Homemade Wine: Michael Claypool of Clay Pigeon

Expert Interview

Michael Claypool started making wine in his Portland, Oregon, garage a couple years ago, and now he's applied for a liquor license and is taking the necessary steps to become a full–fledged wine making operation, Clay Pigeon. There are large vats of lovely, earthy–smelling Syrahs aging in the cold, concrete space usually reserved for long–forgotten tools and two automobiles. Find out how this home winemaker turned his tinkering into a delicious reality.

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Michael and his wife Sasha, are artisan food and beverage seekers of the utmost dedication. Having traveled across the United States interviewing cheese makers and farmers for four months, crafting an interview/storytelling project, Cheese by Hand, which would eventually lead to Sasha's first book, West Coast Guide to Cheese, it's safe to say these two individuals are passionate and curious about the fine foods and wines of the world. Sasha's career took off as a cheese expert, author and small scale cheese-making advocate while Michael grew more and more excited about that grape-derived brew that pairs so well with cheese.

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Michael's experience working in a winery in 2005 got him thinking about making his own wines, and it was in his Portland, Oregon garage where he got stomping. Armed and ready with deliveries of local grapes, Michael, Sasha and friends get to work destemming the fruit and picking out any leaves before hand-cranking the juicy gems through a press. After a couple of weeks fermenting with yeast in the large white tubs, the grape skins and sediments rise to the surface in what looks like the foam on a cappuccino on a much larger and grape-filled scale. Michael pokes this layer a few times per day at this stage to release the gases formed during fermentation.

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Finally, the wine is aged in several wooden barrels before being bottled. Michael explained to me the "wine does most of the work" which I found fascinating to really ponder the origin and making of this beverage we so enjoy with food, I'll never take a sip again without thinking of this complex and eduring process. As with all the culinary basics, the method may be simple but that does not mean it's easy to get superb results. Clay Pigeon, a garage winery, has done just that!

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Interview with Michael of Clay Pigeon Winery

When did you decide to try to make wine at home?
I went to work for a winery in Sonoma in 2005 and knew after that I wanted to make wine. But living in a New York apartment, it made it a bit difficult. Once we moved to Portland we had a larger space and access to great grapes in the Willamette Valley.  

Can you briefly describe the process to us, in layman's terms?
Well I make red wine so I will walk through the basic red wine process: take the grapes off the stems, soak them to get better color, add yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol, press this mixture to get the juice away from the skins and seeds, perform secondary fermentation (malolactic fermentation) to convert the harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid, let it sit in barrel (or other container) until it tastes good and bottle. Each of those steps is filled with small decisions that helps differentiate your style of wine. 

Such as?
Do you destem all your grapes or leave some stems on for more tannin and structure? Do you cold soak your grapes or ferment right away? Do you add yeast or let the natural yeast in the air and on the grapes do the fermentation? Do you use barrels to age? Do you use new or older oak barrel? Do you filter the wine (to get better clarity in the bottle)? The variations are endless!

What's the most rewarding part of making your own wine?
Getting to be the one that makes all those decisions and then seeing how they affect the wine. It is an interesting mix of science and art; having all the data in front of you but still relying on your senses and intuition on what is needed or not needed for the wine. Plus being able to drink it is pretty great! 

How does homemade wine differ from commercially-made wine?
Well it doesn't have to be different other than the scale of production. Home-makers might make just 5 or 10 gallons of wine where a normal winery is making hundreds if not thousands of gallons of wine. A home winemaker also might not have access to quality grapes so that can affect the taste. As you would imagine, bad grapes make bad wine. 

What are you making this week?
Pinot Noir and Syrah. The Pinot is from Mistletoe Vineyard near Dallas OR and the Syrah is from Cliff Creek Vineyards in Gold Hill, OR. This year I decided to pull some of the Syrah juice off the skins early, before fermentation, and make a little Rose wine — we will see how that goes. 

Describe your ideal glass of wine and what else is on the table?
Ideal glass of wine is probably a red wine from Burgundy (Pinot Noir) from Echezeaux or La Tache... and dinner! I believe that wine is to be part of a meal, so some bread, cheese, meats, perhaps some boeuf bourguignon for a perfect meal on a cold night.  

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Visit Michael's winery online: Clay Pigeon
Read the Interview with Sasha we did last year: Sasha Davies and the West Coast Guide to Cheese

Related: How to Taste Wine like a Wine Professional

(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)