Back-Yard Vintners’ Grape Expectations
Dick Baughman has been crushing, pressing, fermenting and bottling grapes, strawberries, apricots, melons and just about any fruit he can grow or buy for 20 years now. He says it’s just a hobby, yet, his amateur winemaking seems more a combination of science, art and devotion.
Baughman’s 8-acre spread in Vista is planted with 500 grapevines and assorted fruits and berries.
There’s a structure built into the side of an embankment (to keep the temperature down), with hundreds of wine bottles lining its walls. Another outbuilding contains a 100-year-old printing press powered by a foot pump. Here, Baughman prints the labels for each bottle of wine produced by him and his wife, Margo.
The kinds and amount of wine the Baughmans make depend on how long and hot summer is, or if there’s been a lot of damp, cool weather, or if a bumper crop of berries has to be used up. “It’s a challenge. A lot of what we do depends on Mother Nature, and each year is a different set of events. We’re great experimenters,” Baughman said.
There’s also mystery involved. Woody Graham, Baughman’s friend and a fellow amateur winemaker, said the secrets to making good wine continue to unfold over the years.
“It’s a continuing education, and you will probably never know it all,” he said. “You keep learning little, delicate things that make a difference.”
Comradeship plays an important part in this hobby. Baughman and his wife are frequently assisted by her sister, Olga Gatt. Recently, “Olga’s Private Issue” was bottled. After years of helping out, Olga personally took this batch of wine through the whole process, beginning with picking the grapes.
“Sharing the experience is such a big part of it,” said Roger Heine of Vista, another amateur winemaker. “There’s a sense of accomplishment and working as a family.”
Baughman, Graham and Heine belong to a small group called the North County Amateur Wine Makers Guild. There were once 13 members, but that’s dwindled to five. The hobby requires time and patience, commodities growing more rare in today’s hurry-up society.
Plant your own vines, and it will be three years before there are enough grapes to make wine, Baughman said. Even if you buy grapes, juice or concentrates from growers, you may have to wait years to discover if the wine you’ve made is good.
The secret to not being upset when a batch you’ve nurtured along doesn’t turn out as expected is to make more wine, said Baughman, whose advice to beginners is to “get ahead of the power curve.”
“Make a lot and be patient. We’ve had some wines for 10 years, and we’re still testing it,” he said.
If you make 100 gallons of wine and 5 of them aren’t good, that’s not so disappointing.
“You can always make vinegar,” Baughman said cheerfully. “If worse comes to worse, we just dump it. It’s like you have only one out of 20 children turn out bad--you still figure you did a good job.”
By state law, a single person in California is allowed to make 100 gallons of wine a year, while a head of household can make 200 gallons for personal or family use. The wine cannot be sold and should not be given away.
Baughman’s conversation is peppered with wine facts and tips:
“It takes 100 pounds of grapes to make 5 gallons of wine.”
“ ‘Estate’ on the label means you grew it, made it and bottled it--saw it all the way through.”
“Red wines are fermented with the skins on. The longer the skins stay in, the darker the wine.”
“Adding oak chips tricks wine into believing it’s in a barrel. To the wine, a half-ounce of oak chips is the same as being in a $400 oak barrel.”
Baughman invited a visitor into the guest bathroom where 5 gallons of red brew all but hummed in a plastic bucket. It had been made from grapes crushed the day before on Baughman’s crusher, a primitive contraption of timber and stainless steel mesh. Yeast had been added to the juice, which is high in natural sugar. The yeast feeds on the sugar, reproducing wildly and generating alcohol as a byproduct.
Yeast is fussy, needing constant oxygen and a steady temperature to reproduce, Baughman said. He gives it a lot of attention at this point.
“In the open container, it’s in charge. It has to be pampered,” he said as he gently stirred. “Once it’s in the bottle, then I’m in charge.”
There are literally hundreds of different types of yeast, and each colony has its own distinctive flavor. Yeast purchased for winemaking in dry or liquid form is a true strain with predictable flavor. However, it could lose the population race to wild yeast that just happens along in the air. The outcome is as uncertain as when a purebred dog mates with the neighborhood mutt. Worst of all, “vinegar spores are in the air everywhere,” Baughman said.
Since commercial yeasts have built up a resistance to sulfite, small amounts of the chemical may be added to “stun” airborne yeast. This gives selected yeast an opportunity to take over.
Baughman’s wine will be moved from the plastic container to 5-gallon glass bottles when his hydrometer, an instrument measuring density, reads 1020. Here, the spent yeast cells will settle to the bottom, clarifying the wine while fermentation continues.
When the hydrometer reads under 1000, it means all sugar has been fermented into alcohol. The wine will then be put into individual corked bottles, where “mellowing” begins. The continuing chemical reactions can take many years to create the smoothest product possible.
Despite all the time and effort, Baughman said, he and his group aren’t perfectionists. “Most amateur winemakers gave up the idea of making the perfect wine long ago,” he said.
When guild members get together, they do judge each other’s wine. But “sip and spit” tasting is not for them, Baughman said.
“If your bottle of wine is empty, you know it was good. If it’s mostly full, you figure you’ve been rejected. But, remember--on a scale of 1 to 10, everyone gets 7 or 8 for just putting it in a bottle.”