Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Owl and the Moon

It's 4:45 am on a Sunday and the bars are closed and everyone is flying home. In a low murmur he hums "Hoot, hoot-hoot, hoot" in a four-syllable cadence then repeats the rhythmic call. The faint light of dawn is an hour away and who wants a warm bed on a cool morning "Hoot, hoot-hoot, hoot?" After several minutes, from the next field over is a response, "Here I am" in a sweet higher pitch and as I hear this flirting from under my toasty covers I wonder if we'll have owlets this summer? We love our owls. They are so cool. During my day-time job I'm at a convention for art teachers and I'm calling out to each passerby the equivalent of "buy my product" asking with a friendly open-ended question and an owl saunters by and I receive a text message from The Matrix: "Follow the owl over the moon."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Vineyard Update March 16, 2014

The state of the vineyard on this day, two weeks after 4" of rain fell and afternoon temperatures returned to the seventies, hitting 80 F degrees yesterday and today. The concern is drought.

With the first buds breaking back in February, it seemed bud-break would be early. Indeed, overall bud break seems to be about "normal" for this time of year, which is why I wanted to document the status of everything with photos.

What's different this year is the Duriff / Petite Sirah vines at the bottom of the hill are behind the others, when usually they are the first to breakbud, bloom and ripen. This could be a good thing, and add more balance and a more even ripening this year. Also, the Tempranillo at the bottom of the hill have started earlier this year than at the top.  As the top tends to ripen faster - again, this could result in more even ripening this year.  We shall see. We shall see. I'm not counting any grapes until they're picked.

In summary, the Tempranillo and larger Petite Sirah are in full bud-break with some shoots above the first wire, with the Tempranillo at the top of the hill lagging.  The Grenache are in full bud-break and throwing out shoots and grape clusters - last year they were the last to bud-break and this year they are also among the first.  The Zinfandel and the Aglianico are showing the first signs of budbreak, with baby shoots emerging from their woolen cocoons. Their coming out a bit later is "normal" for our vineyard.

Despite the warm weather, there seem to be only two active gophers at the moment. I saw Owl Gore flying overhead the other night. There have been some crickets but no serious damage - we laid some cricket bait for them just in case. The leak specialist swears there's no major leak in the piping. We started pruning in early February and finished three weeks later. Bluey oversaw the pruning and the last blending of the 2011 and 2012 wines. We did a dormant spray February 22 of 2% organic stylet oil. No lime sulphur was used this year - so we'll see how mildew attacks later this Spring. The new spraying manager swears there will be no mildew on his watch. We shall see. We shall see. This is also the man who said he could drive his ATV all over a vineyard.  Lots of Luck. Thank goodness he didn't roll over and die before giving up. We managed the vineyard properly by irrigating heavily after last year's harvest, twice.  In addition to the irrigation, there was also a good rain back in November, the last one until the big rains of February 27th, which dropped 4". On the to do list: purchase organic compost; finish tightening wires.  All photos taken March 16th, 2014.

Grenache in full-bud break. They seem to be ahead of
past years.

The Tempranillo at the top of the hill are lagging the Tempranillo
below.

Tempranillo at the bottom of the hill and throughout are in full
bud-break. Some shoots reaching the first wire.
Agianico - Uglihanako are just beginning to break-bud.

Aglianico - close up.
Grenache facing towards the ocean, bud break well under way.
That bottom row is probably one of the warmest areas of
the vineyard. We will need to be sure to net here early
this year, as this is an easy target for the birds.
Zinfandel just starting to bud-break.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Growing Old, Gracefully, Together

Walk to the top of the hill.
In the blogosphere, it's the quirky cute bipolar suicidal woman who has millions of followers. For us, social media posts of a dog generate the most likes. Today is the dawn of a new year. Let's talk about life - and life's last chapter.

This is not just a story about a dog. It's a story about all of us. Why do healthy people get sick? What health care options are available and how do you pay for expensive treatment? How do we care for the elderly and what are the responsibilities of children to care for their parents? How do we spend our last days? And afterwards?

