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Maybe this is the year to try local grapes? You can make some new friends and possibly help out your neighbors if you are willing to take a look at grapes that grow in your area. We get grapes from all over: Chile, Argentina and South Africa in the late spring and Europe, California and the Finger Lakes in the fall. There are so many choices, you can feel like a kid in a candy store. To be completely candid, although the grapes have been to some exotic places, I get them through a distributor, Musto Wine Grapes in Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy picking up the grapes but exotic it isn’t. In the Capital District of New York, now part of the Upper Hudson Valley AVA, we have a good selection of grapes that thrive in this climate. At one point, Maquette, and Frontenac seemed the signature red grapes and now there are some others. Once for fun, we made an Amarone-style wine from Marquette that was rich with tannins, flavorful and dark as sin. There are a variety of whites as well and my favorite has been LaCrescent, a voluptuous big shouldered white with assertive stone fruit tones and impressive Brix. high Brix. I didn’t start out to sing a love song about the grapes of the upper Hudson. My thought is that in your region, local farm wineries have probably been restricted from their traditional markets due to the coronavirus and may have a surplus this year as well as unsold stock from last year. Farmers’ markets and farm sales have certainly been muted and vineyards might have extra grapes to sell to home winemakers. It might be a good opportunity to meet some nice people who have gone pro and expand your palate and winemaking repertoire. You could help your neighbors, maybe save some money and minimize your travel. A word of caution: European red and white wines are often the gold standard of wine making and hybrid grapes often fall short by that measure. That is not to say you can’t make juicy aromatic wines with those grapes because you can. Hybrids were developed for our range of climates and you can find hybrids that outperform vinifera (European) grapes in the same vineyard. Be prepared to watch Brix, pH and tannin levels and adjust. Remember, blending isn’t cheating if a good wine is the result.
My ability to make wine at home is not a central issue in our current times just as this blog post is neither “Journal of the Plague Year” or “Love in the Time of Cholera.” It did make me realize how closely related are my excitement about making wine and the social activity around it. Often, I will rack and bottle wine by myself, but I almost always have company for crushing and pressing and there is usually a crowd around and a meal. The first wine I made, from a kit if I remember correctly, prompted a neighborhood bottling party. Our neighbor Steve, who went on in life to join a group of first-class winemakers, was our corker. We had a fellow about eight year’s old with a hair dryer shrinking the neck capsules and an assortment of people putting on labels. Earlier, soliciting ideas for labels, we got suggestions that included “Jeff’s Jammy Juice” and a crowd-pleaser, “Basement Bounty.” Years later I was trying to identify a wine to submit to the Winemaker Magazine’s international contest. Again, we filled the house with people and they were invited to sample several wines and classify them as “Send it” (to the contest,) “Blend it” (with another wine) or “Upend it.” There was a stainless steel bucket for the last classification. One friend, trying a wine, commented that he would like the red wine better if it were “plummier.” I agreed with him until he suggested that I actually put some plums in it. One useful take away from this event was the notion that blending wines can contribute new strengths to a finished wine and a level of complexity. Working at a friend’s vineyard years ago, wine and people were completely entwined. My wife and I would get there in the morning with bread, pasta, sauce and salad and I would help with chores. During the morning, other friends and our kids would arrive with their children. In the middle of the day, someone would put on the pasta and the sauce and we would have a dinner with really good wine – sometimes with 12 people or more. Chefs from throughout New York would stop by and on one occasion, the owner invited a group of rabbit hunters to join us. This year, we’ll make wine but the occasion will have more solemnity than usual but I’m still able to periodically put a bottle on all the neighbors’ porches and keep the spirit alive. Stay well.