More than we expected

We thought we’d purchased 1000 pounds of Tempranillo today. We drove half the state again (well, OK–a third of the state. California is large, after all) to Paso Robles to pick up the grapes, this time with my friend Catherine and her husband David, in tow. It was the typical quick trip and Paso was beautiful with cool breezes and warm sun. Joe Macchiarello’s place was, contrary to last time, full of trucks–people from all over had come to pick up their grapes and make wine. As the harvest kicks into full swing, Joe’s home becomes a much busier place. Dodges, Chevy’s, Ford’s and our Tundra lined the driveway and to get the grapes meant a choreographed dance of diesel and gas, metal and rubber. Trucks coming and going, the forklift backing and lifting boxes marked “Tempranillo,” “Sangiovese,” “Petit Verdot,” all orders placed online or by phone with Joe or his wonderful wife, Sandy.

We thought we got 1000 pounds of grapes loaded into the truck. We paid our money, we bought a 60 gallon refurbished barrel, Brian bought an extra rack to put the barrels on and Joe charged him $20.00. My friend Catherine, an English teacher–and a natural conversationalist like myself, started engaging Joe in conversation just as Brian wanted to leave. We had to yank her away to get on the road. The usual stop–El Pollo Loco–and then hit the 101. Crushing was an act of sheer will. Catherine handled the bulk of it, but all were tired. She climbed into the deep bin and filled buckets with grapes and juice, while Sofie and Laurie dug in and emptied buckets to the crusher-destemmer. Even Peanut pitched in helping to move de-graped stems off of the driveway and into neat piles. It was her first real wine-making day. More juice, more pips, more skins—1000 pounds? Are you sure? That’s what Joe said, anyway…

Catherine at the bottom of the grape bin, looking up for a photo (it’ll run later) scooping bucket-fulls of grapes and juice into the de-stemmer. The grape bin is full–completely full—with maybe 4 inches to the very top—of juice and skins. Once the yeast is added, this is going to overflow. Well–we’ve got an extra stainless steel container–and if it does overflow, we’ll empty 30 gallons out and ferment it in there for the rest of the week. Clean it up, sterilize it, put it away….


A sip of Brian’s 04 Syrah for good luck, a quick blessing of the must and off we go–Catherine and David their way, me-my way. Exhaustion, sore…shower. When the phone rings, it’s Brian. He’s just checked the receipt. “We agreed to buy 1000 pounds, right?” “Yep–that’s what we agreed on…at 80 cents a pound.” “Well, we got 1452 pounds at 65 cents a pound.” “That’d explain a lot…”

A lot.

“Any thoughts about complaining? Giving any back?” “No. We’ve got a lot of wine…”

Indeed we do. A lot of wine….

Not What I expected

The surgeon’s doom was…..well….interesting. I’m at home, no hospital stays–no extraordinary feats of medical magic. In fact, for now–I’ve avoided the scalpel.

Here’s the sitch: Dr. Abou Samra says that my disc problems are actually not all that bad. It’s just that they’re in the wrong place (the bulges hit nerves) and they cause pain. The one disc that actually is bulging is indenting the spinal cord and it’s the one I was worried about. Dr. Abou Samra isn’t, though. I know because I pressed him on the issue. He said that it is not really a worry because it is not causing me symptoms. He’s right, of course. The other two levels are a problem because they are causing me symptoms and yet they are not so problematic that they require surgery. So–he doesn’t want to operate, fuse the vertebrae together and cause problems for those other two levels. The epidural shots, however, will hopefully help to ease the inflammation and therefore the pain, wiping out symptoms and giving me a chance to strengthen and get better.

You cannot know how happy that makes me. I wasn’t excited about going under the knife and while that is still a possibility, it’s not a definite–and it’s not happening tomorrow. A few needles, a little soreness–and maybe some good long term relief.

