Farmstead wineries are popping up all over the countryside nowadays, like toadstools after a summertime rainstorm. If it were not for our beastly winters, a person could almost believe we live in California wine country.
     I am actually quite familiar with the art of winemaking. I was an early bloomer, having brewed my first batch of vino the summer when I was 12.     
     In science class, I had learned about an innocuous microbe called yeast. This fungi was the driving force behind the fermentation process and was, by extension, responsible for such things as hangovers and many of the funnier scenes in the movie “Animal House.”     
     I decided to test this process with some extracurricular scientific experimentation. I enlisted the assistance of my two younger brothers and, after scrounging around in our kitchen, was able to assemble a rudimentary winemaking kit: a large empty glass soda bottle, a can of frozen grape juice concentrate (purple), some sugar and a packet of dry yeast. And a balloon. You cannot make wine without a balloon.     
     We hauled our wine-making materials up to the haymow where, in the secret sanctuary of the of straw bales, we poured the thawed grape juice into the soda bottle. There was some debate as to how much sugar should be added. It was decided if a little was good, then a lot had to be better. We added the purloined yeast, shook the bottle and capped it with the balloon.     
     We checked on the progress of the pop bottle every day. As the yeast performed its mysterious alchemy, the balloon grew to an alarming size. The bottle soon looked as though it had sprouted a blue latex basketball. My brothers wanted to conduct a taste test almost immediately, but I said no, that we would guzzle no wine before it was time. I told them that we would have to let it age quite a while, perhaps as long as a week.     
     Some days later, we sat on a straw bale as the three of us unballooned our very first bottle of wine. A fragrance reminiscent of bread dough wafted into our nostrils.     
     I allowed my youngest brother the honor of the first swig. It is hard to describe the bitter-sweetness of that magical moment. The sweet part was watching my brother’s expression as he took a long pull on the bottle and immediately spat the concoction back out. He said it tasted like something a guy would use to strip the rust off a plowshare.     
     I swore off of wine from then on. That is, until some years ago when our family journeyed out to the West Coast to visit my wife’s aunt and uncle.     
     Doris and Jim Granflatten lived in the midst of wine country and it was they who suggested we go with them on a wine-tasting tour. It turned out to be one of the better parts of our vacation. We had spent the previous several days in Los Angles, doing the Disneyland thing and rubbernecking at the tall buildings and battling the traffic jams, all while dealing with our two tired and whiny preteen sons.     
     It was a pleasant change when we retreated to the (relativity) sparsely populated hinterlands where the sky was blue instead of yellowish-brown and we no longer had to chew the air in order to breathe.     
     Central California has innumerable wineries, many of which are situated at the roadside like overpriced lemonade stands. As you might imagine, wine-tasting tours are an extremely popular activity, albeit one that requires the services of a designated driver.     
     The sommelier at the first winery we visited schooled me in the fine art of evaluating wine. “You must take your time and swirl, sniff and sip,” she said. “Don’t just gulp it down and say ‘Wow. That’ll put hair on your chest.’ And gargling before swallowing is a definite no-no.     
     After we had stopped at about half a dozen wineries and had sampled two or three wines at each, I was starting to get the hang of things. It was actually quite pleasurable to stroll through all of those Old World-style buildings and savor the balmy Mediterranean climate and talk about how this wine has a leathery bouquet or how that one has an oaken texture. It was enough to make me feel tanned and sophisticated, unlike the pallid and clueless tourist from the Northland that I was.     
     It was wonderful. But something seemed vaguely amiss.
     “Say,” I finally asked an employee at one of the vineyards, “I need something to sit on. You wouldn’t have a straw bale handy, would you?”
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, S.D. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: jerry.n@dairystar.com.