We did it—and on many levels. In 16 months, we went from zero hands-on experience to getting out in the vineyard and cutting bunches...
Bottling our Syrah: The wine is deep, dark, and mighty fine

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We did it—and on many levels.

In 16 months, we went from zero hands-on experience to getting out in the vineyard and cutting bunches of Syrah grapes from the vine, crushing and stomping and destemming them into pulpy grape juice, fermenting this must twice (first with the help of yeast, and then with the aid of malolactic bacteria), pressing the must into young wine, learning to siphon and rack, struggling to be patient and wait while our wine matured a bit, and, finally, this past Friday, sampling our finished wine (yum!), transferring all 35 gallons of it into 175+ bottles, and manually corking them shut.

It’s been a thrilling ride, and we’ve loved all of the sweaty, sticky, back-straining work along the way. But perhaps the biggest thrill came at the conclusion of our pet project, when Team Wine leader and Sunset wine editor Sara Schneider dipped a wine thief into our first carboy of Syrah and passed out samples.

I could try to re-create the moment, but I think you might enjoy seeing it for yourself—just click the video below to join us in our joy (I shot it in HD, so select “HQ” for an unfuzzy view).


]Now that was only Carboy 1 (these big glass jugs + toasted oak cubes stood in for oak barrels in our humble winemaking endeavor). It, and Carboy 5, were amazing—Sara S. thinks they could command $75 to $100 a bottle. Yowsa!

But each carboy’s wine had a fascinatingly different personality, as each has been feisty and unique along the way. We loved some more than others (Carboy 3, we won’t be seeing or sampling your bottles again for a few years—you’re still a bit of a stinker, but we’re pretty sure you’ll improve with age). But, as Sara S. said, we wouldn’t kick any of them out of bed. (For Sara’s complete, carboy-by-carboy flavor profile on our Syrah, tune in next week.)

After we sampled a carboy, it was time to drain it—by siphoning the wine into sterilized bottles and eventually into glasses (but not directly into our mouths, as tempted as we were by Carboys 1 and 5). Starting a siphon isn’t that hard—for all the details, read how we did it with our Chardonnay. We were happy we had that practice with a white wine because while we knew our Syrah would be inky, it seemed jet black in the morning-shaded outdoor area where we bottled.

It was impossible to see the end of the siphon tube until the wine level within the carboy had dropped to just a few inches, a danger zone in which we risked losing suction—by gulping up air instead of wine—if the tube end accidentally turned toward the sky instead of steadily sipping (and we can’t restart a siphon when the wine level gets this low).

So we developed a few tricks: Before sticking the siphon tube into the wine, we measured the sterilized tubing near each carboy’s exterior (but not directly against it, to preserve sterilization), aiming for a length that was a couple of inches above the bottom. And as the wine level dropped toward the bottom, we titled the carboy, concentrating the wine into one “corner” (can a cylinder have a corner?) and nabbing as much wine as possible. After figuring this out, we were able to confidently transfer our wine via siphon and maximize our in-the-bottle yield.

We had quite a few cases of Rhône bottles, a tall style with sloping shoulders that’s traditionally used for Syrah. These were clean, label-less bottles that we paid nada for, thanks to nightly wine drinker and vigilant bottle recycler Dan Brenzel, our home-winemaking benefactor. But a quick headcount, just as we began sterilizing with bottle wash, revealed that we were going to be three cases short in our quest for 182 bottles (that’s 26 bottles per 5-gallon carboy, not counting samples and sips and spills).

Two pieces of good fortune: 1. Former Sunset photo style coordinator (and constant Team Wine member) Sara Jamison had been rinsing out empty bottles for the last year and bringing them to the office. 2. We had expert label scrubber-offer Dan Brenzel on hand, and Sara S. set him up with a tub of sudsy water, a tub of plain water, a grill brush, and a paring knife. (That’s a shot of Dan attacking a label with a knife—no matter the glue, and there are many different ones adhering labels to bottles these days, it was no match for Dan.)

So Carboy 7 and half of Carboy 6 ended up in a hodgepodge of bottle shapes, colors, and slightly different sizes, which made for some occasionally tricky wielding of the bottling rod, as the bottles all seemed to have different widths and heights of punts, that indentation in the bottom of the bottle—it projects into the bottle interior, where you’re fumbling in a tight, slippery space with the bottle filler. Here’s a little footage of our bowling alley of bottle shapes—check out that nearly clear one at the end of the line (we decided not to fill it … we weren’t sure it would keep the wine safely cloaked from light). Note Sunset recipe retester and Team Wine member Sarah Epstein’s calm, efficient siphon-starting technique—she doesn’t spill a drip while slipping the bottling rod onto the siphon tubing. (I, on the other hand, managed to splatter poor Sara S. and tattoo my hands again.)


]But we managed to fill (and, in some cases, slightly overfill) all of those extra bottles. And then it was back to our trusty and slightly rusty floor corker to seal the deal. When we were researching corks, we decided to go with “First” quality ones for our Syrah, as we knew we’d want to cellar them for a while. For our Chardonnay, which can’t age like a red wine, we went with “Grade 3” corks, and we thought we got a pretty good deal at 100 corks for $36.

Just to check, we poked around on eBay and Craigslist, honing in on First quality “seconds,” overruns from Napa and Sonoma wineries, which can’t put a 2003 cork in anything but a bottle of 2003 wine and therefore hand off most of their extras to recyclers to put out on the market for reuse. And they were cheap! Only $19 for 100 corks.

We figured that if these corks were good enough for commercial wineries, they’d be good enough for our Syrah. Just look at this shot of the major players that are capping off our Syrah. And is that a bottle of Ravenswood or Sunset Syrah? Guess we’ll have to slap our label on the bottle to prove we made it—which means I’ll be back in the labeling game soon. Uh-oh.

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