And that’s all I have to say about that…

Rants and Notes

I am indeed still here…I just literally have exhausted myself with the pace of work and all of the doings in our lives right now. I sat down to watch Ken Burns’ The War last night and was truly interested. I was actually excited to see it. So, I pulled up the recliner, sat back and turned the channel to 28. I proceeded, apparently, to fall asleep within about 10 minutes. I remember snatches of conversation, black and white photos–and then, off to la la land. Funny, I look at my blog posts of last year this time and notice the same thing. It is the pace of things right now. My day starts around 6:00 in the morning and does not come to a real and true end until around 8 or 9 in the evening.

Unfortunately, a large part of this year is simply the new requirements I’m having to teach based on NCLB in the classroom. It’s absurd beyond compare, but nowhere more so than in the fact that we now give juniors a “benchmark.” The poor freshmen and sophomores have been doing this for two years. What’s a benchmark? Well, it works like this. We want kids to do well on “the test,” so we give them another test (called a benchmark) to see or estimate how well they’re going to do on “the test.” Yep–we test ’em to make sure they’ll test well. It’s hilarious. But it gets better. The most recent samples I viewed had a series of questions on “annotated bibliographies.” Great–except that we’ve never really taught such a thing. In fact, a few years ago, our district started using the much more in-line term that the Modern Language Association recommended—“Works Cited.” I haven’t used the word bibliography in a teaching capacity for a long time. It’s quite possible some of my students don’t know the word. Again–we’re testing them on stuff we aren’t teaching them.

“Change what you teach, then,” you say. Well–we can do that. But let’s take a really good look at what we’re doing, shall we? I first used an annotated bibliography, for example, in grad school. I learned about them before then–I was an English major in college. But, there was no need for one because we were writing papers and literary analysis, not research. An A.B. is primarily a focused research tool that specialized people use. Since when is high school English specialized? I could keep going, but I won’t.

Tomorrow, I will know the surgeon’s doom on my neck. I am praying tonight, though–not for myself–but for my friends. Rick Knoles died last week. He was a counselor at our school for many years, truly one of the nicest guys I’d ever met. He taught me so much. He used to say to me, “Mark–remember. What you think of me is none of my business…” I have always loved that statement. I’ve remembered it at critical times. A few years ago, during his last year on campus before retirement, we would sit together during my prep. period on occasion and talk. He was quite the musician, Rick was, and I’d bring a couple of acoustic guitars over from my pal Joe’s music room and we’d play together. Now, I cannot hold my own–but a few chords here and there–but Rick didn’t care. We’d play old Jerry Lee Lewis songs and blues numbers and I’d noodle on the strings. Tomorrow is Rick’s funeral.

My friend Shirley, the former Career Tech. at our school has been diagnosed with cancer on her liver. She too was someone I worked closely with when I was teaching English 12. I did a unit on career exploration and we brought in guest speakers together and did career research with the kids. To this day, I’ve had a couple of those kids come back to me and tell me that really helped them focus on their futures and start thinking about what they wanted. I couldn’t ask for more–and I owe a lot of it to Shirley. We are praying for her health–for a miracle–for a cure. If you’re of a mind, put her in your prayers.


Wine Phlog

A bit more phlogging is in order so that the process is recorded for posterity. Suffice to say, Brian woke this morning and went out to the wine room and sure enough–the wine was still there. I paid a visit tonight while Sue and Peanut entertained the PTO from Peanut’s school (and assorted children) to the barrels with Sofie in tow. We sniffed the wine, I petted the barrels and told them not to worry–daddy was here. You know, the usual stuff you do when you’re making wine…

So–Phlogging begins:

Dip the pot into the ‘must’, empty the pot into the press. The glamorous world of wine-making.

The process begins–the ‘must’ goes into this little press that Brian has and it filters through here. Most of the juice at first is ‘free run,’ that is, juice that does not need to be squeezed. But once that starts to trickle off, we fill the bladder with water and it smashes the grapes against the metal cage. The juice then runs off and into the buckets. Those buckets are Brian’s patented “must to wine transfer system.” Pretty elaborate, eh?

