Home Wine Makers

By Derrick Schneider

Tim Paterson and his wines

The 2002 California Toscano Falso from Berkeley’s Subterranean Cellars has won awards in prestigious wine competitions, but you’ll never find it at a store or restaurant. You’ll only taste it if you know Tim Patterson, who makes this wine and others at his Berkeley home. Patterson, a thoughtful, soft-spoken wine writer, is one of a large number of amateur wine makers in the East Bay. Instead of cars, he fills his garage with carboys, large glass bottles that hold wine. Two or three barrels, a bottle corker, a press, and other supplies pack the small space.

Home wine making might seem eccentric, and wine enthusiasts might eye the product skeptically—at least until they taste some. Patterson’s 2004 Rioja Falsa, one of his wines that I tasted, exhibits better balance than many commercial wines.

“Making drinkable, decent wine is easy,” claims Patterson, though he concedes that making truly great wine is difficult. Patterson doesn’t have access to high-end industrial equipment, but he sees that as an advantage: “You have to use artisanal techniques,” he says, “You have to do everything by hand.”

Rex Johnston, an impish and opinionated retired chemist, expands on this philosophy as he talks about the wine he makes from his Alamo home: “We can often do better with small amounts of grapes than commercial wineries can do with bigger lots of the same fruit.” It’s not just that amateurs can’t afford the big equipment; commercial wineries can’t afford to coddle their wines the way a home wine maker can.

Punching down the “cap” of grape skins that impart color to red wine is just one example. Amateurs have to do this chore manually, but few wineries can use this gentle treatment when they’re dealing with tons of grapes. Home wine makers can also correct their wines in ways that commercial wineries frown upon, such as adding sugar to the juice to increase alcoholic body or adding water to reduce the final alcohol levels.

The tinkering and hands-on aspects appeal to these dedicated amateurs. “It’s the only thing I’ve really done with my muscles and senses,” says Patterson, whose writing career keeps him in front of a computer most of the day. “It’s probably true of a lot of home wine makers around here,” he says of the large number of East Bay amateurs, who tend to come from technical backgrounds.

Stephen and Susan Abbanac’s
basement winery

But the hobby has plenty to offer his geeky side as well. The best home wine makers rely on the same lab analysis that commercial operations use to assess quality. Others don’t.

“Probably about 10–15% of our customers bring in their wine for analysis because they know they should,” says Bernie Rooney, owner of Berkeley’s Oak Barrel Winecraft, which has supported Bay Area amateurs since 1957. “And about 10–15% do it because there’s something wrong with the wine.” That leaves almost 70% trusting to fate—no wonder homemade wine has a bad reputation. Patterson takes advantage of the store’s analysis service for certain tests; Johnston does it all himself, “except the microbiological work.” His notebook is filled with neatly penned notes about acidity, sugar levels, and alcohol percentages.

Lab analysis and artisanal techniques are fine once the grape juice has fermented, but modern home wine makers can produce good wine in part because they have access to top-notch grapes. Few amateurs have the space or desire to grow their own vines—”lt locks you into a single variety,” says Johnston when I ask why he doesn’t—but they can buy fruit from Oak Barrel, which has relationships with quality grape growers in areas such as Napa and Mendocino.

“It’s a bit crazy when the grapes come in,” says Oak Barrel’s Rooney. Crush, when grapes are pressed into juice, is insane at commercial wineries; imagine dispensing that juice to several impatient wine makers as the grapes get pressed. “We set up some cheese, and crackers, and some wine,” he says, “and try to manage them as best as possible.”

For those who want unusual varieties, or grapes from other areas, Brehm Vineyards in Albany offers more options. “I allow the wine makers to reach greatness,” says Peter Brehm of his business, pointing to customers whose wines have won awards or impressed well-known wine makers. His vineyard contacts are so valuable that he even sells grapes to commercial wineries.
Brehm offers another advantage: He freezes the grapes (or the juice, for whites) so that wine makers can thaw them and press them at their convenience. He’s quick to defend the untraditional practice: “You get a much longer cold soak,” he says with a laugh about a common technique for extracting color and flavor. Again, most commercial wineries can’t afford to freeze their grapes so they can spread out the work. “It’s just not energy efficient at that scale,” says Patterson, “So it’s easier to deal with crushing the grapes as they come in.” The practice allows Brehm to ship across the country to wine makers far away from good grapes.

