Monday, September 28, 2009

Opening Day

Well, it's finally here....opening day. After months of planning and work the gallery doors opened at 9:30AM and visitors began exploring the exhibit. We actually just wrapped up some minor tweaking of things on Sunday afternoon. I drove home for the most part feeling good about the finished product. There were still a few things that I wanted to improve on, but the library staff was satisfied and I decided that we were good to go. Sunday night back in Houston, I poured myself a glass of 2006 Corley Proprietary Red wine and enjoyed the feeling of completion. After 16 - 18 hour work days for weeks, it was good to be finished.

Monday evening the Library invited some guests to hear a presentation by author George M. Taber. He wrote the excellent book 'Judgment of Paris' which I read about four times on flights from Houston to Oakland and back. Much of the exhibit revolves around the period of that famous 1976 event that really changed the face of the wine world. After the presentation about the Paris Tasting guests gathered in the Library rotunda for a small wine and cheese reception, Mr. Taber signed books and then people started touring through the exhibit. For the most part the feedback was very positive. People seemed to really like the realism of the artificial vineyard, crush pad and cellar...hopefully they read a few of the reader rails and maybe learned a few small things about winemaking or some points that will be beneficial down the road in the quest for expanded wine knowledge and appreciation.

The photo at the top of the page shows a mannequin (as grape picker) carrying a 'just harvested' lug of grapes. (Photo by Wilf Thorne)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Some Last Minute Details...

As the installation work continues everyday at the George Bush Presidential Library, I must also finish some last minute detail work on the weekends at home. Next weekend we will all most certainly be finishing up at the Library so these are my last two days to work at home. One of the items that will be installed on the exhibit entry wall is an antique wine press (about 100 years old) that I found in a barn in Sonoma County, California. This is one of three antique basket presses that I now have for the exhibit. Another even older one that came from Placer County, California will find a temporary home in the libraries rotunda area, and a third will be used to promote the exhibit at various locations. Restoring these old presses has become a true 'labor of love' for me. As I take them apart, pressure wash, strip old paint, varnish and repaint ....or leave with a natural patina, (depending on the look I want) I can only imagine what stories they may tell.

Another last minute detail (that I decided at the last minute to make a detail) was the decision to add some authentic 'terra cotta patina' to my replica Houdon bust of Thomas Jefferson. In reading the official Monticello website page discussing the Houdon busts of Jefferson it is mentioned that the artist Houdon always worked in terra cotta clay for the original and even after plaster of Paris casts were made for duplicates they most often were coated with a thin terra cotta layer to give it a distinct patination. Just as I decided to paint the exhibit replica of Jefferson's dining room in 'chrome yellow' paint (not wedgwood blue) because that is the color of Jefferson's dining room when he actually lived in retirement at Monticello from 1809 - 1826.
I decided that the bust must have a terra cotta patination...not the bland white as it came.

The photo at the top of the page shows the replica Jefferson bust just after appling the terra cotta paint layer. The photo below shows a half of the large wooden basket of one of the antique presses after appling spar varnish but before painting the metal pieces.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Installation Begins

The past week has been filled with activity....the Nasa exhibit is now down and The Culture of Wine exhibit started installation. The outer walls of the Ansary Gallery were prepped with a layer of cintra board in the areas that would be photo murals the photo murals. Quickly a team of two young ladies from C.C. Creations in College Station began hanging the self-adhesive vinyl 4 foot x 10 foot mural panels. Before long the gallery took on a new feel. Now instead of black walls the gallery had the look of a winery crush pad and rolling vineyard setting. I was very pleased with the look of the murals. They were printed by a small family owned shop in Northwest Houston called 'Sign-Ups and Banners'. I never saw the finished mural panels at the print shop so walking into the gallery and seeing a 'very nice' finished product was great...(and a relief.)

On Thursday, August 20th we moved the big Bucher press into position on the exhibits crush pad. This took some time...a very large truck, about a dozen people, (and of course a little drama.) But then how often do you move a 3800 pound wine press into a Presidential library?
After the press was in place we easily rolled in the 1969 Ford 2000 tractor and valley bin. From there exhibit specialist Jason Hancock and his team began working on wall installation and I started putting in the vineyard corner posts, stakes and trellis wire with the help of some library staff.

After all the work, planning and money spent on the exhibit to this point it was great to see the installation finally begin. It's going to be a busy month....

In the top photo the Bucher wine press is being pushed into the Ansary Gallery in The George Bush Presidential Library. In the photo at the bottom of the page I am tightening a vineyard trellis wire on a corner post.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Creating a Faux Stone Vineyard Wall

When you drive through wine country in many parts of the world you will see vineyards edged by beautiful short stone walls. Originally built hundreds of years ago throughout much of Europe's wine growing regions, stone vineyard walls are frequently seen in Napa Valley and other parts of Northern California as well. You may also think of the term 'Clos' used frequently in Burgundy that refers to an enclosed vineyard.

