October means waiting and measuring, two of the most important things you do when making wine.
My stint as an amateur vintner began in 2008 when a visiting friend brought a bottle of wine he’d made with his Italian neighbors in Brooklyn. The wine was pretty darn good, and while talking about how they made it, we shared childhood memories of our Italian grandfathers, who had both made their own wine, and admitted that it was something we’d always wanted to try. Long story short, that October we picked up 600 pounds of red wine grapes from a supplier in Baltimore and delivered them to the walkout garage of my Washington, D.C., row house.
Part science, part art, winemaking is not something you master overnight. It begins with the grapes, over which you have very little control, even if you have your own vines. Our grapes were shipped from California’s Central Valley, and although they were refrigerated during the week-long trip, they still continued to ripen, which increases the sugar content, or brix. More sugar means higher alcohol by volume (ABV), which if it exceeds 15% can create an environment in the fermentation vessel that is toxic to the yeast. The result is unconverted sugar and sweet, fizzy wine, which is not what most winemakers are after. Yeast never survives fermentation, of course, but it’s the winemaker’s responsibility to make sure the little beasts hang on long enough to convert all the sugar into alcohol.
Measure and Adjust
Brix is where the measuring begins. If brix is too low (under 22), you chaptalize, which is a fancy word for adding sugar. Ours is usually too high (more than 25), so we add water to dilute the sugar until brix is in the ideal range for red wine of between 22 and 24.5, which translates into ABV between about 13% and 14.7%, respectively.
Unlike remodelers, winemakers have just one chance each season to get it right.
Actually, the measuring really begins earlier. After crushing the grapes, we add potassium metabisulfite, which produces SO2, a preservative that kills the natural yeasts clinging to the grapes, leaving a clean slate for modern yeasts engineered to match specific grape varieties. We add it again after fermentation to protect against harmful bacteria. But adding sulfites is tricky: Add too much and it can affect the flavor and retard yeast activity during fermentation; fail to add enough, and the wine may develop off-flavors or even turn to vinegar.
Brewing a Remodeling Company
What does any of this have to do with remodeling? Well, aside from the positive effects on attitude that a glass of wine can induce after a hard day in the office, winemaking is a business—not literally in my case, but certainly in the sense of creating a vision for a finished product and taking steps to fulfill that vision. And like any business, it starts by establishing a baseline, then making adjustments along the way.
Starting and running a remodeling company should also involve a vision for the final product, a baseline against which to judge progress, and periodic adjustments to bring the product back into line with the vision. But it doesn’t always happen that way. As with my winemaking experience, my career as a remodeler began accidentally. I fell into it simply because the opportunity arose. My craft and business skills were both pretty rough in the beginning, but I slowly learned to change the way I did things. Eventually I developed metrics to help me figure out why some changes worked and some didn’t.
Wine takes time to make. From crush to bottling is at least 6 months, and the wine continues to mature in the bottle. It’s typically at least another year before we uncork a bottle to see how it turned out.
Unlike winemakers, remodelers have the luxury of more immediate feedback. Every new project is like pulling the cork on a new vintage. If their remodeling “brew” needs to mature, their clients, subs, and employees will let them know.
Unlike remodelers, winemakers have just one chance each season to get it right. If the first bottle isn’t quite ready, we simply wait before opening a second. It makes no sense wasting that first bottle, though. Besides, the second glass usually tastes better than the first.
And eventually, it just doesn’t matter.