Crush at Cloudlift, Another Autumn Ritual
By Joannie Stangeland
It’s the first week of September, and my husband left at 5:00 this morning
to drive 553 miles across the mountains and back for about a ton and a half of grapes. This Sauvignon Blanc is his first haul
of the season, and so crush begins.
Tom Stangeland makes things—furniture is his trade. When he started to
collect wine, he realized he needed to learn how to make wine. So he went back to school and six years later we have Cloudlift Cellars. Barrels and tanks nestle between table saws, a band saw, a planer, a run of chairs in progress. The office now doubles as
a tasting room. And we have a new rhythm in our year.
Months before any grapes get crushed, Tom works on sourcing fruit from growers
on the dry eastern side of Washington State. As the grapes approach maturity, Tom and the growers start daily monitoring and
sampling to find just the right moment to pick.
When the grapes are ready, they won't wait. That's why Tom's on the road now.
Each year I feel a little thrill when I arrive on crisp morning at the sunny
lot in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood and walk into the shop to see the clusters waiting in the bins. Taste one.
Super sweet and mostly seed.
We start to load the grapes--into the press if they're whites, into the destemmer-crusher
if they're reds. We flip the switch.
While we’re hefting ton after ton of fruit into buckets, with eyes sharp
for stunned ladybugs, spiders, and stinging insects, we share stories, share our thinking and our lives, with a generous dose
of joking and teasing.
When I look at the photographs from other years or savor a glass of Cabernet
Franc, I reflect on those past seasons. I remember the first year, with the crusher that didn't pull the stems out, so we
had to reach into the crushed fruit and pick them out by hand. I can hear the medieval clank of our old basket press. I feel
dusk creeping over my shoulder during the long washing up. I see our friends and our friends' friends and our kids' friends.
We’ve had a lot of help, and we’ve needed all of it.
Wine-making is not a one-man job. It's a funny kind of family time, and a kind
of community. And while it seems romantic when you’re considering it over a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, when you’re
up to your elbows in grapes, making wine mostly feels sticky.
Now that we have juice, it must ferment. For the reds, that means a 12-hour cycle
of punching down the hard cap the skins make and testing the sugar levels, the brix—nurturing the yeast along until
the wine’s dry and can go into barrel. The shop will smell like bread rising, a warm aroma at six in the morning.
Then the reds will be pressed off their skins. The wine will be moved into barrels.
And the rest is monthly tending, testing, and mostly waiting—up to two years, all the time wondering and some worrying
how it will come out.
Almost finally, it's time to blend the wine. Tom wants to make the best wine
possible--and that's why he likes to create blends, to choose the combinations that pull out and celebrate the flavors, the
subtle notes. Think of it as music: You add a bass line, a descant, create a chord that sings on your palate.
All that's left is bottling—getting the wine from the barrel to where you
can drink it.
Wine-making is all about process. It teaches me things and often makes me think
of writing, how much is process—from rough draft through revisions, maybe workshops, learning the reactions from friends
and trusted readers, and the value of waiting, letting the work age and mature in your head even as you grow from who you
were yesterday, find new depths and perspectives.
For us, the wine’s turned out well. All our 2009 reds and 2010 whites have
won awards. Last Sunday, we bottled the 2010 reds—256 cases. That was a long day--imagine smelling wine at 9:00 in the
morning, cherry and smoke so many hours before any glass is poured. It's a production line, a fast little factory. But now
three blends are in the bottle, resting until they’ve settled.
We try to keep track of the years--what's in bottle, barrel, and bin. We'll see
what these next seasons bring.
Joannie Stangeland is The Smoking Poet's poetry editor. Her poetry book, Into the Rumored Spring, is available from Ravenna Press. Joannie
is also the author of two poetry chapbooks—A Steady Longing for Flight, which
won the Floating Bridge Press chapbook award, and Weathered Steps from Rose Alley
Press. Joannie has been a Jack Straw Writer and has taught classes at Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and her poems have appeared
in numerous journals and on Seattle-area buses.