This is dog one of the Two Dogs label. Kimba is Brian’s dog and she is a great and wonderful canine. I think this mostly because she loves me and follows me around when I am there. It’s been that way since I met her. I think she has a crush on me. Then again, my pal Tom’s dog used to pee when I came over to his house. Kimba has done that, too-but mostly controls herself. She is quite vocal and when I arrive she greets me with a series of growls and whines. It’s quite an ego-booster, actually.

Brian is a meticulous wine-maker and this is just one of what is sure to be many photos of him fussing over the barrels. Sunday, Sept. 23rd, it was just he and I racking the wine into the casks and so–because we are the wine-makers, we do a lot of fussing, generally. We stare at the barrels, smell them–look at them and generally take pride in our Barbera.

That’s me. This is the most physical labor I’ve done so far. With the silly neck situation, I do what I can–but it was actually really cool to be so involved at this stage. This is, after all, the one that really feels real–putting the fermented juice–now it can be called wine–into the oak barrels.

More glamor. Every item used to make the wine has to be cleaned and sanitized. Without a strong hose and a little SO2, there would be no wine-making–or at least, it wouldn’t be very sanitary. On Saturday, it rained intermittently and so the grass got a double helping of grape must and rain water–as well as the odd hose blast that came with cleaning a bucket, barrel or bin.

The Barbera is sleeping happily tonight in its dark oak home. I shall move on, perhaps, to other subjects tomorrow……..maybe.

In the barrel

The Barbera sat over-night in the plastic barrels and settled out–that is, the tasty tidbits of yeast and such mostly settled to the bottom. So, today around noon, Brian and I racked the wine from the plastic to the oak barrels. Brian purchased a brand new French oak barrel for this year’s wine and he paid a premium for it. However, it is a beautiful piece of art and before today, was nice and clean with that rough and simple oak finish. As you can see–we took care of that rather quickly as the barrel got its first occupant–2007 French Camp Barbera produced by Brian and me–along with a few friends (Ron, Shawn, Laurie, Catherine).

It’s an iconic photo, yes? I’m thinking of using it for my permanent photo on the blog. Brian and I worked alone today as we very quickly and efficiently (thanks to Brian’s preparations) put the juice into the oak barrels. From the 800 pounds of grapes, we have produced 62 gallons of wine. It seems a lot–but it tastes perfect and we have high hopes. The picture above shows the new French Oak barrel, but out of the picture is the older French oak barrel that Brian has used before. This one is still in good shape and the second half (30 gallons) of our Barbera went in there. The two gallons we had left over, we committed to an airtight stainless steel tank where it will be used for topping. We expect we’ll have used that two gallons up by the end of the week–maybe next week. Topping takes place when natural evaporation or spillage occurs from the oak barrels.

We cleaned the equipment, Brian and I did, and then put it all away in the garage to prepare for next week’s Two Dogs masterpiece—Tempranillo grapes, also from French Camp vineyard in Paso Robles.

Now that the Barbera is sitting in oak, it will remain there until we rack it (take it out of the barrel, clean the barrel out of sediment and then put the wine back) or taste it. Neither thing will happen for at least a month or more (well, OK–we’ll probably taste it before then).

Below are the pictures Brian sent previously of the pick up of the grapes. I’ll have more photos tomorrow. Incidentally, a couple people have e-mailed me asking me how I can “do all this” with the bad neck. Well, the pictures tell the story–you’ll note that I am not doing any of the heavy lifting. To be honest, it’s as frustrating as anything else. There’s only so much I can do. I help with the cleaning, the set-up, etc. But I don’t lift anything and I don’t move barrels, heft wine grapes or such. I’m determined to do what I can, though–and this week, I’ll have a meeting with the neurosurgeon and we’ll discuss the next step in my neck treatment.

Joe Macchiarello’s forklift loads the grapes to Brian’s truck.

