By Darren Delmore
In June 2007 I bought a Tablas Creek Roussanne vine from the tasting room and planted it in my mom’s backyard in Pismo Beach. Her house is in a gated community a block from the chilly Pacific Ocean (Bakersfield Beach AVA?). Because I was a vagabond cellar hand at the time, mom’s house was the only place that the potted plant had any chance of becoming something more than yard waste. I had no idea that I would actually make a bottle of wine from it.
I was amazed to come back for the holidays six months later and see the thing still alive with leaves and everything. Her landscapers weren’t shy on the water and had even put up a little support trellis to keep it upright. I pruned it back Christmas morning with sugary hands, pondering its potential while wearing new flannel pajamas. To ramp up the estate production, I buried two of the cuttings in the ground and supported them at the base with decorative cobblestones à la Beaucastel.
Two summers later I was home for my birthday and was shocked to see the deep green foliage and thickened trunks. Was Pismo Beach the next Châteauneuf-du-Pape of California? These vines were raging! Maybe the rapid growth cycle was because of the proximity to Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. I’d heard stories of lemon trees planted in PG&E’s experimental garden spitting out ten-pound balls of citrus. Was this radioactive Roussanne?
“I can’t see out my bathroom window anymore,” my mom complained beside the plant that was double her size. I hedged the vines back and noticed a cluster count of about 25 on the mother vine, and five on each of the prunings.
“We are going to have a vintage,” I declared.
“What grapes are these again?” Mom asked me for the tenth time.
“I should’ve planted Pinot Grigio,” I thought to myself.
The task of making wine is such a romantic mystery that most people don’t realize that you really can make a bottle or two of wine in your backyard. Whether or not it’s worth the arduous task or non-lethal to drink the results is another story. I decided to rise to the occasion, so I bought bird-resistant netting from Home Depot, wrapped all three vines in the black mesh, and even tossed a scarecrow out there for good measure. Her landscapers cut the water supply upon request to induce a little stress. In October I brought out my refractometer (which measures sugar density through a scope like device) and saw that the grapes were close, but needed more ripening time. By Halloween the leaves were yellowing out and showing off some rust markings, the fruit looked and tasted sweet, and the seeds had mostly turned from green to brown. I rechecked the grapes and saw that the sugars were on the money, so I got out the clippers, ripped off the netting, and harvested a 5 gallon paint bucket’s worth of clusters.
The hard and ridiculous part of all of this is hand pressing. There are some home winemakers that have made contraptions to expedite this part, but I stubbornly put my lower back to the test and crushed down the fruit with my palm, hoisted up the bucket, then poured off the developing juice through a pasta screen and funnel into a Carlo Rossi gallon jug (Don’t ask).
I repeated the task with sweat and profanity flowing until the jug was mostly full. Calling it quits, I sealed the jug with a plastic air lock that homebrew shops sell (they keep out fruit flies and oxygen, but also allow CO2 from fermentation to release so things don’t explode). Since Tablas Creek does wild yeast fermentations, I followed suit and didn’t add any store bought yeast to the juice. I kept my miniature vessel in the closet of the bedroom I was renting in San Luis Obispo. A few nights later I heard a new sound.
The beast was alive.
There was an inch of white globby sediment at the bottom, a visible crust on top, and a bakery smell in the room, all from this micro production.
About a week later the bubbling noises stopped and my room smelled like less of a compost pile. I bravely ventured a sample of the wine. Though the gas-heavy bouquet seared my septum, the taste was actually Rhône-like and finished dry on the palate. Since there was headspace in the jug that would lead to oxidation, I poured the clear top wine into a 1/2 gallon beer growler, sealed it with the air lock and stashed the wine in the closet for a couple months.
Before embarking to Australia in February 2010, I hand bottled, corked, and labeled a single bottle of the wine for my mom, and gave it to her in advance to drink on Mother’s Day since I'd be gone.
Cut to May: I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day from a payphone in New South Wales. “So, did you drink the wine?” I eagerly asked.
“I had it with Barbara last night,” she confirmed before a heavy pause.
“And… so what did you think?”
“She liked it. For me, it was… different.”
“Well... I'm not sure. What grape was it again?”
I immediately hung up the phone.
Darren Delmore has been Tablas Creek's National Sales Manager since 2012.