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Wine work

Hobbyists walk fine line to craft balanced libation from the fruits of their vineyards

Hobbyists walk fine line to craft balanced libation from the fruits of their vineyards

September 27, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

"You have some downy," said Dick Penna, looking at the leaves on a vine of nebbiolo grapes in his friend and neighbor Dawson Ahalt's southern Washington County vineyard.

Downy - downy mildew - is caused by a fungus, and it is but one of many hazards faced by growers of wine grapes.

Penna and Ahalt have been making wine since the 1980s - white and red - from different varieties of grapes grown in their Pleasant Valley vineyards.


Ahalt, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture economist, has an acre and a half in grapes.

Penna, a native of California, is retired from the American Pharmacists Association. His two acres with 1,000 vines of eight grape varieties keep him busy.

"It's fun, and it gets in your blood," Ahalt said.

Penna and Ahalt are hobbyists. They cannot sell their wine. Federal law limits people to making 100 gallons of wine per year; households with two or more adults can produce 200 gallons, according to information on the Web site of the Association of Maryland Wineries,

They can sell their grapes, however, to people who want to make wine.

"We make them pick," Penna said. It's a fun family excursion, a day in the country.

Penna plans his winemaking in mid-June. He has to make sure he reserves enough grapes to make the blends he wants. "We could sell out," he said.

They are not in it for the money, though. Penna's initial goal was to make enough money to pay his property taxes. After several years, he's not there yet, but selling grapes does cover some operational expenses - a new fence post, pesticides.

Winemakers live close to nature, which is good because they need to understand their environment.

"The whole system has to fit together," Ahalt said.

They need to know which grapes will grow best in their vineyard, considering soil, weather and growing season.

Because of its climate, Washington County, especially the southern parts, is good for growing grapes, said Joseph Fiola, specialist in viticulture and small fruit at the University of Maryland Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Keedysville.

The warm days and cool nights, well-drained, stony soil and constant valley breezes that help fight humidity all contribute to good crops. The high limestone content of the soil - especially near Smithsburg - is very much like that of Burgundy, the region of France known for its dry red and white wines, Fiola said.

This is a busy time of year for Fiola, who, along with his colleagues, is growing and harvesting grapes as well as making "experimental" wines.

The university's experimental farms in Keedysville, Upper Marlboro and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are growing different varieties of grapes - including several Russian varieties - to see which are well-suited to the state. The Russian grapes are promising, Fiola said, because they are resistant to four or five common diseases, and they are cold hardy. They winter well.

Fiola has 40 different batches of fermenting wine in his Keedysville laboratory, testing different yeasts to see which make the best wine. "It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it," he quipped.

Making wine really is a tough job.

Grapes are planted in the spring and require a lot of attention. The vines need to be sprayed to control disease and pests. They are manipulated to train their growth. Leaves and shoots are removed to allow sunshine and air to reach the vines.

Winemakers need to be aware of diseases - viral, bacterial, fungal - and pests and ways to control them. "You have to be learning all the time," Ahalt said.

Plastic netting covers some of his vines. There's an electric fence to deter raccoons, and Sophia, Dawson and Harriet Ahalt's black dog, keeps the deer away. "Animals like grapes, too," Penna said.

The winemaking friends admit to having made mistakes. Cabernet sauvignon grapes, for example, take a long time on the vine. "It's very hard to get it right," Ahalt said.

Although the hobbyist's equipment can be fairly simple, the process of making the wine is pretty technical. It involves measuring sugar and fermenting - chemical processes.

This year, because the sunshine was good and the grapes matured early, Ahalt picked his chardonnay grapes in early September. He has several 3- to 7-gallon carboys - glass jugs - for fermenting in his garage. The containers are covered by T-shirts that Ahalt wets with water to keep them cool. If it's really hot, he'll use a fan. He uses a hydrometer to measure the percentage of sugar left in the fermenting juice. Fermenting turns sugar to alcohol. The goal is to have no sugar.

Ahalt expects that he'll be able to bottle and drink his white wine by year's end. With red, you need a year - at least, he said.

"It is a lot of work, but it has to be a labor of love," Ahalt said.

He drinks his wine mostly at the dinner table.

"Wine with food is great," Ahalt said. His wife is an excellent chef. "My challenge is to get wine that's up to her meals."

Penna likes to sit on the deck that overlooks his vineyard with a glass of his wine. He knows that the fluid in his hand came from the sun, the air and the soil in his fields - and from his skills. He can literally taste his achievements.

"It feels good."

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