The unglamorous task of unloading the grapes.

Shawn does the heavy lifting.

Press Passes

Told you I was tired. Still am. Up at 4 this morning. Something kinked in my neck and the “pinched nerve” feeling is abundant. However, I soldiered on….

The rain fell today rather impressively and it was the cause of our one week hold on the 1000 pounds of Tempranillo grapes we will get from Paso Robles next weekend. That left us with our 800 pounds of Barbera, kissed gently by late morning showers–we thought about calling it “Two Dogs Rainwater Barbera.” And who knows? If we like it well enough, we may still call it that….

Today was pressing day at the Two Dogs winery. Pics to follow next week (we’re slow–but we’re accurate…). The thing that got to me was that I completely miscalculated the juice. I was under the impression that we would have somewhere between 30 and 35 gallons of wine. We have 60 gallons of wine! It’s truly amazing. We sampled it on its way through the press process and it is truly delicious. The fruit and sugar balance is right (for a one week old wine) and the alcohol level is right at about 13. We figure it won’t go too much higher at this point–maybe to 14, or 14 and a half–but the yeast, while still chewing on sugars, is largely done.

We pressed all the juice over to polyurethane barrels that each hold 35 gallons. This is how we know that we have 60 gallons of wine at this point. My friend Catherine came over, infinitely fascinated by the process, and helped out just when my sister-in-law, who helped with the hard stuff of setting up, left.

The Longest Day

The Barbera punch downs continue to go well. No need to report much as the fermentation is going fine. I’ll report more this weekend when we begin pressing and when we get our Tempranillo.

Busy day–at work by 7:00 putting the touches on the new curriculum we’re using that includes a lot of vocabulary and some more “back to the basics” stuff. I give up. I’m not in the mood to expostulate on what is or isn’t missing from a good basic education. I’m going to do my job, that’s all. At least for now.

Then, a faculty meeting–and we all know how much fun those can be. What’s funny is that while the meeting is going on, I’m fairly certain that there are things which are said that deserve my attention. And largely, I pay attention as I should. At least while I’m there. But I’d be hard pressed to tell you what we talked about today. I did, however, win the raffle (for the first time in nearly 11 years I might add) and for my luck I got a bag of fruit. Pears and peaches. They’re not ripe yet–but I imagine when they are, they’ll be good.

Home–and then over to Brian’s with daughter and dog in tow to punch down the wine and such. Peanut rode her scooter and Scoop and I hoofed at a good clip. A little exercise, a little wine tending, it worked out well. Home again to shower and eat a remarkably fast dinner. Then, off to Peanut’s back to school night. Peanut stayed home with Sofie–the greatest foreign exchange student in all the world–who took care of “her little sister.” Peanut is doing well in first grade–and more importantly, she likes it.

The bigger issue tonight was Sue who is now, because of a de-facto resignation by the President of the PTO at Peanut’s school, Acting President. Yep–I’m sleeping with the President. My buddy Sam calls me “Bill Clinton.” Yeah. I didn’t think it was funny, either. For a lot of reasons. But just before Sue is set to take the microphone from the Principal, she turns to me and says, “I’ve never spoken in public on a microphone before. Never.” She was sweating bullets. I tried to be compassionate, but I cannot relate. My entire life has been speaking in public. I’m a high school teacher, I was in radio, I was in a rock band that played clubs and the like–and I’ve just simply always been a public speaker. Sue hasn’t. But, no need to worry–she was fantastic and other than the fact that the mic spent a good deal of time away from her mouth, she did quite well. I was proud.

Then home again to eat a piece of pumpkin pie with Peanut, watch a little tube and then tuck her into bed. Downstairs, on with the computer and write a piece for Wine Country This Week on Silver Horse Winery’s winemaker. I was on deadline and knew I wouldn’t sleep until I got that done. I did. Peanut went to bed nearly two hours ago–and now, it’s my turn.


