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Homing In on Wine

Local amateurs learn the vintners' craft--from grape crushing to bottling.


The ancient Greeks did it. The French do it. And more and more people in the Valley are doing it--making their own wine.

It is certainly not the fastest way to gain access to a first-rate glass of merlot or chardonnay, but it is probably the most rewarding and least expensive. At least that is the view of a skilled but amateur winemaker such as David Lustig, a computer programmer in Pasadena, who frequently teaches winemaking at John Daume's Home Wine, Beer and Cheesemaking Shop in Woodland Hills.

Late summer to early fall is an especially active time in the lives of home winemakers because it is the season of the wine-grape harvest, known as the Crush.

Like many home winemakers, Lustig began small. The year was 1992, and what inspired him was a gift.

"I got a winemaking kit for Christmas in 1991," he says. "I never actually made the kit. It was a ready-in-21-days wine kit, and I figured I wouldn't want to drink any wine that was ready in 21 days."

Instead, Lustig began researching the topic and attended one of the annual U.S. Amateur Winemaking Competitions at Daume's shop. Lustig remembers that he was stunned at the high quality of the wines people were making at home.

Today, he says, he makes 400 to 600 bottles of wine each year, mostly reds.

"Whites," he explains, "need cooling during fermentation and that's hard to do in a garage in Pasadena.

"I also make a batch or two of fruit wines, and I make honey wines," he says. The latter, traditionally called mead, are especially challenging because their recipes list ingredients that may or may not have been translated correctly from dead languages.

The fruit wines are also the product of trial and error. Past successes have included strawberry, raspberry and plum wines. He would rather not dwell on his orange wine or the quaff he created from persimmons.

Lustig says he and his wife, fashion designer Nancy Scott, drink wine with dinner three or four times a week, choosing homemade bottles about half the time.

The wines Lustig makes bear the Villa Allegra label, in honor of their daughter. Scott is responsible for designing the labels, which are often collages with hand-colored bits that she reproduces on a color Xerox.

Immediate past president of the local Cellarmasters Winemaking Club, Lustig says he "is not obsessed-obsessed, but I do this a lot." He often spends one day a month teaching winemaking or some related activity. He also grows grapevines, as do an increasing number of his fellow enthusiasts. Daume has about 75.

Daume, who also owns Daume Winery in Camarillo, says that his Woodland Hills shop, founded in 1972, is one of the oldest in the country catering to home winemakers. The shop supplies everything needed to make wine at home, including grapes, in season.

"The rest of the year, we have premium concentrates," Daume says.

"Home winemaking died about 1982, and it's just starting to come back now," says Daume, who estimates that there are 300 or 400 home winemakers in and around the Valley. Home winemaking waned, he says, when good manufactured wines became plentiful and relatively cheap. It has come back as wine prices soared after California suffered two bad harvests in a row, in 1995 and 1996.

Explains Daume, "The average person looks at the shelf and sees that that $6 bottle of wine is now $10 and thinks, 'Gee, maybe I ought to make my own.' "

Daume estimates that home winemaking is up 20% to 30% over last year. While home brewers of beer still make up the bulk of his business, home brewing is down an estimated 20% to 30% across the country, he says, as a result of the strengthening of the economy as a whole and the proliferation of first-rate commercial microbrews.

Home winemaking, says Daume, "is seasonal, but the season can be in the spring when the fruit trees ripen. That's how most people start."

He explains, "You can make wine out of anything you can eat," and the first batch of homemade wine is often a response to the question "What am I going to do with all these peaches?" or apricots, or whatever.

Similarly, he says, the home cheese-making part of his business "started up in Malibu Canyon with a lady who had a goat. She asked, 'What do you do with all that goat milk?' "

Home winemaking tends to become more popular than home brewing during Valley summers, Daume says, "because it's harder to control the temperature of beer when it's hot."

Daume estimates that for $80 you can get everything you need to start as a home winemaker, including basic fermenting, testing and corking equipment. (The store also carries books on winemaking, software for making labels and related items). About $120 worth of cabernet grapes will produce about 30 bottles of homemade wine.

Lustig estimates that his winemaking hobby costs him about $2,000 to $3,000 a year. One way he keeps costs down is to recycle bottles, "from wines I drink and wines my friends drink." As he points out, "It's real easy to trade a bottle of homemade wine for six or seven empty bottles."

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