Access to better grapes and production techniques has given amateur vintners advantages they never used to have. So how do their efforts compare with commercially produced wines? We decided to do a taste test.
Luckily we have an avid amateur winemaker in our midst, with ample stocks to sample. BusinessWeek's own executive editor, John Byrne, began making wine six years ago in the kitchen of his New Jersey home. At one point he even took over his daughter's air-conditioned bedroom while she was away at college because he could keep it cool enough to store the fermenting wine. Today he makes his wine at either his weekend house in Sullivan County, N.Y., or at a friend's house in Pennsylvania.
SUBJECTIVE TASTES. Byrne buys his grapes from a store in Clifton, N.J., that sells winemaking supplies. In recent years, he has hauled home up to 850 pounds, which yields one barrel. Among the varietals he has played with are chenin blanc, merlot, sangiovese, and pinot noir. "You can make a good wine comparable to one that costs just under $20," says Byrne. "But you need to adjust your expectations or else you'll be disappointed."
Byrne contributed a five-year-old bottle of his pinot noir to our tasting. We rounded it out with four domestic pinots ranging in price from $9 to $39. To make sure none of our 10 BusinessWeek testers knew which wine was the boss's, we covered the labels.
Preferences among pinot noirs are notoriously fickle, and the scores in our tasting showed it. Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2002 Pinot Noir, at $39, polarized the tasters, who either said it "was totally boring" or was "lush and jammy." The wine tasted of blueberries and cherries but was lighter and more austere than some people liked. The winery, owned by the well-known Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, probably made the wine to age, so it seemed a bit tight for some tasters.
HINTS OF MINT. Castle Rock's 2005 Monterey County Pinot Noir, at $9, was easier to like, with a peppery, medium body, but the taste was simple and didn't last very long. The Au Bon Climat 2004 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, made by a boutique winery in Santa Ynez, Calif., for $20, had a bouquet of oranges and grapefruit peel, although some tasters found it too sweet.
The favorite was the Acacia Vineyard 2004 Carneros Pinot Noir. Tasters said the wine was "meaty and herbaceous" and good enough to give as a gift or buy as a staple for their homes. At $25, the wine seemed a good deal.
Many tasters couldn't pick out the boss's wine, and they misjudged some of the professional product for amateur efforts. Some found that Byrne's 2001 Commodore Murray Private Reserve (named for the man who once owned his weekend house) had hints of mint and was pleasant, while others said it was too thin. One taster repeatedly asked how much it cost and where she could buy it.
When Byrne heard the results, he laughed. "If you get lucky, you make a good wine. It's hard to keep duplicating it." He has no plans to leave his day job.
By Kristina Shevory