Tonight, the yeast is working…

OK-this is a wine update as I have no other kind of update to make. My pal Jason took a good photo of what the must looks like….

That’s 800 pounds of Barbera grapes, destemmed and crushed with 12 packets of yeast now eating away at the sugars. A crust has formed on top of the juice, which is a deep and rich purple and is truly wonderful to look at and smell; even taste. It’s wonderful. Fermentation is well under way and it looks like we’re on schedule for pressing the juice off the skins this weekend. Woo Hoo!

Wait and see

The weather has been a bit cool and the result of that is that the fermentation is rather taking its time. We’d been expecting by the end of day today to have a complete “crust” or “cap” of grape-skins, lees, over the wine. That has not happened as of yet, but the yeast has indeed made the rounds and is going quite nicely into the fermentation process of the wine.

Brian said that at one point today, he considered going to get a space heater to warm up the garage a bit, but decided against it. What we are experiencing is rather a cooler fermentation. And, it depends on who you talk to: some say a warmer fermentation is better, some say a cooler fermentation is better. So far, we’re content to let nature take its course and allow the wine to ferment at its own–and the weather’s pace.

That was the shape of the weekend, really–and I imagine it will be the shape of next weekend as well. I won’t update the process every day, but I imagine the next couple of weeks I will be putting in quite a bit. Once the wine is in the barrel, I’ll be more comfortable and things will go smoother. We’re still looking at new barrels as well. Actually, we’re looking at refurbished barrels. They’re cheaper and technology is making them easier to come by.

Less than two weeks until I meet the surgeon for my neck. I’m not sure what the outcome will be. I can honestly say that I am learning to live with my limitations, though I do not want to do that. I’d like to have my “life” back again pre-neck problems. But I’m a bit wiser now and know that surgery doesn’t necessarily guarantee that will happen. Again–wait and see.

Seems a whole lot of what I’m into right now is wait and see. And that’s what I’ll do.


Joe Macchiarello is a man who has found his niche. He provides grapes, barrel refurbishing, crushing and juice services for home winemakers. He’s in the heart of Paso Robles wine country, right off of Highway 46, a stone’s throw from the Tobin James winery. He’s a big dude, Joe is, and his heart is just as big. Born in Italy, Tuscany to be exact, his love for food and wine is apparent.

Brian and I climbed out of the truck and were greeted immediately by Joe, his wife Sandy and a few others who were in the process of either bottling Joe’s Zinfandel or crushing their own grapes. A couple of very friendly dogs came to offer greetings and we were offered a glass of the Zin and a taste of the 05 Barbera as a kind of foretaste of the feast to come, so to speak. The temperature was about 80 degrees with a cool wind blowing and we were able to stand in the sun comfortably while we measured the brix of our Barbera grapes from French Camp vineyard preparing them for the trip home and the crush here (it was 25.4 if you’re interested).

The drive home was uneventful, but by noon I was pretty tired. A bad night’s sleep previously and a long morning drive up were just the combination to put me out. Alas, sleep was not to be. We arrived at Brian’s with the grapes where my good friends Ron and Shawn met us and we began loading 800 pounds of astoundingly good fruit into the crusher destemmer. We made quick work of it with the four of us and I only paid a small price (so far) in neck discomfort. We’ll see how that goes.

The grapes are now must and they sit in a bin in Brian’s garage with a bloom of Lavin R-212 yeast added. My family and I were at Brian and Karen’s for dinner and we must have checked on our “baby” 4 times while we were there. It’s a beautiful thing to watch the yeast begin its evening chomping on the sugars. By the end of the night, the yeast had visibly made its way around the bin and was beginning to percolate on the grapes pretty well. We’ve high hopes for a good wine this year. I’ll have pictures posted tomorrow. Next week: 1,000 lbs. of Tempranillo. This will constitute the 07 vintage for Two Dogs and we cannot wait. Right now, physical exhaustion prevents me from writing a whole lot more. I’m done.