We dive right into the portion of the book where Gary and Rosie are discussing the option of making a sweet red wine.
When we revisit Gary and Rosemary (Rosie) Barletta, owners of Long Point Winery on the east side of Cayuga Lake, the August sun has turned the fields outside of the winery a bleached yellow.
“Has anybody ever figured out how to open one of these bags without ripping it?” Gary asked, as he tore open the top of a fifty-pound brown bag of Domino Sugar, manhandled it into his arms as if cradling an oversized baby, and began pouring the contents into a blue plastic tub suitable for washing your laundry in if you lived in a developing country. He poured about half the bag into the tub. The sugar rose in a white mound.
He put the bag down beside the tub, took up the hose attached to the hot water tank, and turned it on. The hot water poured out in a moderate silver stream. Gary placed the hose in the blue tub and began to fill it.
In some ways making sugar water symbolizes just how low he’s had to stoop, because he only wants to make fine dry wines. And now he was making the sweet red wine designed for wine drinkers who haven’t developed the taste yet for dry wines. A lot of wineries were doing it now. And for Gary, Moon Puppy is, discouragingly, his biggest seller.
“You can sell a lot of this.”
“Moon Puppy, Moon Doggie, Moon Pooch, call it whatever you want. It’s what people want to drink,” he said.
Moon Puppy was strictly a marketing decision. Rosie pushed Gary to make the sweet wine. She got the name Moon Puppy from a Crayola crayon contest. Moon Puppy had been suggested as a name for a crimson color. “Never will I call a wine Moon Puppy,” Gary protested, when she first told him the name she had picked out. He would continue to resist, she said, because to him such sweet wines really are not what wine is about. Moon Puppy was also something of an accident.
In 2003 Gary received a shipment of New York-grown Cabernet Franc grapes. They came in under mature – way under mature. Gary had contracted the year before for the grapes. When they arrived, he was stuck with them. Their sugar content was seventeen Brix, well below optimum. The result was that they were highly astringent, tart, acidic, thin, with the disagreeable green bell pepper taste that can haunt Cabernet Franc.
“I don’t think I can do anything with these,” he told Rosie. He would have to blend them with ripe grapes to make the wine more palatable and it would still be bad wine. But Rosie had other plans. Because she knew that for marketing purposes they needed a sweet red wine. It was a sensitive issue for Gary.
“Why don’t you make a sweet wine out of them?” she said.
“We don’t talk that way around here,” he said.
“I’m not working at the winery anymore. And I want my money back,” she countered, and she had him, although it’s doubtful she would have followed through. But she left him an out. “Just crush them and put them up for the year. What’s it going to hurt? You can dump it next year if you can’t do anything with it.”
He conceded the point and made the wine. And a year later the Cabernet Franc was still too astringent.
“I’m going to dump it.”
But Rosie knew him too well.
“No, you’re not,” Rosie said. “You’re a good winemaker. I know you can do something with it.”
She had been planning on the Moon Puppy line for some time. She knew they had to do it based on the experience of other wineries in the area. Fulkerson’s Winery in the Finger Lakes produces six thousand cases of their Red Zeppelin and sells out every year. King Ferry Winery has their sweet wine. So does the Knapp Winery across the lake. What they all discovered is that the sweet wine helps pay the bills for the luxury of producing quality wines.
“We can try making Moon Puppy with it,” Rosie said.
“I’m not making no frigging Moon Puppy,” Gary said.
“You are a good winemaker. And I know you can do it.”
The appeal to his ego was too much: You’re a good winemaker. She had struck him where it hurt.
He could barely conceal his disgust when he poured his first fifty-pound bag of Domino sugar into a tub and started making sugar water.
“He added some sugar and we invited some people over and asked what do you think of this?” Rosie said. “And they said you can sell a lot of this.”
But the revolt against Rosie’s plans wasn’t over yet. Son Tony was a commercial artist who did the wine labels for the winery. As their stepfather, Gary taught Tony and Denny how to drink wine and what constituted proper wine.
