In today’s culture, instant gratification is often seen as essential, which explains why wine producers market their products as ready-to-drink. So, it’s hard to believe there are people who enjoy putting in months of hard work—harvesting, crushing, fermenting and aging—before they can pop the cork of their do-it-yourself bottles.
And they’re growing in number, proving the best stuff is still homemade.
“Home winemaking is booming,” says Gisela Claassen, president/owner of Curds and Wine, a home wine- and cheese-making shop in San Diego, where its sales of DIY wine kits have steadily increased since 2011.
“Most people are surprised at how accessible home winemaking can be,” says Claassen.
Wine Enthusiast caught up with eight home winemakers to find out what makes a person pour their heart into a bottle.
Phil Del Giudice, New Jersey
For Del Giudice, owner of Del’s Novelty & Party Supply Co. in Morristown, New Jersey, making wine is all about family.
“It’s fortunate that I have someone to make wine with who has done this before, my cousin, Jason Knevals [pictured above],” says Del Giudice. His first foray into winemaking began this year with Petite Sirah grapes produced in Chile.
Del Giudice and Knevals utilize Corrado’s Market, in Clifton, New Jersey, to aid in their endeavor, but they eschew modern winemaking equipment in favor of working antiques that have been in the family for generations.
“I’m making wine in the homestead where my dad grew up in Madison, New Jersey,” says Del Giudice. “When I was a youngster, I went downstairs and saw the wine press, the crusher and the barrels, and thought it was pretty cool.
“The barrels are no good now, but the crusher and the press date back to my grandfather, to the late 1800s, and also to my dad, who made wine and used that equipment in the early 1930s when he was a young man. He probably wasn’t supposed to do this, but he made wine during the Great Depression to make extra money.”
Like many home winemakers, Del Giudice sees the production process as a way to keep family traditions alive and reconnect with the past.
“For a lot of people who drink wine, especially in Madison, the winemaking tradition is carried over from generation to generation,” says Del Giudice. “Even though I could buy wine cheaper, it’s just the whole idea of something that I made and produced, going back to my dad and grandfather, using the same equipment.”
Investing in modern winemaking gadgets won’t happen anytime soon. For Del Giudice, it would kind of defeat the purpose.
“When I was turning the crank, I thought, ‘My grandfather used to do this. I can’t believe it,’ ” he says. “I never knew my grandfather. He died at a young age, when my father was 12 or 13, and that’s when my father quit school to go out and work to support the family, and that’s when he started making wine. So, it is a connection to my grandfather, whom I didn’t have the opportunity to meet, and to my father.”
Del Giudice acknowledges that there are challenges involved. “Turning the crank is one,” he says, along with long waiting periods.
“After crushing the grapes and adding the sulfites, we will have to let it sit for a few months, so there’s quite a waiting process involved,” says Del Giudice. “There’s also waiting during racking. The more you rack it, the clearer the wine becomes. The longer you let it sit, the better.
“The wine will taste totally different over time, and it can have excellent flavor for a homemade wine. I’m looking forward to drinking it, but the waiting is a challenge. We aren’t going to be able to drink it for a while.”
Once the wine is ready to drink, Del Giudice will bottle it to share with friends and family.
“The long-term plan is to drink it all,” says Del Giudice. “We’ll likely have 90 bottles of wine from this batch, make some labels, and give it out as gifts around Christmas.”
Doug Campau, Kentucky
The Louisville-based attorney, who also resides part time in Hansville, Washington, has been making wine at home for two years. He’s produced a blend that included Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as a Cabernet varietal wine.
For Campau, keeping a sense of humor about the DIY winemaking process has been key.
“I wouldn’t presume to call my bottlings great,” says Campau. “In fact, my own tasting notes for the first vintage include sentences like ‘a nose reminiscent of hospital emergency room disinfectant,’ and ‘an utterly flat finish leaving a hint of toxic heavy metals on the back of the tongue.”
“The second vintage was far better, and by that I mean I’d be willing to pay maybe $8 for a bottle of it if I found it at Trader Joe’s.”
Campau says his wines vary depending on grape availability. The first year, he sourced fruit from Mountain Homebrew & Wine Supply, in Kirkland, Washington.
“The second year, through generous family friends, I was able to arrange to cut my own grapes in the Destiny Ridge estate vineyard of Alexandria Nicole Cellars in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA,” he says.
Hurdles include pressing the grapes as quickly as possible, “before they begin to lose their critical but ephemeral qualities,” he says, as well as managing pH levels.
“Lowering the pH is a common problem in Washington winemaking,” says Campau. “With a general reluctance to turn to additives like tartaric acid to reduce pH, I left it alone one year. In retrospect, I think this was a mistake. If I had added acid, I would have had a wine with better aging potential.”
Despite the challenges and sometimes less-than-desirable results, Campau is motivated to make wine to celebrate special milestones.
“I wanted to do something to mark the birth of my daughter,” says Campau. “I thought that if I bottled a nice red the same autumn she was born, I could save a case of it to bring out on some special occasion, maybe her graduation or wedding.
“My father did that when I was born. And while his red Zinfandel had long since turned to an oxidized brown liquid of questionable potability by the time I got married or graduated from anywhere that would warrant opening a case of special wine, I was touched to the core of my soul by the thought and gesture.”
Sue Creveling and Kristine Anderson, California
The two friends and Mount Helix, California, residents are in the third year of their home winemaking endeavor, borne out of practicality.
“We were both looking for ways to transform our yards into being more drought tolerant,” says Creveling. “And we went to a local talk where the topic was replacing crops, such as avocados, with wine grapes which use less water.”
“We also learned that San Diego County once was and is becoming again quite the grape-growing region,” says Creveling. She cites the learning curve as a key motivator in pursuing the winemaking hobby.
