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The Village Idiot

Wild Wines

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(2/2012) What to do, what to do while the miracles happening in the mead jugs ferment their way to turning honey into ambrosia? Sip commercial wines of course.

As the Fates decree, I can no longer escape enlightenment, not even in the buzz of a half glass of wine. No, now I have to contemplate the frigginí grape and what yeast, oak and time has done to it! (Actually studying the grape and wine is proving to be more educational than school ever was, but watching a corpse beetle devour a carcass is more educational than school every was.)

The Texas Homesteader is talking about planting a vineyard. Nothing on a commercial scale, just enough grapes to ferment and cellar something of her own. Of course, the idea strikes a chord in me. Imagine, working a bit of ground in preparation for vines which might or might not thrive where I set them. Tending them as they grow, tormenting them as the fruit matures. (Good wine comes from tortured grapes, or so I have read. Iíve seen pictures of Spanish vineyards so desolate of vegetation I wonder the grape vines can grow at all. As it is, they barely produce a single cluster of grapes per vine! Gods, they must produce glorious wine!) Experimenting with various yeasts, fermentation times and temperatures, aging with and without oak, waiting for months and years to discover if Iíve made something drinkable or fit for the pigs (learning if there is a difference.) Perhaps having to start over again with some new vine. Oh, I could get as lost as DW in an art museum if I had the time and money to play at winemaking.

Instead, Iíll dabble in other peopleís dreams and efforts. Iíll read about the history of vine and wine, the regions varietals are grown in, the people who chase down the rabbit hole of perfection, and maybe, just maybe, Iíll be inspired enough to plant a grape few others have bothered with and bottle something that is mine, all mine. Bacchus dreams swirling in a Mason jar?

As two 6-gallon carboys of honey and water bubble away, one flavored with blueberry juice, the other with cherry, a single gallon jug of cyser (apple cider fermented with honey) patiently sits in the pantry waiting for me to do something with it. It was so sour last I racked it Iíve kinda been ignoring it. A second gallon jug sits in the kitchen, a mead made with buckwheat honey, so beautiful and delicate that I hardly dare think of adding more honey to it and restarting the ferment.

Until recently, Iíd have hit the buckwheat with another jar of honey and worked the alcohol content out to at least 14%. I would have, but I started reading "The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine" by Todd Kliman. I get the impression that 12 to 14% alcohol wines are an American thing. One of those "bigger is better" mind sets that leave quality in the ditch as we push for more and more of what is often less and less. Less quality, less flavor, less Ö soul? Whatís wrong with seeking more flavor and less alcohol so our tongues arenít deadened beyond that first sip?

The "wild vine" was bred in Virginia, back in the 1800s. It found its way into Missouri where its fermented juices were bottled and eventually shipped to Europe where it astounded some wine experts who saw it as a serious threat to the Old Worldís noble grapes. Iím trying to grasp the history; the story, of this tormented grape. Its rise to stardom and its fall to a bootleggerís garden (while the hillsides it once dominated were planted with Concord vines) is the stuff of humanityís genius and stupidity. (Concord? Really?)

Iíve chased down several vineyards that sell cuttings of the wildling. More importantly, Iíve acquired and shared a bottle of a Virginia vineyardís fermented stock. (Chrysalis Vineyardsí ĎNortoní sells for about $19 a bottle, if you can find a supplier. The liquor store off US 15 north of Thurmont ordered it for me.)

Was the Norton, the American grape, worth the money and wait? Depends on how one chooses to look at it. Of the five people who sampled the wine, one, a friend who used to live in California wine country, rated it a "3" on a scale of 1 to 10, "10" being "best". "Light." She called it. "Young, probably made from the leftover grapes after the best were used to make the premium wines." She said Iíd probably like it.

The four of us that gathered around a dinner table with plates of fried chicken and zucchini and piles of herbed rice (all from Bulgarian recipes) topped with a wine sauce also of Bulgarian origin eagerly uncorked the Norton. Only the Mad One and I did more than sip of it.

"Too dry." DW chokes out.

Luke shrugs. "Itís okay." He says as he pours a thimble of honey liqueur.

"Berries and smoke." The Mad One says.

I get the berries, but the smoke eludes me. Perhaps the Pinot Noir I had a week ago was so smoky I canít taste hints of smoke now?

"Raspberries." She sips again. "And a hint of strawberries."

Yep, raspberries. I like raspberries, but not strawberries. Happily I canít find them in the glass.

"A hint of sweetness and a sour taste I donít care for." She makes a face. "But it isnít bad overall."

I allow I get the hint of sweet, but I like the sour. She says the sour distracts her. I wonder if the sour is there because the wine is young? She allows itís both young and light bodied. We agree it is a pleasant wine, worth having again, but not at the price. At least not often. Perhaps we could cellar it for a few years and improve the flavor? But who has a wine cellar among us? (Darn, I forgot to dig one.)

I find myself reconsidering the cost of the Norton. Is $20 really too much to pay for a bonus to a pleasant meal in the company of people I like? Did it stimulate good conversation? Did it move us to a closer understanding of each other?

I think it did. Now Iím curious about the vineyardís reserve wine. Costing about $40 a bottle, after adding Marylandís sin tax, I hesitate to order it. $40 buys a gallon of honey, which can make up to 5 gallons of mead, with no sin tax attached. Now thereís a stimulating thought that led to, what some might consider, treasonous topics. And why not treason? History is littered with tales of alcohol, taxes and rebellion.

Iíll leave that for another evening. At the moment, a Zinfandel awaits my first sipping.

GA! Maybe I should have left it wait a bit longer!

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.