“No way am I going to do that, Mom,” Rosie recalled Tony saying.
So Rosie challenged him, too.
“I know you’re a good commercial artist, Tony. And only you can do it.”
“Tony came home one night,” she recalled, “and he had this label and it was beautiful.” The label showed the cartoon character of a ghostly puppy bounding happily over the moon in high, intoxicated spirits.
Then Gary had a fit when Rosie said she wanted Moon Puppy bottled in red bottles.
“They’re $1.35 a bottle,” he complained, while the green bottles were less than half the price at the time. And Moon Puppy was going to sell cheap compared to his quality wines.
“I want them in red bottles.”
But they were bottled in red bottles.
On the day they released the wine, Gary manned the premium wine part of the counter. Rosie manned the vin ordinaire – meaning Moon Puppy. And when winetasters arrived, Rosie said, “All you heard was ‘Moon Puppy . . . Moon Puppy. . . Moon Puppy’.”
That first vintage was also judged the most perfectly balanced sweet red wine in its class that year at an annual competition of local wines in Ithaca. Perhaps that doesn’t say much about the competition, but it was one more argument in favor of Moon Puppy.
Got to do what you got to do
So now he was adding sugar to water. It was galling in a way, but given the slim margins the winery survived on, Gary knew what he had to do if he was to keep doing what he really wanted: make dry wines.
Jason, one of Gary’s temporary employees, was down on his haunches stirring the blue tub. He stirred the sugar water to the point where the sugar completely dissolved. Gary expected to add 130 pounds of sugar from the large brown bags of granulated Domino Sugar, just like the kind you use at home.
When the first batch of sugar water had fully dissolved Gary mounted his rickety widow-maker of a wooden ladder and directed Jason to dip a stainless steel bucket into the blue tub and draw up a glopping pail full of the syrup and hand it to him. Holding on to the rim of the 850-gallon stainless steel tank with one hand, Gary swung the bucket over the edge. He poured. You could hear the sugar water hit the surface of the wine with a loud cascading splash. Then there was a second bucket, and by then the tub was empty enough so that Jason picked it up in two hands and lifted it up to Gary, who grasped it while balancing precariously on the ladder with no hands and turned it on its side atop the tank rim. The remaining sugar water poured in a thick gray mass into the wine-dark sea of Moon Puppy. Bubbles floated to the surface.
Jason began mixing more sugar water. Gary placed a stainless steel clamp around a translucent hose attached to the tank. He climbed up the ladder and dropped a stainless-steel nozzle over the tank rim. Then he turned on the switch to a pump that sputtered and coughed as it sucked air before rivulets of intermittent red turned to a flood in the hoses. The pump drew Moon Puppy out of the bottom of the tank and back up over the top. This was Gary’s low-tech answer to mixing the stew of sugar water and wine.
Later, after the wine was mixed, they went out to the tasting room. Gary brought with him two glasses of wine. One was last year’s Moon Puppy. The other was the newest concoction. Jason and Shawna, who was also new at the winery and worked the counter and helped with marketing, both like sweet wines. So Gary tried the two vintages on them.
“I think this one is sweeter,” Shawna said.
“No, I think the other one is,” Jason said.
“It can’t be.”
Rosie took Shawna by the shoulders and turned her around behind the counter so she couldn’t see her pour a little of each of the two Moon Puppy vintages into two new glasses.
“Now try this.”
She handed the glasses to Shawna who first sniffed for the nose of a wine that normally does not deserve a bouquet, then tasted.
“I think this one is sweeter,” she said. And she picked the same one.
Read the next installment in the fall issue. To order a copy or learn more about this title (ISBN 978-0-8014-4881-2),
visit www.cornellpress.cornell.edu or call 800-666-2211.
excerpted from Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery, by John C. Hartsock, published in 2011 by Cornell University Press