When you first read wine making books, you get the impression that you need a degree in chemistry to undertake the task. Above is the display my weekend class put out for others to see after our course. Now I know wine making is remarkably easy and there’s a great deal of room for creativity. It is like all forms of cooking. All you need is the basics and a voracious appetite for experimentation and you are ready to go.
This weekend, I learned about making country wines, which are blends made with fruits, vegetables and herbs. The only difficulty I imagine from this point on is remembering the details about how to proceed successfully, because the class started sampling wines in different stages of fermentation at 9am, and we kept at it until five, which does not bode well for an academic mindset or clear memory. I was shocked by how good homemade country wines can be, such as dandelion-chamomile, or kiwi, or strawberry sweetened with fresh lemonade before the final racking. My teacher was wonderfully prepared, and had set things up in advance so we could sample batches of wine right after we made them, then taste what they should be like six days later, then six months. He then gave us a tasting of what those same recipes would taste like in one year. This gave us the full gamete of the process and helps us to know what to look for. Can’t imagine how to cover the subject in a single weekend any other way.
Nearly everyone in the class had made wine before, mostly from kits. I’ve considered starting with a kit, but held off be cause I felt they were cheating somehow. In a kit, all the ingredients are given you in little pre-measured packets and you are guided day by day in what to do to make what will turn out to be foolproof wine. Sort of a no-brainer. Seemed to me as if this would be going through the motions, but not really learning to make wine from scratch. But I feel differently now, because I realize kits allow people to go through the motions to learn basics, and afterwords, they are prepared to strike out on their own to try a different recipes without the pre-measured ingredients or day to day instructions, but at least an idea of what to expect and how to proceed (and some basic tools).
We made strawberry wine and kiwi chardonnay in the class, learned how to bottle it, and make fancy personalized labels. We learned how to cork those bottles and put spiffy gold seal locks on top for a pretty presentation.
We learned all about fermentation and how to sweeten wine and how one batch can deliver bottles of dry wine, as well as sweeter wines if you have a taste for them. Someone had brought in 10 gallons of wine gone bad, and we learned how to fix it. That was a great “extra” beyond the syllabus, thanks to the fellow with the cloudy, tangy wine who was not too proud to bring it in and withstand jokes about his questionable wine making talent.
Here are the bottles I came away with this weekend. One was designated for Denver, because yesterday was her 21st birthday. What better way to make the day than by giving her a (now) legal beverage made to honor her adulthood?
If you look closely, you can see I put “Hendry Private Reserve” on the lable. La-ti-da!
By around 3:00 in the afternoon, we had finished most of the wine making, and were in sampling mode. This was our designated happy hour, and my teacher had invited friends in from his band (he plays in a bluegrass band and is a songwriter too.) They did a rip-roaring stand up comedy act for us filed with backcountry wine jokes, then played music while we all sampled wine. It was great, casual fun. Two of the friends he invited make mead, so they gave a short lecture on that division of wine making too and let us sample different flavored meads. I was fascinated, because as a beekeeper, I’m already looking for special ways to use the honey I will harvest next year (mead is made with honey).
I must say that learning to make wine hit a hot note deep inside me. I thought, “This is my calling” because there is something so lovely about taking natural ingredients and working with them for a year or so to create something to special to share with friends. My teacher said the greatest thing about homemade wine is the fact that people rarely turn it down. Even non-drinkers will visit will say, “Well, if it is homemade, I guess I’ll try some.” As if homemade wine doesn’t count as drinking. Ha.
As we sampled wines, we kept categorizing them by use . . .”I’d call this a luncheon wine,” we’d say as we samples something fruity and light. “This is definitely a campfire wine,” we’d say about something with a raw kick. And in my mind, I started thinking about what I really like and what kind of wines I would enjoy serving at home adhering to our lifestyle and taste preferences. I love the idea that there is no right or wrong, you can develop wine to your personal idea of what tastes good.
Here is my teacher. Although he has won some awards for his country wines and meads, he had this great down to earth attitude. He said, “What I want all you to think after this class is not what a great wine maker I am, but that if this simple guy can make wine, anyone can!”
One of the best wines we tried was wild blackberry. Dave (the teacher) said the problem about making blackberry wine was that it takes so long to pick the amount of blackberries needed. Ha. No problem. I looked at his 4 pounds of blackberries and thought it was nary a morning’s work for Neva and I. We are a blackberry-picking machine in July.
On the way home from the class, Mark took me to see a local wine supply store nestled in a small stone cottage out in the middle of nowhere. Funny how he discovers these kinds of places and stores them in the back of his mind for just when you need them. We went in and met this burly old man who growled that all homemade wine tastes like gasoline . . . then he said, “What do I need to get started?” Yes, he was quite the salesman. We bought all the basic supplies, and I threw in a kit for Pinot Grigio too. I am planning to make some strawberry wine while the strawberries are still in season and get it racked in time for blackberry in a few months. But I will make a sure proven, name brand white wine too for those who are wine palate snobs and will turn up their noses at the idea of country wines. (I will woo them with my kit wine and having won their confidence, I’ll seduce them into trying my experimental lowbrow country wines. I have a plan, you see.)
Once I was home, I went on line to pick up some basic acid blends and tannins and other wine making ingredients so I can springboard off from the basics and start experimenting with fruit, flower and herb recipes. I also bought a book on homemade vinegars and cordials and I plan to start making those as well. Yes, it is only a matter of time until I have a liquor still hidden back behind my barn. I even have a hankering to make beer, even though no one in this family drinks it. Nevertheless, hey, I have friends I can use as beer-ginnie-pigs. At this rate, I’ll be all ready to move to a quiet village in Italy to buy that wine vineyard in the next stage of life (a secret destiny Mark and I always joke about when we are stressed out and wish we could disappear where no one could find us.)
