Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hobby Wine Making- the Country Courier by NPL

As hobbies go, wine making can be among the most satisfying: saving money over buying expensive wines, using fruits that otherwise might go to waste, bringing attention to the appreciation of eating well.

Wine making can be as simple as stomping on grapes and letting them ferment with natural yeast from the skins of the grapes. It can be a little more complex when using other fruits: washing and mashing the fruit, adding water, sugar and yeast, and then watching the fermentation process. It can be as scientific as testing the specific gravity and acid content in order to determine the amount of sugar to be added and if the pH should also be adjusted; choosing specific varieties of yeast; adding enzymes, nutrients, and tannins and other enhancers; controlling the temperature during fermentation and other technical steps in the process. Commercial wineries age some of their wines in oak barrels and this can be adapted for the home wine maker.

The equipment used by wine makers can vary as much as the techniques. Buckets, bowls and bags can be used as primary fermentation vessels. After the liquid is racked-off (siphoned off the “must” or fruit mash) it is usually put in glass jugs with narrow necks. Some use balloons on the top to allow the fermenting wine to release the carbon dioxide without allowing room air to enter the jug. A more controlled method is to use airlocks, wine makers’ tools which accomplish the same task, without the powdery substance that keeps balloons from sticking together falling into the wine.

Carboys (large glass jugs made for wine and beer making), specific gravity testers, wine thieves (used to remove small amounts of wine from a carboy or barrel), thermometers, siphons, hoses, clamps, long handled spoons, cleaning equipment and a plethora of additives can be added to the supply list.

Fifteen years ago I made grape, apple and beet wines using basic recipes and hoping for the best. Some were quite good, though very sweet. Other times the end product made me suspicious if it should actually be called wine and if it might be better not to drink it.

Several years ago Ron took over the family wine making. He appreciates the scientific approach which results in a more consistent product; wine that we enjoy with meals and share with family and friends.

“I keep careful records and write down everything I do. That way I know why my wines taste the way they do,” he said.

Since we’ve handled wine and beer making supplies we’ve met other wine making enthusiasts. Some prefer the basic method, forgoing the more complicated steps in the process which might ensure a drinkable end product but increasing the learning curve. Others approach it with the zeal of having found a new avocation.

Mark Parteka, who lives just outside of Browerville and is known to many in this area as the Sprint man, has been making wines for five or six years. He says when you start making wine be prepared to throw some out. He’s experimenting this year with honeyberries which were developed in Russia from the bitter honeysuckles.

“I ordered the shrubs from Oregon three years ago,” he said.

“I racked-off the honeyberry wine a few days ago. It doesn’t seem to have much flavor,” he said and noted that when he’d picked the fruit it was lacking in flavor. “I’m considering blending some of the wines to see if I can come up with a good one.”

Parteka has also made apricot, peach, strawberry, raspberry, chokecherry, apple, rhubarb, and grape.

“I have my seven year old nephew come over to stomp the grapes,” he said. “I send him home with purple feet.”

He let’s his fishing crew and hunting buddies try out his wines.

“They complain that they never get any more than a taste of the good ones,” he laughed.

While wine makers often use fruits from local orchards, some chose to work with fruit that has been canned for wine making. This is especially useful when making wine after the seasonal fruits are no longer available. Mark Faust has experimented with the canned fruits and hopes to expand into grapes and plums that grow on his land east of Long Prairie.

Loren and Celeste Miller are using apple juice.

“We squeezed the apples and froze all the juice our freezer can hold. We’re going to make wine out of the rest,” Loren said.

He’s been making apple juice the last four or five years. He made apple wine two years ago and this year added wild plum and rhubarb.

Al Fortmann and Joel Anderson downloaded recipes from the internet. These recipes call for Campden tablets to sterilize the “must” of wild yeasts. They also suggest using yeast nutrients to get the fermentation process off to a good start.

“I’ve seen some old recipes,” Joel said. “I’m a little afraid of making bad wine if I don’t use the Campden tablets.”

Tim Mikish makes wine in the fall as the plums, chokecherries and plums ripen. He likes using his own fruit but plans to experiment with the canned fruits as well.

“I’m going to make blackberry and cranberry,” he said, indicating the Vitner’s Choice canned fruit on his stainless steel counter.

John King, Amy Hunter, and LeRoy Williams have recently bottled the wines they made in one of Ron’s classes. They’re happy with the roughly thirty bottles produced from a six gallon start-up.

