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A Standoff in the Homemade Wine Showdown

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 14, 2008 3:46pm ET

Midway through Saturday’s tasting of homemade wines, one of my friends summed up what had transpired: “What Mother Nature giveth, Father Time taketh away.”

We uncorked more than 20 wines in the span of three hours and there were some wonderful surprises, a few duds, a few corked bottles, yet overall enough evidence to suggest that even amateurs can make pretty good wine, as the homies stood up to some of the big guns.

The first wine, a 1981 Gamble Ranch Chardonnay, from the heart of Napa’s Yountville appellation, had a rich, honeyed character. But it was corked, so that ruined it.

The next wine, a 1994 Carneros Pinot Noir, from Sangiacomo Vineyard (84 points), was tired only because one of my friends had mistakenly opened the last bottle the night before, forgot it was the lone soldier, but recorked it and brought it anyway. “It had a little VA early on [when it was made] and a lot later on,” he laughed. Still, a pretty good wine.

The 1991 Zinfandel (80) came from the Werle Vineyard on Silverado Trail, one of my friends recalled, the oldest vineyards in Napa, with vines dating to the 1800s. A true field mix of Zin, Carignane, Mouvèdre and perhaps Folle Blanche and Palomino. It had a dry, earthy, funky character that I didn’t like as much as others did.

The 1985 Cabernet (87), grown in Rutherford, remained sleek and savory, with dried currant, sage and mineral. The 1986, from the same area, showed a touch more vibrancy, while a second 1986, from State Lane Vineyard in Yountville (now owned by Kapcsàndy) offered perfumed aromas and tart, vivid currant flavors. The 1987 (89), from the same site as 1985 and 1986, stood out as the class of the group. Still very dark and intense, with a youthful mix of loamy earth and currant flavors. It apparently won the best of show at the Napa Town & Country Fair, according my friends, who had entered it in the homemade wine competition.

Our 1987 outshone a ringer, a 1987 Spottswoode, which we later agreed was slightly corked, resulting in its muted fruit character.

The 1988 Rutherford (83), from a tough year, was simple, while another 1988 from Beringer’s Home Ranch in St. Helena (84) had a touch more depth.

The 1989 (82) tasted like a wine from the vintage from hell. Rain at harvest drenched the ‘89s and with only a few exceptions these were not ageworthy wines. Pretty dilute and earthy.

A 1990 State Lane Cabernet (87) was supple and balanced, while a 1990 Howell Mountain Cabernet (91), from Bancroft Vineyard, remained intense and complex, with dried currant, anise and savory earthy and minerally notes. The 1992 Merlot, as noted, turned to VA in the barrel and was never bottled, bringing our tenure as home winemakers to a sad, vinegary end.

The ringers only did so-so. A 1977 Phelps Backus was corked. It was very deep in color and it had just earned an 88-point rating in my 1977 retrospective of California Cabernets (while the Spottswoode 1987 had earned an 88 as well in the 1987 retro). A 1985 Forman Napa Cabernet (88) showed very nicely, well-structured and balanced. A 1987 Beringer Howell Mountain Merlot from Bancroft (91), the winery’s first single-vineyard Merlot from this property) was terrific, while a 1983 Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, a Pauillac second-growth, tasted off, as in corked. A 1989 Woodward Canyon Cabernet (86) was in good shape, but less so the 1985 Eberle Paso Robles Cabernet, which had a pickled edge and worse was the 1977 Hargrave Reserve Cabernet from Long Island, which was a hot-dog and VA soup special, as it had mustard, relish and ketchup flavors. Lastly, a 1985 Havens Reserve Merlot Carneros (86) was dry but structured.

On my scorecard, it was a three-way tie for first, with Beringer’s Merlot, the 1987 homemade Rutherford and 1990 Howell Mountain homemade, all of which prove that if you have good grapes and treat them right, even rank amateurs with desk jobs can make a wine that can compete with the pros. Scary thought. But that’s one reason so many people get into the wine business. They find they can make a decent barrel or two. It’s when those case numbers multiply that it turns from a hobby into a business.

Loren Lingerfelter
Danville, CA —  January 14, 2008 4:36pm ET
We have about 1/3 of an acre on a hillside (360) vines growing for a few years now. 50% Cabernet, 25% Merlot, 25% Syrah. Fall 2008 should be our first harvest. We have been reading up on winemaking, consulting the pros, and getting ready for next fall. Hopefully our homemade wine shows as good as some of yours. We would like to make some more from either purchased grapes or wine already in the barrel. What are some good sources we can find either grapes or wine already made? Brokers? Thanks.
John Skupny
St. Helena —  January 14, 2008 10:44pm ET
to Loren and the hillside. A great resource is the Wine Country Classifieds or their website, winerysite.com. It is a weekly classified or on-line listing of all things grape and production in the California and beyond. But with 360 vines you have enough of your own grapes to make at least a barrel or so and you should see how they can stand on their own. As one who was a home-winemaker for a few years my advice is similar as a doctors oath, 'do no harm'.. meaning, don't get fancy [equipment/oak/package] and don't fuss over it as usually the more you do the less you get [remember Jim's multiple VA comments]!.... Imagine the trepedation and/or thrill when you have a chance to taste your own wine 20-years on!
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 15, 2008 2:22am ET
James,Thanks for the notes on this 'important' tasting (-: Sounds like it was a lot of fun.

It is amazing that even in a tasting like the one chronicled there were soooo many corked bottles . . . simply amazing!

Take care and thanks again. Cheers!
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  January 16, 2008 4:42pm ET
Jim, I'm curious if any of the corked wines had the double-end disk, composite-middle cork that a lot of home winemakers use. They are cheaper than the standard cork and are pretty reliable. As a home winemaker that has made the jump to vineyard owner and pinot noir vintner, I am initially sticking with the composites as they have rarely failed me.

In Oregon, amateurs making the jump to pro is less commonplace than it used to be. After almost 20 years of having fun with it, the temptation to chase a small fortune with a large one is overwhelming. It is always fun to go back and taste those old efforts next to the big boys. We all have the dream of making something that will light up someone's face with a smile and a "hey, that's not bad". VA issues are much tougher with small volume winemaking, but good fruit with a deliberate approach and a little experienced technical help can produce some decent stuff. Thanks for doing the blogs on the amateur wines

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