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Back-Yard Trees Produce Crop of Home Vintners

October 05, 1989|SUZANNE SCHLOSBERG | Schlosberg is a Sherman Oaks free-lance writer

About this time last year, a tree in Lou Roth's back yard was oozing with ripe figs and the grass below was splattered with rotten ones. Roth didn't want any more of his harvest to go to waste, so he decided to make fig wine.

"I just took some figs, beat them with a spoon, stuck them in a bottle with sugar and yeast and then waited for two months," said Roth, a software engineer from Mar Vista. "It tasted awful--like vinegar. People made faces when I gave it to them. I was very unsophisticated at the time."

Roth's fig tree is oozing again, but this time Roth is prepared. He went to the Home Beer and Winemaking Shop in Woodland Hills, bought $100 worth of wine-making supplies and got a fig wine recipe from shop owner John Daume. Then he plucked hundreds of figs from his tree, mixed them with a few ingredients and let them ferment in a trash barrel in his living room. A week later, he discarded the skins and transferred the juice to a glass bottle, which is sitting in his garage. In two months, Roth's wine should be ready to drink.

"It smells like it's going really well this time," Roth said. "I'm definitely on my way. Next year, I would like to see if I could do a real wine, like a red grape wine."

Daume, who owns the only beer and wine-making supply shop in the San Fernando Valley, says he gets many new customers this time of year.

'Improve Techniques'

"They've got all this fruit, and they've made all the jam they can, so they try making a little wine," he said. "Then they go into grapes and improve their techniques with a little knowledge. If they do it right, they should end up with fine wine, as good or better than what you can buy commercially."

Daume owns a small winery in Camarillo and sells about 2,000 cases a year to liquor stores and restaurants.

More than half a million people produce their own wine, according to the Home Wine and Beer Trade Assn., and about 1,000 shops sell the necessary supplies. Federal law allows individuals to make up to 100 gallons of wine a year, or 200 gallons per two-adult household, provided the wine isn't offered for sale.

Grapes are the most popular wine-making material, but anything that will flavor water can be used, including peaches, apricots, plums, raspberries and blackberries. Grape season runs from the end of August to the beginning of October.

Home wine making was very popular in the 1970s, according to Jobson Publishing Corp., a New York-based company that publishes beverage trade magazines. But the fad tailed off in the early 1980s when wine prices dropped due to a surplus of grapes.

A good wine could be purchased for about $5 a bottle, about half of what a similar bottle cost before. A bottle of homemade grape wine costs about $3.50 to make, so wine makers aren't saving much. "That dissuaded people from doing it themselves," said Bob Keane, a Jobson editor.

Most home wine makers don't need monetary incentive. They do it for the challenge, the creativity and the control.

'Like to Be Picky'

"I like to be very picky about my wine," said John Serembe of Pacoima. "This way, I can get exactly what I like."

Serembe was one of about 30 people who gathered at Daume's winery in late September to pick up shipments of zinfandel grapes. Daume ordered eight tons of grapes from a Paso Robles vineyard, enabling his customers to buy quality grapes that they otherwise could not get. "Most growers don't want to be bothered with small quantities," he said.

The deep purple grapes arrived in crates, which were forklifted to the top of a crushing machine. The grapes were dumped down a wide chute into a trough, where the stems were removed and the skins pierced. The resulting pulp, called must, was pumped through a tube into plastic trash barrels.

The customers then hauled their barrels home to begin a process similar to the one that Roth is using to make fig wine. The first step is fermentation, which takes place in the barrel. Yeast is added to the must to convert the sugar in the grapes to alcohol. (Fruit wines generally require table sugar, but grape wine does not.) Carbon dioxide is released in the process, causing bubbles to form at the top.

Wine Ages

After a week, the juice is separated from the grape skins and transferred to a container with a narrow neck, where the wine will age. A plastic stopper allows carbon dioxide to escape but prevents bacteria from reaching the wine.

The aging process can last months or years, depending on the type of wine. Fruit wines are aged from three to four months, while grape wines sit about a year. White wines are ready faster than red ones. The wine is periodically siphoned to other containers to help separate it from the yeast sediment.

"The first year you get antsy and want to drink it right away," said Jim Murchison of Agoura. "But then you learn to wait." Murchison, who has 20 cases of wine stored in a shower, says he keeps his wine for three years before drinking it.

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