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The Home Advantage | Home Winemakers

Using plastic tubs and secondhand barrels, the best home winemakers have passion and pluck. Wine Editor Lettie Teague visits them to taste and talk.

My last trip to Napa was a little unusual. Instead of visiting vineyards or barrel-tasting new wines, I spent most of my time in suburban cul-de-sacs. It wasn't that I made a wrong turn off Highway 29 or got sidetracked off the Silverado Trail: I was meeting with award-winning home winemakers.

On the one hand, it seemed a little bizarre, like going to Madison Square Garden to watch a game of pickup basketball. On the other hand, it was exciting to meet people so passionate about wine that they made it themselves. And who knew what potentially great wines were being produced behind the doors of a three-car garage?

I've only had homemade wines a few times in my life, and some of those wines seemed to defy geographic likelihood. A friend's father used to make wine in his house in New York City. He bought his grapes in the Bronx and crushed them in his basement in Queens—making it a two-borough appellation bottling, I guess.

My hopes were higher for the homemade Napa wines. They'd all won top prizes at the last two Home Winemakers Classics, held each summer at Napa's St. Supéry winery; this competition (now in its 22nd year) is considered the most important and prestigious of its kind. Judged by a panel of professional winemakers, the Classic attracts close to a hundred entrants and around 800 spectators. A wine that did well there, I figured, might be pretty good. I was also curious about the winemakers themselves: An amateur who made wine in Napa had to be pretty brave, not to mention self-confident.

My first meeting was with the Valley Girls, three middle-aged suburban women who've been making wine together for over six years. Their Cabernet and Meritage had won awards at the Classic, while their Bad Hair Day Cuvee (a Bordeaux-style blend) had been honored elsewhere. As one who has had a Bad Hair Life (to quote Phyllis Diller, my hairdo is a hairdon't), I had a feeling of kinship with the Girls long before we even met.

It was raining hard the day I arrived. ("Just like the day we picked the grapes for our Bad Hair Day Cuvee," remarked Leslie Burma, the lead Valley Girl, as she opened her front door.) Burma looked like she'd never had a bad hair day in her life—think a young Suzanne Somers—while I looked like their label name brought to life. As I walked in the door, I passed three men going out. These were the Valley Girl husbands, Burma explained. They'd been dispatched to another Valley Girl home to watch sports on TV. "The men help with the wine, but for marketing purposes it's better if they're behind the scenes," she added. (In a place like Napa, apparently even the amateurs are promotion-savvy.)

The Girls—Burma, Lee Dalbey and Kasandra Weinerth—are all blondes who looked like they might have done cheerleading time. None knew much about making wine at first; they all held jobs in other fields (project management, teaching and graphic design, respectively). Over the years, they taught themselves the winemaking basics. "We thought it was fun," Burma said.

We stood chatting at the counter in Burma's kitchen, where she'd laid out a generous array of cake, cookies and fruit. (The pros rarely offer more than a cracker.) I looked around for winemaking apparatus. Burma took notice. "Did you want to see where we make the wine?" she offered. "You mean you don't make it here?" I replied, disappointed. I'd pictured home winemakers with de-stemmers in their dining rooms and barrels next to their beds. "We have a little winery out back," she replied.

The Valley Girls' winery turned out to be a converted toolshed with purple lipstick-print curtains, and 150 Pinot Noir vines at the rear. "We're in the appellation of Carneros, after all," Burma noted. (Carneros is a district famous for Pinot.) A single barrel, still wrapped in plastic, stood in the center of the winery floor. "That's our new American-oak barrel," said Weinerth with pride.

We tasted their new wine, a Merlot made from Calistoga grapes that the Girls had picked personally (with help from their families). I asked for the name of the vineyard. "We can't say; that's part of the deal," Weinerth replied, adding, "but they're first-pick grapes."

Home winemakers, I learned, have several ways of getting fruit. Some buy their grapes, though this is seen as a sign of either wealth or laziness. A serious home winemaker, it was implied, picks his or her own grapes. The best grapes are "first pick," which simply means the amateurs get to harvest their grapes at the same time as the pros. These are usually grapes from a new vineyard or one that's too small to be commercially viable—or, in the case of the recent wine glut, grapes that the vineyard owners simply couldn't sell. Sometimes these grapes are free, though not always. "We've never paid for our grapes," Weinerth noted—a comment I was to hear over and over. This was another home winemaker point of pride, free fruit being the mark of a true insider. (Home winemakers try to get everything for free, it seems, including barrels, bottles and corks.)

