Winemaking in Woodland Hills? Why not?
Grapevines can be grown almost anywhere, including Woodland Hills, which has the highest recorded temperatures in the summers and lowest in the winters in Los Angeles.
Mike Gard, who lives in the hills just south of Ventura Boulevard and west of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, has been making his own wine for 15 years.
Gard’s interest in winemaking, a process of biochemical reactions, would seem to be a natural extension of his own career as a chemical engineer. Gard, 74, retired nearly 15 years ago from Tosco, an independent oil company in Century City. He is also descended from vintners.
“Growing up in the Midwest, I watched my father and grandfather make wine from dandelions and from cherries,” Gard said.
In his vineyard, Gard grows varieties of red grapes, including pinot noir, barbara, petite sirah, zinfandel and merlot; and white, including sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and muscat. Depending on quantities produced in a given year, he may occasionally blend different varieties of red – or white – together. Blending a red variety together with a white, however, is not advised.
Gard recommends that vines be regularly watered during their first three years in the ground. After that, they require little, if any water other than winter rain. The taproots of grapevines grow to a depth of 25 to 40 feet. Gard’s vineyard is situated on a slope, the preferred terrain for grapes, which are somewhat cold-sensitive. Cold air never settles on a slope but runs down and away from it like water.
Grapevines, like fig trees, produce fruit on shoots that begin growing in the spring. Prune vines back in winter, after the leaves have fallen.
The winemaking process is as old as civilization itself, but has been refined, over the years, through science and technology. The basic steps, however, remain the same.
The process begins with stripping, or removing the grapes from the vines. Gard strips most of his grapes in September; the remaining clusters ripen up for a second harvest in October. After stripping, the grapes are crushed. Gard accomplishes this task with the butt end of a 2-by-6-foot piece of oak wood. One alternative is to use your feet – if you don’t mind getting red-stained, sticky toes.
At the moment crushing is done, a packet of wine yeast is added to the bucket or container that holds the mashed grapes. This begins the process of primary fermentation, which lasts five to seven days. During this critical period, punching down must be done frequently. Punching down is the submersion of grape skins and seeds as they rise to the top of the juice. The flavor of a wine is determined by its skins and seeds; if they do not soak sufficiently in the juice during primary fermentation, the flavor is lost. The flavor can also be influenced by the type of wine yeast that is used; half a dozen types are available.
After a week of punching down and fermentation, the next step is pressing, which is done with a device that separates the must (pulp, skins and seeds) from the juice. The juice is decanted into a glass jug, which is filled as close as possible to the top. The reason for filling nearly to the top is to prevent oxygen, which will turn the juice to vinegar, from entering the jug. The jug is then corked with a special air-lock cap; this is a stopper with a one-way valve that allows carbon dioxide (produced when sugar turns to alcohol) to leave the jug but prevents oxygen from entering it.
Now that the jug has been properly ventilated, what remains is the secondary fermentation process – a three- to four-month period.
When secondary fermentation is complete, the finished wine is poured into bottles. A final waiting period of four to six months should elapse before the wine is drunk. This delay between bottling and drinking is known as dumbing down.
“Wine is a delicate substance. WheTnever it is disturbed, even by being poured from one container into another, it should be given plenty of time to settle – in order to regain its stability and balance its flavors – before being drunk,” Gard explained. “Some wineries are constructed on slopes so that all decanting is done by gravity flow. In this way, agitation of the developing wine is minimized.”
Nearly all wine grapes, whether red or white, have white juice. The color of red wine is imparted by the skins of red grapes, which are punched down during primary fermentation as explained above. A rose wine is created when the red grape skins are removed from the juice early in the fermentation process. You can even produce white wine from red grapes – as in white zinfandel – if the red skins are removed at the very beginning of fermentation.
Wine should be stored in a cool place, whether under the house or in a closet, but not in a kitchen or next to a water heater. The life of wine is shortened when the storage temperature exceeds 55 or 60 degrees.
White wine will rarely keep for more than five years, but red wine will keep for 50 years or longer. Within these time frames, the flavor improves with age as the acids in the wine are broken down and sharp-flavored, high-alcohol molecules are converted into smoother, low-alcohol ones.
If wine is kept too cold or refrigerated, cream of tartar (a precipitate of tartaric acid) will form as white crystals under the cork; not to fear, this substance is entirely harmless. The sediment that is sometimes seen on the bottom of wine bottles is a remnant of grape pulp and skins, but is no indication of wine quality.
The Home Winemaking Shop, at 22836 Ventura Blvd. in Woodland Hills, carries all the supplies needed for making wine. The shop, which also stocks supplies for whipping up beer and cheese at home, has been in business for 25 years.
John Daume, a shop worker, said customers come from all over the Southland. Most buy premium grapes and juice and let the chemical reacTtions begin at home. A few grow their own grapes. “It depends on who has a back yard,” Daume said.
The shop is the only one of its kind in the San Fernando Valley. Acton Home Brewing Supply in Palmdale and Marabella Vineyards in San Pedro also carry equipment and supplies for making wine.
Winemaking in Woodland Hills? Why not?