There's a story in the Bible of the final chapter of the great King David when a beautiful virgin was brought to his chamber and he knew her not. When the rabbit froze at the sight of the king of the vineyard then hopped away without a chase from the Australian Shepherd I remembered old King David. Is not chasing a rabbit a sign of old age? Or perhaps a wise old Blue-Merle who knows there's no use chasing a rabbit he can't catch.

A few years ago as I turned a certain age beyond life's midpoint and the dog turned eight I reflected how we were growing old together, gracefully. Daily walks up and down the steep hill stiffened our joints. We both lost a step. Then we retired from running marathons. On long hot days we both needed a rest in the shade.

A few years passed and then he was the age of my father. To help the arthritis, we tried laser therapy and then a dog chiropractor.

"Could you adjust my spine too?" I asked the therapist.
"You'll have to lie down where the dog was - it's dirty," he said.
"It doesn't matter. I sleep with him anyhow."

Growing old together. Gracefully at first.

I bought diapers at "Babies R Us" for Bluey because he was having accidents at night, then during the day. They didn't fit. Catching samples of pee and trips to the vet. A bladder infection or incontinence? Prescriptions for a cranberry based herbal medicine worked for a while then didn't. Next, an incontinence supplement. Waking up every two hours at night to take him outside began to be tiring. And then he started throwing up. At first we thought it was from eating the seeds from a Queen Palm tree. Then we thought it was a change in the food as we had switched from home made beef and vegetables to chicken based meals.

The dog was a walking time bomb. At any moment he might throw up or pee or poop anywhere in the house. One learns humility from cleaning it up. We love him so it was just a task you do, cheerfully, like changing the diaper of the Princess when she was a baby. It was time for another trip to the vet. Why is this dog sick to his stomach so often?

Is it the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for his arthritis?  Blood tests, clear. X-ray, clear. Ultra-sound, not clear but inconclusive. Biopsy, no cancer found. But there's something in his stomach. We're not 100% sure what it is.

It's not easy running a veterinarian hospital. There is no Obamacare for pets. Everyday, animals in dying need arrive requiring urgent care. Vets need to earn a living too. Their education is among the most costly of any profession. Yet how many people can afford to spend $5,000 for an operation to save their dear pet's life? The vets have it in their power to save the animal but how is their practice going to survive providing free healthcare to canine patients? The reviews on Yelp of the clinic where we went are full of such stories: the choice between saving a loved companion or personal bankruptcy.

How we treat our animals tells us a lot about ourselves.  As individuals. As a society.

"I love Australian Shepherds," said the Vet's assistant.
I tell Bluey, "I bet she says that to all of the boys." She starts asking detailed questions about his diarrhea.  She's knowledgeable. She's smart. She speaks with authority. And I'm wondering if a guy has ever asked a girl out on a first date to inspect his dog's poop?

After more tests, the doctor comes back with his findings. There's an 80% chance of cancer. To know for sure he needs to operate.

What are the benefits of the operation? We may extend his life three to nine months. Is it worth extending the life of a dog suffering from arthritis? And what are the odds that he will be weakened even more from surgery and suffer during recuperation? This is an easy decision. Let his sickness take its course and we'll try to manage his symptoms and pain until it's time.

Our friend Richie says you'll know it's time when he know longer wants to eat and doesn't want to engage. He'll go off to a corner and be by himself. That will be his sign to you.

The Queen denies he has cancer. I'm suspicious the Rimadyl might have burned a hole in his stomach. I ask the doctor to treat him as if he had an ulcer.

We begin a routine of administering sucralfate to sooth the stomach then two hours later omeprazole to control his stomach acid - he seems to be continuously foaming at the mouth. In the afternoon we give him Cerenia to control his vomiting and it works and we try taking him off it a couple of days and he starts throwing up again so it's back on the meds.

Two 81-year old puppies.
In November, my parents arrive for a visit. Bluey loves his "grandparents" and he's so excited to see them. For the three days they are here, he doesn't stop talking. He's putting on a brave show. Dad gets down on all fours and it's such a treat to see two 81-year old puppies rollicking around on the floor.

