Are you a hospitality fanatic? One of those people who stays up all night cooking a 10-course dinner for a few dozen close pals and then provides clean napkins after each course? The type who sympathetically dashes the Cabernet over her $5,000 Ungaro after a guest spills a drop or two on her own skirt? Would you rather be buried nose deep in election advertisements than write BYOB on an invitation?
If so, then your idea of bliss probably corresponds to one of those lead-story photos in Bon Appetit, the one in which the beaming winery owner and his beaming wife and beaming brood, absolutely overcome with conviviality and bonhomie, toast their beaming guests with several gallons of a little something they fished out of the deepest recesses of their own catacomb-like wine cellar: their own personal family hooch.
Sure, guests will gasp at your raspberry souffle, shake their heads in wonder at your home-made braided sourdough bread and praise you ceaselessly for hiring the Jamaican steel band to play during the tropical fruit course. But bring out a few bottles of wine you've knocked together yourself and watch everybody in the room turn reverent.
People think there's something a bit magical about making wine, possibly a holdover from all those accounts they may have heard about the wedding feast at Cana. But, says Don Siechert, there's no big trick to it. For about $75 or so, the neophyte winemaker can produce enough of the stuff to fuel a season's worth of holiday parties.
Siechert is the owner of Fun Fermentations, a shop in Orange that for 23 years has been supplying equipment and raw materials to amateur winemakers (and brewers) in Orange County. And, he says, you needn't be a chemist or a cook or a mechanic to ferment a batch of the grape. You just need a few items that look like moonshiner's tools, and a bit of patience.
For about $40, Siechert will sell you a starter kit that includes a big plastic bucket, a plastic siphon, various chemicals, a hydrometer to measure alcohol level, a device to shove corks into bottles, a cleaning brush and a cheerful little device called an air lock, which seals the wine during fermentation while allowing pressure to be released during the process.
You also get what Siechert calls his "one-two-three, idiot-proof, paint-by-numbers sheet that we've had for years," which explains the nine-step fermentation process.
A few extras you'll need: bottles (new or used), corks, a carboy (a large bottle about the size and shape of those used by bottled water companies, used for most of the fermentation steps), and--if you want to get gaudy--labels in several styles and designs.
And grape juice. For the novice, Siechert usually suggests working with grape juice concentrates made from varietal grapes. On the market for about eight years, these concentrates can be used to make quick-developing "spring wine" if sugar is added, or the wine can be brought to full maturity (around 9 months) without sugar. However, Siechert recommended starting with a less complex red wine, such as a zinfandel, rather than the whites.
"The whites are much more temperamental," he says.
The concentrates cost about $13 per quart, which will yield about five gallons of "spring wine." Generally, Siechert says, wine made from concentrate will cost about $1 per bottle and it can be quite tasty. He recommends the zinfandel juice to first-timers because it's "wonderful, forgiving, tolerant and it'll teach you all the ins and outs."
If you're successful, and dazzle a few parties full of guests, you'll be ready to take on the real thing, Siechert says: fresh juice extracted from actual wine grapes. Each September, he says, he hauls the shop's grape crusher/destemmer to Temecula (and occasionally Santa Barbara), buys grapes by the ton from local growers and extracts and bottles the juice immediately. He then sells it to customers, many of whom have reserved their grape juice months in advance.
A hundred pounds of grapes, which sell for between 50 and 90 cents a pound, will yield five gallons, or two cases, of wine.
(Don't like grapes? You can make wine from any fruit that will ferment, Siechert says. Apples, apricots, plums--all are fodder for the big bubbling bottle.)
It can all get to be a kind of mania, Siechert says. Intoxicated--figuratively--with the winemaker's art, several of his customers, he says, band into groups and buy space in the corners of warehouses, where they erect refrigerated cases and even set up little laboratories bristling with beakers, burners and other bits of Rube Goldberg-like exotica. There they tinker endlessly with their beloved wines, many of them producing award-winning vintages.
You don't have to do that. Clear out a corner of the garage (or the closet, if your dinner parties tend to be small), get the basic plumbing, run the juice through its paces and sit back and watch it bubble its way into wine. Then go out and get the labels printed up. This can be fun. And easy. Pick any word or phrase, put "Chateau" in front of it, and voila.
"When you make wine yourself," Siechert says, "you are producing something that you literally cannot buy anywhere."
You bet. Especially if it's a Chateau Saddam-Is-a-Bean-Brain 1990.
A very good year.