids for a day – all the pleasures,
without the full-time duties of parenting. I do the math …for $600,
Charlie has a strained back, and has recovered his costs for water.
Considering all of the work, it is a labor of love.

With the cargo secured, I take a deep breath as we edge the van
down Charlie’s driveway, and I feel the force of gravity between me
and a half-ton of grape juice. I imagine a tidal wave gathering
momentum heading towards the driver’s seat. Headline in National
Inquirer: “Man Drowned in Grape Juice While Driving From
Vineyard.” Fortunately, the string held, the containers didn’t slide
much, and we made it to the main road. My heart skipped a beat at
every turn, which could easily have caused the containers, if not the
van, to tip over.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning… near 8:30 am now with the
temperature rising, and Temecula had changed in 10 years. We
noticed a Starbucks in a new strip mall and pulled over. “Imagine
that, a Starbucks in Temecula. We should think about moving here.”
We got out, covered in dirt and sweat, with grape stains all over our
clothes and spiders crawling down our backs… all we were missing
was the dog. We shamelessly used their facilities (didn’t want to
bother Charlie’s family about that) and order a well-deserved

Back home, Bluey was waiting to help, and I gave him a grape. I
opened up the back doors of the van, and contemplated dropping
the containers out the back to the ground. Then, I had an idea.
Kazuko brought me the sheet of plywood we keep under the
mattress, and I set up a slide—the idea being to slide the 200-lbs.
container down the wooden plank. I half expected to end up in a
bath of grape juice but the process worked, and I was able to slide
each container safely down. We cleaned them up (to get rid of
excess juice from the sides to avoid flies and ants) and found some
old sheets to cover the tops. The plan was to wait one day before
adding the yeast.

Day 2 – The Blob

I’m up at 5:30 a.m., check the containers, and all seems well. I drive
to Ralph’s grocery store to buy organic apple juice. I divide the
packages of yeast into 5 cups as the apple juice heats up on the
stove. I’ve been told to add the yeast to the juice in order to “jump
start” it. Before taking our daughter to school, there’s enough time
to pour equal servings of warm juice (heated to 90 degrees
Fahrenheit – warm enough to excite the yeast, but not too hot to
damage it) then I’m off in the car. After I’m gone Kazuko walks into
the kitchen and finds the beginnings of 5 monster baby “blobs”
oozing over the cups, onto the counter tops and onto the floor,
growing larger by the minute. In a panic, she calls my mobile phone,
which I’ve left at home. I return to see “the blob” and wonder what to
do? She helps me scope it up, and as best we can, we divide it up
and “pitch” it into the containers of must. For the next couple of
hours, I’m concerned that I’ve contaminated the yeast, ruined it,
there isn’t enough, and the fermentation won’t get off the ground. By
lunch time, we can see that the yeast has spread through the top of
the grapes, and seems to be catching.

Our daughter complains about the sulfur smell of the garage. If you’
ve ever been to a winery or a brewery that’s what our house smells
like. I'm reminded of the scent of wooden floors at the University of
Virginia fraternity on Sunday morning.

Winemaking Day 3 (August 31, 2004)

             Virginia Tech Paddle Fulfills Destiny

During the 1970’s at the Virginia Tech summer Sports Camp, the
greatest honor bestowed upon campers was the wooden paddle.
Much like the stripes a military cadet earns, good campers were
awarded paddles (and subsequent brands) in a campfire ceremony.
To be awarded a paddle came with a price. After the chosen few
received their paddles at the campfire pow-wow, they were rounded
up and initiated into an ancient Virginia Tech rite of passage: the
fanny smack. So it was with the paddle I was awarded … no sooner
had I received my paddle then my rear cheeks were baptized by a
gang of fellow campers and future Hokies who rounded me up and
raised welts on my hind quarters with the fine wood and a few
splinters. Some thirty years later, the paddle is in my garage. The
paddle and its two brands – the arrow for perseverance; the heart
for sincerity – has stayed with me, through moves to Japan,
California, Virginia, and back to California. Since I don’t play cricket,
there hasn’t been much use for it. And when my own child has
deserved a good whack, my hand alone was good enough for the
job. The paddle has been dormant through the decades, taking up
space, waiting for an opportunity … an opportunity to fulfill its