"Second-pick" fruit is much less desirable, but it is almost always free. Second pick means another winery or winemaker has already gone through the vineyard and taken the most desirable stuff. The home winemakers can have whatever's left over. It's much harder to harvest second-pick grapes, as what's left on the vine is usually hard to reach. Second-pick grapes are clearly not as desirable as first, in terms of quality, labor investment and, of course—this was Napa—status.

According to Jeff Cox, author of From Vines to Wines (the bible of every home winemaker I met), "Everyone in Napa knows someone who will let them pick a hundred or so pounds of fruit for free." In fact, the total figure Cox came up with for making wine at home—$150—seemed pretty close to free too. This included food-grade plastic hose, a plastic mesh bag, five-gallon carboys (glass or plastic containers), a hand corker and basic fermentation equipment, the combination of which could yield, said Cox, "some good spaghetti red." (Producing a fine wine would cost several hundred dollars more, mostly because of the cost of the barrels.)

The Girls and I returned to the kitchen to taste wines. I was most impressed by their 2001 bottling. A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec, it was soft with good structure and density of fruit, though it didn't have much aroma. This turned out to be true of most of the homemade wines I tasted. (When I asked pro winemaker Mia Klein about this later, she explained, "Home winemakers can have a lot of fermentation problems.") As I prepared to leave, Burma pulled me aside. "You know, you could be an honorary Valley Girl," she said. "I heard you say 'Oh my God' twice."

My next visit was more low-key: Søren Bloch, a pilot and jazz musician, makes wine at his friends' converted workshop in St. Helena. Bloch produces red, white and sparkling wine. Most amateurs avoid making white because it requires more attention than red, especially with regard to temperature control. It must be kept cold during fermentation to avoid contamination, a challenge for winemakers who lack sophisticated refrigeration. "Real wineries can check their wines 10 times a day; home winemakers can't do that," Bloch said. Sparkling wine poses even more challenges—not to mention physical risks: "When I disgorge my Champagne, I wear a full face mask, and I do it outside. It's quite dangerous."

My next home winemaker, Dennis Tucker, tackled what some might say was an even more intimidating prospect: Pinot Noir, the red grape that gives even the pros pause. But his 2001 Tucker Cellars Pinot (from first-crop Carneros fruit) placed first in its category in the 2003 Home Winemakers Classic. I met up with Tucker and his son Brian at the latter's home. Why Pinot? I asked. "The Pinot Noirs I tasted were always pretty wimpy. I thought I could do better," Tucker replied. We tasted his wine—fairly intense, with some nice black-cherry flavors—and though I wouldn't have identified it as Pinot, it was certainly not a wimpy wine. Tucker was thinking of turning commercial. But either way, he was philosophical: "If it happens, that's great. But what's important is to live life with zest and zeal. Making wine is just part of that."

The Double Trinity winemakers seemed the embodiment of that ideal. Their Syrah, the first wine they'd ever produced, took Best in Show at last year's Classic. The team has six members, middle-aged men who attend the same Episcopal church. It was there they decided to make wine, hence their name.

The Double Trinity winery was just outside Napa, at the home of their leader, Russell Joy (whose surname seemed particularly apt). I arrived there as the Double Trinity partners (and their wives and children) returned from church. In their ties and sport coats, they were definitely the best-dressed winemakers I'd ever met—outside of Italy, that is. After showing off their equipment (a basket press that looked like a toy, a few old barrels), they escorted me to a former chicken coop, which had been decorated for a party. "We call it the party barn because we're always looking for a reason to have a good time," said Double Trinity's John Guman. His partners gave an assenting whoop while their wives took pictures. If the Episcopalians at my church were like the Double Trinity gang, I'd attend more often.

"So how did you choose Syrah?" I asked Joy as he pulled the cork on one of only two remaining bottles of the prize wine (they'd only made eight cases). The wine was a laudable first effort—with a nice texture and good concentration, though it too was aromatically indistinct. "The grapes were free," he replied. They came from a vineyard that a friend was developing in Sonoma. But, Joy added, "We haven't told the owner we won an award, because we're afraid he won't give us the grapes anymore." They did, however, give the owner some wine.

Maybe homemade wines aren't on a par with commercial ones, but I wondered if there wasn't a connection between the best amateurs and the top pros. They share the same language and the same tendency to show off their equipment (for the pros, their bottling line; for the home winemakers, plastic tubs). But what truly unites the two isn't anything measurable: It's the passion they have for the wine they make—and the life they lead.

Published March 2004
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