Wine-making the old-fashioned way

The Backpedaler needs a break. This month’s column is written by Backpedaler-extraordinare Ivan Davidoff.

First off, I want to make it clear that I am no novice wine-maker. I have been an avid consumer of all brands of wine-making kits through the years, and am very proud of the clever labels I produce on my trusty Okidata 320 printer. But about a year ago, something happened that inexorably destroyed my standing as a responsible home-wine-maker.

It all began quite innocently, as these things always do. I am fortunate to live in a community spotted by fellow wine-making enthusiasts, and we often get together and swap war-stories about our craft. Or, I should say, got together, for those pleasant evenings discussing the merits of various brands of grape-juice concentrates, or manufacturers of camden tablets, of the exact number of drops of Liquid Oak to add per carboy, are gone forever, seeing as I am now a pariah.

But, as I said, it began quite innocently. A friend of mine, an avid home-wine-maker, invited me to a grape picking in Temecula, not far from where we live in Southern California. I gave my enthusiastic consent, and spent a glorious day under the desert sun snipping supple clusters of Cabernet Sauvignon off the well-tended vines. Quite eye-opening it was too, for in all my years of making wine, this was the first time I had ever seen the raw product, the actual grape, as it were, in its natural state. It was a welcome reminder that the source of my chief pleasure actually grows from the ground, and must be harvested.

I ended up with, as my share, 45 five-gallon buckets of grapes. Riches! However, the promised destemming machine was not delivered to the harvesting site, and I was forced to transport the grapes as they were, still on the stem, uncrushed. I arrived home that night, tired, hungry, and a little disgruntled about the lack of the promised machine. And here is where I committed my first sin: I succumbed to my weariness, and went to bed without properly treating the freshly picked grapes. In fact, I did not treat them at all.

Of course, the tradition of treating grapes is rooted in misty antiquity. No one really knows why it’s done ─ at least I don’t ─ but we do it because it’s “the way.” Here in our community we make a proper ritual of it, just like in days of old. We nominate a Sulfite Virgin who, dressed in a bikini, dances on tiptoe while splashing various sulfite solutions into the expectant maws of our five-gallon food-grade macerating buckets. Old Emmy Crabtree has been our Sulfite Virgin for the last seven years ─ she’s the only female we know who can claim convincingly that she’s a virgin, although, at 89 years young, it’s not really clear whether she’s actually a virgin or just forgetful. In any case, she’s great fun, and very accurate at chucking camden tablets into buckets.

I arose the next morning with the intention of properly sulfating my grapes, but fate, alas, intervened, and I was called away on a matter of utmost urgency, and did not return until the evening of the following day. My grapes, of course, were ruined. With a heavy heart, I purchased some plastic trash barrels down at the local general store, wherein I dumped my worthless grapes, planning to have the stalwart garbage collectors remove them in the ensuing weeks. I confess I exhibited some childish pique at this point, for, as I dumped the grapes into the 50-gallon bins, I punched them and crushed them, sometimes jumping up and down in the bins with both feet (bare, for I did not want to ruin my Ferragamos), taking out my rage on the innocent grapes. Thus spent, I covered the grape-filled trash bins and left them in the dark recesses of my garage.

Happy to put my abject failure behind me, I promptly forgot about the trash bins, and for a fortnight, pushed their memory from my mind. But the time came when I had to deal with them, and one trash-day, girding my loins, I descended into the garage intending to drag the first two bins down to the curb. My curiosity, however, got the best of me, and I gingerly lifted the lid of one of the bins and peeked inside. What I saw horrified me. The grapes had acquired a life of their own and were foaming vigorously. The heady smell of wine filled my nostrils. The
grapes had released their juice, and it had somehow taken on the color of the grape skins ─ deep red, jewel-like, and clear. I was compelled to taste this juice and plunged a plastic cup deep into the bowels of the bin. I drank.

No doubt about it. It was wine!

Sure, it lacked that kerosene after-taste of my best home-wine-making efforts, but it was wine, nonetheless. What freak of nature made this happen? I pondered the question, and came to the conclusion that some vestigial yeasts must have been present in the garbage bins I purchased. These yeasts must have interacted with the sweet grape juice, and some kind of freaky unnatural fermentation must have occurred. What were the chances of that?

And here is where I committed my second sin: instead of disposing of this monstrous must, I treated it as though it were a perfectly legitimate wine, punching the cap down for several more days, then racking it, racking it again, and, finally, bottling it.

My third sin, perhaps the greatest, came almost a year later. At one of our jovial wine-tastings, I produced a bottle of my monstrous abomination. My fellow-wine-makers tasted it and were seduced by its unnatural fruitiness and robustness. They peppered me with questions
about acid content, sulfating method, sugar content, alcohol content, food-grade dyes and flavorings, brand of yeast, etc., etc., and,
finally, I had to admit with shame that I had done nothing to the grapes except stuff them into garbage bins. My friends ─ my former friends ─ were appalled and disgusted. The next night, a group of angry men wearing black cowls and bearing torches descended upon my garage and destroyed my stash of unnatural wine. Emmy Crabtree no longer speaks to me, and the local children ring my doorbell and run away.

But there’s one thing about being made a pariah ─ it makes it easy to go on being a pariah. I mean, how much more reviled can I be? The answer is ─ none more. So, this year, I bought a lug of Temecula Zinfandel. The fruit is rich, sweet, and covered with some kind of white powdery film. I’m hoping my trusty trash bins still have some of that magical yeast in them.

Because, you know what I did with these grapes when I brought them home and dumped them into the bins?

Nothing.

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