The paddle shares the garage with a half ton of grapes which have
been stomped on and crushed and are divided evenly between five
food-grade rubber trashcans (i.e., fermenting vats). Yeast was
pitched the day before, and during the last 24 hours, a slow,
gurgling sound has emerged as carbon dioxide gas bubbles up from
the grape juice, which is called “must.” The rising gas carries grape
skins with it forming a “cap” – something similar to the volcanic doom
of Mt. St. Helens before she exploded. The cap rises, inching up
towards the rim of the container. If the top of this cap dries out,
bacteria will invade which might result in the production of vinegar
instead of wine. The cap must be broken and pushed back into the
liquid three or more times per day for the next week. This amateur
winemaker lacks the proper equipment and wonders how on earth to
push this cap down? Then, he spys the Virginia Tech paddle mixed
in with a shovel, hoe, rake and other instruments of gardening, and
pulls it out as if reaching for the pitching wedge from the golf bag to
make a 100 yard shot to the green.

The cap exerts resistance as I push down with the paddle, and I
never imagined that this activity would be such good exercise. So, I
hereby inaugurate a new sport with the VA Tech Sports Paddle –
pushing the cap down into the grape must, a necessary procedure
to make wine. And the value added to the wine is a little Hokie spice
from the paddle.

Day 4 (Sept. 1) The Art of Sampling

I dip a soup ladle into our chunky mixture for a taste and detect the
sweetness of grape juice and also the results of fermentation. The
yeast smell is obvious. The wife refuses to taste, telling me about
the person in Japan who died of a mysterious yeast infection caused
by drinking unfinished wine. I ladle some juice into an empty wine
bottle and drive 25 miles to see Matt, another hero of this tale, who
is proprietor of the BrewMaxer supply boutique. Matt swigs a sample
and says, “You’ve got a good fermentation going.” He has a wine
press for rent. Only $25/day, but I’ll have to come back on Tuesday
after the Labor Day Weekend to pick it up. I make the reservation.

It’s been a long morning with no time for lunch. It’s 3 p.m. and I need
to drive across the county. I’m hungry. Since I need some calories
and the only thing handy is grape juice, I drink it down and get into
the car. I realize I’ve just made myself eligible for a DUI. I can see it
now. I’m pulled over by the Highway Patrol. The officer takes a look
at the front seat of my car and sees an empty wine bottle and smells
alcohol. “Occifer,” I protest, “That’s not wine. It’s just grape juice.”
Sure son, out of the car.

Day 7 (Saturday) To Press Or Not To Press?

I am concerned about the length of skin contact on the juice. We
picked on Sunday 7 days ago … the winemaking handbook I
purchased in Australia 11 years ago says 4-5 days contact is
enough – otherwise the wine may pick up too much tannin, and taste
“astringent” – a fancy word for bitter. Yet, I thought I heard the guys
from the San Diego Winemaking Society who were in the vineyard
picking grapes say they would ferment in the container for about 9
days. What to do? I go back to Lum’s manual. It seems the length of
time the skins are on the juice is a black magic art. Experienced
winemakers know when it’s time to press, because of, well, their
experience. Finally, Lum suggests: “If in doubt, it’s better to press
early.” I have a press reserved for Tuesday – it’s Saturday. I went
on-line to e-Bay to see what presses I could buy – but timely delivery
would be an issue. What to do? I decide to take a lesson from the
ancients (or the cavemen) and press by hand. Starting now. The
experiment – and race – is on and Labor Day Weekend takes on a
new meaning.

