It may not have the terroir of France or California, but in Boston and beyond there’s an abundance of winemaking expertise. From self-educated hobbyists to serious students of the grape, people who are passionate about wine have moved beyond tasting and buying expensive vintages to making their own. Using do-it-yourself home kits and even crushing grapes trucked in from California or grown locally, they’re proving it’s possible to have an authentic winemaking experience thousands of miles from the vineyards.
At High Meadow Farm in Hubbardston, Tom and Jassy Bratko raise just about everything they eat, so making wine to accompany one of their organic, grass-fed beefsteaks or pork roasts is only natural. Two years ago Jassy gave Tom a winemaking kit as a Christmas present. The first batch of merlot “wasn’t too bad,” he said and soon after added Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chilean Carmenére and old vine Zinfandel to his home winemaking repertoire. Bratko has been guided along the way by Fran and Pegi Malo, owners of NFG, a home brewing and winemaking store in Leominster, Massachusetts. NFG, which stands for Naturally Fermented Grapes, sells kits and all the necessary winemaking equipment housed in a little shop on the second floor of a triple-decker house. “I’ve been there so often, I’m on a first name basis with them,” Bratko said.
A typical winemaking kit contains enough concentrated grape juice to make 30 bottles of wine; also yeast, stabilizer, clarifier and oak chips. At NFG the kits range in price from $79.95 for a Chianti to $198 for a New Zealand Pinot Noir.
Besides winemaking equipment, the Malos offer a wealth of information built on their 15 years of experience. They have made wine from every kit they stock and have a 3,000-bottle cellar to prove it. “It’s great to have access to experts when something goes wrong,” Bratko said. “When a batch of wine wasn’t fermenting properly, Pegi asked where I stored it. I found out the temperature in the bedroom where we’d kept the wine was too cool.” After he moved it into the family room heated by a woodstove, fermentation resumed.
The importance of recordkeeping to keep track of the wine’s progress was an easy lesson for the Bratkos. They recently completed the certification process to become an organic farm, so are familiar with the need for copious documentation. What’s been difficult, however, is waiting to sample the fruits of their labor. “We’ve also had to learn patience,” Bratko said. “It’s hard to wait the three months for fermentation to be completed before you can taste your wine.”
The Malos encourage their winemaking customers to respect the process and allow it to come to its natural completion. “We urge people to put aside at least half their batch of wine and let it age at least a year or two. Those that do are astounded at the difference in taste,” said Pegi Malo. For impatient customers, they sell half-sized bottles to speed the aging process.
The Bratko’s winemaking operations occupy a corner of their nineteenth century farmhouse cellar. “At one point I had five carboys in various stages of fermentation,” Bratko noted. On a wall opposite their three children’s collection of ski boots are shelves containing 336 bottles of their homemade wine.
For their daughter’s wedding on the farm last summer, Tom made 10 cases of wine including: Merlot, Shiraz, old vine Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The real test of his developing skills as a home winemaker came when the couple served their wine to Jassy’s European family members who came for the wedding. “My brother-in-law is a real connoisseur; he goes to France to taste wine, so I was apprehensive.” Tom said. But the homemade wine was a hit. “They drank a lot of it,” Jassy added.
You may have neither the space in your apartment for carboys of fermenting wine, nor the do-it-yourself abilities of home winemakers. Or, you may want a more authentic winemaking experience. If crushing grapes and inhaling the earthy aromas of wine aging in oak barrels is your vision, you won’t have to travel to Napa or Sonoma Valley.
Just off the Southeast Expressway in the Port Norfolk neighborhood is The Boston Winery. There, Ralph Bruno, who learned winemaking from his family in Abruzzi, Italy, conducts make-your-own-wine sessions and tastings. The building is a renovated foundry originally built in 1820; with high ceilings and the original brick interior walls still intact it retains an old-world atmosphere.
Start by selecting your wine from 11 varieties and choose among American, French or Hungarian oak barrels. When the grapes arrive fresh from California vineyards in the fall, you’ll help operate the crusher, start the fermentation and return weeks later for pressing, racking (removing sediment) and bottling. Bruno’s goal is to make the process of winemaking an enjoyable and authentic experience. So, in addition to the work of crushing and pressing grapes, there’s homemade pizza served along with tastings from his collection of handcrafted wine.
Customers are welcome to “be as involved as they want to in the process,” Bruno said. The cost is figured at about $12.50 per bottle. A barrel yields 288 bottles; half-barrels and quarter-barrel amounts are also available.
At Zoll Cellars in the Central Massachusetts town of Shrewsbury, former pastry chef-turned-winemaker Frank Zoll offers a similar experience on a more intimate scale. He conducts one-on-one and group winemaking and wine pairing sessions in his cellar, guiding novice winemakers through the entire process, from crushing 600 pounds of grapes, to barrel aging in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels and bottling.
Zoll Cellars is on a 1/2-acre of land in the midst of a suburban neighborhood. In the back yard are vines of Traminette grapes cultivated and harvested for Zoll’s Dry Riesling. Zoll also buys grapes from vineyards throughout New England and New York, crushes them to produce several varieties of wine that he ages, bottles and sells online and at farmers markets. His 2010 Cabernet Franc won a silver medal at this year’s Big E wine competition and his 2010 Northern Whites won a bronze medal.
“I want my wines to give people a taste of New England,” Zoll said. Winemaking sessions produce 120 bottles and the cost ranges from $16.65 per bottle for stainless steel aging to $18.32 for oak barrel aging.
