- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

Guests entering the basement of Dean Triplett’s Leesburg, Va., home might have to step around the occasional aquarium heater or hot pad.

Ever since Mr. Triplett took up making wine at home, he has been innovative to make the proper environment for his creations.

It’s all worth it when it comes time to savor the fruits of his labor.

Home winemaking may seem daunting to the uninitiated, but those who try it say it isn’t complicated and requires only a modest investment.

Mr. Triplett, who began making wine at home in 1984 after hearing about how his father-in-law made his own beer, says a beginner’s winemaking class was all he needed to start up his own mini-winery.

“You get skilled at picking up flaws and the things you like in wine,” he says. “It’s not a lot of expense and you’ll be surprised how good the results will be.”

So far he has concentrated on red wine, which is easier for amateurs since it doesn’t require as strict a temperature range as whites. He tries to keep the temperature in the area of his basement dedicated to winemaking in the upper 70s, but the wine helps its own cause.

“The fermentation process creates heat on its own,” says Mr. Triplett, who makes up to 90 gallons of wine each year — the legal limit for home-based winemakers is 100 gallons annually.

Wine is created when grapes are picked at the peak of their flavor — about this time of year — and crushed with their skins intact. The skins are included in the winemaking process for red wines to add the red coloring and tannic flavor.

The material at this point, known as must, is poured into a fermentation vat, which can be either stainless steel or barrels made of oak. The yeast in the crushed grapes begins to ferment inside the container, though some winemakers introduce cultured yeasts into the mix before sealing the vats. Yeast turns the fruit’s natural sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

This step takes up to four weeks and winemakers must monitor temperature levels carefully during this step.

The wine-to-be is then poured into a barrel for aging, a process that can take anywhere from nine months to several years to add the right amount of flavor.

Various mini-steps complicate the process. Winemakers measure sugar levels at different steps of the process, and white wines require tighter temperature controls.

Emily Johnston with Copernica Vineyards in Westminster, Md., cautions that an enthusiast can take all the right steps in the winemaking process, but be thwarted by inferior grapes.

“The wine is made in the vineyard,” Ms. Johnston says, adding this year’s grape crops took hits from hungry deer and stubborn fungus. “If you don’t start out with good fruit, you won’t end up with good wine.”

“Most of the people I know had trouble with fruit this year,” adds Ms. Johnston, who grows grapes professionally. Her husband makes wine out of their home.

Winemakers who select their own grapes must know the best moment to pick them, meaning the balance between acid and sugar levels is just right, she says.

It sounds complicated, but Ms. Johnston insists the overall process is “fairly straightforward,” even though she admits to pouring out the first wines her husband made.

“The most important thing is sanitation, sanitation, sanitation. Keep it squeaky clean,” she says. If a little dirt enters the fermentation process, the wine may be ruined.

And don’t expect to make one bottle at a time. The smallest recommended quantity is roughly five gallons.

“The smaller the quantity, the less likely it is to be any good … you can’t age it properly in small quantities,” she says.

A crusher/de-stemmer can run anywhere from $200 to $400, but she says those with modest goals can crush the grapes by hand.

Leo Hebert, a Baltimore-based home winemaker, has a less messy way to break into the hobby. Mr. Hebert says beginners can opt to use pre-squeezed grape concentrates instead of crushing their own grapes.

“Some people don’t want to fool with the grapes. The juice [in concentrates] is already stabilized,” Mr. Hebert says, adding that wine made from pre-made solutions can be just as delicious as wine created the old-fashioned way.

Each September, Mr. Hebert gathers with several oenophile friends to sample their homemade wines and begin the creation process anew. They’ve been at it for years, but he says new winemakers often make mistakes that are simple to correct.

Sometimes a winemaker will leave too much air in a bottle of wine and indirectly cause the wine to oxidize. If a wine gets “that rotten-egg smell” during the aging process it still can be saved. He says the winemaker can run the liquid over a copper sheet or aerate the wine by siphoning it from one container to another.

A home-based wine operation lacks the budget, resources and skill of the professionals, but Mr. Triplett suggests the smaller outfits have an edge over major wineries.

“You’re free of all the regulatory constraints,” he says.

Lewis Parker, owner and winemaker at Willowcroft Farm Vineyards in Leesburg, agrees.

“There’s no question that a homemade wine can be as good as, or even better, than a commercial winery,” Mr. Parker says.

Commercial wineries have to adhere to a number of standards to ensure their product meets the needs of retail market shelves.

“Some of those things are deleterious to flavor and quality,” he says.

Of course, this assumes the home-based winemaker doesn’t make any mistakes during the entire process.

“To make the highest quality [wine], they have to pay attention to every step of the process,” Mr. Parker says.

Everyone seems to have a different palate when it comes to wine, and wine creation inspires a similar crush of differing opinions.

Ms. Johnston argues poor hygiene causes the most problems, while Mr. Parker says the biggest problems winemakers have concerns controlling temperature during fermentation.

Mr. Parker adds that winemakers often can taste their mistakes. If the wine gets stuck in fermentation mode, it results in residual sugar buildup, he says. And if the winemaker doesn’t properly control the aerobic bacteria during that process, the wine “will taste like vinegar.”



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