By Sara Schneider, Sunset wine editor
The back parking lot at Sunset has gone from crush pad to pressing station.
Once the sugar levels in our wine got down pretty close to zero (okay, the hydrometer still read 1 degree Brix, but with Syrah, fermentation can finish up after pressing), we called our thoroughly equipped friend Dan to pack up his old Italian bladder press and come on over.
He appeared with a dizzying array of glass containers—besidestwo 12-gallon carboys, many smaller versions and even a collection of empty magnums. As I found out later from Laurie Hook, winemaker at Beringer in St. Helena, in winemaking, “You can’t be too rich, too thin, or have too many small containers.”
It turns out that even when the pros press, they don’t end up with an amount of wine that conveniently fits into their available barrels. They need to keep smaller amounts to top off the barrels as the wine levels drop, from evaporation and sampling. And we needed the right combination of containers to be able to fill everything to the top. We knew that, because Dan kept chanting, “Once you press, oxygen is your enemy.”
We rinsed everything with a metabisulfate solution, organized a bucket brigade from the spout of the press to our carboys (taking care to have funnels in place), and started scooping the must into the basket of the press. Our Syrah flooded out the bottom—almost all of it before we even turned on the water to fill the bladder and do some actual pressing. Free-run, it’s called, and considered superior to later batches that have been firmly pressed off the skins and seeds.
Dan had warned us of how fast the process can deteriorate into a Keystone Cops routine if you don’t concentrate on smoothly switching out buckets under the spout—or drink too much too soon—so we staunchly resisted the urge to consume large quantities of the inky, yummy-looking stuff.
But only for so long. We happened to have plastic cups standing by, and they slipped under the spout of the press awfully easily. I tell you, this wine might be a work in progress, but it has the potential to be very good! It’s dense and full of dark fruit—a Syrah Michael Martella up at Thomas Fogarty (source of our grapes) just might be proud of.
That’s counting our chickens, though, which is outside Team Wine’s union contract (this one-block feast has another team for that). So we reined in our enthusiasm and got busy cleaning up the parking lot, which we’d once more turned into a red zone. With carboys topped up and fermentation locks in place, we can only wait now until the malolactic fermentation is completely done before sterilizing the wine again and letting it settle down.
Postscript: A few days after we pressed, Jon Priest, winemaker at Etude in Carneros, asked me how our wine was coming along. I didn’t quite want to make a judgment call about it in front of so talented a pro, so I said, “Well, it’s dry anyway …”
He surprised me with, “Congratulations! That’s the whole battle right there.” And he added a tip that might get our wine through the winter: If you sample out of a carboy, lower the surface level, and don’t have any extra to top it off, just sink some marbles in the wine to fill up the space. Those real winemakers—they have a few tricks up their sleeves!