FD: Wine Column October 29, 2008

Can the wine writer be a winemaker?

It’s late October, and the syrah is fermenting nicely, thank you.

This is a big experiment, wine writer turns winemaker.

I don’t think Domain Drouhin will ever have to worry about me taking away some of its business, but the opportunity to make my own wine was too tempting to pass up.

Here’s the story, so far.

My friend, Sal Sassano, has made wine for himself and his wife, Kathy, for many years and this year, during one of our get-togethers, tossed out the question to me.

“You want to make some syrah this year?” he asked, his eyes laughing behind his aviator’s lenses.
“You once said you might want to try, how about this year?”

Seems Sal had a line on 750 pounds of syrah from Pat Brennan’s vineyards on 30 Road and he was looking for someone to share the fun of winemaking.

It turned out Brennan had almost 850 pounds of syrah waiting for us when Sal, Dwight Marney and I showed up early one Saturday to heft 33 lugs of grapes into Sal’s pickup.

Marney is a much-in-demand farrier, but in spite of his schedule has turned into a fine home winemaker, including a delightful 2005 cabernet sauvignon he shared recently.

He likes a dry red wine but his wife prefers something sweeter, so he’s been messing with the recipe the last couple of years trying to find something that pleases both of them. That is one of the benefits of making your own. If you want it lightly sweet or super-dry, you control the fermentation until the wine is one you’ll be happy to drink and to share with friends.

We crushed the truckload of syrah grapes on the first weekend of October and left the juice to ferment in big plastic barrels for two weeks.

While the wine was fermenting, you could go down Sal’s stairs and the smell of the fermentation would slap you in the face. Depending on whether you enjoy the smell of yeast eating sugar (Kathy was kind enough to put up with it) the active bubbling of wine-to-be either can make you grin or drive you outside.

Ever wonder how much carbon dioxide is produced during fermentation? I watched Eames Peterson at Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia stand over his massive, 5-ton open fermenters, manually pushing down the cap of grape skins, and swaying ever so slightly as the gases rose out of the wine and almost felled him into the vat.

“It would be a hell of a way to go,” he cracked after climbing down from the fermenter and regaining his breath. “You really don’t want to stand up there too long.”

Earlier, we picked and crushed most of the grapes in Sal’s personal 5-acre vineyard, including sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and several other varietals.

A week after crushing the syrah, the first crush was ready to put into carboys (3- and 5-gallon glass jars) to wait for fermentation to run itself out, which will take until next spring.

Sal’s technique is to keep the wine in the carboys until the weather begins to warm, at which point whatever yeast is left in the wine will kick in again.

Once that secondary fermentation stops, the wine is bottled.

Sal likes to leave his wine as natural as possible, forgoing sprays or pesticides on the vines, and he never uses chemicals to stop fermentation.

“The wine will tell us when it’s ready,” he affirms.

Only once, he says, has he made the mistake of bottling too soon.

“I heard this sound like an explosion and I came downstairs and there was wine everywhere,” he said, laughing at the memory.

The bottle didn’t actually explode but rather forcefully ejected the cork, spewing wine from wall to shining wall.

“So we’ll keep an eye on this, OK?” he said, and we nodded in agreement.

Sal just called and said the initial surge of fermentation is over and suggested we pump some of the syrah into a small French oak barrel.

The used barrel won’t overpower the grapes but instead will help add some depth while providing a place to finish fermentation.

Plus, we can taste the new wine while pumping it into the barrel.

I’ll keep you posted.

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