For cuvee Pasadena, it's a very good year

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.

Lustig belongs to a quartet of enthusiasts who each year vint eight to 10 barrels of wine from purchased grapes, in a converted greenhouse in the San Fernando Valley. He also is past president of Cellarmasters, a 29-year-old organization of home winemakers and winegrowers grouped around the Home Beer, Wine & Cheese Making Shop in Woodland Hills. The store, the Vatican of home vinting in the Los Angeles area, provides everything from Italian winemaking equipment to cultured yeasts to imported French oak wine barrels.

Local vineyard consultant Bob Tobias, who manages a score of small vineyards, mostly in the Santa Monica Mountains, estimates that a do-it-yourselfer could install a 30-vine vineyard with metal stakes, trellis wires and cross-arms, and a simple drip irrigation system for as little as $650. Conversely, a professionally installed one-acre plot with scenic hand-split redwood trellises could cost up to $25,000, says Westlake Village consultant Robb Daniels, owner of Hearthstone Estate Vineyards.

In principle, growing a backyard vineyard is no different from growing a large commercial one. Home growers even have theoretical advantage in that they can apply the kind of loving hand-work that would be economically prohibitive for a large grower.

The well-to-do may hire consultants, but all hobbyists have access to independent wine labs and the University of California Cooperative Extension, which has offices in every county and provides advice on grape growing, free of charge (its Web site is at ucanr.org). And there are groups such as Cellarmasters too (www.lafn.org/community/cellarmasters).

More than a green thumb

Wine growing, however, is not mere gardening. "To grow a tomato, you just put a seed in the ground, water it, feed it and you grow a great big fat tomato and it's delicious," says consultant Wornick. "With grapevines, you have to organize the plant, prune and shape the canopy, and, at some point, introduce some stress to help them build character. You don't give them as much water as they might want, or as much food -- and the stress creates delicious fruit."

For Beck, working his vineyard hardly has been a marathon of heavy labor. "In January, I prune. In April or May, I start looking at the canopy. The four weeks around harvest are busy, but the rest of the year, it's a Saturday morning here and there," he says.

Home growing, however, like any kind of agriculture, takes patience, diligence and luck. Nature can be uncooperative, sending an early onslaught of birds before a grower has put up protective netting, or bringing grape-swelling rain just before harvest, or turning grapes to raisins before they're ripe.

Or inflicting Pierce's Disease.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter that brings the disease doesn't distinguish between large commercial vineyards and the plots of hobbyists. Some think the latter might be even more susceptible because they're apt to be near ornamental vegetation and citrus, which are thought to attract the bug.

Reseda interior landscaper Joe Haslett planted 40 vines of Pinot Gris, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah and Mourvedre in his yard in 1996; just when they started producing grapes three years later, he began to see strange bugs on the plants. "Before I ever heard of the glassy-winged, I was out there pinching them off the leaves." Haslett watched helplessly as his vines succumbed over the next two years. This year his few remaining vines, all of them Syrah, produced all of 20 pounds of grapes. "It's the last hurrah of my Syrah," he says.

Video-documentary maker Dan Seeger's promising 325-vine vineyard in Topanga Canyon, five miles from the coast, was similarly stricken. "All the Cabernet Sauvignon died, the Cabernet Franc got hit hard, the Merlot is hanging on and I have a little bit of Brunello that's doing all right," he says. "I had an incredible, fat vineyard for four years, then it started. It's so much toil getting there, and to see it not go is kind of a bummer."

Grapes, viticulturists like to point out, will grow almost anywhere. Whether they'll produce good wine, however, is a different matter. As a rule, to make top quality wine, grapes need cool nights to lock in the sugars brought on by warm days.

Jeff Koligian, a veteran vineyard manager, estimates one in 10 home growers succeeds in making exceptional wine. "Most people who are handy can get to the second ring from the bull's-eye," he says, "but to hit the bull's-eye, you pretty much have to be an expert."

Beck's wine has all the green edginess of a new vintage but shows pretty aromas and flavors, though it is a bit on the pale side. Lustig's is a fragrant, tasty, inky purple and hints of good depth. But the quality of the wine is, to some extent, beside the point. Having a vineyard right outside one's backdoor clearly provides other pleasures.

"When it's full up and there's a green canopy over it, we sit out here under the pine tree with cheese and crackers and a bottle of wine and look at the vines while the sun goes down," Lustig says. "This is the middle of the city, yet sitting out here with a breeze blowing through the vines, life's suddenly not what it was 25 minutes before, when you were stuck in stop-and-go traffic."

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