Mark Jones had wanted to try his hand at winemaking for the longest time. But the Chicago-based marketing executive, who has been collecting wine for 15 years, simply assumed he'd have to move to California, buy a vineyard, and hire an expert consultant. Then he discovered Crushpad.
Through this San Francisco outfit that guides aspiring vintners through the process, Jones could make a barrel of wine, or 300 bottles, for as little as $4,500. He went for the deluxe package, paying $9,000 for extra attention from professional winemakers and cabernet sauvignon grapes from Napa-based Stagecoach Vineyard, which supplies high-end wineries such as Caymus and Robert Biale Vineyards. "I said: 'Eureka, here's my chance to make wine without investing millions of dollars,"' says Jones, 44.
More than 750,000 amateur vintners are producing their own vino nationwide, according to WineMaker Magazine, and the number keeps growing as classes, clubs, Internet instruction, and wine kits become more widely available. "Once you understand the process and start with good grapes, you can make pretty good wine," says James Lapsley, adjunct professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis.
From grape to bottle, making wine can take up to two years. First, you need to decide on the type. Reds are generally easier to produce than whites because their color and the wood flavor they pick up while aging help hide mistakes. Once you buy the grapes, you crush them in a vat with your hands or a crushing tool. Next, add yeast to start fermentation. The skins and seeds will float to the top and form a "cap" which has to be punched down regularly. Drain off the wine into a barrel or tank to age at least six months and bottle.
Over nearly two years, Jones flew to San Francisco about six times to Crushpad's 16,000-sq.-ft. warehouse to learn the winemaking process and to monitor his wine's progress. His cabernet sauvignon is still in barrel and should be ready for bottling this summer. He's so thrilled with the results he has tasted, he made a second barrel.
Even if you can't visit your wine in person, you can check its development via the Web. "Whether you're here or not makes no difference," said Michael Brill, who started Crushpad in March, 2004 (crushpadwine.com.)
If San Francisco is too much of a haul, chances are you can find a school closer to home. The Bacchus Winemaking Club in Toms River, N.J. (bacchusnj.com), will guide wannabe vintners for $1,100 a half barrel. If you have deep pockets and want the counsel of world-class vintners, you can join the Napa Valley Reserve, a members-only winery and vineyard in St. Helena, Calif., that Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate opened in 2004. Members make 72 to 900 bottles of cabernet sauvignon-based blends for $55 per bottle and have access to such special events as a tasting with wine expert Karen MacNeil. Membership is $150,000 plus $960 in annual dues (napavalleyreserve.com).
For those who just want to dabble, winemaking kits have improved over the past few years and now offer Australian shiraz, Italian pinot grigio, and German riesling in addition to other varietals. The kits, for $50 to $125 from Winexpert and Vincor, among others, contain pure grape juice or concentrate, yeast, and additives required to make five to six gallons of wine. You also have to spend around $150 to buy equipment, including a fermenter.
Wine publications don't rate amateur wines, but WineMaker publisher Brad Ring says "the top-tier stuff rivals the better commercial wines I've had. It's not the dandelion wine of the past."
By Kristina Shevory