Sea Breeze Farm, on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, is a hive of activity that produces an impressive array of products, including cheese, cow milk, chicken eggs, chickens, duck eggs, lamb, and wine. We visited the farm as part of King County’s Harvest Celebration Tour.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Sea Breeze added honey to their output, or if they do produce honey and I’ve missed that, since they are busier than most beehives. The bees could learn a few things from their intern, Jeff, who makes cheese and tends to the vats of fermenting grape must.
Grape must eventually becomes wine. I have seen the cellars of a number of wineries and untold bottles of wine, including a bottle Sea Breeze’s Pinot Noir. Their Pinot is a brambly, stinky, fruitful critter made on the island with grapes from Columbia Valley. When Jeff mentioned that he needed to perform his twice daily chore of tending the fermenting grapes, we jumped at the opportunity.
Growing and crushing
Wine-making is a tricky task, complicated by a number of factors. Terroir, the French term for the qualities imparted by soil to what is grown on the soil, is the most consistent factor, followed by the vines, though vines can succumb to parasites and pests. The wildcard is the weather, which can be perfect or awful right up through harvest time. Pick too soon and the berries won’t have enough flavors. Wait too long, and rain or frost might ruin the crops. And that’s just growing the grapes. Making wine is a separate challenge.
Most winemakers use machines to remove stems and leaves and then crush grapes. Sea Breeze crushes their grapes the old fashioned way – with clean, bare feet. If that disturbs you, fair reader, then I should mention that a noted Willamette Valley winemaker uses a full-body crushing method.
“What about body hair?” I asked the Butter Bitch.
“It all gets filtered out in the end,” she assured me.
After the crush, the grapes, juice, and stems are put in containers and yeast is added. The wild thing about Sea Breeze is their yeast. They rely on wild yeast, which is a first in our experience. Considering the quality of their wine, Vashon Island must have very good yeast strains floating in the air.
Must mix the must
The crushed grape mixture is known as must, perhaps for the musty smells produced. Fermentation produces carbon gases, a kind of yeast burp. Alcohol is yeast poop, by the way. After he uncovered the plastic vats, Jeff warned us not to stick our heads into the vats. Sniffing over the wine must was fine, but carbon gases accumulated in the vats could overwhelm us. He told us that people have lost consciousness over wine vats, fallen face first into the must, and drowned. We kept our distance until the gases had blown off.
In addition to the brambly flavor lent by the stems, the must receives tannins and color from the grape skins. Jeff pushes down the cap of berries and stems, which floats on top of the grape must, to oxygenate the mixture and aid fermentation. Each vat was the size of a kiddy swimming pool. Since he performs this task on all six vats twice per day, he was happy to have our help.
Four of us rolled up our sleeves, washed our hands and forearms, and gathered around the first vat. Jeff leaned in with gusto and we followed suit. I felt a shock of cold go up my arms as I shoved a clump of grape vines into the Cabernet must. The vats are sheltered inside a barn that doesn’t get very warm.
When we started, the top layer of each vat was a drying clump of vines. Jeff’s only advice was to push and mix the vines until they were mostly under the purple liquid. When we finished, we scraped the sides of the vat and slicked off the grape juice from our arms into the frothy vat.
I quickly acclimated to the cold, and with five people the task went quickly. The sixth vat presented a different shock. These grapes, Pinot Noir, were further in the fermentation process and the must was pleasantly warm.
Why should grapes travel a short distance between vineyard and winery? Travel increases exposure to the elements, but in the case of the Pinot Noir grapes another problem had occurred. Normally, grapes are stacked in flats such that they aren’t crushed in transit. The grapes arrive whole at the winery. The plastic flats of Pinot Noir grapes had been stacked incorrectly and the grapes arrived already crushed by the weight of the stack. Jeff worried aloud that they grapes had started fermenting by the time they arrived at the farm.
Jeff took samples from each vat to test back at the farm and we covered the vats. Our work finished, we followed him up the hill to the farm proper. Sea Breeze rents a barn down the hill for wine crushing and fermentation. On the way up the hill, Jeff explained that the farm’s owner, George Page, started making wine in a wine club. Over time, he assumed more responsibility for winemaking until he was being paid by the other members to make wine and managing the entire process. Sea Breeze now sells wine at farmers’ markets.
Back on the farm, Jeff sat on the porch steps and measured the wine using some tools that are familiar to home brewers. Each sample was poured into a cylinder and the gravity was measured with a manual hydrometer (public domain picture courtesy of WikiPedia). From this measurement, a brewer or winemaker can determine the amount of sugar in the liquid. By comparing the original gravity and final gravity, an estimate of alcohol content can be made. The alcohol percentage listed on a bottle is an estimate of strength, and that percentage may vary by plus or minus 1 percent. He also had a small electronic device to test the acidity of the wine.
Tasting grape must was an interesting experience. Consumers can go to winery open houses and taste barrel samples, but those samples typically have finished fermentation and are aging in wood or steel. The final product will depend on how the wine is blended, but you can tell that you are drinking wine.
Grape must tastes more like grape juice with a little zing and some interesting flavors. The first Cabernet tasted a lot like Tart N Tinys, but not quite like pixie sticks. The second Cabernet was more like a watermelon Jolly Rancher. The Merlots tasted like raspberry-blackberry jam and were enjoyable as grape drinks, with lots of promise to be good wines. The Pinot Noir, which was advanced in its fermentation, was harsh and had a plastic taste. We hope that it will turn out well, but it is too early to tell. The wine may develop nicely, may end up blended into other wines, or may go off.
Earlier, in the combination cheese and wine cellar, Jeff had mentioned the use of wild yeast. The Butter Bitch asked him how many batches of wine they had lost, and the answer was none. Here’s hoping the string of luck holds.