“Kristine and I took a class at Cuyamaca College, which made growing grapes and making wine a real possibility,” says Creveling. “Being a dietitian, I have always been interested in learning more about the process of winemaking and the chemistry involved. Kristi’s passion has always been farming her own vegetables, so the blending of our friendship has been a perfect mix for making wine. But most importantly, we both love wine.”
Grape growing has sometimes proven problematic for the duo.
“The weather was a deterring factor last year for our crop, but we still managed to make some wine,” says Creveling, who buys winemaking equipment from Curds and Wine in San Diego and relies upon the experience of a local winemaking mentor.
“We are fortunate to have a mentor in the area, Henry Arnold, a retired insurance consultant who took up winemaking over 10 years ago,” says Creveling. “He has been very successful at growing and making Cabernet and Merlot wines at his home. He has generously allowed us to use some of his equipment and is happy to give us any advice we ask for.”
Long-term plans include improving their techniques and “to make the most complex wine we can,” says Creveling, who has produced Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot bottlings so far.
For Creveling and Anderson, the rewards of home winemaking extend beyond continued learning and the hands-on satisfaction of the process.
“One of the various benefits of making our own wine is the increase in enthusiasm and friendliness of our neighbors around bottling time,” says Creveling.
Anthony “Tony” Grimaldi, New York
Based in Scarsdale, New York, Grimaldi is a real estate lawyer who has crafted homemade wine for more than 50 years.
“Since I was a little boy, about age 8 or 9, I used to help my father make wine, and now my boys help me,” he says.
Like Del Giudice, Grimaldi cites his family’s winemaking tradition as his main motivation.
“My father picked winemaking up from my grandmother on my mother’s side who started making wine in New York before and during Prohibition,” says Grimaldi. “In fact, the press was my grandfather’s, who brought it with him from Italy.”
For Grimaldi, who makes Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, the biggest challenge is “getting the grapes that I want,” he says.
And while he purchases fruit from Prospero Grapes in Pleasantville, New York, he isn’t buying in small quantities.
“I buy about 1,700 pounds of grapes a year,” says Grimaldi. “As I work, and I am busy, it is difficult to time the arrival of the grapes with my ability to buy them and devote the time to process them. Once the grapes are purchased, it may be hard work, but it is smooth sailing from that point on.”
With 50 years of experience, Grimaldi can be proud of the wines he makes. “I like them, or I would not make them, but I do like some of my wines better than others,” he says.
Some of his bottlings have even stood up to commercially produced wines in an informal blind taste tests held among friends.
“Some of my friends, who are very into wines and drink expensive wines, have done blind tastings with my bottlings, and my wines have done very well matched up against good commercial wines,” says Grimaldi.
“What I notice in those tastings is that the less sophisticated wine drinkers are more likely to rate my wine over an expensive California wine, while a true wine enthusiast will rate the commercial wine higher. I am fine with being in the same ballpark.”
Grimaldi plans on continuing to make wine “for as long as I can do it,” he says, saying that it’s a “physically taxing hobby.”
“My boys like to help, and I hope one or more does it after I stop,” he says.
Larry Scott, California
Owning a scenic, seven-acre spread well suited to grape growing in El Cajon, California, Scott decided to start home winemaking last year.
“The property reminds me so much of Tuscany that I decided to try my hand at winemaking,” he says.
The project quickly turned into what Scott thinks will become a lifelong pursuit.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had with any hobby or project,” says Scott. “Winemaking is simply captivating.”
Scott, an administrator, has planted Zinfandel/Primitivo, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo grapes, and plans to make a Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier blend. “And I’m sneaking in Cabernet Franc,” Scott says.
Being new to DIY winemaking, Scott cites many challenges.
“The learning curve is one, and another issue is trying to understand how to grow grapes capable of making good wine,” he says.
Scott’s hopes to start production on white wines in 2017, and to “ultimately convert my garage into a fermentation zone with refrigeration. I’m trying to find help to correctly build out the space.”
Like Creveling and Anderson, Scott is putting his trust in the advice of a local sage.
“A winemaker in Temecula is going to be my teacher,” says Scott. “His library wines go for about $140 a bottle, and his regular bottles cost about $40. His vineyard is pristine, with music playing over the vines, and he’s Italian.
“One thing that he insists on is that if I go with him, not to take advice from others. He said that home winemakers get 24 versions of how to do it and make a mess. I have found that he’s correct.”
Larry and Esther Thal, California
For this Lafayette, California-based couple, planting grapes on their property solved a pressing environmental problem.
“We originally decided to plant vines in order to prevent erosion on a steep hillside above our home and driveway,” says Esther Thal.
“We loved the idea that the vines could solve this problem, are fire resistant as well as drought tolerant, and are much more aesthetically pleasing than other solutions proposed to solve the erosion problem,” she says.
The now-retired couple’s first harvest took place in 2012. For them, the fruits of their labor come from the art of cultivation.
“We think of ourselves as growers first and have a local winemaker that we work with to make our wine second,” says Larry Thal.
Wines produced by the Thals in the past three years have included a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend.
“We use home-grown grapes and have over 2,500 vines,” says Larry. “Over half are planted to Cabernet, a quarter to Sauvignon Blanc and the rest to Merlot.”
In contrast to other home winemakers—and perhaps because they utilize a local vintner to help produce their bottles—the Thals says they haven’t encountered many challenges.”
“So far, the wine we have made is quite good and has received accolades from not only friends, but professionals who sell and make wine,” says Larry. “At this point, we have kept most of the production for ourselves, relatives and friends.”
For the Thals, what started as a practical solution to erosion has evolved into a passion.
“The planting, care and harvesting of a vineyard is definitely a fun and therapeutic process,” says Esther.