At first it's easy to insert the pills into a piece of avocado or chicken. But over time, he not only stops eating avocado. He stops eating everything.

Coyote Karen came over to see Bluey. She recalls the time when her parents reached a point when it was too painful to swallow food. Both succumbed to cancer.

Bluey looses weight. He grows weaker. And I remember Richie's words. When he stops eating, he's telling you it's time.

I find myself picking him up into my arms and carrying him down the steep driveway so he can pee in a favorite spot.  I had practice taking care of  dad in the heart ward of a hospital after his valve replacement and bypass. We say Blue-Merle red wine cured him. But Bluey doesn't want to sip wine anymore.  He hasn't eaten in 24 hours. I get down on all fours and start ooooing and chewing the aromatic filet mignon from a dish on the ground as if enticing a baby. Yummy yum yum. He joins me and starts nibbling, eating like a very old man - with bits of food strewn all over the floor when he's finished.

Twenty-four hours later and he hasn't eaten since, this time the filet has no appeal. We open a can of dog food - this is the dog who has never eaten food from a can - but he eats half a can.  Small miracle. Relief. Another day's lease on life.

The Princess has come home for the holidays and after a couple of days of this routine declares: "This is the worst Christmas ever!"

Settling down for a long winter's nap.
Sweet dreams.
"But isn't it nice that we can spend the time together as a family? Let's go for a walk." All four of us head up the hill - I need to pick up Bluey and I realize I'm carrying my cross to the top of the hill. It's a dress rehearsal for his funeral and there's a tear in my eye and we reach the top with a view to the Pacific, macadamia trees and vineyard below -- his vineyard, named after him.

The sun is setting two days before Christmas and while I sit with the family in the sun's last warm rays Bluey heads for shade. He always sought shade. We call him over. The Queen starts singing a song horribly off key "Beautiful boy, beautiful boy, mama loves you, beautiful boy." We take a selfie.

"Dad, can we bury him here?" asks the Princess. And I suppose we will spend Christmas day digging his grave. Three feet down through this solid earth is a lot of work and I'm thinking it would be nice if she can help. Family activity. Burying your dog.

We walk down to the house and he doesn't eat. No filet mignon. No canned dog food. The Queen has an inspiration. She drives to the market to buy Gerber baby food. He eats the baby turkey dog, but doesn't touch the other food. He takes some Jarlsberg cheese. We wrap some bread around the cheese and he nibbles more. He will be with us another day.

The next day, he won't eat the Gerber. No filet. No dog food. No milk. We cook a Hebrew National kosher hot dog and he eats it this day. But not the next.

Let's cook him a lamb chop. That works. He's with us another day.

Let's cook lamb stew. That works.  He's with us another day.

Each day, he's a little thinner. The drool drips out of his mouth. He throws up some mornings, but I don't tell the others. One morning as he squats to do #2 blood oozes out. I wipe his butt and carry on. Thank goodness the incontinence has stopped. We can all sleep through the nights.

The princess is a good sport and she perseveres with efforts to entice him to eat. Finally, she uses an injector to suck up milk and soup and squirts it by hand into his mouth.

If we can show such compassion for a dog, what would the world be like if we shared as much love with our fellow humans? Will my daughter be there to wipe the spittle from my mouth, to feed me by hand, to wipe my butt during my last days?

Good wine is made in the vineyard and great wine is made by blending and a year ago at this time the 2012 wines were winners, so I thought, but a year later they are coming up short. With the Blue-Merle at my side, perhaps for the last time, we work to create artisan wines worthy of his name. But instead of staying with me as I taste and blend 13 barrels of wine, he sits outside. At least there's some good news, the 2013 wines are terrific. Bluey will go out a winner.

I found a mouse dead in a trap and usually I would release it from the trap's grip onto a shovel and dispose of it in the canyon adjacent to the vineyard but I was feeling a little tired from all of this and I just kept the mouse in the trap and buried it not far from the house. No need to worry about the weakened dog digging it up. The next day I walked up to the area and saw the exhumed trap on the path without a mouse. Bluey was licking his lips. No wonder the dog's stomach was upset.

