Issue: 2015-10-22 PHOTO: Rick Massie
Sweet fruit of the vine
There’s at least one person for whom the drought in California has a silver lining.
Luigi Zanasi is hoping for some magic to come out of his garage this year, thanks to the intense wine grapes he believes the California drought has produced.
An economist by profession, and an enthusiastic gardener, Zanasi has been making wine nearly every fall here in Yukon for more than 20 years. He has actually been making wine his whole life with his grandfather and father growing up in Montreal.
California grapes have been making their way to Italian centres around North America for generations.
“That’s been going on since Prohibition,” he says. “We Italians cannot live without one of our basic food groups.”
Zanasi’s wine starts in his garage, where the grapes are crushed and left to ferment in plastic barrels. After a few weeks of fermentation, the grapes are pressed and the liquid is transferred to glass bottles called carboys or demijohns, which are stored indoors. They sit for a few months before bottling.
A batch of wine lasts about 10 years, and Zanasi makes wine nearly every year. He recalls 1996 as producing an exceptional wine.
“That was my best year, but it was excellent for most of the 90s. Then the grapes – especially the Zinfandel – started going downhill.”
He theorizes that the growth in popularity of old vine Zinfandels means the grapes previously shipped to Italians across North America were now being retained for commercial wine making.
Make no mistake, Zanasi still drinks those commercially-produced wines.
“It’s good to drink other wine because otherwise you get used to your own. In order to keep an objective view of wines you have to keep trying different types, otherwise yours ends up being the best in the world and nothing else compares.”
This is apparently a common hazard among home winemakers.
“If you ever going into an Italian household you better pretend their wine is the best, otherwise it’s insulting,” Zanasi cautions.
Still, he laments that the variety that small scale winemaking represents is being lost.
“Because of worldwide commercialization, the taste of wines have been homogenized. A lot of really nice regional wines have disappeared and they all try to taste like Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon.”
The variety of grapes still exists, but many are not produced on a scale large enough for export, so one has to go to those regions of origin to taste them.
Zanasi believes Canada might be affected by this increasing uniformity.
“In my mind some really superb wines are the Rieslings from the Okanagan. But there’s not much of a demand for that because people want these big fruity reds.”
At approximately three to four dollars a bottle, cost is one reason Zanasi enjoys making his own wine. He estimates making a minimum of 50 litres, or roughly six cases, of any kind of wine is cost effective over buying commercial wines.
“Even with a small quantity it won’t cost you more than $10 a bottle.”
Freight rates can vary, but comprise about a third of the cost.
For Zanasi, the satisfaction is in the process as well. He shares and enjoys the labour and the fruits with two other households.
“It’s a satisfying and a fun thing to get together and eat and drink while we’re doing it. It’s a harvest ritual. I figure it’s half a day crushing and another half day pressing and half day racking and half day bottling. After that, you have six or seven cases of wine.”
Wine is not all Zanasi makes. He also maintains a balsamic vinegar that connects him directly to his heritage.
“My grandfather had a barrel of wine go bad around 1918 or 1919 and we kept on adding wine to that barrel until 1972 or ‘73. Then, my father broke the barrel apart and kept the mother and my brother sent me a 5 litre carboy of it in the early ‘90s.
“We’ve been continuing to add wine to it, so now I’ve got vinegar that my grandfather started in Montreal that’s almost 100 years old.”
Between the balsamic vinegar and the Gold Rush sourdough starter, it sounds like the start of a beautiful friendship.