This autumn has been no different.
Wine, the precious fluid flowing into basement barrels, has brought neighbors in the Crescent Park neighborhood together since 2001, when the Forest Avenue Wine Co-op was started.
Back then, three neighbors founded the group as a way to make use of the 4-acre harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on residents Mark Holler and Cindy Bickerstaff's 25-acre Napa property. Soon, the group grew to six families. Now it has 14 members, according to Gary Bacon, a co-op founder.
Bacon was attracted to the wine co-op project primarily because of its neighborhood-building possibilities, he said. A retired Los Altos High School teacher, Bacon has a history in community building — he started the high school's Learning Community in 1972 for a student who wanted to help create a better world. He was also a member of the Briarpatch Co-op in Menlo Park.
Bacon describes the wine they make as akin to their neighborhood: "good, friendly and generous."
Every October neighbors gather for a trip to the Mt. Veeder vineyard. Snipping clusters of the globular red fruit from vines, the neighbors gather nearly a ton of grapes, loading the harvest into pickup trucks.
"The No. 1 priority is to taste the spirit of the grape. We work a half-day to pick the grapes, then drink wine and have a picnic," Bacon said.
Back in the neighborhood, family and friends help crush their harvest. The mashed fruit ferments in Holler's garage, where neighbors take turns "punching down" the mix, stirring it for two weeks. Neighbors gather for the pressing, as the liquid that will become Cabernet Sauvignon wine is separated from its seeds and skins, pushed through the wine-press slats by a giant expanding bladder.
In two month's time, the liquid will begin its journey from stainless-steel holding cylinders through the plastic hose, coursing through yards and over fences into the basement barrels of one neighbor or another.
"It's like a lifeline, and you can watch it flow from the fermentation cylinders into the oak barrels," Bacon said.
Each year, Bacon and co-op member Tim Guilford take turns as keepers of the wine — 200 gallons in all — that will be shared among co-op members after proper aging. The barrels must be topped off with additional wine as evaporation takes place — oxygen is the enemy of wine, Bacon said.
"One year we didn't have enough topping wine. Mark bought 45 bottles at Trader Joe's to taste for topping off," he said. The group picked the best and bought enough to add to the barrels.
Neighborhood character is built into each glass of wine, as members gather monthly to taste the vintage and coax it along, deciding in an annual blind tasting how much sugar, tannin and other characteristics they want in the wine.
Six oak barrels share space with steamer trunks and the basement furnace in Bacon's wine cellar, where a small tasting table and stereo that plays jazz and R&B music allow for a comfortable setting in which to sample the wine. Bacon collects songs with a wine theme: Eric Burdon's "Spill the Wine" and Nina Simone's "Lilac Wine" being two examples.
Bacon drew wine from a barrel with a "wine thief," a glass instrument that allows for sanitary removal of liquid from a barrel.
"Mt. Veeder is regarded as producing some of the best (Cabernet) Sauvignon grapes in the world. The wines we get are influenced by we who pick them and shepherd them along," he said.
Bacon swirled the wine in a class, holding it up to the light.
"This wine has legs," he said, referring to the streamers of clear liquid that break out and flow down the inside of the glass. "Legs" are an indicator of wine quality and alcohol content, he said.
Each batch is barrel-aged for two years before bottling and distribution; then, it's time for bottle washing, filling and labeling — another excuse for a party, he said. Up to 80 cases of wine are created. Bacon designs the labels, and the co-op has a calendar with photographs of members as they work to create the wine. One year a Halloween costume party created the ambiance for tasting.
Co-op members Holler and Bickerstaff, Bacon, his wife Carmen Gomez, Tim and Glista Guilford, George and Susan Clark, Mike and Greta Jawetz and Mice Occhiolini and Wendy Hofenberg gather for an annual party once the vintage is ready to go. Old bottles from previous years' vintages are brought out and everyone imbibes in food and wine.
This fall will probably be the last the co-op will formally share wine. Holler and Bickerstaff have more commercial plans for a winery, and most neighbors have all the wine they can drink — for now. But Bacon said he would still like to produce wine in perhaps smaller amounts to keep the camaraderie alive.
And if wine tasting isn't in the mix, there's always his annual film festival in his back yard or the Labor Day party — other opportunities for neighborhood friendship and connection, he said.
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