First, we try to extract the “free run” – this is the wine that could be
“ladled out” of the containers without having to squeeze the grapes.
Matt has sold me a clear plastic siphoning tube for the job. He says
“no sucking” on the tube ,,, you’re supposed to jiggle it a few times –
he’s attached a $6 jig to the end of the hose -- and the flow is
supposed to start. Back at the house, I’m giggling the hose and the
juice starts to move up the pipeline. “Awesome!” I’m reminded of the
blood test the vet did on the dog earlier in the week – the wine has
taken on a deep, violet, fuchsia, purple color. Unfortunately, the
victory is short-lived, as the flow stops before it can get over the
container. I try again. And again. Jiggling and jiggling. Damn, how
am I going to get the wine out of there? I wonder if the hose is
broken, so I take it into the kitchen, fill a bucket with water, and I’m
able to siphon it out OK. I go back to the garage, and lift the
container (no easy task if you remember from day one) onto a
cinder block to give it some elevation. No luck. We’re stuck. What to
do? I decide to just slop it out with a bucket. There’s a technique I
develop. Place the bucket rim at grape (raisin) level, and press
slowly, so that only the liquid flows slowly into the bucket. It works
easily. Especially in the beginning, when there is so much liquid
beneath the cap. The grape skins are a giant sponge – when you
press down on them, liquid comes forth, but remove the pressure,
and the liquid disappears back into the grapes. Press down again,
and the “free run” flows.

And where to put this new wine? I only have 5 of the 32-gallon food
grade fermentation containers, and they are all full. My idea was to
empty one, clean it out, and use it as a “storage tank” for
“secondary fermentation.” I notice a couple of empty Arrowhead
water containers (you know, the ones labeled For Water Only). What’
s more, I know I can easily lift the 5-gallon plastic bottles. So I fill a
bucket, and using a funnel slowly poor the reddish liquid into the
water bottle. Some of it splashes on my hands, and I remember Lady
Macbeth, “Out damned spot!” Not just my hands, but my clothes and
garage floor become stained.

The procedure is going smoothly. I’m able to fill a few buckets and
transfer the wine to the water jug, and I’m thinking of the miracle at
the wedding feast in Cana, and what a miracle that was turning
water into wine. But like an oil well that is drying up, the free flow can
no longer be extracted, and so now I must push the bucket harder
into the grapes to extract the juice. This time, ¼ of the bucket fills.
Next time, a 1/8th of a bucket. Next time, the equivalent of a
generous glass-size of wine. Time for the next step. To press.
Hand Pressing

In the garage I spy a hand-carry shopping basket from Ralph’s
grocery. This is made of plastic and designed with holes and a metal
handle. We have large plastic tubs which my wife uses for storage
containers stacked on either side of the garage. I pick one that looks
fairly clean, empty it of books and things, rinse it out with the hose,
and I’m able to fit the shopping basket into the container in such a
way that there is space at the bottom. My plan is to place the juice-
soaked fermented grapes into the basket, press down, thereby
extracting fluid which will drip to the bottom of the plastic tub, which I
can then empty into the 5-gallon water bottle.

I drive to the hardware store to purchase some screen material.
Back in the garage, I cut some of the material and place it at the
bottom of the hand basket to serve as a filter. I scoop out some
grapes, fill the shipping basket, and put the basket in the plastic bin.
Then, I take the bucket and use the flat side to push down on the
grapes. It starts raining wine drops, then a waterfall, then drops
again as I push. I need to push harder to get more juice. Then
instead of gingerly pressing, I’m pushing all of my body weight into
the basket, reaping the extra benefits of cross training with this
weight training exercise. There’s a cracking sound; the basket falls
to the bottom of the underlying bin with me crashing on top. I take
one of these raisins, put it into my mouth – yum, like an alcohol
raisin. Then, I notice a whole, perfectly formed grape. Not a raisin,
but a grape. I put it into my mouth, crush it with teeth, and the sweet
juice surprises my tongue. There should be a recipe for this …
perhaps over ice cream. Enough with the distractions … my
makeshift press has limitations. It won’t let me apply maximum
pressure to the grapes. As I extract myself from the mess, I notice
that the basket is not broken – I have merely pushed down too hard,
expanding the plastic sides of the container beyond the reach of the
basket, which caused the basket to fall to the bottom. We have a
problem here … I am not going to be able to press too hard. Part of
me says that’s good, because I suspect that if tannins are in the
skins, and we squeeze every last drop of wine from these saturated
grapes, we’re bound to have too much tannin in the finished wine. I
take the VA Tech paddle and mix up the pressed mound of grape
skins and give it another round of pressure… drops of wine fall this
time. I take the liquid from bottom, run it thorough the screen in the
funnel – I estimate about a ¼ of a bucket from that pressing. Time to
try again. And so the process goes on. And on. Bluey supervises
the work.