A less expensive and extensive winemaking experience is available at Barleycorn’s Craft Brew in Natick. In addition to making beer, owner Dan Eng has shepherded groups through the process of making good quality table wine since he opened the store in 1998. Eng uses 100% varietal grape juice concentrate from California, Italy, France and Australia, producing 15-gallon batches, or 25 bottles. Barleycorn’s also gets fresh grape juice from California winemaking in the fall and from Chile in the spring.
“The first session takes about half an hour,” Eng said, and includes a brief explanation of the winemaking process before customers add yeast to the selected grape variety to start the fermentation process. “Winemakers are welcome to come in and help with racking the wine, but most return after six weeks for bottling,” he added.
The price ranges from $180 to $190 depending on the variety selected and includes bottles, corks and a custom-designed label. Eng says a lot of his customers schedule bottling for fall so they can give wine as holiday gifts.
The apex of the winemaking experience in Boston is a new class offered at the Boston Winery by Boston University’s Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center. The 12-week, very hands-on course is taught by William Nesto, a founder of BU’s wine studies program, who holds the Master of Wine designation. Nesto has written and lectured widely about wine and has judged wine competitions throughout the U.S. and Italy. His forthcoming book, co-authored with Frances Di Savino, is The World of Sicilian Wine.
Nesto says the BU winemaking course exists in the chasm between the science of wine taught at institutions like the University of California at Davis and the romance of wine marketed by publications such as Wine Spectator. “We’re working with ideas, but we’re also doing the work of winemaking,” he said.
“It’s an experiential course requiring a strong basic knowledge; we don’t accept novices or people who do winemaking for fun,” Nesto continued. “People who apply are either professionals in the wine trade or individuals with a high degree of expertise.”
Nesto wants his students to experience “the rough and tumble of vinification. They will each be in charge of their own process. They will learn to see things not just from the viewpoint of the consumer, but also from the perspective of someone who’s done the work and made the wine,” he said.
Christopher Chisolm is typical of the students. His early wine education as a college student was guided by the proprietor of a neighborhood wine shop who helped him find good quality for budget prices. During a career in finance that he ultimately found unrewarding, Chisholm and a friend began taking wine classes at BU. Over the past eight years he found his passion as he worked his way through all four levels of coursework, earning a certificate of wine studies.
In the process, Chisholm learned how to identify categories and styles of wine and develop a sophisticated palate and nose. He even went to Tuscany with a group led by Nesto to pick and crush grapes. Now he’s applying all that knowledge and experience to make his own barrel of wine.
Nesto assigned three classic types of grapes: Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon; students researched vintages and wineries to choose a prototype for their project. Chisholm is aiming to emulate a 2009 Syrah from Falcone, a small, family-owned winery in Paso Robles, California. He’s been in contact with the winery, which steered him to the same Rhone-derived yeast they use.
The grapes—about a ton of them—arrived in a refrigerated truck the third week in October. Nesto encouraged the students to get to know the taste, smell and look of their fruit before the crush began. The resulting mixture of grape skins, seed and juice was pumped into food grade plastic barrels; students added yeast to break the sugars down into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Chisholm’s Syrah will age in a Hungarian oak barrel for almost a year until bottling in October 2013.
Between winemaking session and classes at the winery students conferenced online and contributed to an online diary with comments and video clips as they discussed and debated winemaking issues. They recorded measurements on shared spreadsheets. Besides textbooks and other assigned reading Nesto gave them “smell kits,” a dozen little glass bottles containing compounds with scents such as “rotten egg” that indicates too much of the preservative sulfur dioxide. “I want them to use all their senses in determining what is wrong if there is a problem,” Nesto said.
At the core is the experience of learning something new. For example, before Chisholm went to Tuscany he didn’t drink much Chianti. “While I was there, I learned to understand and appreciate how Brunello is different from Chianti Classico and how temperature, soil and elevation affect the wine,” he said.
At the outset of the winemaking class Chisholm appreciated Syrah only as one of the grapes blended to create southern Rhone favorites such as Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. “To experience 100% French Syrah varietal wines like the venerable Northern Rhone Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage is expensive and out of the realm of everyday wine drinking,” he said, “while the California and Australian styles of Syrah tend to be high-alcohol, over-ripe and overpowering.”
Now that he’s making his own, more restrained style of Syrah, Chisholm has come to appreciate the grape for its aromatics of red berry and spice. He now recommends it to others. “It’s a great wine to pair with food like roasted vegetables and meats, typical of this time of year,” he said, “and it can stand on its own as a good cocktail wine. Syrah is warm, inviting and fruity; a great transition from the light reds of summer to more intense reds like Cabernet.”
Chisholm sounds like a winemaker from Napa or Sonoma, but he’s at the vanguard of winemaking in Boston. The label on his 2012 Syrah, “Siosal,” the Scottish Gaelic form of his last name, will indicate that important distinction. It will state: “produced and bottled at the Boston Winery.”
Barleycorn’s Craft Brew 21 Summer Street, Natick 508.651.8885 barleycorn.com
Boston University 808 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston 617.353.9852 bu.edu/foodandwine/wine-programs/
Boston Winery 26 Ericsson Street, Boston 617-265-9463 bostonwinery.com
NFG, Home Brew 72 Summer Street, Leominster 978.840.1955 nfghomebrew.com
Zoll Cellars 110 Old Mill Road, Shrewsbury 857.498.1665 zollwine.com
Margaret LeRoux writes from Central Massachusetts where she's delighted to raise a glass of good quality local wine. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.