Stone vineyard walls take on several different methods of construction. The oldest walls were simply stacked stone of various shapes and sizes that were skillfully fitted to create a solid stable wall. Over time however these would fall in spots and need repair to re-stack the rocks. The second method was similar to the loose stacked stones but a mortar was added to strengthen the wall and prevent collapse. And finally a newer more modern method seen more often in California is a flagstone and mortar technique over a cinder block base wall.

For the wine exhibit I wanted to incorporate a little bit of that look into the exhibits vineyard area. For several weeks I contemplated the best way to build the wall and make it look authentic without weighing thousands of pounds because of my need to transport the exhibit pieces from venue to venue. After a lot of research I decided that I would construct the wall out of EPS foam panels...(or styrofoam) laminated to a plywood shell. The style I decided to replicate was the flagstone and mortar look. Fortunately for me two of the major suppliers that I needed to source supplies from are located in Houston. I had custom 2" x 12" x 60" and 2" x 9.75" x 60" foam panels produced at Houston Foam Plastics. From there I went to a company down South of Houston called Industrial Polymers and purchased 4 gallons of a special product called "StyroSpray 1000". This stuff is great! You spray or brush it in multiple coats over the styrofoam panels and it cures to form a hard, durable shell which can be painted with just about any paint. Many people have no idea about construction with foam materials. But actually it is very popular for constructing many faux reproductions in theme parks and museums. For my needs, the greatest asset with the foam technique is that the end product is super light for it's size.

The photo above shows one of the panels just after completion of the faux painting, a technique done with four or five different sponges. The photos below show construction of the wall pieces. The first shows panels being laminated to the plywood framework. The second shows me cutting the stone design into the foam with a 'Dremel' tool. The bottom photo shows a carved panel coated with 'StyroSpray 1000'.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Art of Cooperage

Early yesterday morning I drove from northern Sonoma County 'over the hill' to the town of Napa. I was due at Demptos Cooperage by 7:30AM. This was my second visit to Demptos, and I was set to do some photography for the wine exhibit. As soon as I arrived Master Cooper Will Jamieson greeted me in the front lobby and quickly escorted me to the 'production' end of the building.

This opportunity was a real treat for me. I've been in the wine business in one capacity or another for over twenty years but this was the first time I had ever been able to photograph in a cooperage facility. As Will told me...they get started working early. I wanted to see the entire process from beginning to end and my 7:30AM arrival was not at all early by their standards. When I arrived everything was already humming along like a well tuned engine. Everywhere I walked there was movement and activity....barrels being rolled from one stage of completion to the next, the constant sound of hammers pounding hoops, fires being stoked for toasting, forklifts replenishing spent stacks of staves, etc. This was some place, it was very impressive to witness the level of skill and the work intensity that was in harmony all around me.

I found myself spending most of my time in the room where the firing of barrels was done first to bend the staves and secondly to toast the insides. This room was somewhat darker than other parts of the facility. Metal 'fire pots' about 12"x14" where lined up on the concrete floors. Scraps of wood were used to keep the fires burning with flames of about 2 to 3 feet in height. The smells in the room were that of sweet oak toasting to perfection. I would describe the feel of the room as strangely romantic in a medieval sort of way. First, barrels with hoops only on one end were lined up in front of the heating fire pots. A worker then sprayed the waiting barrels with a water hose to thoroughly coat the wood. These barrels were then placed over the burning fire pots to heat the staves. Next the heated barrels were moved to a large hydraulic machine that would compress the open end of the heated staves and place temporary 'work hoops' over the end giving it the shape of a wine barrel. From here the barrels were placed again over fire pots...this time to toast the insides.

Toasting the insides of a wine barrel adds to the complexity of flavors passed on to the wine. To a winemaker, barrels are what spices in a spice rack are to a chef. You add unique flavors and characteristics to a wine when it is barrel aged and/or barrel fermented. There are many variables at play...much more than just 'French or American Oak'. Within the term French Oak you have many, Allier Oak, Troncais Oak, Nevers Oak, Limousin Oak, Vosges Oak and more! Each of these oaks has it's own unique characteristics, grain structures and most importantly to the winemaker...flavor profiles. Then you have American Oak, and Hungarian Oak...and even combination barrels...get the picture, lot's of choices...just like that spice rack to a chef.

After the barrel toasting is completed the barrels were rolled to a worker in a corner of the same room where the bung hole was drilled and then cauterized with a hot iron device. As Will explained to me the cauterization of the bung seals it and ensures smoothness. After this step, the barrels were rolled out of the firing room and into an adjacent area where the barrels were fitted for heads, sanded smooth and fitted with the final hoops. Next they moved over to a worker that pressure tested them and finally sent to another area where a laser engraver finished each barrel with the logo of Demptos and the winery that would soon become home.