LeRoy says that making wine has no connection with his role as a Master Gardener. He says it’s just enjoyable and he likes the personal challenge of making some good wine. Williams also highly recommends taking a wine making class rather than trying to learn from a book. “It’s great to have some one show you what to do and why. I screwed up and it was nice to have Ron explain what happened and why and how to correct it. It was neat starting with rhubarb and going home with thirty bottles of wine that taste fantastic.”

John King made apricot wine and chose to make it sulfite-free. Some people are sensitive to sulfites and the home wine maker can adjust accordingly. King’s wine took a little longer to finish fermenting.

King was pleased with his wine too. “I’m going to use some for gifts,” he said.

Minnesota has about fifteen commercial wineries. Touring these wineries can be a fun weekend getaway. They can also help the home winemaker learn more about the process and provide taste comparisons. Buying commercial wines with the intent of learning the complexities and character of individual varieties can also be a pleasurable and educational process.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Linking up with Ursula

I think of the telephone and e-mail as treasure chests of possibility. Gems of ideas and golden opportunities come flickering through modern shipping lanes with little risk of piracy. Well, maybe there's some risk, but we won't worry about that right now.

One day last week the phone rang. Andrew Whalen, chef of Ursula's Wine Bar and Cafe in White Bear Lake, Minnesota was calling. Andrew had discovered our vinegar at the Golden Fig on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. He'd been using it on the menu at Ursula's and was in need of a larger quantity of our rhubarb wine-vinegar. Since we were already planning a trip to the city that weekend, to see one of our daughters in the Fringe Festival production of They Will Be Sent Into the Dawn at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, we told Andrew we'd deliver. He responded with the offer to make us the salad in which he uses the vinegar. Though Ursula's is only open for the evening meal, Andrew, and owner Kurt Hegland, said noon on Friday would be fine.

At noon we were there. No, actually we were a half hour early and had time to visit a book store in White Bear Lake and take in the view of the quaint shops before pulling into Ursula's parking lot at 2125 4th St.

Andrew welcomed us to Ursula's and we proceeded with a vinegar tasting, with Andrew and Kurt joined by their assistant who sported a broad grin and a big hoop earring. He looked a little pirate-like but that's the kind of piracy to be enjoyed. Since we're into describing these fine food proprietors: Andrew reminded me of the friendly Scottish bartender whom we met at St. George and The Dragon, the St. Patrick's Day pub where we celebrated the day with friends in about 1994 (tall, curly blond hair, wide-set blue eyes, a friendly disposition); bespectacled Kurt looked every bit the Real-Estate-Abstracter-turned-restaurateur that he was.

Kurt explained that Ursula means "female bear" a name he felt appropriate for a fine dining establishment in White Bear Lake, a town that capitalizes on polar bears. Of course I had to check the dictionary on that definition. Ursa Major is of course the star constellation also called the Great Bear. Ursine means of or relating to a bear or the bear family Ursidae. Ursuline refers to members of an Italian order of teaching nuns with references to St. Ursula who was martyred in 1639. Maybe this is more than Kurt or any of us want to know. Let's just stick with Kurt's definition.

After our little vinegar tasting Andrew disappeared into the kitchen and quickly produced one of the most delicious salads to which I have ever applied my fork. A delicate mix of baby summer greens covered half of the white crockery plate. Perfectly prepared al dente penne rigate covered the other half. It was topped with shredded fresh handmade mozzarella (Andrew even makes his own string cheese for his "babies" -son and daughter ages 10 and 13), flash-in-a-pan seared tiny heirloom tomatoes, cubed bacon bits (pancetta) and a Leatherwood rhubarb wine-vinaigrette. I don't think our biases were showing when we declared Andrew's salad one of the best ever prepared!

Having sampled our herbal vinegars as well as our garlic-in-rhubarb, Andrew was inspired to whip up some of his special two-bean hummus which he augments with sun dried tomatoes and Leatherwood garlic-wine-vinegar. Served with smokey crostini, a delectable spoonful disappeared from my plate, while Ron, asking politely first if I wanted more, squeegeed the final vestiges from the bottom of the bowl.

Other items on Ursula's menu: Pan seared pork medallions with crispy organic blue cornmeal polenta cake and dried cherry pico de guillo; grilled Black Angus rib eye with fingerling potatoes sauteed with pancetta and red onion and topped with tomato, basil and feta cheese.

Kurt gives all the credit for the inspired menu to Andrew. Andrew just seems to thrive on the wonderful flavors he can whip up in Ursula's tiny kitchen.

The menu suggests that patrons ask the server for dessert selections. We didn't even think about dessert. Let me see....did I tell Andrew about my raspberry-vinegar infused broiled strawberry topped pavlova?

