My Greatest Crush


When the Cabernet bunches turn a deep blue-black and the sugar level is just right, it is the time of year the winemakers call crush.

Technically, crushing grapes is a step in the winemaking process, but the word "crush" has come to mean all that occurs during the winemaker's first go-around with the grapes. From picking to pressing, crush is the period when grapes are turned into a raw juice full of unreliable promise.

But crush involves more than simply process. For those who have experienced it firsthand, crush is about the inescapable anticipation when picking knives are laid out and bins are stacked, when the morning is cold and quite young. Crush has elements of agriculture and chemistry but, most notably, crush has magic.

Our first crushes were as home winemakers, far outside the multimillion-dollar wine industry that dominates this valley, even though we were using Napa grapes. Few of the thousands of tourists who visit the tasting rooms lining California 29 realize that some of the grapes that hang on the nearby vines will actually be left there to rot. This neglected crop, if reached early enough, is a home winemaker's bounty.

Harvest time is a protracted emergency, a race to pick grapes during the brief window of time when they're at their best. At most of the large wineries, picking crews are rushed from plot to plot--much like medical personnel in a hospital emergency room--when an instrument called a refractometer says the grapes have just the right concentration of sugar. If the sugar level in a particular plot refuses to hover around the magic number of 23.5 Brix, though, the pickers have to move on.

This is where home winemakers enter the picture. We collect the awkward bunches that have been passed over like wallflowers at a junior high dance. Through the years, we have come to rely on the generosity of several notable wineries for some of our grapes.

But our best source of fruit is a mail carrier in Calistoga. We call him Mr. Brix, for his uncanny ability to estimate the sugar level of grapes within one or two tenths of a point on the Brix scale, merely by placing a grape or two in his mouth. Mr. Brix's sugar-gauging skills may well be hereditary. His grandfather came here from a village in the hills above Genoa, Italy, and planted the first Zinfandel vines in Calistoga nearly 80 years ago.

On his mail rounds in the early fall, as the harvest builds, Mr. Brix carefully performs his sugar tests on the small grape plots--private and commercial--that dot his route. Next he works on the plot's owners, suggesting, if they don't mind his saying, that these grapes, more than any other on his route, will be ready for picking in a few days. In exchange for leaving a row or two for him to pick, they get his promise to return in winter with shears to trim back the naked, gnarled vines and to deliver a case of his wine from a previous year's harvest.

This is an offer that few on his route have ever been known to resist. Unless, of course, we're counting Uncle Bobby.

For years, we were not personally acquainted with Uncle Bobby. We had heard about him only through Mr. Brix. Uncle Bobby lives at the end of a long road at the base of Mount St. Helena. His well-kept house is buttressed by 100 acres of head-trained Petite Sirah vines.

Petite Sirah is a large, tough-skinned red grape, often made into port-style wines or a rather heavy table wine. The flavor is predictably grape-like, and the wines are massive and long-lived. Mr. Brix helped Uncle Bobby plant his entire vineyard by hand many years ago.

Year after year, if we happened to drive by the vineyard on our grape-picking rounds, Mr. Brix would tell of the vineyard planting in great detail, his words soft and distant. As we half-listened to this tale of the arduous planting task, we secretly coveted the outcome of his work--the heavy, oblong bunches that hung there.

Uncle Bobby never had much time for us when it came to crush, though. A top winery, gilded with favorable reviews from major wine publications, pursued Uncle Bobby's grapes. The whole vineyard was tied up by the winery in a contract that paid Bobby handsomely. We knew to look elsewhere for our handouts.

But then came the harvest of 1991. That year, the grape sugars at Uncle Bobby's danced up and down wildly as the days drifted between fog and heat. The contract winery instructed its picking crew to pass over much of the crop during its brief visit. A good amount of grapes were left hanging because the sugar wasn't the right level. We knew Uncle Bobby couldn't bear to let his prized grapes go to waste, so we moved quickly and had Mr. Brix make the pitch.

The sugar on the grapes was terribly high, 25 or 25.5 Brix. Even Uncle Bobby doubted that anyone could get them to "go dry"--that is, ferment to the point where the sugar is completely consumed by the yeast--but he agreed to let us try.

The morning we picked Uncle Bobby's vineyard, Mr. Brix moved from row to row with his serrated knife. It was a cold crisp Calistoga morning, and as he worked he sang verses from a song his father played on a concertina years before:

"I ordered antipasto twice, because she was so nice

"Angelina, she works in the pizzeria. . . .

"Oh, Angelina. . . ."

