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Sister's Surplus Grapes Pose a Vintage Test

September 03, 1987|JEAN HOLCOMBE | Holcombe is a free-lance writer in Sepulveda, Calif. and

It all started when my sister came to drink coffee, and stayed to complain about the grapevine explosion in her backyard. She had made jam, muffins, cobbler, pie, cake, juice and had even tried grape cookies but there were still more grapes left on the vines.

Neighbors were gagging and hiding when they saw her coming. Even the sparrows were giving her a bad time, dining on the sweet harvest at the first crack of dawn, waking the whole family with their drunken twittering, then dive-bombing her when she dared to enter their territory. "What in the world am I going to do?" Lois asked.

My efficiency-expert husband's ears stood at attention and his paper dropped to the floor . . . a problem for him to solve. Cogs spun around in his head and in three seconds the answer shot out in two frugal words, "Make wine."

"But I don't know how and the cookbook doesn't have it."

"No problem," Joe said. "I just saw a book on 'How to Make Wine in Your Kitchen' and I'll pick up a copy tomorrow. Don't worry about a thing."

I'm not sure when, but, somewhere in the middle of this conversation, roles became reversed and Lois became the supplier with Joe as producer-director. Ignoring my loudly proclaimed lack of enthusiasm for the whole project, they solemnly shook hands and my sister went home with a complacent smirk on her face.

I hoped she would develop amnesia during the night and forget the whole thing. It was a dirty thing to do to anyone, especially a beloved sister. But about noon the next day when the doorbell rang, I opened the door and there they sat . . . three bushel baskets of over-ripe grapes with a few busy gnats buzzing over them. There was no sister, just a bunch of loud-mouthed sparrows in a tree passing on the word to "come and get it." A big, red bow attached to one basket had a message, "happy tromping."

I was still washing and picking grapes when Joe arrived home that night carrying a large plastic garbage can and two small books. "How'd it go today, dear? What are we having for dinner?" he asked.

"Grapes!" I answered dourly.

We went out for dinner and that was only the first of many expenses I entered in the ledger Joe had thoughtfully provided to maintain an account on the free grape wine. Before the project was completed I almost developed writer's cramp. Although the book said you could use ingredients found in anyone's kitchen, he decided we needed a few refinements to make a wine of gourmet quality.

Plain grocery-store yeast was not good enough; wine yeast was superior. He gave me a list to take to the wine-supply store the next day . . . fermenting tanks, locks, siphon, corks, a sacrometer to measure sugar content as the wine developed, scales and a charcoal keg for aging the wine. "Write that down, will you dear?" became words I learned to live by. I visited that supply store so often the clerk began to leer at me and wink. "Don't worry about a thing" Joe said, busily throwing out all the good food in the refrigerator and replacing it with gooey grapes. "Take some grapes next door and ask to put them in their refrigerator." That was how the word got out and we became notorious in the neighborhood as the "moonlight moonshiners," that and the little matter of the bottles.

(Federal law allows an adult to produce up to 200 gallons of wine for personal and family use--and not for resale--per year without payment of tax, providing there are two or more adults in a household. One hundred gallons a year is permissible if there is only one adult in the household. An adult is defined as a person of legal drinking age.

California law also allows an adult to produce up to 200 gallons a year without a license; however, city and county regulations may differ, so it is advisable to check with local alcoholic beverage control authorities before undertaking a home wine-making project.)

By the time Joe arrived home the next evening laden with more containers, his scientific brain had figured out another obvious problem--what does one do with several garbage cans full of wine after they are fermented? The answer is to bottle it, but ordinary soda bottles just wouldn't do, he said. Wine had to be corked into colored glass so sunlight wouldn't damage it and then laid on its side to age for several months.

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