- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

When Larry Cox opens a bottle of wine while dining at home with friends, he is especially eager to hear their opinion.

“Good friends will tell you if it needs more fruit or less fruit,” explained Mr. Cox, an estimator for an asphalt company. “Good friends will tell you the truth.”

He is interested in their opinion because the wine didn’t come from the local wine store or winery — he made it himself. Mr. Cox, 46, who lives in Fulton, Mo., began making his own wine four years ago.

He is one of a growing number of home winemakers in the U.S., where wine consumption has grown by a third since 1995, according to the Wine Institute, an association of California wineries.

Brad Ring, the publisher of WineMaker magazine, estimates there are about 1 million active hobbyists who make their own wine at least once a year.

While home winemakers don’t need vineyards or grape stompers, a bit of equipment is required. Wine can be made from any fruit, but beginners usually start out with wine kits — available at home-brew stores and online — that contain juice concentrate.

“Sales of winemaking equipment have been growing at a fairly good clip, up about 20 percent a year,” over the past several years, said Ron Hartman, president of LD Carlson, a brewing and winemaking wholesaler. He estimates the wine kit retail business alone is worth about $30 million to $50 million a year.

Kits contain everything needed to make wine: buckets used for fermenting, a hydrometer used to measure the amount of sugar in wine, an airlock to let carbon dioxide out, a siphon to transfer the wine, and wine bottles and corks.

The process usually takes one to two months. Once bottled, it could take one or two years for the wine to mature. Home winemakers usually spend about $250 to $500 a year on the hobby.

“It’s really a messy business,” said Debra Reiter.

Miss Reiter, 50, a project manager for BP Amoco and a wine aficionado, recently picked up the hobby as a way to learn more about wine.

“The best way to learn something about what you love is to do it yourself,” she said.

Miss Reiter, who lives in a suburb of Chicago, took a winemaking class at a local home brew shop and then mixed her own first batch in October using concentrate from Tuscan grapes from Italy.

She started a winemaking club last month, Corkers without Borders, which quickly gained 15 members.

“It’s really intriguing; there’s a lot more chemistry and a lot more science to it than I originally thought, as well as art,” she said. “But we’ve been making wine since the time before Christ, so it’s not rocket science.”

She plans to make her next batch from a concentrate of grapes from Oregon and says she is amazed at the diversity of wine kits available. As demand has grown, the quality of winemaking kits has improved.

“There’s probably never been a better selection of winemaking kits,” says John Pastor, 41, owner of Grape and Granary, a home brew and winemaking shop in Akron, Ohio.

Mr. Pastor’s grandfather came from Italy and regularly made beer and wine at home, like many Italian immigrants. He got into home brewing in college and later opened a home brew shop.

“When we started the business in 1992, beer brewing was really growing and peaked around 1996 and 1997,” he said. “Now the growth is more in home winemaking. More and more equipment is becoming available.”

Brew shops are making an increasing amount of revenue from pricier wine equipment, according to Bill Metzger, the editor of the Home Wine & Beer Trade Association Advocate, a trade magazine for home brew and winemaking supply stores.

“Home-brew-shop owners say a lot of income is coming from winemaking kits,” Mr. Metzger said. “They love it. Home-brewers are notoriously thrifty, they’ll go in and buy a package of yeast. Wine kits are $100 an item.”

Valerie MacDonald, a brand manager for RJ Spagnols, one of the largest wine kit makers, said quality of wine from wine kits has “drastically” increased over the past 10 years.

“Due to technology and the sophistication of the market, our consumers are looking for something that’s a higher quality,” she said. “A lot of manufacturers of wine kits are owned by either wineries or major juice suppliers, so they have access to the same types of products that commercial vineyards do.”

RJ Spagnols, for example, is owned by Vincor International Inc., Canada’s largest wine producer.

Mr. Cox, in Missouri, began making wine with a kit and then began making wine from different types of available fruit — including fruit from his own trees — in his cellar, where he can maintain a constant temperature.

Above all else, making wine takes patience, he said.

“My first batch, it was terrible,” he said. “I tried it too quick. I was trying it in three or four months and it should have sat for a year before I tried it.”

He now keeps about 100 gallons of homemade wine in his cellar, sharing it with friends and entering competitions that are popular with many home winemakers. His wine made from Cayuga grapes won Best in Show at the 2006 International Amateur Wine Competition.

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