The Homemade Wine Critic

16 Aug

I remember the first time that I announced to my Dad and his wino buddies that I was thinking of studying winemaking. I was standing around a large plastic tub filled with bobbing black grapes, my Dad was off to one side carrying an emptied wooden crate, family friend Dino held his home-made macerating device in the tub, cousin Julian was having a debate with my Dad, while cousin John wielded the hose and was seen cleaning the machinery post-crushing. It was a typical homemade winemaking setting, with Dino’s mother Rita standing by to complete the picture.

The initial anxiety I had about proclaiming ‘the winemaking dream‘ was attributed to the fact that it was definitely the more narrow educational pathway to take; not one as broad or as classic as Commerce and Science; areas of study that the majority of students would endeavour to enter. It turns out, I should not have been so concerned with their reaction.

That day I caught the men’s attention by testing the waters with, “Hey guys, I had a chat with the Careers Counsellor today at school about what we’re considering applying for at university…and I’m thinking…winemaking…

The response? My announcement was met with applause, smiles and positive reinforcement! The grape glut was yet to be truly felt and as spectators to the industry there was simply no negativity or doubt in sight! I was told I could travel the world making wine. I was told I had the nose for winemaking (better than being told you have a face for radio). The men were already hypothesising that I may one day run my own vineyard and winery. They were genuinely stoked and I think somewhat proud that their rustic means of making vino had had some profound effect on the future outlook of the field this young lady wanted to pursue.

They were not the only ones to get all giddy. As I would later find out in the upcoming years, a normally short conversation between an adult and a student pertaining to the ubiquitously asked question , ‘So what are you studying at university?’, became much longer when ‘winemaking‘, was your answer and you were congenitally sarcastic in nature:

Adult: “Sorry, did you say winemaking?!”

Student: “Yes, winemaking. The making of wine. Turning grapes into wine. Yeast. Fermentation. All that stuff.

Adult: “Wow! How exciting! That sounds like so much fun! [Nudging student with their elbow] So you study how to drink alcohol then, do you? [Chuckle chuckle]

Student: “Yes, we become somewhat-versed in drinking alcohol through this course.

Adult: “I never knew such a course existed!

Student: “It’s called a perk of doing your research before finishing high school.

I conducted plenty of this so-called ‘research’ into the role before admitting whole-heartedly to the school Careers Counsellor that I was going to commit to it. I must not discount an all-important and fated visit to the nearby Shadowfax winery where I was accompanied by my Dad to speak with winemaker Matt Harrop about his work. Matt often recalls our first meeting fondly, siting it in reference to a drop in by the Godfather, including images of my Dad putting his hand on Matt’s shoulder and commanding him in that throaty Don Corleone voice to, “Teach my daughter about wine“.

Let’s make it clear now that that never happened…but Matt will forever vehemently insist that is how I got my job there.

The three-year winemaking course took place during the peak period of the grape glut. I recall that at the beginning of our study the Professor had informed us that we would graduate here and would experience absolutely no issue whatsoever finding work wherever we wanted in Australia. As the course progressed and the nature of the issue called ‘too many winemakers not enough wineries’ grew more apparent and the domestic market became more crowded, those initially confident outbursts of a plethora of winemaking jobs faded into whispers and by our final semester the tone was significantly different.

Despite the negative outcome there was always a positive side to studying winemaking: Having the Italian men of Werribee South realise that you’re gradually becoming just as much of a wine geek as them had the ramifications of being approached for advice at all the family events.

Allow me to explain.

Perhaps this scenario has not happened to many people before…maybe I’m the ‘lucky’ one? I suppose it is a pretty specific situation though. One where the criteria involved includes:

(a) You’re from an Italian background

(b) You have lots of male cousins who make their own wine

(c) You have some male cousins who think that they make the best wine in the west (of Melbourne and/or the world)

(d) You have some male cousins who think that commercially produced wines are pretty naff when you can just make your own wine and drink that all year ’round

(e) You have yourself completed a ‘winemaking’ degree which apparently now gives you some sort of credibility

(f) You don’t mind the odd chat with older gentlemen

If you tick all the above boxes then perhaps yes, you’ll be able to relate to this story:

It is the weekend – the time when people let loose and relax and do not have to think about work.

I head off to a family function and walk into the party held in the backyard or garage, somewhere where a large group of people can create the least mess.

I do the rounds, lots of kissing on the cheeks, the occasional squeeze of the cheeks (the ones on your face), before finally settling down with a group of cousins, grabbing a plate of food (always) and acting my own age (never).

I feel a tap on my shoulder. Turning around I see the faces of four of my uncles or cousins or family friends pulling me out from the comfort of familiar conversation and into a circle where all of a sudden, I am the centre of attention.

How’s the winemaking course going, Krystina?”

“Yeah, not bad, just finished doing vintage so it’s great to have that thing people call ‘a life’ back.”

“You’re enjoying it? Trying lots of nice wine?”

And before I can even answer there is a goblet of purple wine shoved neatly in front of my face.

Well, try this! This is our homemade wine from last year! We want to know what you think…and be honest!”

“Wow…OK…” I have no other words.

I cautiously take the glass from their quivering fingertips, taking a final glance at their anxious faces. I can tell they want the drama, so I give them the drama. They get the ol’ swirl of the glass, they get the several pensive sniffs, I take a sip and take in some air. The nonna’s turn around to see who is disgracing the family making that infamous sucking sound.

I complete my sensory judgement and then to add coal to the fire I spit it on the concrete floor of the backyard terrace.

Oops…too much enthusiasm?

The men don’t flinch but stare back awaiting what I might say next. I think the spitting actually impressed them. Ha! Men.

I pause. This is a homemade wine. It is fine. There is nothing technically wrong with it. Not that I haven’t had dodgy brews put before me. There’s not much in the way of structure or length but I don’t even think this is why they are asking me to try it.

I am just another opinion in an ocean of opinions. Perhaps one with slightly more credit than their competing neighbour. My humble judgement is merely an extra bit of acknowledgement that what they’re making for themselves is good. And it is good. Not great. But good. Good enough to win the local winemaking competition? Now that perhaps is of more importance! Comfortingly, they do occasionally swap the homemade brew with a bought bottle into their repertoire of everyday drinking, just to add some complexity I expect.

But for now, they are happy with the overall assessment and move on, leaving me there with the nonna’s still scowling over me. Scusa, eh!

Ah well. My work is done. Now for dessert…

[Note: As of 2010, La Donna del Vino no longer works in the production side of the wine industry. That’s not to say that there’s not another vintage on the horizon one day in the future…]

3 Responses to “The Homemade Wine Critic”

  1. I gave birth to a wino! August 16, 2011 at 9:45 AM #

    AWESOME!!!!! HAHAHA LOVED IT. Gee wizz you really really really can write and its so
    right! haha. Oh baby she’s got it!

  2. Tracey August 16, 2011 at 10:32 AM #

    Love this post! After reading it I asked my little Sophia if she’d like to become a wine-maker one day and make me some wine from our vineyard. Her response, ‘It’s not my thing mum’. She’s only 7…we have time 🙂

    • La Donna del Vino August 16, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

      What Sophia meant to say was, “It’s not my thing YET mum…”
      She just needs a little work, but I’m sure she will come around to it eventually 🙂 She’s in a very fortunate position.
      Thanks for the comment, Tracey. You’re a darling.

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