Amateur Winemaking
A Hedge Against Inflation
By Bernard Ledermann

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This is the story of two home wine makers (HWMs). One, this writer, figured he’d studied wines and enology for many years, understood the process, and knew the grapes well. How difficult could it be, after all, to whip up a few gallons of table wine in his ideally-suited cellar? His lofty attitude quickly resulted in vinous disaster. Perhaps he was expecting another Cana wedding miracle (you know, the water-into-wine thing); instead, he was left with a batch of grape juice gone bad.

On the flip side, one HWM with the juice gone good is Gary Cox, who, with his wife Shirley—apparently the final arbiter for some of the excellent blends Gary constructs—live just outside Piffard, New York, in a rare and handsome Federal house which they have turned into a Bed and Breakfast called The Silver Tendril. Gary is that notable amateur whose first-rate bottlings would have a retail market if he ever chose elevation to farm winery status. His is a “hands-on” approach in every step of the winemaking process, from vineyard into bottle. He is methodical, analytical, and in his mini-vineyard has a mastery of viticulture to rival many a degreed botanist. (Gary is a retired professor of Philosophy.)

Grouped cozily by a blazing hearth in the Cox’s parlor on a November day of frightful weather brutality, we imagine being at the knee of Konstantin Frank, so enlivening and captivating is our lesson in enology and viticulture. It is not surprising that Gary made frequent pilgrimages to Hammondsport, NY, in Konstantin’s day to pick the brain of the master; you might also expect that he stays current by seeking the counsel of today’s professional wine-makers, notably Peter Bell of Fox Run Winery in Yates County, a vintner frequently lauded in these columns. It is no wonder that several of Gary’s wines have been recognized with medals awarded at both state and national levels in competitions sponsored by the American Wine Society, a group in which the Coxes participate actively through the Rochester chapter.

For those who haven’t been there or done that in the area of home winemaking, we should direct your attention to these points: first, in New York state, a household is allowed to produce two hundred gallons of wine in any given year (that would yield over 980 standard size bottles—750 ml—enough to see any family through the most trying year); for an individual HWM, the limit is one hundred gallons (505 bottles); secondly, most beginners buy juice or grape concentrates, either from reputable wineries who offer the liquids, or through suppliers of winemaking equipment and raw materials. In the Buffalo area, there are many possibilities for obtaining excellent juices. West on I-90 is the Chatauqua grape belt, which in most seasons presents a tsunami of juice. Remember, though, much of the Belt is not planted to vinifera (the “wine-bearer”) grapes, and if you’re a fan of dry dinner wine, you may not care to make Concord for the table. On the other hand, there are many fine French-American hybrids grown along the southern shore of Lake Erie, most of which will please discerning palates, provided all your HWM procedures have worked out.

If you’re inclined to travel a bit farther (a one-way ninety-mile drive from downtown), you are encouraged to visit Presque Isle Winery just outside Erie, PA. Owners Marlene and Doug Moorhead do more than run a first-class commercial winery. Since 1964 they’ve also conducted the business of providing HWMers, Gary Cox-serious as well as Sunday enologists, with both raw materials and equipment needs. You can have the Moorheads help you get your fermentation bubbling with quality juice and a basic winemaking kit. Such kits sell for less than $35.00 and will enable you to start with a capacity of five gallons—a very convenient amount for a neophyte—or a yield of just over two cases of wine. Depending on which raw materials you choose (it’s obvious Chardonnay will set you back more than Vidal), your initial venture could find you savoring your labors for less than $2.50 a bottle. Not bad, considering the sticker shock—new episodes almost weekly—all of us encounter on the shelves of our local wine retailers.

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So, what shall be the stuff of which your bottled dreams are made? It is no secret that wine can be made from strawberries, cherries, honey and peaches (mead), even dandelions—just about any material on which the miracle of yeast can work. But in the beginning, there were grapes and yeast, and as long as there were people to pick the fruit, the likelihood of wine’s accidental occurrence was surely there. (It’s all so....Canaesque.) Winemaking experience dating back to ancient Turkey and the Caucasus mountain region—and that’s a lot of years B.C.— shows there is just no satisfactory replacement for the grape. (Can you imagine a rack of medium-rare lamb with Uncle Olaf’s 1999 lingonberry wine?) Far better to employ juice, concentrate, or fresh grapes. If attempting to ferment a red wine from juice, be sure to ask for the reserved red skins; otherwise, it WILL require a miracle to produce any red-colored beverage.

Few of us enjoy a Gary Cox-style home vineyard (over 30 different varieties, 12 vinifera, and several fine hybrids) so it is not possible to oversee the health of the grapes then gather them at peak ripeness. Remember, though, grapes are usually available—only an intolerably mean growing season would preclude this—in the Chatauqaua “belt” or the nearby Finger Lakes. Some home vintners even order fresh grapes from California, especially the Zinfandel variety, which arrive in Buffalo on refrigerated rail cars. You can obtain information on the “where’s” and “how’s” of shipping grapes from the west coast by calling the Sonoma County Wine Center at (707)-586-3795, or you may prefer to send an e-mail of inquiry to info@alderbrook.com

If you’d like to give winemaking at home an initial crack, don’t puzzle over-long on how much to produce. As noted, experienced HWMs like Gary Cox and the Moorheads counsel no more than five gallons to start. This is a manageable amount; certainly enough to handle considering the finicky details to which you must pay strict attention before the first bottle is filled and capped.

