Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Vintner Is Born

The last weekend was like something out of a Peace Corps brochure: An idyllic village setting, young American volunteers learning a tradition going back thousands of years, reaping a harvest of the fertile land, collaborating with the natives on a common goal. It was inspiring. Yep, we made wine.

Last year I missed the harvest and I’d promised myself there was no way I was going to miss this one. For the past month I wandered my host family’s vineyard, checking the grapes’ progress. I continually put off a dentist appointment and badgered my host father incessantly about when we’d make wine. “Maybe tomorrow Ryan... Perhaps next week... Maybe when it stops raining... When the weather is better... Soon, Ryan! Soon!”

I thought maybe there was some ideal time, some date dictated by the moon, tradition or the religious calendar. In truth, it just came down to a bit of sun, because my family does not like working in the rain or mud if they don’t have to. There is a sort of ancient wisdom to that.

Finally the day came and my school had the good sense to cancel classes for a couple days so the teachers and students could harvest the grapes and make wine. For three days my host family and I picked and pressed grapes, and I learned how to make wine. Since then I’ve taken to calling myself a “vintner.” My sentences now begin with, “Before I was a vintner...” or “Now that I’m a vintner...” And Paige just rolls her eyes.

Georgian village wine making methodology is perfect for a beginner like myself. This isn’t the wine making that appears in wine commercials. There is no sophisticated and pretentious Robert Mondavi-type, holding the grapes up to the sun, analyzing the coloring in a snifter, or rhapsodizing about tannins and sugar content and such. It’s more like the cider pressings of my youth. Just throw everything in the press and if the mud and worms and rotten berries get mashed up also, then it’s just a little more flavor and nutrients. In this wine you’ll be hard pressed to detect a hint of oak or cherry undertones. If you’re trying to place that subtle flavor it’s probably just a splash of mashed spider, a dollop of mud, or the trace flavor off the tread of my host niece’s sneakers.

My host father Omari played the role of Mr. Miyagi to my Daniel-son. He did his best to explain the details, allowed me to take part in all aspects of the process, tolerated my frequent photographing, and put up with my repeated inquiries and my note taking. And this wasn’t some academic anthropological study. My curiosity had much purer motives: I just really wanted to learn how to make wine.

At first I don’t think they thought I was serious about it, but after I kept waking up early and working beside them through the day they realized I wasn’t just being polite, but was keenly interested in it. My now tender teacher-hands blistered and became grape-stained. Soon my clothes were a Jackson Pollack painting of splattered juice and grape puree.


At the start of the third day, when it became clear my enthusiasm wasn’t wearing off, Omari told me that he’d let me make a batch of red wine for myself. “Ryan, I don’t like red wine. When I drink, I drink a lot and after a couple liters of red it makes my heart race and my head hurt. I prefer white, but if you want red, this batch is for you. You can drink it all winter.”

So we made a batch for me and when that was done he took notice of Paige’s interest in the process as well. “Follow me,” he instructed us. We walked with him to a little vine-covered archway in a neighbor’s yard. “These are Saperavi grapes. We’ll pick them, press them, combine them with your red the wine we make will be your and Paige’s. Wine from this grape sells for $100 a bottle in Europe.”

Saperavi wine, both red and white, is what comes in actual glass bottles at restaurants in Tbilisi. It is not generally sold in 2 liter Coke bottles like the other stuff. We treated these grapes with reverence. Unlike the others, we left the partly rotten bunches on the vine, picked only the fullest grapes and discarded the stems and smallish grapes. Spiders and worms were searched out and discarded. Then we mashed them and placed them in a large bowl. Later we mixed the two together, about 15 gallons in all. I guess I have my winter cut out for me.

When the work was over my family was relieved, but I wanted to make more, not that the 300+ gallons wasn’t more than enough. Currently the wine is still juice, but if the bubbling in the glass bottles and the sour smell in the storeroom is any indicator, it is rapidly fermenting and turning to wine. I go in a few times a day to check on them, to watch the sediments drop, the bubbles rise and fizz, the chemical changes taking place. You can actually here it when you walk in the room, the low buzz of the fermenting.

And even though the wine making is over, we still have to make tcha-tcha, a homemade and very potent alcohol derived from the boiled refuse of pressed grape. I’m looking forward to watching my host father light a fire and put his big copper still to use. I’m not as excited about having to drink any of that toxic swill.

So this was probably my favorite weekend in Georgia and I didn’t want it to end. I want to go on making wine now that I have the general know-how. So let me announce my intention to continue this back in America. If others are interested, we could buy grapes wholesale in Eastern Washington and use the cider press on Bainbridge to press the grapes. We could form a little co-op of interested folks to go in on the large glass bottles to hold the wine and then store it in my parents’ basement (they’ve already consented). We could produce quite a supply. Pojken? Jesse? Fitz? Luther? Derek and Jennifer? Surely Allison and Luka would want to make wine for their growing supras, right? Anyone interested?

If you are, Paige and I can show you how it’s done. After all, we’ve apprenticed at the feet of the people who invented wine. We’re steeped in a tradition going back thousands of years. We’re vintners now.


Blogger Betty Beans said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Chaitee said...

Ryan, I think you have found your vocation. Forget grad school, it's a lot of debt and little to no payoff. Start your own winery in the Colombia Valley. (Incidentally, Pojken and I can have our wedding there.)

4:31 PM  
Anonymous pojken said...

I'm in. Where did you get those croc's? and capri pants?

10:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home