My brothers and I have done every job there is at Duplin Winery. I do not know if this was my father’s plan or if he just did not have anyone else to do it. My favorite job as a teenager was making our Champagne. It made me feel like a big shot, especially when I was in high school! I got paid $10 for every case of Champagne made. I know you think this sounds like a lot of money. It wasn’t, especially when you consider how long it takes to make our champagne.
I do not want to take away from this story, but I think it is important to know exactly how we make our champagne before I tell you what happened.
My father believed in using Mr. Welder’s champagne recipe that was written in the 1860’s. We would take Carlos grapes and ferment them to seven percent alcohol wine. This wine would be bottled by hand. We would add one tablespoon of yeast and one scoop of sugar before placing a cap on the bottle. I promise you that no bottle ever tasted the same because I never placed the same amount of yeast or sugar in the bottles. The yeast would then eat the sugar creating a chain reaction of gas and alcohol. The yeast would then die from starvation. We would allow the champagne to sit for eighteen months so the dead yeast would flavor the champagne. The champagne would be moved into special racks that were placed in a 38-degree walk-in cooler. My father handed me a can of white paint and a brush. I had to make sure each bottle had a painted hash mark on the bottom of each bottle.
I know what a lot of you are thinking. Why did we put paint on the bottom of each bottle? In order to be sure that each bottle would be sold without yeast, we would turn each bottle a quarter of a turn every day for six weeks. The paint mark would let us track each turn of the bottle. The motion helps the yeast to settle into the cap.
When the yeast had completely settled in the neck of the bottle, we would emerge this cold bottle of champagne into a “special freezer”. It really was just a freezer that you would purchase at any appliance store. My father built a rack that allowed us to hold the neck of the bottle into two inches of pure alcohol. This alcohol would freeze the neck of the bottle and allow us to keep the yeast in place when we turned the bottle up right. I would then pop the top of the champagne, which blew the yeast and ice out of the bottle. I then would place a special mixture in the champagne before corking the bottle. I bet you now have a new respect for that $10 a case I earned.
When I was a junior in high school, I went to the prom and spent prom weekend at the beach. I wanted to show off, so I took a case of champagne with me. All of our products are kept in inventory until they sell, so I saved the bottles we emptied. I filled these bottles with water, recorded them and put them on the retail floor for display.
The next weekend, my uncle was getting married, and my father had told him that he would provide all the wine and champagne for the parties. The wedding had to be the biggest event that I had ever attended. Our wine was served at all the events, but the champagne was saved for the reception. During the reception, my father walked on to the stage with a bottle of champagne and three flutes. He asked the new bride and groom to join him on stage where he handed them each a flute. My father then gave a toast where he ended talking about the champagne that his sixteen-year-old son had made especially for this occasion. He popped the cork, and a total shock hit my father’s face. There was no popping sound. My father then poured the first glass. He turned to look at me, but he could not stop what he was doing in front of all of these guests. He completed the toast, but I knew my life was about to be over.
Unbeknownst to me, my father did not think he had enough champagne on the floor to satisfy the entire party that was attending the wedding. He grabbed all the display bottles that I had filled with water to cover up what I had done. It was just my luck that the one bottle served with water was the one he had chosen to conduct the toast. My father came to me after the toast and took me to the restroom. I will not tell you everything that happened- but I was glad that there were 300 guests within earshot.
I never again tried to get away with swapping water for champagne, but I did break more rules along the way. I will save those stories for another day!Posted by