This is part 4 of the From Ripple to RagApple series. If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.
After Shuster Cellars closed, I didn’t think that I’d have a chance to be a professional winemaker again. There were few opportunities in Pennsylvania at the time and so I tried to decide what I wanted to do. I ended up going to college for the first time in my life and decided to study computer science. I still kept in touch with my winemaking by working in a wine and beer making supply store while I went to school.
One day, when I arrived home very late after evening class, there was a voice message on my answering machine. It was rather cryptic. All it said was “this is Tony Debevc at Chalet Debonne’. Give me a call”. Well, I had been to Chalet Debonne’ Vineyards in Madison, Ohio once, so I knew it existed. I called Tony the next day and he said he was looking for a winemaker and he had heard my name from so many different people, he decided to call me and see if I was interested in the position. So, I drove to Madison and interviewed.
We talked about winemaking, what I had done, what I considered to be a good wine from other commercial producers in the world, what grapes I had worked with, my lab experience, and then they took me on a tour of the place. The one thing I remember is that they had a couple of pallets of wine sitting in the cellar that had a problem with some sort of precipitation. I recognized it immediately as protein. This is something that needs to be lab tested during the creation of a wine and, if present, and dealt with before bottling so that it does not happen in the bottle that a consumer has purchased. Apparently they were sufficiently impressed because I was offered the winemaker position. I never did finish those computer science classes.
When I started at Debonne’, I lived in an apartment for 10 months until our house sold in Pennsylvania, we bought a house, and my husband, Tom, moved to Madison. It was a little like coming home as we were both raised in the suburbs of Cleveland. While at Debonne’, for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to take a couple of extension wine classes at the University of California at Davis (considered one of the best enology and viticulture schools in the world). What a thrill that was! More expansion of knowledge…you never stop learning!
Chalet Debonne’/Debonne’ Vineyards was quite a different place from Shuster Cellars, which was a fairly small winery making about 8,000 to 10,000 cases a year. Debonne’ Vineyards is the largest estate winery (that means they grow all their own grapes) in Ohio with over 100 acres of grapes. They produce 25,000 to 30,000 cases of wine annually. Their operation spans 4 buildings with underground lines, and uses over 100 tanks. They also have a large juice house operation that sells thousands of gallons of freshly pressed juice to amateur winemakers and small wineries.
The main winery is underground in the main building that was built in the ‘70s. As they grew, there was no place to expand to, so other buildings were erected. With four buildings holding tanks (and, actually, 5 locations since there were also some tanks upstairs in the main building), wine movement was done through underground lines and the use of walkie-talkies. One person had to run the pump in the one building while the other watched the fill of the tank in the other building. It was quite a challenge. We prayed we would not lose transmission, but it occasionally happened.
I discovered first hand the perils involved in pumping from one location to another and not having control of the pump. One time I was at the receiving tank end, watching the fill level slowly rise. Since I knew it would take a while to fill that large tank and “a watched pot never boils,” I had brought some paperwork to do in the meantime. After what I thought was a short time, I proceeded to climb the ladder to the top of the tank to see how it was doing. Just as I got to the top, the wine overflowed the tank. In the typical fashion of a mother, I yelled into the walkie-talkie “shut it off, shut it off, shut it off!!” in about a 2 second time frame. Fortunately, the cellar guy was paying attention and quickly shut off the pump. We didn’t lose much wine. Unfortunately, I had taken quite a bath and, of course, you guessed it, it was red wine. Now this type of thing presents a problem when one is driving home from work. I certainly did not want a state trooper to ask me to roll down my window. The aroma would be difficult to explain. Also, my husband, being the wise man he is, was smart enough to not ask me how my day went when he noticed that my underwear was purple. Winemaking is definitely a good choice for the TV show “Dirty Jobs”.
At Debonne’ we made a number of wine blends. Blending large lots was a logistical nightmare since the largest tanks indoors were 3500 gallons (we had two outside that were 6500 gallons but only could be used at certain times due to weather) and one blend we did was about 19,000 gallons. So the wine had to be blended into various sized tanks that were located in the different buildings. In addition, whatever you have left must end up in full tanks so there is no air on top to cause the wine to oxidize (I will talk about this more later). Sometimes, it took me almost two days to write up the work order to have it all transferred in the correct order and end up right. But I grew with the challenge and became very good at logistics, something that has served me well in many a situation.
The other thing that was so different from my previous experience at Shuster Cellars was all of the things they did to involve customers in the winery and get them to visit. The winery is open some very late hours and has a wine bar with live music. They also host all sorts of activities, from Hot Air Balloon Festivals to Bocce Ball tournaments, and they offered many food and wine pairing events that I was involved in. So it was yet another expansion on my experiences and each thing I did taught me something new.
Next Week: The Cow Jumps over the Moon