Becoming a backyard Bacchus

Tom Kruse explains to a class on Saturday some of the effects of

Winemaking isn’t exactly a foolproof science, but for backyard
vintners, palatable results of a science experiment are akin to
victory. Tim and Sarah Brown have had plenty since they began their
24-by-24 foot backyard vineyard in Gilroy in 2000. They’ve made
reds, whites and even a bit of champagne, but there have been
misfires along the way, too.
Winemaking isn’t exactly a foolproof science, but for backyard vintners, palatable results of a science experiment are akin to victory. Tim and Sarah Brown have had plenty since they began their 24-by-24 foot backyard vineyard in Gilroy in 2000. They’ve made reds, whites and even a bit of champagne, but there have been misfires along the way, too.

When the couple decided to make a dessert wine, they hoped for a full-bodied flavor with a little extra sugar. They got what Tim describes as jet fuel.

“We’ve learned that just because yeast is supposed to die at 15 percent doesn’t mean it does,” he said. “Yeast converts sugar to alcohol, but it’s supposed to die off. In our case it didn’t, so it created this wine with a really high alcohol content. We made a wine that just smelled wonderful, but when you took a sip … ugh.”

Tim now uses it as a marinade for grill items, since the cooking process burns off the excess alcohol.

Amateur vintners are bound to experience such ups and downs, said Gale McNabb, a San Martin resident who owns a half-acre of vines.

“It’s definitely trial and error,” said McNabb, who planted his vines as a retirement hobby. “The real fun of it seems to be in comparing yours with other home wine makers. My friends try something, and if it works I test it out, or I find out what not to do.”

But the small plots that most homeowners have to work with can lead to other problems. While they let their dogs have free run of the back yard, the Browns have learned that the combination of vineyards and pets can be a particular challenge.

“You cover up the grapes with bird netting to keep the pests out, and usually what it does is catch our less-than-intelligent dog, Skippy,” said Tim.

Leaving vines uncovered, while a little less hassle, can be frustrating as well. Tom Kruse, owner of Thomas Kruse Winery in Gilroy, estimates he loses two to three tons of grapes each year to the poaching of birds.

That doesn’t mean Kruse wants to discourage anyone who’s willing to try his or her luck at home. He started out as a backyard winemaker in 1963, figuring that the hobby sounded like fun. Eight years later he started his winery.

“This climate where we are, as a generalization, is one of the best in the area,” said Kruse. “We have a pretty frost-free growing season with little to no rain after the fruit sets, so diseases that affect the vine are not very common.”

No permitting is required in order to become a home winemaker, though Kruse said home vintners are supposed to register with the federal government. Single people may produce 100 gallons of wine annually and families or those who qualify as the head of the household may produce up to 200 gallons for personal consumption, said Kruse. For the sake of conversion, it takes about 15 pounds of grapes to produce one gallon of wine, and each mature grape vine should produce about 15 pounds of grapes per year if properly trimmed. Each vine requires about 12 square feet, although, in the back yard, a home vintner can probably get away with 9 or 10 square feet per vine.

And, Kruse said, there are a few things any home vintner should know before investing large amounts of money. Grapevines are a root graft plant, meaning different rootstock is available to compliment nearly any soil type, no matter what kind of grapes you wish to plant. The choices homeowners make in selecting these will determine the health and vitality of their vines down the road, so it is important to choose wisely, Kruse emphasized.

“It’s not too late to get a bare root plant, which is a grape vine that has been grafted and grown for a year by a local nursery,” said Kruse. “It’s the easiest, cheapest way to do it, but 15 years later, when the plant succumbs to a soil pest, they’ll be kicking themselves. There’s the old saying that there’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it all over again.”

Which way a plant faces is particularly important as well. It’s up to the homeowner to decide whether to space plants lengthwise to maximize the area of a long, narrow lot or to place them in north-south rows to maximize their exposure to the sun, and thus, their ability to produce fruit. But this is one area where books on winemaking can be helpful.

Not all of the steps in the book will be worthwhile, though, as the Browns discovered.

“A lot of books happen to be written by people who live in New York state, but it’s really based on where you live,” said Tim. “Everywhere you live is going to have a different climate, and most of the books just say, ‘This is what worked for me.’ It might not be what works for you.”

Those working at home should be prepared to invest a significant amount of time in the vines before seeing a truly mature product, too. Vines require four to five years maturing time in order to produce a full crop, according to Chuck Serafini, a home vintner in Hollister, who also advises people not to get into the grape-growing business with profit in mind.

“Unless you’ve got a lot of money and a lot of acreage, it’s not profitable,” said Serafini. “We did it initially for landscaping. We thought, ‘Hey! We have this vineyard, and we’ll just sell off the grapes. All that’s happened since is I’ve been pulled behind the boat and swallowed water.”

If you simply want to give the winemaking process a try without making the commitment of tending a vine, the Campell-based company Fermentation Settlement, www.FermentationSettlement.com, offers complete winemaker starter kits, which can be used with unsweetened grape juice, beginning at $79.95.

For more information on home winemaking, visit Fermentation Settlement’s Web site listed above or call them at (408) 871-1400. Kruse is also available for questions at (408) 842-7016.

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