When we get to the bottom of the 32-gallon container we notice all
the seeds. I understand where Grape Nuts cereal got its name, and I’
m thinking of grape seed oil, and what can we possibly make with all
these seeds? I put some into my mouth and crunch down, and the
taste is, well, grape seeds – bitter. Miraculously, I find a whole grape
that has not been crushed, and that escaped the pressing – it is
delicious. I also find a metal washer, and I wonder if that’s the part
Charlie was missing from his tractor?

From that one 32-gallon container partially full, we end up with 2 @
5 gallon bottles plus 1 @ 3 gallon bottle = 13 gallons. I do the math
… 5 containers X 13 gallons = 65 gallons … hmm, looks like we’re
going to produce enough wine to fill the wooden barrel. A good sign.

We set the 3 jugs to the side of the garage, and I notice another
empty 5-gallon water bottle. Great! So, we get started on the next
32-gallon container, and fill it up quickly since we’re working with
free run. As we get ready to go to dinner, I notice there is active
bubbling in the 5-gallon bottles, and purple foam the consistency of
the sea on 3 of the bottles, but nothing is going on in the fourth. I tell
myself, “That one must be the last one we did,” and hasn’t had
enough rest yet to restart its fermentation.

After the day’s work, the wife and I have a sip of our wine – it is
slightly sweet, full of flavor. We treat ourselves to dinner at the local
Thai restaurant. I order Singha beer, but she wants a glass of red,
so I order a glass of Robert Mondavi “Coastal” cabernet. We taste
this in a new way … we notice the fruit; we notice the alcohol; we
notice the color; and we’re thinking: we haven’t had the benefits of
aging in oak yet and we compare with this $6.50 glass of wine.
Motivation to keep going, for there is a lot of pressing to be done the
next day. When we get back from dinner and inspect the “water”
bottles, there is bubbling action in each of the bottles. A small

Sunday (September 5) Day 8

I’m up at 5:15 am to check the wine and run the dog. It’s Sunday, but
we won’t be going to church. We’ll worship from the garage as we
make wine. (Is this why European monks were and are such good
brewers?) The words sanctifying wine as a symbol of the new
covenant take on a new meaning. In those days, people must have
been more familiar with wine must, new wine and the bold colors.
Our wine is thick and an appropriate symbol for blood. Sip it while
you work. A Santa Ana wind bringing warm temperatures from the
desert has arrived. The morning started out cool, just 67, by late
morning it’s 94 degrees. What is the heat going to do to our brew?

We improved the press. I went back to the hardware store and
purchased a large (15-gallon) plastic flowerpot, with a ring of holes
at the bottom. My idea was to find something more sturdy than the
shopping basket that would allow me to apply more pressure. I load
up some grapes, press down, and in an instant, the basket is forced
to the bottom. Same result. I know what I need -- something solid –
like an anvil -- underneath the basket, and the cinder block I have
been eyeing all day would do fine. I imagine wine as the elixir that
dissolves cholesterol; that it has healing properties and
characteristics of a disinfectant. Nevertheless, I do not recommend
drinking wine that has run over a concrete cinder block, not even for
dummies. That technique was quickly abandoned.

