Making John's Wine

Each crate contains 36 pounds of grapes from Napa Valley.
Each crate contains 36 pounds of grapes from Napa Valley.

The distress call came in at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night. My twin brother John, who is two minutes older than me, said his home winemaking operation was in jeopardy. Several friends who regularly drink his wine failed to show up and help him de-stem and press 200 pounds of newly arrived Napa Valley grapes. He was putting out an SOS — Save Our Sauvignon.

Working alone, John was able to de-stem about 20 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon in four hours. He sounded exhausted. He had 180 pounds to process, including 80 pounds of Merlot. Two fermenting tanks were set up in his Providence garage. All he needed were the itinerant workers.

I agreed to help and get more help. I called the Wine Butler, Mike Pigeon, and told him of John’s plight. The butler said he was at my service. Early Sunday morning, we drove to John’s home, settled into chairs in the garage, and began de-stemming grapes from the five, 36-pound wooden crates remaining. John’s instructions were simple: Put on the rubber gloves, separate the grapes from the stems, and drop the fruit into the plastic containers before us. The stems went into garbage bags. He also told us to dip our gloved hands into a sanitized solution to kill any bacteria present. We did this constantly. Later, chemicals dissolved in the fermentation tanks would serve as a second line of sanitation.

Mike Pigeon pours the de-stemmed Cabernet Sauvignon into the wine press for crushing. The winemaker, John Campanini, provides the muscle.
Mike Pigeon pours the de-stemmed Cabernet Sauvignon into the wine press for crushing. The winemaker, John Campanini, provides the muscle.

The Cabernet grapes went smoothly. The berries were larger than the Merlot, and if you gently rolled a cluster between your hands the grapes fell off nicely into the container. The smaller Merlot fruit took a bit more time. And just as we were losing steam the posse arrived: My daughter Jalyn, who was up from South Carolina attending a work conference, came by to help her Uncle John with the two-person pressing operation. So as Mike and I de-stemmed, they crushed the grapes in the iron-wheel, wooden press.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. It took us four hours to de-stem the grapes, chatting all the time and thinking of names for a wine label. Once we were done, we helped pour the containers of grapes into the press, which Jalyn and John took turns pulverizing into must — a combination of skins and juice.

John used a colander to scoop out the must and re-press. This helped to extract more juice from the skins. The juice was then transferred to a fermentation tank. Some skins were allowed to remain in the liquid to enhance color, flavors and tannins. John then took out a hydrometer to take pH, acidity, sugar and temperature readings and recorded the data in a daily log book. He’d continue the readings for 12 days of fermentation, adding yeast and other chemicals where necessary to reach a balance of 12.5 percent to 13 percent alcohol (the yeast eats the sugar in the juice to create alcohol. The lower the alcohol level, the sweeter the wine. John was aiming for fruit-forward, dry taste profile.)

This is John’s fourth vintage. He’s previously crafted two Zinfandels and one Pinot Noir. From the 2015 vintage, he’s planning to craft three wines: single bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and a Cabernet-Merlot blend. He reported over the weekend that the malolactic fermentation to soften the mixture ended perfectly, producing 22 gallons of Cabernet and 10 gallons of Merlot. The juice was successfully piped into six, 5-gallon glass carboys, or jugs. The wine will age for up to 8 months before being bottled. Several gas heaters installed in the garage will maintain a constant temperature during the winter.

Look for an update on this story come spring, when the first bottling of Garage Gang Red makes its debut.

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