Visit Ursula's web site at

Friday, August 03, 2007

Country living

Yesterday as I drove from town to the vinegary I saw sepia colored deer in the green field adjacent to the road. Two dull brown sandhill cranes flew over. We often see wild turkeys, this time of year they lead little ones, and occasionally bald eagles. The wild life is abundant and generally a pleasure to watch. The exception is that the rabbits have repeatedly pruned the peas, kale, broccoli and beets in the garden. A handy product called "liquid fence" seems to have solved that problem. Now a gopher has moved into the pumpkin patch. It's only a matter of time before the raccoons raid the sweetcorn. Gardening can be a challenge but the beasts have allowed us to enjoy our green beans and zuccinni.

Today's schedule includes preparation for a vinegar themed dinner for four couples this evening. We donated the dinner to a fund raiser. Each course includes vinegar, from appetizer to dessert. We'll begin with hummus(with house vinegar), vinegar spritzed chips and crudites. This will be followed with a pasta and greens salad(with garlic vinegar). Then marinated (rosemary vinegar) chicken breast, parsley potatoes (with oil, vinegar and parsley) and stir fried green beans (soy sauce and vinegar). Dessert will be pavlova (a meringue made with raspberry vinegar which makes the center like marshmallow) topped with raspberry vinegar infused broiled strawberries. The dinner also includes a tour of the orchard, vinegary and herb garden mingled with the various courses. We're looking forward to providing this unique dining experience.

Last evening we hosted a garden club tour and we're scheduling more group tours (including a mystery tour) into the fall. We sold our retail store in town and moved the shopping experience to the country as well. This makes better use of our time and accommodates large groups well. The only challenge has been in connecting to high-speed internet service. Dial-up makes managing a web site and blogging a much slower process. But we're hopeful that the high-speed dilemma will be resolved by next week.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mid June

June 20. We're approaching mid-summer and the orchard, garden, herb garden and lawn are doing well. We hosted the Sauk Centre Gradatim Club for a tour this morning and it was a nearly perfect morning. A dozen enchanting ladies walked through the orchard, noting the developing grapes, plums, cherries, and apples. Some gazed fondly at the chokecherries as if they had forgotten the puckery flavor from childhood. We noted the windy days of the weekend had thinned the apple and cherry crop. Still, clusters of McIntosh apples crowd the branches so even more thinning wouldn't hurt. The apples are walnut sized now and some even have blushed cheeks.

The herb garden's anise hyssop and tarragon are most abundant. The lovage seems short this year but is already going to seed. The new plantings of lemon balm, marjoram, rosemary, and parsley have put their roots down. The basil was slow in germinating but will grow quickly now.

We enjoyed a quick lunch of sage butter pasta this noon. The pasta was already cooked so it was a simple matter of sauteing about four stalks of sage (washed and roughly chopped) in a half cup of butter for three minutes. This was tossed on the reheated spaghetti along with shredded cheddar, Monteray Jack and parmesan cheese. With a little fresh melon on the side it was a delightfully filling lunch. No, there wasn't any vinegar in it, but there will be some in tonight's chili.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The growing season

We're well into the growing season and along with the planting, weeding, and mowing we've been welcoming tour groups to the orchard, herb garden and vinegary.

Our vinegar maker has been busy setting up new batches as well as teaching wine making classes to interested folk in the area. It's rhubarb time so Ron has offered classes in making rhubarb wine. We carry a complete line of wine making equipment and supplies as well as those for beer making. So the rhubarb wine is fermenting.

Ron indicates that about 60 gallons of wine-vinegar is in the works. When these vinegars are harvested many of them will be infused with herbs since the herbs (at least some of them) are nearly in their prime. Lovage, tarragon, dill, sage, anise hyssop, and chives are ready to be picked. We didn't get the basil seeds planted early, but they're coming up and we eagerly look forward to the basil harvest.

The orchard pollination went well with the bees doing their annual duties. Some bee keepers are concerned with the loss of bees but so far they seem to be fine here. A good swarm was buzzing and collecting water at the Koi pond yesterday.

Ron and I enjoyed speaking at the Wadena area Christian Women's meeting Tuesday night. It was a challenge to give all 100 attendees a taste of the vinegars, especially since they were just finishing dinner, topping it off with ice cream. They'd lick the ice cream off their spoons and hold them out for the drops of vinegar. What a delightful group! Since Ron and I are both originally from the Wadena area we were delighted to reconnect with friends we hadn't seen in many years.

I mentioned the Koi pond just a minute ago. The Koi have happily reproduced in the ponds so we now have Koi for sale. You might think of fish and vinegar as a culinary duo but Ron's fish are like my chickens: we don't eat them!