Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Pandemic Winemaking

I have enjoyed winemaking as a hobby. I love dreaming about the new vintage in the spring while sourcing the grapes, waiting in anticipation for harvest in the fall, and immersing myself in the process of fermentation all winter. More than that, I adore the camaraderie among fellow winemakers as we process freshly harvested grapes, press the grapes, rack the wine, and finalize it for bottling. It is hard work with grapey messiness, but it is always rewarded with wonderful food and wine, friendship and laughter.

Pre-pandemic celebration of a vintage

Then came the pandemic. While the wine yeast and malolactic bacteria remained unaffected, the whole social aspect of winemaking was very much altered. 

Pandemic Harvest

When harvest rolled around last year, the vaccines were not yet available. We had nothing but masks and sanitizers, relying on good sense and reasonably decent weather to keep us outdoor and socially distanced.

Freshly harvested grapes
Like prior years, the winemakers arrived at the crush site waiting for the grapes. Only this time, our excitement was contained behind the masks. There was a sense of uncertainty as we navigated working together while keeping six feet apart. 

Once we were assigned our duties, it was like clockwork. Some of us set up and sanitized the crusher/de-stemmer. Others raked the grapes into crates, weighing and distributing the allotments. We then crushed and de-stemmed the grapes. When all the grapes were processed, we cleaned up and stored the equipment. 

Masked winemakers raking grapes into crates
Weighing 50 lbs of grapes per crate
A ton of grapes

There was a subdued sense of elation when we were done. Yet in our usual post-crush sticky grapey messiness, there were no high fives nor pats in the back. We merely exchanged nods with smile in our eyes as we claimed our respective portions of the crushed grapes to bring home.

Pandemic Fermentation

While we typically complete alcoholic fermentation separately, we would get together to press the grapes and have a potluck. Last fall, sharing food was not an option. Instead I made a hearty batch of chili for post-press nourishment. We sat six feet apart in a heated garage with the door lifted, chowing down hot chili with corn bread and washing them down with wine.

Pre-pandemic racking and tasting

After press comes periodic racking. In pre-pandemic days, we would rack our wine together because we share a single barrel.  Each time we met was another opportunity for a potluck and sharing bottles of wine. Last year, however, we chose against group racking. Instead, everyone left their carboys of wine in my garage. Throughout fall and winter, I racked and tasted the group's wine, reporting out tasting notes. (Our dog Jipp was my co-winemaker.)

My pandemic co-winemaker
By bottling time, it was summer, and the weather had warmed up considerably. We were all fully vaccinated and happy to ditch the masks while maintaining social distance. With the garage door wide open, we formed an assembly line, prepping bottles, siphoning wine, corking, and cleaning up. We celebrated the 2020 vintage, sipping hot coffee and feasting on the spread of sweet and savory breakfast pastries, fresh fruit, and delectable limoncello curd yogurt.

Another Pandemic Vintage?

It would have been great if the pandemic ended with that vintage. In July, it was looking optimistic with an all-time low COVID-19 hospitalization, coupled with a high vaccination rate. Then the delta variant struck. By August, COVID-19 hospitalization had gone up by almost ten times! Non-urgent procedures are being cancelled and visitor policy has become more restrictive as the hospitals hunker down for yet another surge. 

Stepping into the my garage cellar, I can't help but wonder - Is 2021 going to be another pandemic vintage?

What we do have now that we didn't have then are vaccines, more effective treatments, and substantially more knowledge and experience in dealing with the virus. Yet, if there is anything I have learned, it is anything can change and change fast. So I am going to keep one eye on the vineyards and the other eye on the hospitals and hope for the best.