As it turns out, grapes typically get crushed before going into the fermenters, unless the winemaker is utilizing a technique called carbonic maceration, in which the whole fruit is encouraged to begin fermenting inside its own skin. Bill used this technique for his pinot noir grapes from the Sonoma Coast. This type of fermentation normally develops flavors of bubble gum, banana, and cherry, while also reducing malic acid and increasing the chances of a higher alcohol content.
He led me outside and down the hill to the back of the winery. We approached three white plastic tubs that were chest-high and six feet square. He glanced at the shorts and told me to put them on as he lifted the lids off the tubs.
At this point I am figuring it out but wouldn't let myself believe that he was going to make me take my clothes off and wade around in the warm grape bog. "There are a few bees on the surface, and the cap will likely hit you about waist high...so...you aren't allergic to stings, are ya?" The original smirk that evolved into a grin transformed into a toothy smile. I glanced into one of the fermenters and shook my head at the swarm of bees gathered on the top. Every second a few more would drive bomb-kamikaze-style into the vat of sugar. The romantic notion of crushing grapes under foot in the middle of wine country vanished instantly.
"Why are we doing this?" I asked. "I mean, don't they make machines for this?"
"They do--but we want to be very very gentle. Your feet are nice and soft."
Photo by Lara Kastner
I managed to wade my way carefully through the grape baths without a sting, only to step on a bee while hosing off after finishing. But it was tasks like these that helped me get to know the wines intimately. Because I tasted the grapes at every stage, from in the vineyard waiting for them to ripen to monitoring them through the fermentation and barrel aging, I was able to taste and smell them evolve, picking up the nuances of different fruits, levels of oak, brettanomyces (yeasts that spoil wine), sulfur, and other profiles that developed as they matured. This certainly helped me refine my palate and gave me a strong appreciation for the process of wine-making and the understanding of how taste works.
In the summer months, when the wine was lower-maintenance as it sat in the barrels, it was my job to maintain the property and work in the vineyard. One day I was weeding a flowerbed with one of the vineyard workers and began to pull what I thought was a weed. He stopped me and told me to eat it--or at least that is what I thought he was saying, as my Spanish is pretty rough. "Sour weed," he said. Sure enough we were both right: it was in fact a weed, but it was wonderfully edible.
Basically a wild sorrel, oxalis has become a staple on the summer menus at Alinea when we want to add a lemony-sour note to a dish. In this case we look to the sorrel to balance the richness of squab. The seedpods of the plant have the texture of a fine green bean and burst with acidity. The pods are impaled on a long pin and encased in a thin film of crunchy sugar. The guests are instructed to eat this bite midway through the course to revitalize the palate.