Mr. Barry from Australia who named him told us "he will change your life." He was so right.

This story can have only one end. Even Lazarus raised from the grave succumbed eventually. Bluey lies on top of his bed on the floor, a bag of bones adorned with a magnificent main and natural fur coat. Remembering how a thin Steve Jobs felt suffering from cancer - always cold - I cover him with a blanket, stroke his fur, rub him behind his ears, pick the sand from the corner of his eyes. With lump in throat I lay my hands upon him as he sleeps, summon the Holy Spirit and pray aloud, "Lord, we are so grateful for all the joy Bluey has brought to our lives. Thank you Lord for looking after him during his final days and thank you for keeping him from pain. Please grant us the wisdom to care for him properly while he's with us, and in the fullness of time, may we all be reunited in your heavenly kingdom. Amen."

I whisper in his ear, "Good boy. Good boy. You can leave us if you want to" stroking his thick fur, so peacefully asleep. I quietly leave the room. A minute later I hear slow steps as he follows me, always tracking his sheep. It's not time yet.  One day at a time.

Today is the start of a new year. It's a wonderful day and we're together watching the sunrise. I pull the shank out of the boiling water, cool it, and offer him a morsel of tender meat. Then the bone.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Simple Winemaker's Dinner Recipe: Filet Mignon, Potatoes, Tomatoes, Asparagas

Filet Mignon, Medium Rare. Pair it
with Blue-Merle Winery "Merleatage."
I have been serving this meal since I graduated from high school. Easy enough for a young bachelor to make. The first occasion was a slide show for my friends after my first trip to Europe. The recipe is a filet mignon - BĂ©arnaise sauce optional - a potato dish, asparagus and a tomato dish.

Start with the potatoes. Peel them then slice. Slice an onion and place on top of potatoes in a cooking pan and add beef bouillon. Cook until done. Then, sprinkle Gruyere Cheese on top.

The tomato dish is also simple. Start with large beefsteak tomatoes. Slice in half, add a pat of butter on top of each tomato-half and drizzle with olive oil. Dash with dill if available. Cook until tender. Salt and pepper to taste. I would now recommend Hawaii Kai natural sea salt. A sprig of parsley. Ready.

The easy way for me to prepare asparagus is to place in pan, dash with olive oil, and then a bit of water. This will steam / boil the asparagus slightly to soften it up - then finish sautéing in olive oil, and if you're feeling decadent some butter. I love to finish off this dish with fresh lemon juice - which we have the luxury of picking from our orchard - and of course a little Hawaiian sea salt.

The fastest to cook of these dishes is the filet. I set the oven to broil. Place the filets on aluminum foil. Drizzle with oil. And place under the broiler. Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the filets and how you prefer them. For us, medium rare, sanglante. When finished, sprinkle a little Hawaii Kai sea salt on top.

Back in the day when I first made this meal I was a French wine aficionado, and would have served a Bordeaux. The most versatile wine we have for this meal is our 2009 "Merleatage," a blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah - in equal amounts - and then some Cab and a touch of Tempranillo to spice. The food brings out the fruit in the wine, which is easy to drink and has a nice structure, tannins and spice. The Petit Verdot provides a floral nose.

Writing this is making me hungry. Bon appetite!


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Always Be Writing Your Next Love Letter

This week is Papa Jack's birthday. I suppose he would have been 90. Jack McGinn was born in Savannah and after The War settled in North Carolina. He was a member of "the greatest generation." He defined it. He was a war hero. He was my hero. He and his family were our neighbors when we moved to Greensboro, NC and after our family moved to Connecticut we stayed in touch. When I moved back to North Carolina to attend college, Jack and Marjorie became my 2nd parents.  Papa Jacked passed away on Christmas Day, 2011. Although the Roman Catholic Church may not agree with this statement, he is my "Godfather," and he took me to mass every Saturday evening when I was in town. You would have loved him.

We attended his grand-daughter's wedding in May of this year, and his son Tommy shared Papa Jack's advice about maintaining a long, healthy marriage.  It was simple, powerful and true:


 "Always be writing your next love letter."

