Dear County Agent Guy

Farmstead wineries

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Farmstead wineries have become quite common. I have nothing against such businesses and am actually quite familiar with the fine art of on-farm winemaking. I was an early bloomer, having brewed up my first batch of vino when I was 12.

That was the year when I heard about an intriguing fungus known as yeast. I had learned in science class that this seemingly innocuous microbe is the driving force behind the fermentation process and was, by inference, responsible for such things as hangovers and many of the funnier scenes in the movie “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

That summer, I decided to test this process by conducting an extracurricular scientific experiment. My first step was to enlist the assistance of my two younger brothers. After scrounging around in the kitchen, we were able to assemble a rudimentary winemaking kit that consisted of an empty quart-sized pop bottle, a can of frozen grape juice concentrate (purple), sugar and a packet of dry yeast. And a balloon. You can’t make wine without a balloon.

We hauled our winemaking kit to the haymow of our dairy barn. In the hushed sanctuary of the straw bales, we poured the thawed grape juice concentrate into the pop bottle. There was debate regarding how much sugar to add. It was finally decided that if a little was good, then a lot must be better.

We added the purloined yeast, shook the bottle to mix the concoction and capped it with the balloon.

We checked on the progress of the soda bottle daily. The balloon grew at an alarming rate as the yeast performed its mysterious alchemy. The bottle soon looked as though it had sprouted a latex basketball.

My brothers wanted to conduct a taste test almost immediately, but I said no, that we would guzzle no wine before its time. I told them that we would have to age the wine quite a while, perhaps as long as a week.

A few days later, the three of us sat on a straw bale and, with great anticipation, un-ballooned our very first bottle of vino. A fragrance slightly reminiscent of bread dough wafted on the air.

I allowed my youngest brother the honor of taking the first swig. It’s hard to describe the bittersweetness of that magical moment. The sweet part was watching my brother’s expression as he took a big pull on the bottle. The wine’s taste profile was definitely the bitter end of the deal. Our wine was so acidic that it could have dissolved an entire plowshare.

I swore off wine from then on. This changed some years later when my wife and I, and our two then-preteen sons, voyaged to the West Coast to visit my wife’s uncle and aunt.

Doris and Jim lived in the midst of wine country, and it was they who suggested that we go on a wine tour. This turned out to be the highlight of our trip. We had spent the two previous days in Los Angeles, doing the Disneyland thing with a couple of tired and whiny kids, rubbernecking at the tall buildings, battling the traffic and generally behaving like Midwestern tourists.

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 boasts numerous wineries, some of which are situated by the roadside like incredibly upscale lemonade stands. As one might imagine, winetasting tours are a hugely popular recreational activity even though they require the services of a designated driver.

The sommelier at one of the first wineries we visited instructed me regarding the proper method for evaluating wine. “You must take your time and swirl, sniff and sip,” she said. “Don’t gulp it down and exclaim, ‘Wow. That’ll put hair on your chest.’ And gargling before swallowing is definitely a no-no.”

After we had stopped at half a dozen wineries and sampled two or three wines at each, I was starting to get the hang of things. It was exceedingly pleasant to stroll through those Old World-style buildings, savoring the balmy Mediterranean climate and discussing how this wine has a fruity bouquet or that one has an oaken finish. It was enough to make me feel tanned and sophisticated, not at all like the pallid and clueless Midwestern tourist that I was.

Yet something about the ambiance didn’t seem quite right.

I buttonholed one of the vineyard’s employees and said, “Excuse me, but I need something to sit on. Would you happen to have any straw bales?”

Jerry Nelson is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at [email protected].

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