A hand-cranked crusher. Photo by Squire Fridell
By Squire Fridell
This is the third of three columns about our beginnings here in Glen Ellen. The first was WHY we moved here 36 years ago, the second was HOW we happened to become grape growers, and this article will focus on WHY we became winemakers.
About 1987, after a year of living in our Valley and growing wine grapes, we now considered ourselves to be bonafide grape farmers…and it seemed logical to go to “the next step” and add “winemaker” to our resumé. After all, how hard could it be to make wine? (“Oh, let me count the ways….”) Since our newly-planted vines were still babies, our first 1987 winemaking attempt was from grapes that WifeSuzy and my dad picked from a neighboring vineyard (I was conveniently absent and “on the road”.) The owners allowed us to come in the day after their harvest for a “second pick,” whatever the pickers left behind. It was an old “field blended” vineyard, originally planted almost a century before. (A “field blend” is simply many different varieties of grapes planted and harvested on the same site.) Incidentally, that first vineyard where we sourced our “second pick” is now the beautiful Atwood Ranch. When we drive by on Hwy 12, we always yell “Thank you, Julie and Tom!”
Where did you make that wine?
During our first year, we’d built a barn, mostly to store lots of theatre seats, lighting equipment, costumes, and props. (That’s another story for another day.) After a very brief experience attempting to raise and train two unruly goats and a low IQ lamb (don’t ask), the critters went away and the downstairs barn space had enough room to make a little wine.
We purchased a small, old-fashioned hand-cranked destemmer/crusher and, that day, Suzy and my dad picked about 400 lbs. of mixed (mostly red) grapes. Later that day, I arrived home from the airport just in time! As Suzy and my dad loaded the hopper on the machine, my job was to turn the hand crank as we “crushed” the berries. (That very day was the beginning of my rotator cuff issues!) The resulting juice, pulp, skins, and seeds went into a couple of food-grade 55-gallon tubs that we covered with plastic sheeting to keep out the fruit flies. After an exhausting day (and a bit of jet-lag) we carried the tubs into the barn, and then we waited. One day later, a miracle happened! The mixture began to bubble, indicating that fermentation had begun! (Faintly reminiscent of the witches brew in MACBETH!) One year later (and after my first rotator cuff surgery) the original hand-cranked tool was replaced by a motorized version…just in time for “crush” number two!
How did your first wine turn out?
We were naturally proud of our first winemaking attempt and even commissioned Lexy, our five-year-old daughter, to create the label’s “Artist’s Series.” We gave her $5 for the first year’s art, but, after further negotiations, she firmly announced that “from now on she would only draw fairies.” (Hence, no more “Artist Series”….). We thought our wine was terrific and even entered a “homewinemaking” competition, convinced we’d win “Triple Gold”. When the results came back, however, there were no medals and only one hand-scribbled note that said our pride and joy wine smelled “like wet newspapers.” We did give our friends and family a couple of bottles at Christmastime and they all said it was “swell.” But I fear it was not…. Regardless, we sure learned a lot, mostly about what not to do.
What did you learn about “What NOT to do”?
The biggest “take-away” was learning to do things when they needed to be done and not waiting until I was conveniently home from the next “fly-to-NYC-for-work” trip. I vividly remember trying to talk to Suzy on an airplane phone (remember those?), telling her to “be sure to add 16ppm of SO2 to each of the carboys of newly fermented wine.” I’m sure what she heard with that garbled air connection was “Besraddtrefghjnbntothecarbnhjuy.” Regardless, we were steadily learning more and more about winemaking, and our wine stopped smelling like wet newspapers. For those early years, those “home wines” improved dramatically. Enough so that, a couple of decades ago, we decided to make wine commercially, and our Clan (wine club) was born!
From that time forward, we continued to meet and consult with a lot of winemakers, and everyone seemed most willing and excited to discuss winemaking with us. No one seemed to have “secrets,” and the winemakers were always eager to share their advice and skills. Then, in 1993, we joined the newly created Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance (SVVGA), which proved to be even more of a wealth of contacts and information. I eventually became President of the SVVGA for two terms and am proud to say that I’ve “paid it forward” many times by offering my advice to younger constituents who are just starting out.
The biggest take-away from all my 36 years of making wine? Realizing that the technology, new products, and techniques that come down the pike every single year are amazing. I’m always a bit skeptical of a winemaker who says that he or she makes wine “the old school way.” No one uses rotary phones anymore, so you should take advantage of what’s out there being developed that will help us make the best wine humanly possible. Read, attend wine conferences, take classes, and talk to other winemakers at every opportunity.
We now make many different wines here at Glen-Lyon, including Sparkling Wine, Rosé, Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, a Syrah and Cab blend, our Estate Syrah, Port, and Mistelle (the last two being dessert wines). After all this time, I still love growing grapes and making wine!
As Alexandre Dumas once wrote “All for Wine and Wine for All!” THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Honest! I was there when he wrote it!)
SLAINTE M’HATH! (pronounced “Shlange eh vah”), Olde Scot Gaelic for “To Your Health!”
-Squire Fridell GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery
It takes a long time to grow an old friend.