“We’ve been making wine for 3,000 years, how hard can it be?” George, my vinicultural Jedi master, was fond of repeating that deceptive statement. For several years, George and I batched our separate Zweigelt grape harvests together, and then he would do the technical vinting part. I would be around to help with the crush, and later to wash bottles and press corks. Eighteen months after each harvest, I was the grateful recipient of several cases of the lovely ruby-red Zweigelt, to which I affixed my own appellation: Yippee Calle. Regrettably, George and his wife Gerri moved from the Okanagan in 2016, but just prior to their departure, George brought me two 23 liter glass carboys full of the 2015 Zweigelt harvest, still fermenting. “Rack it in December, and then bottle it in June of 2017,” he said, making it sound so easy. I carefully stored the carboys in our unheated cellar, along with the black widows and boxes of childhood momentos our kids have yet to claim.
The racking went okay. You transfer the young wine from a full carboy to an empty one, leaving half a bottle worth—and the residue—in the bottom. George had instructed me to top up the newly filled carboy right to the top with a bottle of plonk—to exclude as much oxygen as possible. There was no way I was going to pour bad wine after good, so I cracked a bottle of the precious 2014 Zweigelt, to top things up.
All through the month of May the two silent carboys weighed in the back of my mind. Would the June bottling be successful? Did I have all the right paraphernalia? What if I’d already wrecked the wine? Three millennia of anxiety pressed down.
June arrived. Taking a preparatory inventory, I had plenty of bottles, but no corks. All that was on offer at the winemaking store were plastic corks of standard length, and short ones made of real cork. I debated with myself, and opted for the short real corks; there was already enough plastic in my life. If the wine started to go bad because of short corks, I planned to start an accelerated drinking program.
The cork dilemma resolved, it was time to set up a bottling station in the kitchen. First I brought up the two full carboys from the cellar. One at a time, I negotiated the steep, rickety stairs, holding the carboy like a sleeping child so as not to awaken the sediment. Then a few more trips to fetch the empty bottles and the corking machine. The carboys were set up on the kitchen counter, with bottles bunched tightly on the floor just below them, so I could gently and continuously siphon wine to fill each bottle. I knew this would be a messy process, so I put a bunch of bath towels down first. Fortunately the towels were all of a dark red color.
The siphon. I had bought this crucial piece of equipment custom, a rigid tube that had a baffle at the bottom–to avoid siphoning up wine residue. The siphon was just the right length: when placed in the carboy, the shepherd’s crook at the top projected a few inches above the carboy mouth. But it did not come with a hose, so I bought a length of aquarium hose at a petshop, and slid one end on to the top of the siphon. Everything now in place, it was now time to prime the siphon, and allow gravity to do its work. I emulated George’s deft, time-honored and highly symbolic move, bending down to suck on the far end of the hose, then switching the hose from mouth to bottle just when full siphon is achieved, but not before you are left with a surprisingly pleasant half-mouthful of young wine.
It was working! I sat back to relax for a minute, and then saw the bubbles. Wine hates oxygen, and there was a tiny stream of air bubbles entering the wine flow right where I had attached the hose to the siphon. Panicked, I shut everything down. Crimped the hose with a gear clamp at the connection point, to no avail. Added a second gear clamp, but the evil bubbles continued. I went back to the petshop and bought a smaller diameter hose, plus a short connecting fitting that would go inside both the siphon and the hose. The air leak continued but the bubbles were less dramatic, so I was making progress. I pulled out the fitting, and wrapped it with plumber’s Teflon tape, which has essentially no thickness, and after wrapping on about twelve feet of it, I finally achieved an airtight, wine-worthy seal, and re-started the bottling process.
The trick to filling the bottles is to get that all-important half inch of airspace between the wine and the bottom of the cork. George could hit it bang on, by switching the siphon hose from the newly filled bottle to the next empty one, at precisely the right time. I was overfilling one bottle and underfilling the next, so once the carboys were emptied I had to laboriously readjust the levels in most bottles, using a funnel and a spare bottle.
The final stage was bottling, which actually went quite smoothly. The corking machine consists of a spring-loaded platform for the bottle, a receptacle that holds the cork, and a lever that pushes the cork into the bottle. As you begin to press down on the lever, the cork holder compresses the cork slightly. Then you press harder, the cork slides down just the right distance into the neck of the bottle, a satisfying thump is heard when the lever reaches the end of its travel, and you have finished corking the bottle. Slide that bottle into the waiting 12-compartment cardboard wine box, position the next bottle, load in a new cork, and repeat.
It was suppertime when I finished lugging the wine boxes down into the cellar and cleaned up the kitchen floor. The half liter or so of chewy wine left in the bottoms of the carboys called out to me, so what the hell. I emptied it into a large wineglass, residue and all, and enjoyed it with a supper of sockeye salmon marinated in fresh Saskatoon juice.