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Murray: Go ahead — take the plunge into winemaking

POSTED: August 10, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Like red wines? I do. And I enjoy passing along to my readers word of good ones I encounter.

However, the one I sampled recently you just might have to make yourself.

It was a blend of three traditional Rhone red wine grapes - grenache, syrah and mourvedre. Lush and fruity, it resembled more the Australian version of what they call GSM, than the Rhone style.

And Craig Cook made it himself.

Cook is the owner of My Brew Heaven, local hangout for those who enjoy creating their own beers and wines at home. The store is at 1500 Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville, in the shopping center with Big Lots.

He e-mailed me in February in response to my column, and invited me to visit. I wandered down there a few weeks back and spoke with Cook, who is knowledgeable, amiable and eager to educate. I was happy to discover that he and I share more than a mildly warped sense of humor and hairline. He's a wino, too. He grew up in California wine country and I believe has more than a little cabernet sauvignon in his veins.

Cook is quick to point out that creating that good bottle of merlot or chardonnay at home is pretty simple.

"First rule," he counsels, "is sanitation. I can't emphasize that enough."

Then he quotes his wife Vicky: "She says home winemaking is idiot proof ... so men can do it."

"We're the oldest winemaking store in Georgia," Cook told me. "Been here 14 years. A lot of people think it's illegal to make wine at home, but it's not. Georgia legalized it in 1993."

My Brew Heaven will sell the budding home wine producer all he or she needs - including premium grape juice, chemicals, containers and detailed instructions. But Cook offers something more - personal service and years of knowledge.

"I give my customers my time and experience. I tell them you are in charge of the wine; the wine's not in charge of you," said Cook, pointing out large cardboard boxes containing vacuum-sealed containers of high-quality grape juice.

"With beginners, I take them very carefully through the process, and drum on them the message of sanitation," he declared. "Every customer gets my home phone number and I encourage them to call me if they run into trouble."

The home winemaking venue need not be surgically sterile, but a drop of dirt or other material in the wrong place can make the result very disappointing.

I've been asked through my career as a wine writer, consultant and educator if I make my own wine. My stock answer has been, "I don't have the patience, and besides, why spend that time making something that's probably half as good as a bottle of wine in the store?"

My views have changed. I have judged in numerous wine competitions around the country and some have involved home-made wines. Many have been superb; others have been, uh, less so. But the technology has changed, become simpler and more accessible - and more people are getting into it.

Brad Ring is publisher of WineMaker magazine in Vermont, among other publications. I asked him how the number of home wine producers today compares with five or 10 years ago.

"The winemaking hobby has been experiencing double-digit growth over the last decade," he said. "Today there are an estimated 1 million hobby winemakers in North America. This growth has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of wine appreciation in general among Americans."

With the American economy circling the bowl, are more people opting to cut their costs by substituting a cellar-fermented chardonnay for a store-bought label?

"You can save money making wine, which certainly doesn't hurt the hobby in this economy," Ring stated. "But we've found most hobbyists are primarily drawn to making their own for the pride of making something they can share with family and friends."

You can buy good juice - and better juice - at My Brew Heaven, Cook points out. There's a French viognier, New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Australian chardonnay, Italian pinot grigio, Argentinean malbec and a German gewürztraminer, among others.

Sum up how this is done, please, I asked Cook.

"It's simple," he replied with an easy smile. "The 4.23 gallons of concentrated juice inside is fresh because it's vacuum sealed. Just open it up, add two gallons of water, add the yeast that is provided, seal up the container and install an airlock and walk away.

"In about two weeks, on average, you'll have wine."

And in about six weeks you can rack the stuff - meaning remove the wine from the leftover dead yeasts - and bottle it.

Publisher Ring told me, "Some people think ... winemaking is a mysterious process only trained professionals can master, and it takes a large chunk of money to make good wine. Winemaking is, at its core, very simple."

Cook, master of My Brew Heaven, showed me how experienced home wine makers can vary flavors and textures. And to my surprise, he pointed out that he sells three times as much red wine as white.

"We have oak chips with different levels of toast so wine makers can get that oak-aged flavor and aroma into their wines," he said.

The cost to make wine at home?

"On average, you can produce a bottle for about $4.50 to $5," he responded, "a bit more if you buy the limited edition vineyard select juice."

After having tasted Cook's GSM creation, bearing his custom "Little Loch Cellars" label, I'm giving some serious thought to taking the plunge.

After all, I have his home phone number.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? E-mail him. His column runs on the first Wednesday of the month.



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