Some amateurs enjoy finding other sources. Some grape growers will sell to home wine makers, especially when a group pools resources to buy a ton or more of fruit. “Part of the fun is the hunt for good grapes,” says Stephen Abbanat, a young KPMG executive who makes wine with his wife Susan in their Oakland Hills home. They use Oak Barrel’s grape-buying services, but they also take advantage of other sources. A friend of theirs planted a number of vineyards as landscaping in Contra Costa County, and he occasionally hooks up estate owners and amateur wine makers.

“You might go to a winery, and if you’re bold you might ask if they ever have extras,” continues Abbanat. A winery might even call a home wine maker and let them come and pick grapes themselves—though usually that only happens when there’s a grape glut. Every year, the situation changes. “Part of the problem,” says Susan Abbanat, “is that when a source catches on, it’s no longer available to home wine makers.”

But why bother with the work at all when you can grab a bottle of inexpensive wine at the corner store? For Patterson, part of the fun is making the kind of wine he likes, “I don’t ever bother making Merlot,” he says. Instead, he prefers aromatic whites or Rhône blends, and he can create combinations that would never sell. “I can blend Viognier, Chardonnay, and Muscat if I want,” he explains.

Johnston made wine from Malvasia Bianca, a delicious and aromatic Eastern European grape, because he fell in love with the variety while in Italy and couldn’t find any wine makers producing it here (Bonny Doon now bottles one). He contacted Peter Brehm for a source, and now he has plenty of this fragrant wine.

But Johnston’s non-grape dessert wines represent his biggest departure from the mainstream. His golden raspberry dessert wine is a heavenly liquid bursting with raspberry aromas. The fruits pose some challenges that grapes don’t, in the form of higher acidity, but Johnston clearly enjoys solving these puzzles. And the wines routinely carry the Best of Show awards at competitions at county and state fairs.

The competitions are an important part of the hobby. “Some do it for the competitive aspect,” says Patterson, “but mainly they provide a reality check.” Entrants can evaluate their efforts against other amateurs. “If you get a good judge,” says Barbara Bentley, who does the tasting and label making for her husband Johnston’s wines, “they’ll provide feedback about the wines.” Competitions happen in local wine making associations, county and state fairs, and internationally through Wine Maker magazine.

The medals and ribbons aren’t as important to the wine makers as the community they belong to. “Everyone is welcome in the club,” says Stephen Abbanat as he describes the Contra Costa Wine Group, “and most of the people are tremendously generous with their knowledge.” The group includes a few pros as well as amateurs with varying degrees of experience, who bond over this hobby. “We really love the people,” he says. “Some of them seem to do home wine making more for the social aspect.”

Amateur wine makers quickly find they are part of the larger wine making community as well. “You’re part of the brotherhood,” says Patterson, who brings bottles when he interviews commercial wine makers. It sets a different tone: Suddenly, he’s not just a critic but a peer. “It helps me talk tech with the wine makers,” he explains. Johnston and Abbanat both describe instances where they’ve shared their homemade wine with producers abroad and found themselves welcomed as family.

Patterson has also found that his palate has improved from his hobby. “When you taste a wine as it evolves from juice to wine and through its aging,” he explains, “you learn something you can never get from tasting finished wines.” He finds he can distinguish fruit flavors from barrel flavors more easily, because he’s tasted wine prior to putting it in barrels.

You’d think there would be a lot of temptation to turn pro (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau forbids the sale of homemade wine), but Patterson and Johnston shudder when they contemplate a shift. As amateurs, they can do whatever they want. When you go into business, you face a slew of government regulations. But more to the point, you need to make money, which might mean producing wine that appeals to the public more than to you. Abbanat obviously daydreams about the idea from time to time, but he doesn’t give it much serious thought: Wineries are notorious money pits.

If you want to make your own wine, there are almost too many ways to start. Johnston and Bentley suggest starting with a kit (sold at Oak Barrel and other wine making sources), which includes concentrated grape juice and yeast. They also recommend Jon Iverson’s Home Winemaking, though Johnston, always quick with an opinion, disagrees with Iverson that you should start with whites. Both Johnston and Abbanat suggest you join a club, where you can benefit from the enthusiasm and experience of other wine makers.

Consider yourself warned: The hobby grabs you and doesn’t let go. You’ll “discover” you need a second carboy. You’ll decide you need a press of your own. You might look to renovate your garage to accommodate your wines. But in the end, it’ll be worth it. “There’s nothing like making something with your hands that you can share with others,” says Abbanat.

Resources for Home Wine Makers

Oak Barrel Winecraft: Best single source for wine making supplies., 1443 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, 510.849.0400, oakbarrel.com

Brehm Vineyards: Grapes from all along the Pacific Coast, including unusual varieties, brehmvineyards.com