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Making wine: From Paris to Yuba County
His hands weaving between vines, Gideon Beinstock snips off grape clusters that finally have turned a blackish purple and leaves those with a blush of pink or hint of green for another day.
Setting the tight clusters in a plastic bin, he continues his selective picking with the knowledge he'll return at least once more before harvest ends. Beinstock will walk up and down the vineyards of Clos Saron as many as six times this fall, an unconventional, labor-intensive method but one that gives him control over nearly every grape in the winemaking process.
"Because we are so small and unknown, the quality of our wines is our own way of advertising," he said. "It needs to be impeccable."
A few weeks ago, just as the Oregon House vineyards began their fall transformation from verdant greens to golds and crimsons, the grapes were ready for picking. Every few mornings, Beinstock and his wife, Saron, would rise and begin walking along trellises spanning the uneven hillsides with help from their Israeli vineyard manager and two farm-stay volunteers through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
They work quietly, tucking aside netting that protects grapes from the birds, and clip away each tiny ripened cluster, cutting away any over-ripened grapes. It's a peaceful, almost meditative process, Gideon Beinstock said.
"Every vine is different. It's like communicating in a strange way," he said.
25 years ago
Beinstock's interest in wine began about 25 years ago when he was a young man living in Paris. He fell in love with wine casually, living above a supermarket and stopping in every night to spend 2 francs — 50 cents — on a bottle of wine.
Then, one night to celebrate a birthday, he splurged on a 5-franc bottle.
"That was a turning point in my life," he said. "I realized when you hear wine snobs talking about vintages, which I thought was all baloney, there was something to it."
And so began his education. Beinstock befriended a winemaker, read about and tasted a lot of wine and got a job selling wine before he finally moved to Oregon House to become a trainee winemaker at Renaissance Winery.
"It felt like winemaking brought together everything I had ever done in my life," he said.
He doesn't necessarily agree with the idea that wine is an art form, but it is a craft, he said.
"You work with something and it gives joy to people," Beinstock said.
Renaissance is where he met Saron. A former graphic designer, she had grown sick of the daily grind while working in a windowless basement office in Taiwan and went to Renaissance to work outside, staying for eight years until she and Gideon took hold of an opportunity to start their own winery, crafting their first vintage in 1999.
Now home to Renaissance, Clos Saron, Grant-Eddie and Lucero wineries, the Yuba County foothills have proven to be a fertile ground for grape-growing. It's a small American Viticultural Area, comprising only about 30 miles around Dobbins and Oregon House.
"We are all small, relatively unknown," Beinstock said. "It's not a boom, but it's definite growth. The more of us there are in a region, the better it is for all of us."
Clos Saron is known for its pinot noir, the grapes for which are entirely grown at the Beinstock's home vineyards. They also lease vineyards to produce syrah and purchase grapes for a white wine, a rose and other red blends.
One of Beinstock's favorite parts of the harvest process is the crushing of the grapes, stomped in the traditional method. On a recent Saturday, as soon as the day's grapes were in from the vineyards, Gideon and Ben Schneider, a World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms volunteer, took off their pants and climbed in the bin.
"It's like squishing on eyeballs, I guess," Schneider said. "It's a little exfoliating. You get out and your feet are buzzing. There is so much circulation going on, your feet have never felt like this."
Schneider ventured out from Brooklyn this summer for a several-month stint at the winery. Of all the vineyards he considered working at, Clos Saron was one he thought would be all-encompassing, with an opportunity to be involved with harvest, bottling and processing.
"I wanted to come here and learn something. I didn't want a vacation," he said, crushing grapes under his moving feet.
At first, juice squeezing from the thick skins was nearly clear, but as the men continued to macerate the grapes, it turned pink with a hint of red. After more than 30 minutes of stomping and sloshing, they called it good, rinsed their feet and stepped out.
"Modern technology is convenient. But the less you use machinery and shortcuts, the process feels cleaner, better, more honest. Whether the wine comes out better, I don't know," Beinstock said with an grin of acceptance.
Once stomped, the grapes ferment for a few days so the sugars turn to alcohol, then are pressed to separate liquid from solids. The wine is next pumped into barrels for months of aging and eventually is bottled and continues aging for a few years until Clos Saron releases it to its customers.
From the 10 tons of grapes they pick, stomp and press this year, Beinstock expects to create about 600 cases of wine, all produced as naturally possible. Clos Saron does not use any yeast inoculation, added nutrients, enzymes, or sulfur dioxide, racking or filtration.
This year's season seems to have produced a smaller quantity of grapes, but Gideon is cautiously optimistic, knowing the quality cannot be judged until the process is well under way. He said he likes the unpredictability of his natural process and the changes it creates in the wines from year to year.
"That's what vintage means," he said. "The more you interfere, the less authentic it becomes."