I'll be raising a glass of Jack Daniels this week toasting the memory of Papa Jack.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How Do You Get A Rattlesnake Out of the Birdnet?

Snake caught in bird netting to
protect grapevines.
Neighbor Merlot Mike gave us the dormant vine cutting 7 years ago. We planted that stick as the cornerstone to our vineyard along the fence at the edge of our property and it’s now the largest vine in the vineyard and the Vineyardista asked me not to trim the vine this year because I broke her heart last year when I cut it back so we could use the gate door of the back fence.  The vine stretches over ten feet along the chain links and is loaded with Merlot clusters.

A Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) became tangled in bird netting under the mother-lode vine at the corner of our property and the snake seems about as long as the vine.  There is always a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Always.

How do you remove a live rattlesnake from bird netting without a shotgun, 22 or shovel? Death was not an option. “Don’t kill it,” the Vineyardista pleaded. “The last time you killed a snake the princess became ill.”  Is not killing the rattlesnake you captured like pissing into the wind? After you let it go, what are the odds that it will come back to bite you (or worse, your dog)?

First,  I loosened  the net from where it was caught at the bottom of the fence, to Ms. Snake’s hissing and rattling. I could see a way to cut the net to free her, but it became clear she was tangled and would not be able to wriggle free. So, I called the SnakeBusters, aka our neighbor Steve who is something of a herpetologist with a naturalist’s respect for God’s great creatures, among which he includes snakes. When Steve arrived with a hoe this is what we did:

Releasing Tangled Rattlesnake From Bird Netting
1.       Cut netting around snake.
2.       Before cutting the final strands of net, Steve attempted to pin the snake’s head to the earth, so we could trim the net closer to the body. As the snake was on a steep slope of decomposed granite, traction was poor, and there was a chance Steve –could slip and fall onto the snake. (This California SnakeBuster works in sandals.)
3.       We cut the snake free of the snags and she crawled to lower ground.
4.       Steve climbed around the vines to level ground, met the snake, picked it up with his hoe and brought her to the dirt road by our shed. (Nothing like carrying a snake along a thin, steep path of grapevines. He could have easily slipped.)
Snake on ice.
5.       With Steve pinning the snake’s head down, we cut more of the net from the body.  Up close, we could see she was still tangled in net and potentially constricted.
6.       With darkness falling, we decided to bring the snake to the animal shelter in the morning, where they had the proper gear to take care of her.
7.       I picked out a wine fermenter (aka, 24 gallon Brute container). Steve lifted the snake into the container, and we put on a lid – leaving a crack for air. (Hint: Don’t knock over a  Brute container at your neighbor’s house in the country at night because you never know what’s inside.)
8.       In the morning, I checked on Ms. Snake. She was quite “genki” and still very pissed. I pulled the container to a shady area and she rattled at me.
9.       Back at the house, I tweeted and called the wild animal rescue shelter. I never got through.  Not seeing anything on their website about snake rescue, Steve and I discussed plan B.
1.   This was plan B, which in hindsight should have been plan A.
1.   After work, I bought two 10 lbs. bags of ice at the Deli.
1.   Got home, and carefully poured the crushed ice into the container. The first bag covered most of her. The 2nd bag covered her completely. The snake was iced at 6:30 pm
1.   At 8 pm, Steve came over with his hoe (his favorite snake tool).
1.   We dumped the container, with the snake emerging on the top of the ice.  She was moving slowly, but I would say not immobile by any means. Ideally, she would have been on ice a few hours. Instead, it was 90 minutes.  Still, she was moving much more slowly than the day before.
Southern Pacific Rattlesnake on Ice.
1.   Steve pinned the head down and I started cutting the net, which was flush against the skin at the tangled part. I apply enough pressure to get the blade under the net, without slicing the skin and wounding the snake. As I’ve had experience cutting out birds tangled in net, I feel I have the skill to do this.   I’m having trouble reaching the other end of the snake so with one hand on the hoe Steve grabs the other pair of scissors and we’re both cutting away. At last, Ms. Snake is net free, and she poses for a photo on ice.  Steve picks her up with the hoe and puts her back into the Brute container and advises, “He’s too cold to let go tonight. Some predator or coyote will get him when he’s all cold like that.  Let him thaw out overnight in the container and release him in the morning.”  We put the top over the container and pull her back.
1.   Steve calls Ms. Snake “him” but I’ve had experience with 1,000 year old cultivated snakes in China and I know that this is a snake princess from the Middle Kingdom who is seeking her revenge on me.
Steve manages the snake with his hoe.
1.   In the morning, I carry the container down to the open space canyon adjacent to our property, kick it over and out comes Ms. Snake, angry as ever. When I’ve let smaller snakes go in the past, they quickly scurry away, but Ms. Snake just sits there. I take “our favorite tool” (a stick we use to hang bird neck) and prod her down the hill as she rattles at me. I tell her the same thing I tell the birds I free from the nets: “Don’t come back.”