Over ninety per cent of first-time home wine-makers start with a good primer on the art. Presque Isle Winery’s Beginner’s Book of Winemaking offers thorough, easy-to-follow directions in under sixty pages at a mere cost of $2.35. In addition, a kit—particularly if you’re making wine from juices or concentrates—containing some items of elementary equipment and a few chemical additives is essential. Some people cringe when anything “chemical” is even intimated, but with wine-from-grapes use of chemicals is negligible. Adding small amounts can save a batch of wine from becoming drink for your drain.

Foremost among the equipment in a kit is a gender-curious glass container called a carboy. Available in sizes from three to seven (and larger) gallon sizes, the five gallon size is considered ideal for a beginning, smaller batch of wine. Remember, in successful winemaking so much depends on good clarification. For that reason a second carboy is recommended so you may rack (or siphon off) wine from the “lees”, that gross sediment thrown shortly after fermentation. All successful HWMs advise patience: let the lees settle, let any haziness dissipate, rack off, rack again, rack a third time to assure a clean product. In his lone attempt as HWM, this writer practiced no diligence, racked once, and thought he had a wine ready for consumption and accolades. Gary Cox routinely racks every six weeks to two months, then racks some more until his product shows a lively, glittering brightness, almost as if lighted from within—far from the slatternly appearance of the writer’s attempt.

In HWMing, cleanliness is key, and chemicals take a prominent role. Sulfur dioxide is a potent anti-oxidant which checks molds and bacteria. Sterilizing any surface even grazed by wine—carboys, bottles, dozens of etceteras—should be accomplished either with an alkaline cleaner based on sal soda and tri-sodium phosphate, or a solution of potassium metabisulfite in water. Rely on your winemaking supplier or your instruction manual to provide the correct advice on where, when, and how to use any chemical additives. Rarely will the careful HWM encounter spoilage arising from bacterial infection. With Gary Cox, there might be an abnormality in one of every 350 batches, if that. As for the writer, hardly a Louis Pasteur, he imagined his environment microbe-free and therefore decided to “save” himself a few dollars on additives. His abject results yielded a bouquet and flavor somewhere between overused gym socks and rotting mushrooms.

Miraculous—that word again—yeasts “make” the wine, and in more ways than one would imagine. This truth was powerfully reinforced last autumn when it was my privilege to be in the fermentation room of the noted Mathier winery in Switzerland’s upper Rhone Valley. From a scaffold above an open stainless steel vat, we peered upon a purple “hat” of pulp and skins on top of fermenting juice pressed from Humagne Rouge grapes.

One could imagine the permutations under the seething, jiggling blanket as the action of yeasts converted Humagne sugars to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. We resisted the temptation of inhaling lest we attain a state beyond Nirvana, or subject ourselves to an upset stomach. It is said Benjamin Franklin marveled at the then mysterious biochemical reactions triggered by yeasts, but maintained the entire process was “proof positive that there is a God and that He loves us.” There are many strains of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisae), some of the more desirable imported from Europe and many are stocked by Presque Isle and other HWMing suppliers.

Selection of the proper yeast strain is of utmost importance to wine-makers, and they try to choose that which does the most thorough job of converting grape sugar. In Gary’s case, he finds that the Cote des Blancs yeast, when combined with cool temperature fermentation, reveals the fruit and floral aromas of his grapes—especially so in his award-winning bottles of Riesling.

If you’re smart enough to book at the Cox’s Silver Tendril B & B and enjoy either the Monet or Shaker room, you will surely be treated to a glass or so of Gary’s decorated wine. As you enjoy a perfect tasting venue in the 1829 parlor, take time to savor how good an “amateur” wine can be. (Sorry, none for sale.) During our November visit, we were privileged to taste through three reds and five whites. We favored the 1999 Chambourcin, a wine of lovely garnet color and featuring subtle red currant fruit, pleasant acidity and considerable spiciness on the finish. Gary’s “Wine # 10”, a flawless blend of both French-American hybrids and vinifera, is a savory mouth-filler which offers the flavors of red berries touched by a baked bread impression. Finally, the 1998 Riesling, a wine with a certain distinguished future, is from Gary’s clones # 198 and 239. It shows good extract, peachy fruitiness, and complex nether layers of spice and red Twizzlers. Congratulations to Gary for this effort—another medal winner in last fall’s national Wine Society competition at Cleveland.

It is heartening to know that home-made wine doesn’t have to taste amateurish (this failed HWM admits his transgressions), but to attain success there can be no impudence, no laying aside of details. At their best, home-made wines will help you gain some edge against the upward price spiral found with commercial products, provide drinking to be lingered over and enjoyed at meals and anytime, and, most important, give you the satisfaction of your own artisanship.

Websites addresses of the principals in this article:

Presque Isle Winery and Supply Co. in Pennsylvania: www.piwine.com; American Wine Society: www/vicon.net/~aws/#Membership; Shirley and Gary Cox at their Silver Tendril B & B in Piffard, NY: www.silvertendril.com.

Incidentally, for persons booking at least two nights at the B & B during grape harvesting time this year, Gary will offer guest “stomping privileges”. He realizes the effectiveness of the human foot in treading his grapes and is willing to make “crush” the cynosure of your stay. Expect much jubilance—and juice spatter.

Bernie Ledermann is a professional wine taster, retailer, and educator.


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