Gadgetry — winery edition

Sunset over the vines -- probably the first thing most wine lovers imagine when they dream of owning a winery.  The sunset is probably the only thing you won't have to buy.  (Photo from

Sunset over the vines — probably the first thing most wine lovers imagine when they dream of owning a winery. In reality, though, the sunset is probably the only thing you won’t have to buy. (Photo from

If you’ve ever dreamed of starting a winery, my guess is that you’ve been thinking about all those photos of sunsets over the vineyards. Or the glow of low light on rows and rows of oak barrels with just a hint of red wine on them for color. Or the precision of the tank room with its gleaming stainless steel soldiers all lined up, connected by pipes and valves. Or the line of the bottling machine, where bottles get filled, corked, foiled, and labeled as if by magic. Or your bottle storage rooms, with the bins of bottles waiting to be packed and shipped to your adoring customers worldwide.

All lovely, to be sure. But if you’ve got an actual winery, everything on that list — except the sunset — has to be bought or eventually replaced. Don’t worry, though, there’s a big world of vendors out there to help.

Last month I went to the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, CA. As the name implies, there were plenty of sessions on various topics related to winemaking and winegrowing (as growing wine grapes is apparently called). But as at most big conferences, there was also an expo for vendors of everything wine-related you could think of. From grapevine nurseries to tasting room point-of-sale software, winery equipment to university oenology programs, tractors with automatic grape-picking attachments to wine tchochkes. There was even a little wine to sample (naturally), and plenty of interesting people to talk to.

Nothing but wine stuff as far as the eye could see. I loved every minute of it.

As an engineer, I’m kind of a gadget and equipment geek. I also like seeing all these different things together in one expo hall, and talking to the sales reps about them. I will probably never own a winery or be a winemaker. But if you’re a wine lover, wandering the aisles of a trade show like this one is a must-do experience.

I took a bunch of photos and even a couple of videos.  I’m too cheap to pay for the deluxe blogging upgrade that would let me show the videos, so I hope the stills will give you an idea of what’s going on.  (I also had some trouble formatting the photos, so it might look a little disorganized.)  Here are some of the things I liked best.

IMG_0882Tanks, tanks, tanks — stainless steel, plastic, wood.  The stainless steel tank is like those you’ll find in nearly any winery, only shinier.  The plastic egg is made in Germany and is supposed to be good for short-term aging (as I wrote in an older post, it’s much easier to keep everything mixed in an egg-shaped tank).  The wooden barrel tank is French-made and is kind of a showpiece.  Usually you have to pump or siphon wine out of barrels, but this one allows you to drain it from the bottom, and you could also use it for fermentation if you wanted to.  I didn’t ask the price, since I’m sure I can’t afford it.


Snapshot 1 (2-3-2015 4-58 PM) Barrel WashingAnd of course you have to keep those barrels clean if you get them.  Amazing how much this looks like a home dishwasher on water jet steroids.  Still, it beats getting in there with a giant bristle brush and a hose, both of which you could also find at the expo.  No quieting insulation, though, so it’s pretty loud.  I think I missed the booth showing earplugs. You’d definitely need those to operate this piece of equipment, even though you’d only use it once a year.

IMG_0893Bottle foils come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  Any of them can be customized for your winery, from plain to fancy.  And loads of different materials, too.  Way back when I started doing environmental work, some were made with lead foil, if you can believe it.  I once called a winery to find out why it had reported so much lead disposal to EPA and it turned out the owners were switching foil material due to regulations in California and had to get rid of the old ones.  (I assume they went to a secure landfill, but this happened back in the late 1980s, so who knows?)

IMG_0891Bottle labels are customizable, but most of them are pretty small.  If you really want visual impact, go for the Tetra Pak, which has lots of room for possibilities.  There are environmental advantages over glass, mostly in transportation.  But you still have to drink up the wine once you open it — these aren’t the box wines with the collapsing bags that keep air out.  There were plenty of those around, too, and most of the boxes hold at least three liters of wine.  So even more room for graphics, which wasn’t always a good thing.  One of them was called “Stark Raving,” with a picture on the box that would give me nightmares if I had it at home.

IMG_0892If you’re looking for that oak-aged flavor but don’t want to spend the money for actual barrels, these slats might do the trick.  They get suspended in steel or concrete tanks filled with wine for about three weeks, then removed.  Obviously, they don’t give you most of the complexity that true barrel-aging can, but I tasted some wine made with them and it was a good everyday drink.  The marketing was a bit over the top — especially with names like “savory,” “balanced,” etc.  Honestly, are they hoping to write their wine notes before the wine is even made?  (It must be a savory and balanced wine if it says so on the pieces of wood I stuck in the tank…) And what do you do with them once they’ve been used since they’re single use only?  The rep had no idea.  I thought of maybe drying them out and then chipping them for a winery-scented potpourri.  I know I’d pay good money to give my house that awesome winery smell.

