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Washington Post - Oct. 3, 2007


When BYO Means Bottle Your Own

[FINAL Edition]

The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.


Dick Rosano


Oct 3, 2007

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If you take up an ancient craft, remember this: It probably took our ancestors millennia to get it right. You could be excused for needing a few years of practice.

Take Jim Gearing's 2003 zinfandel, which he says was "the worst: sour as lemons." Or Frank Vitale's 2001 merlot, which had "bad corks," or his 2004 zinfandel, which was too sweet. On the bright side, he said, 2004 was a good year for port, thanks to the fact that sweet grapes produce high alcohol.

Winemaking can have its ups and downs, especially when you ply your craft in a garage or basement using buckets or barrels instead of at a commercial winery with expensive equipment and technology at the ready.

Men like Gearing and Vitale, and lately a growing number of women, have taken up the challenge. They're among hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of people in the United States who are carrying on a tradition that began much as these home vintners see it now: as a village effort.

At a recent gathering of home winemakers at S&S Wine Grapes and Equipment in Baltimore, most expressed a reverence for the craft, a desire to preserve it in its original, small-scale form, and humility in the face of sometimes difficult years. "So far," admits one winemaker who was too sheepish to identify himself, "every vintage has been a loss, but I'm still trying."

Many home winemakers come from immigrant families; Italians and Portuguese make up the biggest group of customers at S&S, the largest such business in the area. But many don't. "We're getting more and more people who just want to see what winemaking is all about," says Benny Sudano, who owns S&S with his cousin Brian.

Americans' first widespread interest in home winemaking dates to Prohibition, when there was no commercial wine to be had. When the repeal came in 1933, many families decided they liked the process and chose to continue it.

In the mid-1990s, a survey by Wine Spectator magazine found about 500,000 people making wine at home. Grape and equipment suppliers across the country say the number has tripled or even quadrupled since then. Some people start because of heritage or because they taste a friend's homemade wine. Others get inspired by a visit to a winery.

Most home vintners find that their wines cover the entire range of quality, from simple -- and sometimes simply awful -- to remarkably good. Chardonnay, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon are popular grapes, but local varieties such as Vidal Blanc and Viognier, plus a handful of foreign imports such as Carignane and sangiovese, are common.

Vitale's ancestors made wine in Italy for generations beyond counting, and he remembers his grandfather making wine after he came to America, a familiar story for many Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. But that's not how Vitale, 49, learned the craft. "My Italian barbers got me started," he says with a laugh. "They made their own wine, so I started making it with them, but it turned to vinegar in six months."

Vitale, who co-owns a utility contracting business with his brothers in Croom, makes 150 gallons a year, about 750 bottles, and has 13 vintages under his belt. He is proudest of using his grandfather's 90-year-old grape press in the process.

He makes wine, he says, because he's Italian. "It's something I can pass down to other generations," including sons Nicholas and Michael, who, with Vitale's wife, Sally Jean, complete the Vitale winemaking team.

Gearing doesn't have the Italian excuse for his love of winemaking, unless, as he says, "living in Florence for six months" counts. Instead, it was the wine of an English art professor he met in Tallahassee in the 1970s (while he was living "with a bunch of hippies") that did it. Alan Wood, the professor, made the wine with canned blueberries, adding half a lemon for acidity, a tea bag for tannin, some sugar and honey to fuel the fermentation, and a packet of Fleischmann's yeast.

"It wasn't bad," Gearing says with a shrug. "It just wasn't much."

It was enough, however, to spark the passion of a new winemaker. Gearing, 59, a software consultant from Alexandria, tried making wine the same way Wood had, then "moved up" to wine kits with grape concentrate until stopping for a few years after he relocated to the Virgin Islands. When he returned to the States, a friend -- an Italian American, as it happens -- got him started again. This time, his friend said, "It's gotta be from grapes."

Even though vineyard acreage in Maryland and Virginia has increased over the decades and Virginia's reputation for commercial wine has grown, most amateur winemakers in the Washington-Baltimore region buy California grapes shipped cross-country in refrigerated trucks. The selection of grapes is better, and the quality -- even assuming the best grapes are bought up by California vintners -- is usually better overall than what grows locally.

In 1982, Gearing and his friend were ready to find fruit after ordering equipment, including a crusher, a press and an assortment of hoses, air locks and barrels for storage. They decided that beginning their new enterprise on Columbus Day had a certain appeal. At the time, the Sudano family had been selling wine grapes from a Baltimore fruit warehouse for decades, since Prohibition. Gearing drove his Pontiac Tempest to the warehouse and met Joe Sudano, a grizzly, bearded wine savant who was perched in a folding chair at the yawning mouth of the warehouse.

Gearing and his Italian buddy bought 300 pounds of zinfandel and Alicante Bouschet grapes, drove home and ran the fruit through a crusher, picking out the stems by hand. And Gearing has not missed a year since.

Asked why he's so consumed with it, he attributes it to "entertainment, interest in the process, being a virtual Italian." These days he makes about 100 gallons a year from various grapes, sharing the work and the results with friends.

When she started, Bonnie Harrison, 42, didn't know anyone else who had made wine. She and friend Eric Epstein were visiting St. Michaels Winery near the Chesapeake Bay on a lark. After talking to the winemaker, they fell in love with the notion of making their own.

It all happened quickly. "We were at the supplier in less than two hours and had purchased everything we needed to make wine," she says, including hoses, glass storage containers and yeast.

Harrison, a partner in an interior design business in Alexandria, began working with Epstein to make a 2006 vintage. But once they were faced with the raw materials, the confidence they'd taken away from St. Michaels faded a bit.

"Eric wasn't sure our chardonnay would taste right," Harrison says, "so he suggested that we add some peach fruit to give it more flavor."

During fermentation -- a phase that can produce a perplexing combination of floral aromas and stinky off-odors -- Harrison became so worried by the smell of the new wine that she dubbed it Diaper Wine. As it turned out, the finished product possessed the silkiness of a good chardonnay with a curious twist of peach.

They are committed to making more wine, including a 2007 Riesling. "We're going to try other grapes," Harrison says excitedly. "And no peaches!"

Gilbert Bras, 46, of Falls Church makes wine for the same reason Vitale does: "Because it's part of our heritage." Born in South America but of Portuguese descent, Bras came to America when he was 13 and has been making his own wine for about 15 years.

His teenage sons help. "I force them to do it because they'll remember it," he declares without a hint of guilt. He makes 150 to 200 gallons a year (750 to 1,000 bottles), mostly Carignane for himself; the grape yields a wine familiar to European palates. His wife likes cabernet sauvignon, so he makes some of that for her.

Many hobby winemakers keep their product close to home at first; they're too shy to serve it and expose themselves to wisecracks about purple feet and Chateau Jug Wine. But with experience and success, they develop pride in their product and a willingness to share it.

And just like their European counterparts, many U.S. home winemakers supply relatives and friends with an annual inventory. That explains the increase in volume each year, and it also explains why the neighborhood sometimes turns out to help with the crush when the grapes arrive each autumn.

"As you make more wine," Bras says, "you get more friends."

Dick Rosano is a wine and food writer who has been making wine at home for 30 years.

Credit: Special to The Washington Post

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