Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bordeaux on the Hudson

Back a dozen or so years ago, when work was slow and things were tough, Greg and his wife had a routine to escape the malaise. They would drop their then toddler off at her grandparents, and head to a local vineyard. There they would get a bottle and a couple of glasses, and sit outside looking over the hills. Amid sips and stares, things didn't look so bad, and they could imagine a better future. And wouldn't it be fun, they mused, if that future might someday include a vineyard of their own, where they could repeat the experience with a vino of their own vintage.

Several years later when they were checking out a new home, they discovered a bonus. Formerly owned by an old Italian gentlemen, the house had a patio with a pergola, an open topped frame that helped to define the space and kept things cooler in the summer. And what was growing up and around the structure? Not just any vines, but grapevines loaded with fruit suitable for corking.

Greg describes it as the quintessential case of be careful what you wish for. When I talked to him the other day, he was only too happy to chat: "I need a break from the harvest." For that erstwhile dream a dozen years ago has blossomed into an all-consuming hobby, one like any other that has its benefits and drawbacks.

"We grow about 200 pounds of grapes a year, in two varieties," he told me. The first is Catawba, a red grape that they use to produce a white wine. The other is Cesar, a notoriously fickle grape that produces a dark, tannic wine that is usually softened by blending with a Pinot Noir. "Other than the fact that we grow a difficult grape in the wrong soil and in the wrong climate, it's a piece of cake," he said.

Once picked, they have to squeeze out the juice. Like many non-wine making consumers, my only frame of reference is Lucy stomping around in a big vat. Greg just laughed: "Two things about that. One, grape stems are pretty sharp, and it actually hurts to step on them. And second, would you want to drink anything my feet stomped on? Yes, the alcohol produced would kill off anything harmful, but it's not a pretty picture."

Rather than go the Lucy route, he uses a stainless steel system that handles the processing, and has the added benefit of not turning his feet purple. And literally, there is a bright spot at the end. "I've always wanted a Ferrari," says Greg, "and my corker is made by a company called Ferrari. I still hope someday to have a sleek, red one, but for now this will do."

The math works out this way: 200 pounds of grapes yields about 19 gallons of liquid, which equates to about 95 bottles of wine. I asked him about any tax implications: do the "revenuers" of the government come looking for their cut? Turns out that federal law says that you can make up to 200 gallons a year for personal use. "But that's like a thousand bottles of wine, which equals about 3 bottles a day per person. Now, that's some serious drinking."

Of course, the test is in the tasting. "In our case, we let it mellow for about a year. It softens it, and creates a better flavor." They play with the process and the time a bit, seeing how they can tweak it to make it better. Greg says it will never ripen into a "colossal Bordeaux," but it's fun and it's drinkable. "What we get tends to be very dry, very alcoholic, and after a couple of glasses, starts to taste not too bad."

As to the name they bestow on their creation, they keep it simple: "We call it Plonk Blanc and Plonk Rouge." I looked up "plonk." It's an "unspecific and derogatory term in British and Australian English for wine that is notably inexpensive or judged to be of poor quality." Rather, in this case, it's Greg's homage to his favorite London Barrister, Horace Rumpole. After a long day at the old Bailey, Rumpole would stop into Pomeroy's Wine Bar for a glass of the "House Plonk - Chateau Thames Embankment."

But there's another way of looking at it as well. UK journalist Max Davidson equates plonk with "youth, excess, self-indulgence in times of penury. Forget grown-up wine. With plonk, the sweetest bouquet of all is the taste of a few pence saved." On that note, Greg, I raise my glass.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can't say he knows much about wine beyond that he likes it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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