While there are a lot of things I find special and unique about this place, the press is perhaps the most unique aspect of how we work. We press the grapes by hand! This probably deserves a little more explanation.
When I embarked on the project of renovating and restoring the “chai” (the winemaking building) it was literally falling apart. It was piled high with old equipment and various junk, water leaked through the holes in the roof every time it rained, all the electrical connections were burned out, the pipes rusted through… Going through it with flashlights for days on end we sorted through all the junk, gradually emptying it out. Little by little we revealed two old presses, between 50 and 100 years old. They were beautiful examples of mechanical prowess, hulks of metal, oak and concrete, solid as old ships, simple in design. They had clearly not been used for decades.
My thinking on pressing initially had been to get one of the new pneumatic presses which are considered the most qualitative of the modern electric presses. I thought we would give the old ones a lick of paint and keep them as decoration, and a quaint reminder of the past. However, one day I was showing the old presses to Vincent Carême, a close friend, an invaluable advisor and, I believe, one of the best winemakers in the Loire. He looked at the more recent of the two and said, with a smile, “you know, I bet you could use this press”. This was the beginning of a months-long adventure of restoring the old beauty. It involved carpenters creating reproductions of some of the old wooden pieces, of finding some old-timers to come and look at the press who remembered how it worked, showing us the various stages of pressing, and of sanding, cleaning, oiling and painting. When we finally had restored it and for the 2008 harvest were using it for the first time, the word got out about the crazy American and his old press. We had local people, winemakers and ‘civilians’ alike stopping by just to take a look at the strange, archaic spectacle.
While there may be some novelty value in the whole “press story” there are actually technical and quality elements that come into play. Using a press of this kind means that we have no choice but to press slowly and gently and simply can’t build up the pressure that modern presses can, therefore we only get “first press” juice. In my mind, this gives us the best of the grapes. It also means of course that we get a lot less juice (probably half) than if we used a modern press. This makes the wine, unfortunately, even more scarce.