I Heard it Through the Grape Vine

I swear I am not an alarmist, but when I recently read that we may be nearing a world-wide wine shortage, I did pause and wonder if I should start stockpiling. While I didn’t run out to buy cases of vino (I didn’t, I swear), with harvest season upon us, I decided this was my moment to visit a vineyard and learn how the nectar of the gods is made…just in case. Luckily for me, the kind folks at Newport Vineyards agreed to let me join them for an afternoon and learn from their master: winemaker George Chelf.

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Making wine is one of those processes that has so many steps that I cannot begin to do it justice in one post, so I am going to skip the step-by-step description, and concentrate on the vineyard itself, me getting my hands dirty, and George.

Newport Vineyards is owned by John and Paul Nunes. Its origins date back to 1917 when their great-grandfather bought 51 acres of land just north of Newport, Rhode Island. George has been with them since 1988. He told me that he really “fell into” wine making (we should all be so lucky). He first became interested in wine while in the Army. At that stage of his life he was drinking beer, but while in Europe, he would look up at the hills over the autobahn to see people picking grapes (who wouldn’t be inspired by that?). When he returned to the States he began looking for a job as an assistant winemaker, and pressed his first grape into Newport Vineyard’s first vintage.

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Both George and the vineyard’s wine have flourished in the last 25 years. The vineyard now produces more than 30 varieties of red, white, sparkling, blush and dessert wines. The vineyard is in the middle of a renovation to create a function room, tasting area and a larger shop to purchase bottles of Newport’s finest.

Today, visitors can wander out from the vineyard’s main building into row after row of grape vines…and a family of wild turkeys. The rows are oriented north to south so that all the grapes gets the same amount of sunlight as the sun moves across the sky from east to west. In September and October the grapes are harvested, and the weeks—or months—long process (depending on the variety) it takes to craft their wine begins. While many of the stages of wine making are now very efficient as a result of technology (harvesting and bottling for example), there are still some things that are done by hand…and by mouth.

A family of wild turkeys doing their best Abbey Road impression

A family of wild turkeys doing their best Abbey Road impression

Once the grapes are picked the skins are gently removed from the rest of the grape. The grapes then go into huge plastic bins where they ferment for about a week. The skins settle on the top with the juice below. The skins of red grapes are what give red wine its color, so it’s important for the skins’ color to leach down into the juice. This is when I got in on the wine making action. While I may have envisioned stomping grapes like that classic I Love Lucy episode, in reality, it turned out to be more about my arms and shoulders than feet (which I am sure everyone is happy to hear). Twice a day, members of George’s team mix the contents of these creates to make sure the skins color is indeed turning what will be the wine red.

A bin containing skins at the top and what will be wine at the bottom

A bin containing skins at the top and what will be wine at the bottom

This may sound very easy, but in reality there is about a foot of grape skins at the top, and they are pretty darn heavy. George got me a stool so that I could get some leverage with the shovel. But even elevated it was heavy and difficult to mix. Full disclosure: George had to break up the skins a bit–like breaking a hole in an iced-covered pond–so that I could get the shovel deep enough to do any good. Basically, I may not be cut out for a wine maker’s assistant.

What did I get myself into?

What did I get myself into? Photo courtesy of Heidi Brueggeman

Putting some muscle into it. Photo courtesy of Heidi Brueggeman

Putting some muscle into it. Photo courtesy of Heidi Brueggeman

After the fermentation process is over, the skins continue to be pushed down, twice a day, for two or three more days, and are tasted daily by George, and only George (I joked with him that winemaker is really another way of saying he’s the ultimate decider) until he deems it ready to be pressed. His team then presses off the skins with very low pressure so no astringency gets in the wine. Next the wine is allowed to settle in a tank for one to two days then racked into barrels.

Red wines, remain in their barrels (which have been lightly “toasted,” i.e. burned with fire) for 10-15 months. Each month George tastes the wine, tops off the barrel (throughout the wine making process air is the enemy, you don’t want the wine to oxidize. It’s similar to the fact that the flavor of an opened bottle, even when re-corked, changes for the worse) and makes his notes right on the barrel, as if it was a history lesson of that particular barrel of wine.

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George tries the different varieties of wine each day (talk about a nice perk of the job), and at a certain point will do a little mixing of batches to create the optimal pinot nior, for example, before barreling the reds and chardonnays. For George, the goal (in addition to creating great tasting wine) is to have continuity from year to year. So if you like a Newport Vineyards 2012 sauvignon blanc, you will like the 2013 incarnation as well.

Winemaker seems to be one of the coolest jobs I have come across on my bloggy adventures, and not just for the the free drinks. When I asked George what he likes best about his job, he quickly answered it’s the fact that every day is different. No two vintages are exactly alike, and no two season are exactly alike. All these variables force him, and his team, to adjust and sometimes roll with the punches. He’s also constantly learning. And that is guaranteed to continue. “The evolution will never end,” he observed.

George getting ready to taste his handy work

George getting ready to taste his handy work

Continual learning has come up before in this blog, and it seems the people who appreciate and thrive on this are those who I connect with best. Obviously, for a gal who chooses to experience something new each week, learning is a priority. Curiosity is a priority. And I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

A big thank you to George Chelf and the staff at Newport Vineyards. They offer vineyard tours and tastings, so stop by if you fund yourself in their neighborhood. I also want to give a shout-out to Heidi Brueggenman, who was my wing-woman on this adventure. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

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