Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Wine-Bottling Gig

Virginia's wineries keep getting better. One of my favorites is Naked Mountain Winery, in Markham.  I discovered their Chardonnay many years ago, and have been enjoying it ever since. The winery is  a short jaunt off of I-66, less than an hour from the beltway.

Early morning fog begins to lift off the mountains
on the approach to Markham (I-66 west).
Once I joined the Naked Mountain wine club a couple of years ago, their periodic newsletters opened up a whole new world of activities at the winery and surrounding areas. This year, I decided to answer their call for bottling volunteers. "Be here at 9 am," Seth the winemaker said. "Dress for the weather, and wear something you don't mind getting dirty." That was the full extent of the guidance I received before committing to my first bottling adventure.  I really had no idea what to expect.

A few minutes before 9, I pulled into the winery's parking lot, navigating around a food truck-sized truck plugged into a generator. I could see two moving conveyor belts -- one that took the empty bottles into the center of the truck, and another that spit the filled, labeled, and corked bottles back out for boxing.  Soon I got to meet Seth, three other winery employees, two mechanically inclined chaps who operated the innards of the truck (and who kept us entertained and motivated with an energetic playlist) and two other volunteers.

I'd been curious about who would volunteer for such a weekday event. In addition to myself, there was another retiree and a young schoolteacher off for the summer. Before long, a forklift pushed a 7-foot cube of shrink-wrapped empty bottles into place. The other retiree and I were assigned the task of loading the empties into the hopper of the first conveyor belt. The teacher and a winery employee would staff the other end, carefully loading the completed bottles into boxes.

With a few false starts and groans, the conveyor belt began moving, and we started grabbing bottles and pushing them into the hopper. The work was fairly constant, with a half-dozen instances when the mechanics had to make some quick adjustments to the inner workings.  Once we'd finished with that load of bottles, another 7-foot cube of empties was forklifted into place.

After about an hour, Seth invited me to see the full process behind the truck's thick plastic curtains. "Don't touch anything!" he warned good-naturedly, as I marveled at all the metal moving parts. The bottles are grabbed by the machinery, cleaned, then filled. A big roll of labels are glued on in another spot in the works. An enormous bag of "Drink Naked" corks hung on a hook, ready to refill the mechanical corker. The foils are added at the end, and then pinched for a tight fit before the bottles make their way down the other conveyor belt to the two women who boxed them up.

I lost count but think we emptied three of those 7-foot cubes of bottles before the next forklift swung into action. This time, behind the shrink wrap was an equivalent sized collection of case boxes with 12 empties in each. Instead of grabbing empty bottles and feeding them into the hopper, we "dropped" onto the table the opened bottoms of each case to let the bottles out, then pushed them onto the hopper table before lifting off the box. It took a few tries before I was able to do this in a smooth fashion and without knocking over bottles or losing the cardboard dividers inside.  Three or four more of those shrink-wrapped case box monoliths were positioned as we continued to work away.

After about 4-1/2 hours, we were done. The leftover corks and labels were handed off to Seth, and the two mechanics packed up their truck. "We're off to Horton [in Gordonsville] for the next 2 days," the truck operator declared. So this is how it's done, I thought: traveling bottlers.

Hot and tired, our group was beckoned inside by the luscious smell of a barbecue lunch in the air-conditioned tasting room. I don't think I've ever been so happy to sit down!

After chilling (myself as well as the vino),  I'll look forward to tasting some of my reward -- we each earned three of the 2014 Chard we bottled today.  Not a bad trade for an honest day's work.

Naked Mountain's 2014 Chardonnay.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Grilled Romaine

Grilling lettuce sounds like a massive cooking mistake. I doubt I'd ever have tried it if I hadn't ended up with a 6-pack of "artisan" romaine heads from Costco. 

These particular heads seemed to be a romaine-iceberg hybrid. Having that extra body that comes from iceberg made them a good grilling candidate. 

Here's how I did it: 

Grilled Romaine 
(One head serves 2) 
Wash and dry romaine head, leaving it intact. (Don't pull leaves off as you normally do.) 

Cut the head in half length-wise. The core should help hold the leaves together. 

Preheat grill on medium-high and season cooking surface. 

Brush both sides of both halves with olive oil, then sprinkle the cut sides with coarse-ground salt and pepper to taste.  If you like basil or oregano, sprinkle on a bit of either or both. 

Place cut sides down on hot grill, reduce flame to low, and cook for 2 minutes. Using tongs, flip over to give the backs a chance to get a small char--30 seconds or so. 

Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of shredded Parmesan on cut sides. Remove from heat, and serve. 

I found that the olive oil, parm, and seasonings provided ample flavor, but a dash of lemon vinaigrette could be added at the table if you like more dressing. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Happy 4th!

I'll be celebrating at George and Martha's place -- Hope you have something fun and patriotic planned, too.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fresh Raspberry Overload

Along the sunny, south-facing edge of a patch of forest in my front yard stands a healthy swath of raspberry canes we planted about 25 years ago. Most years, the birds, squirrels, and other wildlife get the majority of the berries before I do. I'm lucky if I harvest a half pint. But this year, with a bit more free time on my hands, I have already harvested more than 2 full pints, with what I would guess is another 2 pints still on the canes.

Freshly picked raspberries.

The other factor may be that I had given all the canes a pretty severe haircut in the fall. So maybe that pruning encouraged more new growth than normal.

The canes.

It seems a waste of fresh raspberries to boil them into syrup, sauce, or jam, so instead I found a recipe for a clafoutis. A clafoutis is a moist cakey-eggy French dessert that's traditionally loaded with cherries, but there's nothin' wrong with using raspberries. You could even serve this for breakfast.

Thanks to Food and Wine for the recipe.  My only adaptation was using a pie plate in lieu of a gratin dish.


Clafoutis cooling before it gets a dusting with
confectioner's sugar.