BARRELS OF FUN
Local home winemakers uncork their tips.
WRITTEN BY ELIZABETH PENNEY
PHOTOS BY RACHEL VALLEY
Joe Morgan draws a sample of homemade wine from a barrel at his home in Carmichael
It was beer that got Sacramento resident Victoria Alvarez into winemaking.
Alvarez started making beer in the 1980s while attending Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. After moving to Sacramento, she and her husband discovered some of their fellow brewers also made wine. Intrigued, Alvarez decided to give it a shot.
“My husband is a really great brewer, and I wanted my own thing,” she says.
She became active in the local home winemaking scene, even taking a few medals at the California State Fair. But once her children were born, she realized wine would have to take a back seat to PTA meetings and soccer games. She took a decade-long hiatus and rejoined the Sacramento Home Winemakers club in 2015, becoming fast friends with others who share her passion.
Alvarez says that unlike beer making, winemaking has a longer learning curve. While beer can be drinkable in as little as a month, wine can take up to a year, meaning it takes patience to figure out what went well, what didn’t, and which techniques need improvement.
“It’s like cooking. You learn as you go and see what works and what doesn’t,” she says.
One of the greatest challenges home winemakers face is space. For Alvarez, who lives in East Sacramento, that means keeping her storage vessels in the bathtub and her equipment in the back shed.
Another challenge is maintaining a constant ambient temperature for the wine. While this is usually more crucial for white wines (few home winemakers attempt to tackle whites for that reason), even reds need to be kept within a certain range. Alvarez covers her vessels — known as carboys — with wet T-shirts to keep the temperature down and the light out.
“The more work you put in, the more you appreciate it,” she says. “It’s a satisfying journey because, in the end, you have something to share with other people.”
Finding growers who’ll sell small quantities of grapes also is a challenge. But many home winemakers band together through the SHW to buy bulk lots. They’ll often spend the whole day together, traveling to the vineyard, harvesting the fruit, and crushing it on site before heading home, sticky and exhausted. This year, the group is scheduled to harvest cabernet and merlot grapes from the Alexander Valley.
Some growers sell fruit that already has been harvested (and in some cases, crushed or juiced). There also are online sources for wine grape concentrates. But there’s something rewarding about handpicking the grapes and seeing the process from start to finish.
“It’s amazing to think I picked [grapes for] this and now I’m drinking it with friends for dinner,” Alvarez says.
Joe and Cori Morgan enjoy a glass of zinfandel made and bottled right in their home
Fellow club members Cori and Joe Morgan are relative newbies to winemaking. Several years ago, they were invited by a colleague to a homemade-wine tasting in his garage.
“I was hesitant,” Joe says. “I had tried home wine before, and it was terrible.”
But in this case, it wasn’t terrible. It was great. So great, in fact, that it encouraged them to connect with the SHW. They attended the club’s Winemaking 101 course and were paired with a mentor. They went on to make their first wines in 2016: two zinfandels, a petit syrah, and a port. One of the zins later earned a gold medal.
The Morgans liken winemaking to having a new baby. You provide love and care, but sometimes you’re at a complete loss as to what to do. And you’re always afraid you’ve done something wrong.
“It’s a learning experience, and we’re still learning,” Joe says.
One of the biggest challenges for the Morgans is monitoring the wine during the fermentation process as often as needed, every few hours. Their work schedules make this nearly impossible, and Joe has to run home on breaks to check levels and temperatures.
Still, the process is worthwhile, and the camaraderie the club provides inspires them.
“It’s really a fun hobby,” Cori says. “It’s nice to get together with a group of people who have the same interests as us.”
Joe, who built a walk-in cooler in a corner of their garage, says although they don’t plan to sell commercially, they do hope to expand their facilities and produce more than their current 120 gallons a year. Perhaps, one day, they’ll take over the entire garage.
“When you get to taste your wine and share what you’ve worked so hard for with others, it’s worth everything,” he says.
Elizabeth Penney is a freelance wine, food, and travel writer based in Sacramento.
Resources for home winemakers
The Sacramento Home Winemakers club promotes home winemaking through education. It offers both beginning and advanced winemaking workshops, including Winemaking 101 and Fruit Winemaking, and guest speakers, who discuss topics such as corks and closures, ambient fermentation, and sustainable vineyards. The club also hosts field trips, tours, tastings, and evaluations, and it leases equipment. For details, visit Sachomewine.com.
Home winemaking supplies may be purchased at the following locations:
802A Reading St., Folsom • 916-985-7299
1031 Junction Blvd., Ste. 802, Roseville • 916-780-7299
1409 Shore St., West Sacramento • 916-371-7299 • Shopbrewmeister.com
Lodi Wine Laboratories
710 S. Beckman Road, Lodi • 209-339-1990 • Lodiwinelabs.com
The Beverage People
1845 Piner Road, Ste. D, Santa Rosa • 707-544-2520 • Thebeveragepeople.com