Bay Area Home Winemakers Grape to Glass Dish

On a recent Sunday, Gordon Mauger and Chris Maxwell, old friends from the East Bay, spent the afternoon huddled in Maxwell’s cramped Lafayette garage, a DIY crushpad, slitting bottles of their homemade sparkling syrah.

The messy process, which involves uncapping the bottles and removing the frozen sediment after fermentation, is generally associated with the historic caves of a commercial winery, not a suburban garage on Mt. Diablo Boulevard.

“Whenever we make red wine, the driveway is stained for a week,” says Maxwell, weaving his way between a wine cooler and an oak barrel to get to his Livermore cabin, chilling in a cabinet freezer.

Like Mauger, he has no formal training or business aspirations. Making wine is his hobby. So is drinking it with friends, and after doing it for 20 years, they’ve gotten pretty good, with the local wine competition medals to prove it. But that is not why they have stayed with him for so long.

“We spend a lot of our days limited by work and life,” says Maxwell. “With this, you get a lot of opportunities for creativity. That’s what’s exciting. “

Home winemakers describe it as a passion that never grows old, an intellectual and gastronomic quest that requires a lot of cleaning, but also produces many Christmas gifts. The Bay Area is home to thousands of avid home winemakers using kits and oak chips or DIYers, such as Mauger and Maxwell, who source their malbec and viognier from Maxwell’s backyard vines and are complemented with grapes from vineyards in Oakley, Sonoma, even Napa.

LAFAYETTE, CA – AUGUST. 8: Gordon Mauger of Walnut Creek, left, and Chris Maxwell of Lafayette celebrate the harvest with glasses of sparkling wine in Lafayette, California (Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group)

With the harvest in full swing, home winemakers in this region have a particular advantage, as they have access to world-class fruit surpluses and so much variety, from pinot noir from the Santa Cruz mountains to zinfandel from old vines from I gave it. They find the grapes on Craigslist for as little as $ 1 a pound or work with brokers at retail stores like Berkeley’s Oak Barrel Winecraft or San Jose’s Beer and Wine Makers of America.

Rich Mansfield, who has owned the San Jose business since 1990, has contracts with five or six vineyards in Northern California, bringing fresh-squeezed juice from as far away as Russian River Valley or the Sierra Hills to his Brokaw store. Road. There, prospective winemakers show up in 15-minute slots to pick up, eager to get their juice home before the wild yeasts spontaneously begin to ferment and cause possible off-flavors or aromas.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 11: Rich Mansfield owns Beer and WineMakers of America, which sells beer and wine making supplies in San Jose, California, on Wednesday, August 11, 2021 (Nhat V. Meyer / Bay Area News Group)

“I consult with everyone who walks through the door,” says Mansfield, who works with more than 100 home winemakers at any given time. “What kind of fruit do they have, what kind of wine do they want to make, the right yeast, everything.”

One year when customer Scott Shipman’s truck was in the store, the 13-year-old home winemaker was forced to use his Tesla to haul a prized Monterey sauvignon blanc back to Willow Glen. The only problem: the 25 gallon container did not fit in the trunk. Then Shipman tied him to the suede passenger seat, with the top sticking out of the sunroof. Using a hose, Mansfield helped pump the juice into the container and sent Shipman on his way.

In the middle of the slower 10-mile drive back to Willow Glen, he heard a bang.

“I look up and the lid is now floating, and there’s a sweet, sticky sauvignon blanc splashing near the top,” Shipman recalls. “So I go back to pumping with one hand and try not to speed up or stop.”

The adventure was worth it. Not only did the sauvignon blanc produce an exceptional wine, one of Scotoni’s finest vintages, the label Shipman uses for its wines, but the camaraderie between the home winemakers who gather at Mansfield’s each fall is something to look forward to throughout. year.

“We bring our bottles and share, so often the same wine (grapes) is tasted, made by different people, which is amazing,” says Shipman. “You expect something like this in a farming community, but not in the middle of Silicon Valley.”

Pen Li from Cupertino, who works in the semiconductor industry, enjoys the technical side of winemaking. He keeps a diary of each wine, and each measure of brix and pH, that he has made since his first batch, a 2012 merlot made with grapes he obtained from Mansfield. It was drinkable. Looking back at his notes, he says he could have skipped some checkpoints.

CUPERTINO, CA – AUGUST 11: Home winemaker Penn Li poses for a photo with the bottle of wines he has made since starting in 2012 in Cupertino, California on Tuesday, August 10, 2021. His daughter has drawn all the labels of their Mountain House wines. (Anda Chu / Bay Area News Group)

“To be a good winemaker, you need decades of experience,” says Li, who makes wine in the temperature-controlled driveway next to his garage. “I’m still learning. There are ups and downs. Miscalculations. But winemaking is very forgiving, especially red winemaking.”

He calls his cabernet, zinfandel, and merlot “Mountain House,” the name his children gave their hillside home when they were little. Now in his 10th harvest, Li is working with about 600 pounds of fruit a year, producing about 210 bottles. He labels them with drawings made by his daughter, Katelyn, and takes them to parties where a bottle of homemade wine turns out to be a great icebreaker.

“I make a lot of friends right away,” Li laughs.

Kathleen Swanson and Michael MacWilliams embrace both the social and scientific side of wine. They both have a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering and “like to do a lot of chemistry,” says MacWilliams, who learned how to make wine from an Italian friend, who learned from his uncles.

“They taught me to start with the best grapes you can find and not spoil them,” he says.

They mostly use pinot noir, from coveted places like Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, because that’s what they love to drink, as well as raw chardonnay. The couple, who live on the west side of San Francisco, less than a mile from the beach, have been making wine in a corner of their garage since 2011. They have never made a wine for which they have not chosen wine. grapes.

“I think we are very lucky to live here near these incredible vineyards,” says MacWilliams.

The mist and ocean breeze help keep your makeshift cellar naturally cool. Once the wines come out of their French oak barrels, which the couple purchase directly from the cooperages for around $ 1,000 each, they enter the house.

“We have a cupboard under the stairs where we age bottled wines,” says Swanson.

They have shown themselves wonderfully. Their friends love wines so much that several served them at their weddings, in 2013 and 2015. Swanson and MacWilliams also served their wines at their own reception in 2016. Since 2014, the couple have brought home gold, double gold and best in class medals at various house wine competitions.

That has Swanson thinking of making wine commercially one day, perhaps when he retires.

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