Most of the leftover skins, seeds, stems, pressed grape-cakes and
spider-part remnants we’re able to dump into large garbage bags,
and put into the trash. We city slickers don’t have a compost pile as
the wife doesn’t appreciate the rats that would dine there. Still, we
can’t get all the dregs into bags, and end up washing down the
containers and the leftovers onto the grass. We do see an increase
in flies the next couple of weeks, but thankfully the ants, which seem
to be very content in our home, never make a trail for the wine
storage containers. Lum advised us to keep a clean shop and we do.

The pressing continues all day Sunday and most of the day Labor
Day. We end up with what I estimate to be 68 gallons in the garage,
plus two bottles and 6 liters that we place in our refrigerator in clear
water containers, which looks like a storage cabinet for the Red
Cross. It is a Labor Day weekend to remember. A labor of love.

Week Two – Barrel Cleaning

The aficionados from the Winemaking society are horrified to learn
that we have put the pressed wine back into our food-grade
containers (the professionals will put it into locked containers). We
do the best we can, and keep the top on the containers, most of the
time. We wait, and we watch. There is some bubbling, so
fermentation is occurring. (Is this the secondary fermentation the
manual talks about? What about malolactic fermentation?) There is
a complex chemistry to winemaking, and a whole lot that can go
wrong. I decide that ignorance is bliss. But I do buy a wine testing kit
to test for acidity. Seems that we’re in the range. I’m just waiting for
the fermentation to slow down to a crawl then will go into the barrel.

The reason Lum and others caution against buying used barrels is
that they are nearly impossible to disinfect. The problem is, wine has
been in there, but once empty, bacteria enter unless treated. Matt at
the BrewMaxer has a recipe for us. We end up rinsing the barrel
several times (oh how many trips with our trusty blue bucket from the
kitchen sink to the barrel outside carrying scalding water), on
several different days, and using a cleaner. Our water bill for
September is $50 higher than last year. We’ve cleaned that barrel
so many times we’re going to use it. Damn the torpedoes!

The barrel is declared clean, the fermentation seems to have
stopped and it’s time. We get out the 8-ft. siphoning hose, which the
wife jiggles expertly, to transfer wine from the containers to the
barrel. It works. We notice the thick purple sediment (or “gross lees”)
on the bottom of the containers, and in effect, we have achieved
one round of “racking” the wine, a procedure to remove the lees.
The barrel is filled and we have 8 extra gallons to use to top off the
barrel once a month (wine evaporates naturally from the barrel at
the rate of about 2 or so bottles per month, not counting our
occasional tasting). According to Lum, we should rack the wine
about once every two months or so, and I’m not looking forward to it.

In October we attend a “winemaker’s dinner” at Belle Marie Winery. I
bring a sample to Mick and Marie to get the experts’ opinion. I’m
concerned about contamination from the wooden barrel and the
possibility of a “rubber” taste from the fermentation containers. Mick
is eager to lend a helping hand and advice. With his professional
nose he takes a whiff from our bottle and declares, “Syrah.” Yep.
Then he takes a swig in his mouth and swishes it around. “You’re
going to be happy with this wine.” What about contamination from
the barrel? No, he assures us. If it were contaminated, you would
know by now. “Beginner’s luck,” I say, and thank him and Marie
profusely for all of their (and Lum’s) advice and inspiration. He
sends us home with a proper sized “bung” to plug into our barrel
hole (I’d been covering it up to then with 4” tape) and a tip. “You don’
t have to rack the wine,” he says. Racking is the process of taking
the wine out of the barrel, cleaning out the muck, and putting the
wine back. That’s great news because it has just freed me from two
weekends of hard work.

It’s now
January 2005 and we have been topping off the barrel
each month. In August we’ll make the decision whether to bottle this
wine and refill the barrel with a new batch, or put the new batch into
a new barrel and bottle our first baby later. My dad, the Virginia
Tech Graduate, and mom are coming for a visit next week, and I’m
preparing the stained VA Tech Paddle and a siphon for a little wine
tasting direct from the barrel. I pull out the bung, bend down, place
my nose at the barrel opening and inhale.