The most poignant thing about this weekend was laughing and talking with people who take the time to pursue an interest, whatever it may be. The world is filled with fascinating people who are full of life, a sense of adventure, and who are simply dang interesting, if you pause long enough to ask them questions and let conversation roll naturally. I think my world has been filled with one-dimensional people for way too long. Not that they were not interesting people in their own way, but they were not necessarily diversified and so many years of conversations centered only on theater and dance began to feel like I was living the movie Groundhog day. It made me feel an awful lot of living was passing everyone by, due to his or her tunnel (dance) vision.
Here are my wine-making friends, all trying something new with a vengeance and such humor it made the experience quite a hoot.
Since sharing my interest in making wine, I’ve discovered many friends have tried it (even my sister – who knew?) Our friend, Vicki, always gave us Kaluaha for Christmas, and I knew she made it herself, but I never paused to consider just how this represented her diverse interest as a person. There were other things she did (ride a motorcycle etc…) which reminded me she was (is) more than a dancer. How many others kept dance in perspective and lived a life beyond? I wouldn’t know, because in my presence, they rarely brought up anything else, forever picking my brain and returning to the subject of dance no matter how I tried to discover who these people were. Perhaps, everyone ‘s life was diversified but mine. Sad reality.
Anyway, I’m very grateful now that I have the time to be more than a dancer myself and I can see now that the only way to do that was to leave the obsessive environment we had created. Not that I didn’t have interests beyond dance before, or that I didn’t secretly pursue them. I’ve always been a voracious cook, a runner, a crafter, a reader, etc… And although I didn’t share this fact with others, I was writing historical romance novels while running the dance empire for some time. However, there was always this guilt that spending time on anything other than work was cheating someone of something – as if I was not allowed to be anything other than the dance person. And time was so precious that rarely could we invest it in anything non dance oriented. Even weekends were reserved for rehearsals or competitions as we strove to meet the needs of group after group of dancers. But now, I feel I have permission to dive head first into any interest that calls to me, and I don’t fret that a weekend playing is taking away from my (self-appointed) role as dance guru. This fills me with a profound sense of freedom.
Some days, I feel like a blind person who suddenly was given their sight. Because of the path we’ve taken, I am meeting people from all walks of life who have crazy, fascinating interests and who in midlife, have chosen non-traditional paths to pursue, with priorities centered on self-fulfillment and their personal description of happiness. We are not unique in this choice we’ve made, and everyday we meet other couples who one day just up and decided to leave the rat race to seek a more meaningful life. I feel blessed to meet people like this because the siren’s call of work and hanging on to security and making as much money as you can (because that is what we are taught is practical and right) is hard to resist – habit and ingrained social training, I’m afraid. But sitting around that folk school class drinking homemade wine and listening to my teacher sing a song called “Take me away from concrete and greed” while playing his homemade percussion instrument (complete with a tin can, plunger, washboard, bicycle horn and other fine music making instruments attached to a walking stick) reminded me that true joy isn’t found when you are always trying to meet other’s expectations. Happiness is something often found in solitude, where you can discover calm moments of your true self, uninfluenced by others or even your own self-imposed self-definition and/or self-appointed obligations to others.
But then again, maybe all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo is just because I was drinking all day! Ha. I must have polished off several bottles, and lying under a table does make you see things upside down- life takes on a different perspective when you have a lampshade on your head.
Mark joined me at the Campbell school for the weekend, and this time, since there were no other classes that appealed to him; he registered for a class that was entirely different from anything he has ever tried. He usually takes classes working with wood. This time he took blacksmithing and worked with copper.
He liked it more than he expected, and plans to return to learn to make an iron lamp and other metal art. I happen to adore sculpture and I’ve hoped he would venture into the blacksmith shop one of these days, so I was delighted. The Campbell school is renowned for its blacksmithing courses and people come from all over the country to study here. The problem with that is everyone is so experienced that it makes you feel like a bumpkin to be a beginner. But Mark was willing to try his hand at it. I myself am quite intimidated by the workshop, because there are huge roaring fires inside and men dunking hot red iron trinkets in buckets where steam rises and hisses. People are in there pounding hammers against anvils so there is noise and heat and loud machinery creating nothing that could be construed as a meditative environment. Everything is covered with black dust – but the most beautiful things come out of there. Blacksmithing done well is such a remarkable art.
Since this was just a weekend class, they were focusing on flowers made from copper. Mark made a gorgeous rose for Denver (wine and roses for her big 21!). It was so realistic, it was as if he dunked a real rose into a vat of copper and it hardened rahter than being cut from flat copper, fired and pounded into shape. He also made a tabletop sculpture for us with two other flowers. I think it is exquisite for a first attempt. Heck, it is exquisite for any attempt.
He hopes to go back for a week long class to learn more. I am now dreaming of future gift sculptures made from my own horses horseshoes. Talk about something meaningful yet interesting to rest on a desk! It’s a dirty hobby, to be sure. Mark’s hands were black, soot turned the white hair at his temples back to black. When I saw him at lunch, my first thought was to hose him down before giving him the wifely kiss. But hey, I’ve always liked men best when they are dirty and far be it from me to throw a stick at a blacksmith in the bedroom. Call me crazy, but that beats the man in a uniform or any other secret female fantasy, in my humble opinion.
It was a lovely weekend – and for a moment or two we even got our mind off of the current FLEX crisis. Truthfully, even though we registered for these classes months ago, we almost didn’t go, do to depression. But when you are upset, sometime a change of environment is a very good thing (and a good stiff drink doesn’t hurt either). I think, in this case, spending our weekend in the positive, creative atmosphere of the Campbell Folk School with kind, enthusiastic people was just what we needed.
I’ll drink a toast to that in a few months when I crack open those bottles I made.