Through the grapevine

NORTH GLENDALE — Standing near the rows of grapevines planted below the ancient barn at Deukmejian Wilderness Park, Stuart Byles breathed in deeply as he turned the handle of an antique grape crusher.

The aroma released as the crushed grapes plopped into the giant barrel below brought back childhood memories of sitting among the grapes of a Southern California vineyard, he said.

"Whenever I smell that new wine being made, I always think of that. Smell and memory are so intimately intertwined," said Byles, co-founder of the Stone Barn Conservancy, an offshoot of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley dedicated to revitalizing the winemaking history of the region.

In the late 19th century, French immigrant Georges Le Mesnager planted vineyards in north Glendale and La Crescenta to use for the wines he sold at his downtown Los Angeles winery.

Glendale city officials planted the seven rows of grapevines at Deukmejian shortly after the park's purchase. The historical society took over cultivation of the grapes a few years ago when Byles, his wife Marie Yeseta and society President Mike Lawler founded the conservancy.

On Sunday, several dozen volunteers spread out and picked the Alicante Bouschet grapes — one of three varieties of grapes grown at the park — from the first two rows of vines, as part of the second grape harvest this year.

Other volunteers gathered near a shaded picnic table to strip the grapes from the stems, making sure to separate out the grapes that had become shriveled and unusable by the sun.

"This is really sad. These were probably perfect two or three days ago," said volunteer Jane Rollins as she snipped a bunch of dried-up grapes from the vines, referencing the triple-digit temperatures.

Still, the majority of the red grapes were perfect for winemaking, Byles said, with this year's crop having produced about a third more grapes than last year, which saw problems with birds and wasps.

"There are a ton of grapes this year," he said. "This is astounding."

The wine project continues to generate community interest, Yeseta said.

"I think people are very excited about it," she said. "We have our regulars that come, and there is always someone new that shows up."

While her husband had little experience with winemaking before he started the project, with the help of organic wine producer Heather D'Augustine, he has caught on quickly, Yeseta said.

Byles and other volunteers ran the grapes through the wooden crusher, breaking the skins to allow for the first phase of fermentation.

After about a week of fermentation, the grapes will be run through a wine presser before they are stored in glass containers to undergo another period of fermentation, this time for several months.

The fermenting wine will join dozens of jugs of wine that were produced from last year's harvest and are aging in the cellar of Byles' home.

Now that he has mastered the winemaking process, Byles' focus has turned to how to distribute the wine, which will require special permits.

"That's the next hurdle," he said.

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