October 29, 2005

The final bottle of topping wine was poured into
the barrel of Syrah this morning. Bottling planned for
Thanksgiving weekend. It's looking good.
It's tasting good.
(Click here for the story on how this wine was


The Home Winemaker’s Manual by Lum Eisenman

Belle Marie Winery

Witch Creek Winery

©2004 Craig Justice
Delivering the oak barrel to the garage,
birthplace of our "winery" with supervision
provided by Bluey, the Blue Merle . A true
start-up in the garage. Brian Tracey once
said, "Act boldly and unseen forces will
come to your assistance."  That law of the
universe holds for a would-be winemaker.
Vineyard in Guadaloupe Valley, Mexico,
source of famed
Nebbiolo grapes we used our
sophomore winemaking year in 2005. After
making a tour of The Valley in August of 2004,
we returned determined to dive in and make
our own later that month.
The Syrah grape. When we travelled
by car through New South Wales
and Queensland Australia in 1993,
we found "Shiraz" everywhere we
went. We had never heard of the
wine before, and became smitten.
During that trip, we bought several
books on winemaking (planting
another wine seed in our
subconscious), which stayed
dormant on the shelves until August,
2004. What could be a better grape
for us than the American version of
Shiraz, and of course Bluey --
named after an Australian Swagman
-- likes anything to do with Down
Under.  (We also fell in love with
Macadamia nut trees on that trip.)
30-gallon fermenter.
"Freedom" oak barrel.
One tub weighs about 500 lbs. Inspecting the grapes.
View of the Temecula Valley in background.
Lush, plump Syrah grapes, sweet
to the tongue.
The weight of the grapes caused the tractor
to tip. Finally, Charlie lightened the load
with the pitch fork.
An expanding blob of yeast is pitched
into the must on Day 2.
The paddle of honor from Virginia Tech Sports
Camp is used to push down the "cap" 3-times day.
The paddle's color will gradually turn to purple.
Pressing by hand and paw with a hand-made
press. Pressing by hand took almost two days
over the aptly named Labor Day Weekend.
Bluey waits patiently watching closely for any
After the wine was pressed, it was stored in these
containers for two weeks to allow secondary
fermentation. The wine was at risk in these
containers, as it was exposed to air. (We improved
this process during year two by covering the wine
with a sheet of plastic to reduce exposure. In year
three -- 2006 -- we are likely to use dry ice in order to
create a layer of CO2 gas to ward off any oxidation.)
The winery at the end of the first day of pressing. In
all,  over 70 gallons of wine were produced.
The first glass of wine.
Into the 2nd day of pressing by hand, I'm
thinking of better ways to finish this
backbreaking task, such as using cinder
blocks as an anvil. (I'm smart enough to
know that wine and cinder blocks are NOT
a good combination.) During our
sophomore winemaking year, a little wiser,
we buy a ratchet press, and reduce the
pressing task to just an afternoon instead of
two days.
Bluey helps clean the barrel, one of his
favorite jobs since he loves the hose.
Transferring wine from fermentation
container to the barrel.  This process is
called "racking."
Bottling some
extra wine, for use
when topping off
the barrel each
month, or every
Entrance to the barrel. Lower your
nose to the hole and inhale your
This is the story of our 2004 rookie winemaking experience. In
hindsight, we were extremely naive about what we were getting
ourselves into, but what started out as a distant dream has
become a lifestyle.  These first fruits
were bottled in December
2005 and the results are promising. Enjoy the story, and be sure
to check out how we're doing with the
2005 harvest and vintage,
experiments with grappa and our 2006 Journal. Also, Please
take a moment to
sign our guestbook and give us your feedback.
We'd love to hear from you.  Cheers!
Dumping buckets of grapes into the
crusher/destemmer.  Feet anyone?
Extra wine was stored in 5-gallon water bottles.
Notice the purple foam, a by-product of continued
Pressing continued through a second day.