By Erika Ehmsen, Sunset copy chief
There’s a certain amount of character that a wine can glean from resting on its lees, those exhausted (but undoubtedly happy) yeasty-beasties and other sediments that drop out of the wine as fermentation wraps up. But leave a wine on its lees too long, and those previously helpful yeast cells can turn on you, rotting and taking your wine with them.
If you’ve been keeping up with our One-Block Diet blog, you’ve likely heard the word “neglect” tossed around by other teams. To echo food editor Margo True’s recent Team Vinegar post, we have busy lives (and exciting spring and summer issues of Sunset to concoct—keep an eye on newsstands to see what we do in our desk jobs!).
We confess: We’ve been bad wine parents. It had been a month since we last rolled our Chardonnay or checked up on our Syrah. We got around to rolling the Chard this week, and it was okay for that wine to sit and wait for us—last month, we shut down its malolactic fermentation by adding SO2 (in the form of powdered potassium metabisulfite; about 2 teaspoons per 5-gallon carboy), protecting the wine against oxidation and vengeful microbial spoilage. The rolling is just to add some character and round out any sharp flavors.
But on our Syrah, we were pushing the limit on the lees, risking all of our hard work. High time for the next step: “racking” (transferring) the wine into clean carboys and leaving all that fermentation muck behind. Time to call in our local expert: home winemaker extraordinaire Dan Brenzel, a retired chemist, Sunset garden editor Kathleen Brenzel’s doting husband and home chef, and incredible ribber of yours truly (“Watch, everybody! Erika’s gonna booger it up!”). He’s provided us with all of our equipment—from the hefty and spendy crusher-destemmer and bladder press to the glass carboy fermenters and the chemicals to sterilize them with—and countless chemistry lessons. Dan reminds me of my chemist grandfather, just a bit more sassy and clearly much less of a teetotaler.
Before we got started, Team Wine had another big decision to make: oak or no oak? Dan is a firm believer in oaking wine, oaking it some more, oh, and oaking it again. Wine editor and Team Wine leader Sara Schneider has been thinking that our big, juicy Syrah could use some oak to round it out, but she diplomatically put it to a vote. The measure passed, and we weighed out 26 grams of toasted oak chips for each 5-gallon carboy.
Besides the kitchen scale and sack of oak chips, our racking setup included: a card table to elevate our full carboys of Syrah, two 6-foot lengths of plastic tubing to transfer the wine (we kept one sterilized at all times), and a bunch of empty 5-gallon carboys on the ground. Plus lots and lots of potassium metabisulfite (SO2), to clean our equipment and to vaccinate the Syrah in its new carboys.
We also needed a garden hose with a jet sprayer, so we pulled everything out into a Sunset parking lot that gently slopes to a drain. (You may ask, “Is it safe to flush the SO2-tinged H20 down the drain?” Dan the chemist thought it was fine, and we’ll be drinking the tiny amount of sulfite in both of our wines.)
We didn’t use an auto siphon or racking-tube holders (check out this video to see them in action), but it looks like they would have made racking easier. Or maybe I just should have paid more attention to Dan’s instructions.
I was too excited to get started and didn’t see exactly how Dan got the siphon going. I understood the general concept, so I simply paced while waiting for my turn, completely missing that he’d slipped his finger over the bottom end of the tubing to control the flow and ease it into a fresh carboy.
Dan handed me some sterilized tubing and, before I could get my bearings, shone the spotlight on me with his aforementioned “Erika’s gonna booger it up” prediction. Lack of focus and total self-consciousness paralyzed me; I was doomed. Plus, before we’d started racking, I’d admonished everyone to be careful not to spill our wine, and suddenly I knew I’d be the first one in the splash zone.
So I rushed ahead, not pausing to think about the mechanics, sucking the air as you’re supposed to do to start a siphon, then nearly gulping down the Syrah as it came streaming toward me, much faster than I’d expected (people do this to steal gas? ugh!). I yanked the tubing out of my mouth and wildly tried to stuff it in a clean carboy, gravity-fed wine splattering it, the blacktop, and me.
Yes, I boogered it up.
And then Dan turned up the heat: hand-eye coordination. I had to watch the end of the tubing in the top carboy (to keep it from dipping into the mucky lees we were racking the wine away from), watch the rapidly filling fresh carboy that I was topping off, and keep my hands on both ends of the tubing to make sure that the top end didn’t dip too low and that neither end squirted up and out the top of its carboy.
Nervous, I messily stopped the siphon with two slippery fingertips (I should have used my thumb) and transferred it from the topped-off carboy to another empty one, of course dribbling more wine down the glass exterior. (Always thinking, Dan brought sponges, undoubtedly with this klutz in mind.) Still jittery, and with the wine level dropping ever closer to the muck, I jerked up the tubing a few seconds too early, wasting a couple sips of wine because I couldn’t restart the siphon with so little liquid left. More ribbing, of course.
Thankfully, Ben Marks, editor of Sunset’s California Wine Country, emerged from our Books division to check on us, cup in hand. He claimed this cup was just because he was drinking some water, not because he was looking for a handout, but we gave him a sip.
“Not bad, huh?” nudged wine captain Sara Schneider, fishing but always modest, and perpetually wary that our Syrah might have turned.
A big grin lit up Ben’s always-friendly face: “It’s better than ‘not bad.’ It’s lovely!”
Gleeful toasting all around, then quickly back to racking. Because as Dan soon proved when he was siphoning from a sky-high 12-gallon carboy into a ground-dwelling 5-gallon carboy with just 6 feet of tubing, it’s easy to lose focus when you’re chatting.
I didn’t tease him, just dove to reinsert the lower tube end, licking my wine-stained fingers because I really didn’t want to lose more Syrah!
Team Wine members were all feeling pretty sensitive about our seemingly dwindling Syrah supply after food editor Margo True showed up to represent Team Vinegar, requesting 5 gallons of our labor of love to feed to her mother. (Have you seen these things? Very Little Shop of Horrors meets The Blob.)
We grudgingly set some wine aside for her. It’s going to make a lovely vinegar.