Snapshot 1 (2-3-2015 5-30 PM) Storage humidity controlFinally, what might be my favorite gadget of all.  If you’ve invested in barrels for aging wine, they have to be stored properly and that includes the right relative humidity.  Too dry and the staves shrink, causing the barrels to leak.  Most of us can’t afford a cave in Champagne, which has just the right combination of temperature and humidity.  But you can give any storage area that cave-like feel with one of these gizmos.  I wish you could hear the hissing noise it makes, though — it would probably scare any cats away, so you’d better have another way of keeping the mice out.

Definitely a great way to spend an afternoon!  Just thinking about it all makes me wonder if I couldn’t start a winery after all.  Hmmm…now I just need $10 million for a shopping spree.


Last year I posted a recipe for the minestrone my mother cooks. It’s delicious, but takes a long time because it starts with dried beans. This week I came up with a quick version using my pressure cooker (I told you I love gadgets). If you’re good at cutting up vegetables you can have it ready in about 45 minutes. It’s lighter than classic minestrone since it doesn’t use oil or bacon, and you can make it vegan if you leave out the parmesan cheese rind and don’t sprinkle any cheese on it before serving.

Cooking dried beans does something that’s more difficult for canned beans: it makes the cooking liquid tasty and adds texture to the finished soup or stew. I got around this by mashing some of the canned beans in water and adding them to the pressure cooker with vegetable stock (traditionally you’d just use water to cook the soup). While canned and boxed vegetable stocks aren’t always very good, I took Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s advice and used the Kitchen Basics low sodium version. Since you cook all the vegetables with the stock they add a lot more flavor, too, but the Kitchen Basics has a better flavor to start, so look for it. If you can’t find it, use another brand but taste it first. If there’s a lot of carrot or tomato flavor, you might want to change the proportion of ingredients in the soup. But don’t worry, it’ll still be tasty.

Finally, in addition to canned beans, tomatoes, and vegetable stock, I used one other convenience product: cole slaw mix. It’s just shredded green and red cabbage with some carrot, no seasonings. You could shred your own cabbage but since it’s only about a pound in total you’ll definitely end up with lots more cabbage than you need even with a small head. If you use it for other things, then shred your own. I was happy to have less chopping to do, and the result was tasty.

My pressure cooker is a large one, so you may have to cut the recipe down if yours is small. Be sure to read the directions because you don’t want to overfill it. These days pressure cookers are unlikely to burst open, but you still want the pressure relief valve to be unobstructed. You can also add a tablespoon of olive oil to the mixture to help prevent any foaming that might inadvertently cover the valve.

I like an everyday red wine with an everyday soup, so try Château de Clapier’s Calligrappe ($12). It’s made from 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah. Be sure to have a glass while the pressure cooker’s working, too.



Pressure Cooker Minestrone

Serves 6

2 zucchini, trimmed, cut into fourths lengthwise, then cut into half-inch slices

2 large carrots, peeled, cut in large dice

1 large russet potato, peeled, cut in large dice

1 large onion, peeled, cut into large dice

4 cloves garlic, minced fine

1 14 to 16 ounce package unseasoned cole slaw mix

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 piece parmesan cheese rind, plus some grated cheese for serving (optional)

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for serving (optional)

1 quart Kitchen Basics low sodium vegetable stock

1 can (around 15 ounces) petite diced tomatoes

2 cups water

3 cans (around 15 ounces each) cannelini beans, rinsed and drained

Small pasta (farfalline, ditallini, elbows, etc.)

Put the zucchini, carrots, potato, onion, garlic, cole slaw mix, oregano, cheese rind, stock, and tomatoes in the pressure cooker, along with 2 teaspoons of salt and some ground pepper. Measure out a cup of the drained beans and mash them with the 2 cups of water and add to the other ingredients along with the tablespoon of olive oil if you’re using it. Stir everything well and bring the unit up to high pressure. Cook at high pressure for 25 minutes and let it sit off the heat for another five minutes. Then release the pressure by any quick method the manufacturer of the pressure cooker recommends. Stir in the beans and cook over low heat for five minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.

While the soup is cooking, boil a pot of salted water to cook the pasta. Serve the soup with some pasta in each bowl, and top with a drizzle of olive oil and some grated parmesan cheese if you’d like.

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