The vines sagged with abundance. Each bunch we picked was about a foot long and landed in the picking lug with a solid thud. The bunches had a deep matte finish. This was the kind of grape that longed to be paired with a thick rib-eye steak.

By 10 a.m., we had filled all 30 of our lugs, amounting to nearly 39 gallons of grapes; enough to make 16 cases of wine. It took two pickups, with the payload teetering three feet high, to carry all the fruit. In a low, dense fog, we traveled slowly back along the Silverado Trail to our "winery" in the Carneros, just south of Napa.

Our home winemaking facility is in our garage and, even though there are fermenters stacked outside, it is so small that few touring the Carneros region would ever notice it. Inside, we've got a mishmash of winemaking tools and devices that has grown as eclectically as our winemaking techniques.

The inventory includes a bright orange Italian stemmer-crusher called the Zambelli, which runs on a 1.5-horsepower motor and removes stems from the grapes. There are 10 second-hand Seguin Moreau French oak barrels, still harboring a hint of vanilla. And there is our one extravagance, La Girondine, a stylish 1,800-pound corking machine, Art Deco in design and cast iron in form, that was shed by Cuvaison 10 years ago when the winery found a more effective way to stick corks in bottles, the contraption's sole purpose.

Above the La Girondine hangs a black-and-white snapshot of Mr. Brix's grandfather, taken during Prohibition. He has a stout tumbler full of his prized Zinfandel in his hand and a grin stretching as wide as the bib on his denim overalls.

Our first task with these Petite Sirah grapes was to stem and crush them while the fruit was still cool and firm. We hoisted the lugs up to the lip of the Zambelli and toppled the grapes into the turning cylinder that removes the stems and some, though not all, of the seeds. After crushing, the must (unfermented grape juice), still mixed with the grape skins, is funneled into two large sterile plastic containers.

Once the must settles, a specialized yeast culture is introduced to start the fermentation. There are various strains of yeast, and home and professional winemakers alike have their own preferences. We chose Pasteur Red.

Fermentation not only converts sugar into alcohol, it also allows for contact between the must and the skins, which gives the finished wine its depth of color. Fermentation can take anywhere from five to 12 days. If the sugar is exceptionally high, as in these Petite Sirah grapes, the yeast may not complete the fermentation process at all.

The sugar level in the must dropped steadily over a two-week period, but by the end of the second week, it stuck obstinately at 2%, only points from going dry. If we went ahead and moved the must into a barrel at this point, we would be stuck with a sweet red wine. Adding more yeast wouldn't do any good; the yeast would remain dormant. We couldn't add more fruit, either, because the season had passed.

Several professional winemakers we knew came by to offer their advice. The diagnosis was unanimous: The fermentation had stopped because the must had gotten too cold. There was also a consensus on the remedy: a couple of days of warm weather. That would naturally and gradually bring the temperature of the must back up and kick off the last bit of fermentation.

We waited several days, but the temperature steadily dropped. One morning, we returned wearily from the garage, crawled into bed and adjusted our electric blanket up a notch or two.

The solution occurred to us both at the same time. At once, we shot up from the bed, ran to the closet and found an old electric blanket. We scurried to our winery, wrapped the fermenter in that worn, pink blanket and turned it on high. If the blanket could provide enough gradual heat to the must, we could jump-start the fermentation and save the wine.

We monitored the situation closely. For a while, little happened. Then, on the fourth day, as a dense, wintry fog hung outside the winery, we dunked the refractometer into a beaker full of must and found it registering a slight decrease in the sugar level. By the fifth day, the must had gone dry. We pressed the wine and funneled it into three small oak barrels. With occasional racking, the wine sat aging in barrels for two years.

In the spring of 1993, we bottled the Petite Sirah. The lengthy fermentation and the must's long contact with the skins had produced a wine that was huge, inky, complex with a dense blackberry taste. A glassful of the wine left tasters' teeth stained purple. We could hardly wait to tell Uncle Bobby of our success.

But there was one last step. In July, we entered the 1991 Petite Sirah in the Home Winemakers' Competition at the Napa County Fair. The day the fair opened, our bottle, along with all the other entries, was put on display on a hay bale in a tin shack right next to the 4-H live animal auction. The wine inside looked dark and full of mystery.

Even from the building's doorway, that Petite Sirah stood out. Soon an ill-fitting blue ribbon was slung around the bottle's neck; Uncle Bobby's grapes had won him another award. And we drove home to telephone Mr. Brix.

Head is a journalist and winemaker living in Napa Valley.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World