My first memory of homemade wine goes back to elementary school. No, I wasn’t drinking in the schoolyard at the age of ten, but I was cracking hazelnuts while watching The Muppet Show.
I don’t know if it was his first wine, but the hazelnut vintage my brother, mom and I helped my dad produce with our industrious after-dinner TV consumption is the first I remember. It was a sweet, light honey-hued liquor, racked in clear wine bottles with corks exposed and labels denied. Our family room held the thick, musty smell of fermentation for weeks. Dad enjoyed making wine, and still does. In addition to grapes, his wine often flows from handpicked blackberries, raspberries, and kiwi fruit from the back yard, and his creations are wonderfully quaffable. Though I don’t recall having tasted the hazelnut, I’ve been the lucky recipient of many bottles over the years.
It’s curious how what made you wrinkle your nose as a kid becomes a comfort years later. When I walked into the wine-making store on the Sunshine Coast, those heady fermentation fumes hit me and I was again at my childhood home in suburbia, watching my dad feed the giant bottles of working liquid, and keeping a strict two-foot perimeter from the bottles that were settling so as not to disturb their rest with inquisitive kid clumsiness.
Now in my thirties, I was about to partake in this craft—if in a limited and commercialized way. Though not made at home, and not from scratch, my wine kit endeavour would provide me with thirty bottles of gorgeous Sangiovese (really, there’s nothing like a full wine rack), and I’d support a small, family owned business. My wine had been started about two months before, watched and cared for by the store staff, and was now ready for me to bottle.
In the days of my childhood, the bottling process was somewhat nerve-wracking. Or at least I remember it that way. Lengths of wavy, freshly uncoiled plastic tubes linked the giant bottles of fermented juice to a pressure-sensitive wand, which was pressed into the bottom of the wine bottle to release the new wine, rapidly filling each bottle. I seem to recall the tension in the air as filling bottles exactly two and a half inches from the top competed with a desire to not spill ruby or golden liquid across the floor of the family room. Squatting on the floor, corking the bottles took real muscle and balance, aided by a levered contraption that compressed and focused the effort while you held the bottle straight and secure with your other hand. Dad made short work of it.
Once the wine was racked on the family room wall, in full view of Kermit and the gang, the two-foot perimeter rule between bottles and children remained in effect. It was possible one could blow. I know now that my small weight on the linoleum-over-concrete floor had little relationship to whether the fermentation in a batch of new wine had been halted, but at the time, I though I might cause a spectacular explosion of liquid carnage.
Bottling wine is much easier now. I had been keeping weekend empties in anticipation of my first vintage, and had boxes of prepared bottles ready to receive this joie de vie. (Note to self: don’t leave the entire label-scraping chore for one evening. Get the bottles soaking early—the glue is a formidable opponent.) After sterilizing each bottle with a quick rinse of a prep solution, the process of filling, corking, and labeling each bottle resembles a simple assembly line.
The mechanics of the filling station automatically stop the liquid a precise two and a half inches from the top of the bottle, stress free, leaving time to taste the first mouthful (fabulous!) and share a toast with Dad, who was there to help. The corking is done at standing height, using two hands and body weight to cork the bottle secured in the clutches of a simple but effective device. Labeling requires a wet sponge to gum the label’s glue (or a peeling of the back of sticker labels), and deft positioning with a squint and a steady hand. And last, the cork and neck of the bottle are capped with a sleeve that shrinks to fit with the aid of a heat gun—fascinating to watch the cap ripple and shrink to a smooth, tight surface, if you don’t burn your fingers in the process. At the end, thirty full bottles, corked, labeled, safely boxed and secured with seatbelts in the back seat of my car.
With the advice from Dad to put away a half-dozen bottles and “forget about them” in order to age the wine a develop a “cellar”—a real feat in Vancouver apartment living—twenty-two bottles of lovely, fruity, mildly tannined Sangiovese are destined for summer and fall sipping. If you did the math and wonder over the two remaining bottles, there’s a tradition at this family store of leaving a bottle behind and choosing one to replace it from the stock left by other customers. Sort of a community wine-swap, and no doubt good for business if I enjoy my chosen Malbec. I’ll need a new batch for winter, after all.
The last one I trade with my dad, a Sangiovese for a Grenache. A good trade, though the memories—old and new—are better.