The photograph above shows a worker placing a barrel over a fire pot for toasting. The photos below show barrels be heated for bending (left) and a worker cauterizing a bung (right).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Restoring the Nicolini Wine Pumps

Some aspects of the production of this exhibit are not necessarily rewarding...just time spent working on a task. Other aspects have been very rewarding. The restoration of the Nicolini pumps have been just that. Chris Corley, the winemaker at Monticello Vineyards in Napa Valley gave me these two old pumps last year. They had been sitting out behind the winery for quite a while. I remember having to get some help from one of the cellar workers to kill all the yellow jacket nests that had taken up residence in the pumps. They were rusty and old, the wiring was patched and taped together and the wheels needed grease. But to me they were beautiful. Several years ago I saw a photograph in a wine book of a cellar in Bordeaux that had one of these pumps transferring juice...shining in red & chrome.

The pumps were moved to my exhibit storage room in Cloverdale, California and readied for transport to Texas. I started working on "Nicolini #1" toward the end of May. I completed restoration on it June 15th. I'm currently working on "Nicolini #2" now. It is very similar to the first pump but a slightly different model. This work has been hard and dirty, but I've really enjoyed it. The pumps are being stripped down to about 200 pieces. All paint is removed down to bare metal. The parts are then dipped in an etching solution to help the new primers adhesion...primed, repainted and rebuilt.

The photo above shows a restored "Nicolini #1" complete with new wiring, tri-clover fittings and hose.

The photo below shows the condition the pumps were in when work began.

(The is of "Nicolini #2 before starting to take it apart.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Exhibit Wall Mural Photography

The past three days have been hot in Northern don't expect to feel 100+ degree heat in Napa Valley but it happens. The past three days have also been the days that I had slated in to do all the vineyard and crush pad wall mural photography. The good news is that the high pressure system (no, the heat is not due to 'global warming') sitting over Northern California kept the conditions very consistent. Lot's of clear blue skies and dry heat everyday. The bad news is that there were lot's of clear blue skies everyday... Why, because as a landscape photographer there is nothing I want to see more than clouds. Not heavy overcast gray rainy skies, but the beautiful summer cloud types that add so much interest to a plain old clear blue sky. That said, I'm happy with the photography taken the past few days.... the blue skies will look nice on the exhibit walls, but even a few clouds would have added more depth and some extra interest to the walls.

The photograph above is an unfinished composite of three images taken from the crush pad at Monticello Vineyards. This image will be the rear wall of the exhibit space. It will be 10 feet x 45 feet in size. The truck is another original piece of Napa Valley culture.... It's been transporting grapes, barrels and winery equipment for thirty years.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thomas Jefferson's Point of View

As you enter "The Culture of Wine" exhibit you will quickly find yourself in two rooms that are a tribute and informational representation of Thomas Jefferson's dining room and wine cellar at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here you will see the replica dining room fireplace and other Jefferson replica artifacts. In his wine cellar recreation you will see how Jefferson stored his valued wines and how the bottles were loaded into his famous dumbwaiter that would carry them to the fireplace upstairs in his dining room.

The photo shown here was taken during the construction of a corner niche that will hold Jefferson's bust in his dining room area. As you can see the construction is not complete at this point. Once finished, the bust will sit on a hardwood riser lighted from above, overseeing the room.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Shipping The 'Bucher' Grape Press

The main event of the second shipment to Texas was loading the big 'Bucher' bladder press at Monticello winery. This press was one of the first two presses to operate at Monticello Vineyards in Napa Valley. I am thrilled to have it now as a focal point of the exhibit's crush pad area. This press is about 6.5 feet tall by 6.5 feet wide by 13 feet long. It has pressed more tons of grapes than I can begin to estimate. It was operational at Monticello from 1982 until 2005.

The photos show the press being loaded onto a special truck for shipment to San Jose, California where it will be loaded into the trailer that will take it to Texas. Once in Texas I will begin cleaning it and prepping it for painting. I want to restore it as close as possible to it's original colors and markings.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Finally Found the Perfect Tractor

In George Taber's excellent book 'Judgement of Paris' there is a photograph of Warren Winarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars on a Ford tractor working in a vineyard. I decided early on that I wanted a Ford tractor for the exhibit. I looked California, in Texas....on tractor club websites. Nothing like I was looking for seemed to be available. I was really starting to worry that I might have to opt for something else. That wouldn't be so bad...but I wanted a Ford, circa 1968 - 1976.

Then one day....I was driving from Houston to The George Bush Library in College Station and as I was coming into Navasota I passed a corner lot that had a beautiful Ford tractor sitting near the barbed wire fence with a 'for sale' sign on it. I turned around went back and wrote down the telephone number on the sign. It ended up being about a week later before I could make contact with the owner and work out a price....but now I had my tractor, a 1969 Ford 2000....perfect for the exhibit.

