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THE ALTERNATIVES

The grape escape

At do-it-yourself establishments, that little old winemaker can be you.

March 25, 2004|Tom Bronzini | Times Staff Writer

I don't own a vineyard and the last time I crushed a grape it was an accident. But I do have my own wine label: 29 bottles of Bronzini Private Reserve Pinot Noir 2004.

Without investing in any equipment, I made the wine at a storefront operation called Squashed Grapes, run by Gwen Ripplinger, 44, and Carolyn Taylor, 42, in Camarillo. Open since September, it is among a handful of establishments in Southern California -- there are similar operations in Burbank and Redondo Beach -- that take wannabe vintners through the process, from juice to cork.

The atmosphere is like a vineyard's tasting room, a convivial setting for wine enthusiasts, but there's less swirling and sniffing and more learning how wine is made. And there's a big payoff at the end: 29 bottles' worth of bragging rights.

Stuart and Cindy Daley of Camarillo turned their recent wine bottling at Squashed Grapes into a party, inviting friends and bringing cheeses, crackers, vegetables and wine. Stuart Daley, who remembers how his Italian-born grandfather harvested his own plot of grapes and made wine every year in San Jose, received a gift certificate from his wife to make the wine. His six-week project came to fruition as he affixed a label bearing the family crest to his bottles of Merlot. "This is a fantastic feeling to see all of this coming together with our family label on it," he said. "It reminds me of Grandpa."

Ripplinger said customers bottle their own wine for many occasions, including weddings, birthdays, business promotions, a 60th wedding anniversary and even an ordination into the ministry. Others simply like to have a lot of wine on hand. "We have some people who start another batch as soon as they are done bottling," she said. One patron has made seven batches since September.

My own winemaking began with a stop at the Squashed Grapes wine tasting bar, where I selected my varietal. The Estate Series, at $175 per batch, is the most expensive, with juice sourced from a specific grape-growing region. Island Mist wines, which are $100 a batch, have fruit flavors such as Blackberry Cabernet or Strawberry White Merlot. I opted for a Pinot Noir from the Premium Wines series for $155, plus the cost of the bottles. (You can, in fact, BYOB.) The unfermented juice comes from a Canadian company, Wineexpert Inc., which buys grapes from around the world and packages the juice and grape concentrate.

For the primary fermentation stage, my version of a wine cask was a large plastic container. With Taylor overseeing, I mixed a small package of bentonite, a clay powder, with half a gallon of warm water. Then we added 15 liters of Pinot Noir grape juice, more water, and fine oak chips for flavor. The bentonite, Taylor explained, would clarify the wine: The clay clings to residual pieces of crushed grapes, causing them to settle at the bottom.

We checked the specific gravity of the mixture with a hydrometer, and it came in at 1.09. Once we stirred in the yeast, the final step, it should start fermenting. As the alcohol content rises, the specific gravity drops.

At this point, my house wine was -- to be honest -- a concoction of grape juice, water, dirt and sawdust in a big Tupperware-style bin. I was relieved to hear that it would be filtered later.

Stage 2, the secondary fermentation, took place a week later. A quick check of the specific gravity showed that it had gone down to .996, so the yeast was doing its job. With Taylor's guidance, I siphoned the wine into a six-gallon glass carboy, leaving a layer of sediment behind. The process took less than 15 minutes, and now I had a clearer mixture with an inviting aroma.

After another two weeks, I stopped the fermentation altogether with meta-bisulfate and sorbate powders, dissolved first into a little water and then mixed into my wine. I also added chitosan, another agent that promotes sedimentation of grape particles. I clarified the wine again a week later by siphoning it into another carboy.

My brew was starting to resemble real Pinot Noir, so I set to work designing a worthy label. A look at the labels of my fellow Squashed Grapes customers showed that anything goes. One label was a tribute to the rock band Radiohead. One of my favorites said simply, "Happy Birthday Tanis," and in smaller type, "Drink Till He's Cute."

The store offers a selection of blank labels of all shapes, with fancy borders or pictures of grapes. To complement my Bronzini Private Reserve -- printed in an appropriately elegant typeface -- I chose a label with a lush, green Tuscan vineyard and a golden sky. Camarillo, Tuscany -- close enough.

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