Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Making Wine (sort of)

I have recently become a wine-maker. To say I proactively investigated all the nuances of wine-making would be seriously misleading. I am a wine maker because the plums started fermenting on their own in the large buckets sitting in the carport, and I didn't feel like spending hours picking the stems off the table grapes to make raisins. One could interpret this as laziness, alternatively as being overwhelmed with just too much fruit. I would prefer to think of it as making lemonade out of lemons, or, in this case, wine out of fruit.

My mom assures me that the grape wine will likely be in the category of Manischewitz. I had been hoping for something along the lines of a nice French table wine. A few friends have squinted their eyes ever so slightly when I mention I am also making plum wine. Not sure why. Then, again, I have never sought out plum wine at the store, so there may be a reason for the lack of enthusiasm in my mates and the absence of plum wine on store shelves.

Once I determined there was a wine-looking liquid being produced without any assistance on my part at the bottom of the plum barrels, I stopped by the local brewing store for some yeast and a lesson. I walked out with lots of yeast, an additional carboy (6 gallon glass jar), and an hydrometer looking something like a thermometer but with less decipherable markings.

Scooping the worst looking plums off a crust at the top, I gingerly sprinkled a sulfide solution over the rest to kill unwanted yeast and begin with my own. I listened to a few friends about how to start the yeast activation, watched it almost bubble over the top of the bowl, stirred the solution in with the fruit, and waited.

Well, I didn't exactly wait. We had hauled the largest tubs into the greenhouse once it became evident that the night temperatures were too cool and I was going to need to wrap my tubs with some sort of insulation to keep up the heat. I ended up using electric blankets for the warming part and an old vinyl table cloth to seal the tops. Appalachia, here I come! Every day I stirred the mixture a couple times, as required to break up the must. Even tried the liquid from time to time - very dry! Hmmm, probably should have added more sugar at the beginning.

Determining when to press the fruit skins and pulp had more to do with actually having time to do it and a couple good days of clear weather. Annie helped me drag the tubs outside and set up the press in the grass. We started with the table grapes, and found the entire thing worked quite well, with clear(ish) red liquid flowing gorgeously into our first carboy.

We worked next on the plums and found the task to be a lot more messy. Whereas the grape skins held together tighly when the liquid was pressed out, the plums had turned to mush. There was plum flesh flying all over the place and our two sieves clogged with pulp regularly, slowing down the process. We completed the crush with two full carboys of plum wine, still wondering whether this was an awful idea.

Lest I forget, we also pressed a handful of grapes from our 2-year-old vineyard. This will make a total of 2-3 bottles! The liquid had a rose color even though the grapes are supposed to be Pinot Blanc. Not sure (again) about the taste - seems very dry - but at least we can say we have a producing vineyard. Must come up with a label, probably a leaping lamb theme, or is that too queer!

Our neighbor,Karen, has followed suite in the vintner process, with a great deal more research upfront. She is using some of the apple cider we pressed this month to make hard cider...she hopes. She went into the same brewing store I did (only one within 50 miles) and came out with many of the items I didn't bother to buy, so between us we have a complete set of tools.

When Karen used my hydrometer, she actually read the instructions. Seems I was supposed to take a reading before any yeast was added so I understood the normal sugar levels. Without that first reading I will never know the actual alcohol content of my wines, which may or may not matter if they taste like Manischewitz!

Karen is much more philosophical (and kind) about my fruit-into-wine adventure this year. She says if the wine tastes horrible, then we just try again next year with a little planning in place to prevent some of the issues we experienced our first time out. I figure, if the wine tastes horrible, I will redefine the old adage again about making lemonade from lemons and make lots of Beef Bourginone (beef cooked in wine). Should be yummy.

Photo: 3 carboys (plus one in box) full of what we hope to be wine. Lots of sediment. Time to siphon off the liquid and get rid of the gunk.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2008 Scottie Jones

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Orchard Dash

Our personal interpretation of Keystone Cops mixed it up at Leaping Lamb Farm the other day. Arms waving wildly, livestock running away, more arms waving wildly, whistles, calls, livestock running the opposite direction, dogs barking, finally a pause while we all gathered ourselves for another go round.