Shown in the photo is George Bush Library - facility manager Robert Spacek as we unloaded it at my College Station storage area.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting Ready for the First Truck

I fly back to Oakland and head straight to my two storage spaces in Cloverdale (up in Sonoma county) to begin prepping all items slated to be on the first shipment to Texas. There was a lot of work to be done...but primarily it was wrapping barrels and vines in plastic stretch wrap. Sounds relatively easy... but I can tell you that it took hours to complete. As the day turns into night I'm still wrapping and stacking barrels, grapevines and 100+ year old basket press parts.

Tomorrow the 18-wheeler is scheduled to arrive first at Monticello winery in Napa to load a circa 1980 'valley bin' used to haul grapes to the crush pad. After the stop in Napa the truck heads to Cloverdale to load all the remaining exhibit items going on the first load.

Shown in the photos you can see a few of the wrapped vines, barrels and broken down barrel staves (that will be used to build the exhibit reader rails) Twenty-four hours later these items were headed to Texas.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Recreating Jefferson's Famous Fireplace

Few aspects involved in creating this wine exhibit have impacted me more than the research devoted to Thomas Jefferson and his appreciation of wine. In October of 2008 when visiting Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia I learned (and saw firsthand) more about Jefferson in two days than all the book research that I had done for months prior. The curators at Monticello were a wealth of information. In addition to touring throughout the various rooms of Monticello, I was taken into the wine cellar. This was very special to me, to actually be walking in Thomas Jefferson's cellar, standing exactly where slaves stood as they placed selected wine bottles in the carriage boxes of his famous fireplace wine dumbwaiter to be sent upstairs to a waiting Jefferson and his dinner guests. The cellar was located directly below the dining room. The dumbwaiter system that Jefferson devised allowed for wines to be served without the intrusion of waitstaff.

For 'The Culture of Wine' exhibit we are recreating a portion of Jefferson's dining room and wine cellar areas. The focal point of the dining room will be a recreation of his fireplace showing the ingenious dumbwaiters hidden in the sides of the mantle. Shown in the photo above is George Bush Presidential Library 'Exhibit Specialist' Jason Hancock and 'Museum Tech' Debbie Page, both worked on building the replica. As shown here the fireplace is about 80% finished. Still to be added are the Wedgewood Jasperware plaques, the marble trim and finishing moulding. The photo below shows a detail of the hidden dumbwaiters located in each side.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Vineyards are Yellow

Every year from late January through March the vineyard landscapes of Northern California are blanketed in the yellow glow of 'Wild Mustard'. This is one of the most beautiful times of the year to be in wine country. The wild mustard, 'brassica kaber' also provides many beneficial actions in the vineyard. For the organic vintner, it acts as a superb cover crop for the good insects that eat the bad insects. It's root system also helps to open up the soil. The wild mustard plants seed in the winter when the vines are dormant. The plants can grow between 1 and 3 feet tall. Technically they are listed by the state of California as a 'noxious weed'...but don't tell that to the wild mustard for in Napa the plants have garnered nearly celebrity status... just check out the Napa Valley Mustard Festival website.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Preparing the Corkscrew Collection

It is interesting that a device designed to perform the simple task of removing a cork from a bottle of wine has become almost an objet d' art in itself. I casually began collecting corkscrews sometime back...but now with the opening of 'The Culture of Wine' exhibit, I am researching them as a more serious collector. Once you become familiar with antique corkscrews you can quickly place them into many different categories such as; non-mechanical direct pull, mechanical, lever, pocket, concertina, folding, waiters, etc. Within each category models may range from very plain & simple to beautiful & ornate.

Depending on where a collector purchases an antique corkscrew, you may or may not need to know a few things about cleaning and caring for them. Most of the corkscrews that I have obtained are inspected and then cleaned and preserved by a method endorsed by museum conservators. First, I apply a solvent such as 'low odor' mineral spirits with a soft brush to any rusty areas. Depending on the amount of rust or dirt present, I then use a nylon or even a soft metal 'brass' brush dipped in the solvent to begin cleaning. After this step I dry the corkscrew with a soft dry rag and set the corkscrew aside to further dry for about half an hour. The next step is to wax the entire corkscrew with a special micro-crystalline wax called 'Renaissance Wax'. This wax is applied as an additional cleaner and a protectant. It drys very quickly and once buffed alittle it leaves a very nice luster finish.

Once finished the corkscrews are placed in archival boxes for storage. For the exhibit, a selection of various groupings will be displayed in acrylic wall cases. Many of my personal favorites were produced in England and France between 1850 and 1930. Below is a "Farrow & Jackson' champagne knife from London, England circa 1900.