A friend asked me, “How long is she?”  Answer: “I don’t know – we were too busy to measure.” And we still didn’t measure her the 2nd day.  I would say she was big enough and she commanded our respect. Steve called her a beautiful specimen.

In hindsight, plan B would have been a good plan A. After we had trapped the snake the first night, that would have been the time to put her on ice (making sure there wasn’t so much ice she would drown when it melted) and to ice her “overnight.” A few more extra hours of cooling would have made her a bit easier to handle. 


Born Free.
In the back of my mind during this adventure is the story of the Texan who caught a snake during a rattlesnake round up and put it into his freezer.  He took it out several months later (presumably to cook) and when it thawed it bit him.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How Do You Train A Dog To Sniff Out Scorpions In The House?

What's the best how to train your dog to search and destroy scorpions in the house? The princess says she found one in her bed this morning. A new twist on the tale of "A Pea And The Princess." How did our daughter manage to wake up with a scorpion in her pajamas and not get stung? Welcome to country living. I think she's ready to move to downtown San Francisco.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"The Dogfather" Part I

Scene from "The Dogfather"
In scene 3 of "The Dogfather" Part I, Bluey (aka, Dogfather) discovers a bird of his flock has turned stool pigeon and is embezzling from the Family's property (grapes from the vineyard). Before the bird sings like a canary to bring in the Feds to investigate The Bootlegger's Express, Dogfather orders the hit. After the deed is done, Bluey utters these lines in the studio released version of the film: "Leave the nets. Take the cannoli." In the Director's cut, soon to be released on DVD, the Dogfather says: "Leave the bird. Take the grapes."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Say Hey To The 2011 Wines: It Was A Pretty Damn Good Year After All!

The Blue-Merle label features
a photo of the Cellar Master.
Blue-Merle Winery, a San Diego County ultra-boutique winery with production of 200 cases per year, has released three 2011 estate wines: a Tempranillo; a Petite Sirah, and a "Four Friends" blend of Grenache (50%), Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and a bit of Carignan. "They are all my favorite," said Craig Justice, Blue-Merle Winery's winemaker. "It's a good thing we produced a barrel of each wine - it would take me almost 3 years to drink them all at the rate of a bottle a day. This means there will be wine available for the public."

We featured the 2011 wines Saturday at the annual "San Diego County Wine Festival" a wine tasting event where over 20 San Diego wineries poured. Judging by the number of people who came back for 2nds and 3rds who said "Your wines are my favorite!" and "May I have a double?" and "May I hug you?" I would say the initial reaction has been favorable. (Attendees were limited to 12 tastes of the 50 or so wines available.)

The Cellar Master keeps watch over
Tempranillo grapes during veraison.
"I'm amazed they taste this good," said Jim K., wine manager of Escondido's Holiday Wine Center, referring to the young age of the wine.  His favorite (and that of his staff) is the "Four Friends" Grenache-blend which was aged in a new, hybrid American-French oak barrel, giving it stronger oak finish than the other wines, with hints of caramel and smoke.  The other two wines were aged in French oak barrels, so the oak flavors are lighter and more subtle (a style preferred by the winemaker).