The horses and the donkey had broken into the apple orchard and were eating all the apples I wanted to collect for cider making. This was so not cool on the animals' part! They needed to leave off and get back out to the hay field. Silly donkey. What was he thinking following the horses in.

The apple orchard behind our house is fenced for livestock control (aka horse, sheep, and a donkey). In the spring I often will put the ewes and their young lambs into the orchard so I can keep an eye on things. Come fall, when the trees are dropping their apples to the ground at a prodigious rate, I latch the gates shut. This gives me a chance to harvest some of what is on the ground. It also keeps the horses from picking apples off the trees, often within easy reach for both them and me.

Every now and again, I will open the gates, first to the sheep for some ground clean-up and then for the horses to finish the sweep. It's a mad dash for all and nothing goes to waste. I just have to keep an eye on things so the horses don't over eat and end up colicking. We don't need any vet calls.

The day began peacably enough. Allen was helping me with "honey-do's" and the task was pretty straight forward in terms of apple pick-up. Drive the Gator into the orchard, fill the large buckets in the back, drive back out of the orchard and move on to the next task. The next thing I know, Allen is yelling into the house for me to come quickly. The horses are in the orchard and they are eating the apples as fast as they can manage. I stopped what I was doing, pulled on my boots, and went out to see if we could use some herding techniques to push three horses and a donkey back out the gate. Luckily the sheep hadn't picked up the scent of an open gate.

We tried our most successful shepherding approach, with big arms and yells. Our horses looked like they thought we were idiots. "What the hell are those people yelling at?!" Herding horses from the ground isn't really herding at all.

Tater ran from us, but with his head down, sweeping up apples at his feet as he ducked away. Moralecia followed suit. Chaco didn't move at all since I don't think he saw us clearly anyway. Paco, the donkey, stayed the farthest away, watching (and learning from) the commotion. Pretty soon, we were all running in circles. The horses were bucking and mashing the apples as they ran over and through them. I cringed every time I saw more apples under hoof. Tater jumped in the air, lost his footing, and fell to the ground in the slippery grass. It barely slowed him down.

This was going nowhere and we needed to break the momentum. Allen, having learned much more about shepherding on our place than chasing after crazed horses, looked relieved when I suggested he stop for a moment while I went in search of baling twine. If I could catch Moralecia and walk her towards the orchard gate, I suspected the boys would follow.

Apple in hand, because it seemed the going bribe at the time, I walked up and tossed the twine around her neck. Lucky she's a good horse and responds to the lightest of rope as if it were made of steel. We headed toward the open gate and a beckoning hay field.

Chaco looked up, finished the apple in his mouth, and moved after us. This made Tater nervous as he bore down on us at a fast trot. Which made me nervous. I told Allen to keep an eye on the big quarter horse so he didn't get plowed over. Paco brought up the rear in his funny all-four-legs-off-the-ground-at-the-same-time gait.

I suppose the worst part of the story is that Tater opened the gate to the orchard as Allen watched. And, it wasn't just any latch he opened. It was our safe, secure U-Latch gate latch that is supposed to be 'Houdini' proof. I know after three years, with lots of nighttime trial and error, Tater has had plenty of time to perfect his technique, but there may be another explanation. We humans go in and out of that gate all the time and we never said they were people-proof. Always the challenge for humans; always the opportunity for our animals.

So the animals had a brief escape into the garden of delights. Not enough to make any of them sick and certainly not enough to ruin our chances for a good apple cider pressing. Seen from afar, the two of us, Allen and I, trying to convince 3 1/2 large animals that the green grass on the other side of the fence was better than apples, was likely a funny sight. Just glad there were no passers-by. At least none we knew about! And, Tater won't tell, because getting in (or out) is half the fun.

Photo: (top) Horses in the hayfield, (bottom) Paco putting on an 'eyeore' face

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2008 Scottie Jones

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