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For cuvee Pasadena, it's a very good year

January 01, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Mark Beck and Dave Lustig are not much alike, the one a well-to-do lawyer and the other a ponytailed computer programmer with the instincts of a 1970s Communard. Yet both are among a widening group of wine lovers who, not content merely to drink it, collect it or even make it themselves, have dug their fingers into the fundamental wine experience: They are growing it with their own hands in their own backyards.

Home vineyards, common in Northern California's wine country for years, are burgeoning throughout the L.A. area and elsewhere in the state. Beck and Lustig live in Pasadena, but the phenomenon also is evident along the Malibu coast, and in Ventura, Simi Valley, the San Fernando Valley, La Habra Heights and even Hollywood.

"Over the last five years, I'd say it's just been an exploding phenomenon," says Rich Salvestrin, vice president of California Grapevine Nursery in St. Helena. "We sell more lots of 25 to 50 to a couple hundred vines than we ever did. I guess the whole craze of having a small vineyard has really caught on."

Wasco, Calif.-based Vintage Inc., the largest supplier of dormant grapevines in North America, has had to set a minimum of 25 plants per order. "Last year, our minimum was one vine, and it just got to be a nightmare for our shipping department," says Steve Huffman, the sales manager.

At UC Davis, enrollment at three-day extension courses for commercial growers has fallen by half over the last five years, but one-day courses on basic wine growing -- most likely to interest hobbyists -- sell out every quarter.

The backyard phenomenon grows despite the fact that overplanted California is drowning in inexpensive wine, and the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the insect that carries vine-killing Pierce's Disease, haunts the sleep of every grape grower in the state.

"I think we're in a phase where people want nature in their lives, and they're doing a lot more with their own hands," says San Mateo vineyard consultant Ken Wornick. "If you go to France or Italy, every single small farm has their own small vineyard and a few olive trees. They all make olive oil and they all make wine. People here don't want to have to go to Napa to get some of that in their lives."

The labor of their fruits

Like many others caught up in that desire, Beck and Lustig have subordinated part of their lives to the seasonal rhythms -- of pruning, bud break, canopy sculpture, cluster thinning, harvest and dormancy -- that are beaten out by the grapevines in their backyards. Characteristic of their ilk, they do the manual labor themselves.

Seven years ago, Beck looked out across the sloping backyard of his spacious home to the other side of the Arroyo Seco and pondered a neighbor's small vineyard. "I thought, how hard could it be?"

So, in 1996, Beck planted 50 vines of Sangiovese, the principal grape of Chianti, on his sunny little slope and soon enrolled in the short course at Davis. This year, the vines brought him 860 pounds of vintable grapes.

This will yield, courtesy of professional-quality, home-size vinting equipment, about 50 gallons of wine. Beck will package most of it in bottles with handsome labels, and give it as gifts, each bottle set in a pine box engraved with "Beck Family Vineyards" and the Latin adage "In vino felicitas" ("In wine, happiness").

Last April, he planted 75 1-year-old vines of classic Bordeaux varietals -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. They produced nearly 400 pounds of grapes this year, and the wines from them now ferment separately in his basement.

Lustig was visiting a tasting room in Mendocino County on his honeymoon in 1988, when the attendant asked a favor: Would Lustig watch the store while he ran home to tend to three tons of Pinot Noir grapes fermenting in his garage? "I thought, 'Pinot Noir ... garage

He started making wine from purchased grapes and then, in 1993, planted 14 vines of Syrah, Charbono, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Zinfandel in his long, narrow backyard. This year, they produced about seven gallons of fermentable stuff, which Lustig combined.

Unlike Beck, with his motorized Italian crusher-de-stemmer, Lustig crushed his grapes by a more basic method. "I used my hands," he explains. "With a small batch like this, I can take an hour and pluck even the smallest bits of stems off, so I get a nice, clean pick. I broke them, just very gently." Lacking a wine press, Lustig squeezes handfuls of the mixture through a fine mesh bag when the time comes to separate the juice from the skins.

Near his 14 original vines, on a patch of soil from which he ripped up an asphalt paddle tennis court, Lustig planted 40 new vines this spring. The newcomers are mostly Grenache, a principal red grape of France's Rhone Valley.

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