I'm not a player, but I crush grapes a lot



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The Homebrew Project is back! Some of you may remember the last time I posted about beer brewing and said I would have an update about wine "soon." That was like two months ago.

Let me make it up to you by relaying a personal fantasy of mine (noncreepy, I promise). A few years ago I was living in San Francisco at the nadir of the dot-com bust. Unemployed and not really scraping by on small freelance assignments, I had a vision of offering myself up to one of the nearby vineyards for harvest season. I'd heard you made good money in grape picking, and I imagined myself working heartily in the sun, learning the secrets of winemaking and having freaky alfresco sex with some New Zealand chick there for the summer.

Three hours of grape picking in the TONY kitchen have shattered my romantic notions of this activity. It is rote and boring and it makes your hands hurt. And I had it easy; I was plucking grapes from bunches I bought at Whole Foods without any hunting in vines or judging of ripeness. The hot Kiwi women can keep their picking jobs; I do not want them.

But let's back up a second to give you the full winemaking picture. The process is simple in theory: acquire grapes, crush them, ferment them and drink. In olden times you could basically leave the crushed grapes to ferment on their own, thanks to the wild yeast that lives on the skins. Nowadays, winemakers don't like the randomness that wild yeast introduces. They cleanse their must (crushed grape mixture) chemically and then add special wine yeast. The pros might also age their juice in French-oak barrels or use additives to adjust the sweetness and acidity. I will not be doing these things (except the cleansing, but I'm getting ahead of myself again).

I acquired my grapes from the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. My selection process was as follows: I asked Alvez, the very helpful produce manager, what grapes would be good for wine. He suggested muscat; I bought three cases. (When I picked up the grapes, Alvez informed me they are from Chile, but that's about all we know.)

This brings me to the single most-asked question of the Homebrew Project. Which is, "Did you crush the grapes with your feet?"

I did not.

Not how the Etruscans did it

After picking them, the time was much later than I expected. So I left them for a day. Then another day. Then I noticed I had left them next to the kitchen radiator. (Oenologists instruct you to keep your fruit in a cool place before fermentation.) So I moved them but still had no time to crush.

Five days later, I crushed the (now quite soft) grapes with a five-foot section of 1"x4" lumber and a cool-looking trowel with jagged metal edges that I found at Home Depot. Once the fruit was good and split up, I crushed with my hands to a finer consistency. I worried terribly about the consequences of the five-day lag, and brought in Eat Out editor Gabi Gershenson to assess the smell of my must. She said it smelled like fresh grape juice.

"Really?" I asked.

"Well, maybe grape juice that sat out a day or two."

To be continued...

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