Kelly Jones, the New York parfumista and the Scent Sommelier of Kelly & Jones fragrances said after trying a bottle of the 2011 Tempranillo, "This wine has changed my life." Tweeted Whitney Bond, author of the Little Leopard Book, "My new favorite wine @bluemerlewinery Tempranillo!  Minorly obsessed!"

"The 2011 Tempranillo is the best Tempranillo we've made so far," Justice said. "These wines represent everything we hoped for when we planted our vines in 2007," he said. "The good news is the 2012 wines aging in the barrels are tasting as good as the 2011 vintage."

What made the 2011 edition of Blue-Merle's wines better than previous years? "New barrels and battonage," said Justice, referring to a French term for stirring up the sediment at the bottom of a wine barrel to improve flavor and mouth-feel. "And, after 10 years of winemaking, we've finally figured it out," he said. "One other thing: it's the first year Stephanie and Sadie, two of our grape pickers, jumped into the pick bin and stomped the grapes."

Key steps used in the Blue-Merle's winemaking process include:

* Inspecting every grape cluster before harvest.
* Harvest at a minimum of 24 brix (and not much higher to keep alcohol at or below 14%).
* Foot stomping (very therapeutic for the winemakers and grape pickers)
* Cold soaking for three days after harvest and crush to extract wonderful fruit flavors and color from the must (without hard tannin extraction).
* During cold soak remove every stem (which contains harsh, astringent tannin) from the grape juice.
* Press gently by hand using a ratchet press, so as not to extract too many harsh tannins.
* Malolactic fermentation is induced after pressing.
* One to two months after the wine has settled, the gross lees (sediment) at the bottom of the tanks is stirred up to improve flavor.
* After the wine has settled, racked into new oak barrels (using softer French oak or hybrid French-American oak barrels).
* Not filtering the wines.
* Bottling using a small, gentle Enolmatic bottle filler.

The end result: "Our best wines yet."  So much so, the Blue-Merle Winery has entered them into the Sommelier Challenge, a prestigious wine competition organized by the Wine Guru Robert Whitley.

Here are the winemaker's notes about each of the new wines:

2011 Estate Petite-Sirah
Yummy purple! The 2011 Petite-Sirah is a delightful balance between fruit, acid and tannins with beginning, middle and end.  A big wine yet at only 13% alcohol still easy to drink, enjoyable with or without food.  Deep purple, opaque color, tastes of currants, plumbs. Bulk aged sur lees with battonage for 20 months in new French oak barrel. Unfiltered, only 24 cases produced.  One of the winemaker’s favorites.  If you’re a Petit-Sirah fan, this wine is for you. 

2011 Estate Tempranillo
Cherries!  This is the best Tempranillo we’ve produced and everything the winemakers dreamed about. Classic Tempranillo nose with a bite of cherry fruit, balanced acid and tannins, an enjoyable, lingering finish. Bulk aged 19 months sur lees with battonage in new French oak barrel.  Unfiltered, only 24 cases produced.

2011 "Four Friends" – A Grenache Blend
A delicious, delightful Rhone-style blend, 50% Grenache, blended with Tempranillo, Petite-Sirah and Carignan.  All of the grapes estate grown, except for the Carignan which came from the next valley over. Aged in a new hybrid French – American oak barrel 14 months, notes of caramel, smoke, cherries.  Another terrific wine from the 2011 vintage!  May be enjoyed with or without food.
The retail price of each wine is $35 and may be purchased direct from the winery (online, via email or over the phone) or if you live in San Diego they are available at Major Market (Escondido) and the Holiday Wine Center (Escondido). The Blue-Merle Winery's tasting room is at the Hidden Valley Enoteca on the Escondido Wine & Culinary Campus, and is open Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am - 5 pm. 

For additional information, Blue-Merle Winery's website is www.bluemerlewinery.com and the winemakers may be contacted on Twitter @bluemerlewinery or Instagram @bluemerlewinery .  If you are interested in trying wines grown and made in San Diego Country, be sure and try Blue-Merle Winery.