The crates of grapes were the tip-off that I had found the place.
They were stacked outside a modest building at the end of a roughly paved one-lane road – the kind you drive hoping no one’s coming the other way – stretching through flat farmland off Route 32 in Howard County, Md. The boxes were labeled cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and zinfandel and bore cheerful markings of the Lodi and Santa Clara regions in California, sunny climes difficult to imagine that gray, drizzly October Saturday.
This was Tin Lizzie Wineworks, a do-it-yourself winery and winemaking school, a playground of sorts for vinophiliacs who aren’t satisfied just drinking the stuff. I joined seven of them for their first hands-on lesson in winemaking, an adventure that will culminate a year from now when they will be able to pour a glass for their friends and say, “I made this.”
Do-it-yourself winemaking emerged from the basement to the winery in 2004, when Crushpad opened in San Francisco for thirsty Californians eager to learn the trade without first earning an enology degree or investing in a winery. Crushpad, which has since moved its main operation to Sonoma, has opened a satellite facility in Bordeaux. Two home-grown operations, Tin Lizzie in Maryland and Vint Hill Craft Winery in Virginia, have brought the Crushpad model to the Washington area.
On first impression, Tin Lizzie resembles a garage – it might house two or three of its namesake Model Ts. About a third of the facility is a modest temperature-controlled barrel room, with enough space for 32 barrels. The rest of the place is a jumble of winemaking equipment, including a grape crusher, a few tympani-size fermentation bins, and an 80-year-old hand-cranked wine press, the prized possession of Tin Lizzie owner Dave Zuchero. The press belonged to his grandfather, a home winemaker in the Italian-American tradition. Zuchero, 57, a full-time consultant in the pharmaceutical industry, earned a winemaking certificate from the University of California Davis before opening Tin Lizzie in 2008.
The winemakers that day were collaborating on a barrel of zinfandel. Zuchero explained that it would take 20 of those crates, called “lugs,” each holding about 36 pounds of grapes, to make enough juice to fill a 53-gallon American oak barrel. (French barrels typically hold 59 gallons.)
Zuchero produced a small device called a refractometer, used to measure the sugar content of grapes. He plucked a zinfandel berry from the nearest lug, crushed it and smeared the juice on a glass slide at one end of the device, then held the other end to his eye, pointing off in a direction where he thought the sun might be.
“Perfect!” he said. “Twenty-four brix. That should give us about 13 percent alcohol.”
His customers took turns tumbling lugs of grapes into the crusher and watched as the turgid, foamy juice (called “must”) collected in a fermenting bin. Zuchero then measured out some enzymes designed to help fix the color of the wine and stabilize it during fermentation, while the others examined a catalog of yeasts. They chose one designed to produce a “big kick-ass red” wine. They took turns stirring the must, some oak chips and sulfites were added to the soupy mess, and then the bin was capped to ferment for a week before being pressed off the grape skins and pumped into a barrel. The customers would be invited back in February to rack the wine off its lees – the sediment that forms in barrel – and again next August to bottle it and take it home.
Jim and Karen Meade and their friend Jeff Strovel were the prospective owners of half of the barrel I saw being started at Tin Lizzie. “We love food and wine, and we wanted to see how wine is made,” Jim Meade said.
“If you want to find a cooking class, they’re anywhere,” Strovel chimed in, adding that as a youth he helped plant the Fiore winery vineyards in northeast Maryland. “Where else can you learn how to make wine?”
Vint Hill Craft Winery is one other place near Washington. Located on an old federal complex south of Gainesville where cryptographers deciphered Nazi codes during World War II, the wood-frame building houses gleaming stainless steel sorting tables and fermentation bins, as well as the requisite oak barrels. Catnip for wine lovers.
Vint Hill was the brainchild of Chris Pearmund, a principal partner in Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run and the Winery at La Grange in Haymarket. Pearmund, 50, says he envisioned Vint Hill, which opened in 2008, as an evolutionary step in the wine experience.
“You can pay $5 for a taste, or $10 for a glass, $20 for a bottle, or a couple hundred for a case,” he says. “You can go to a winemaker dinner for $150 or make a barrel of your own wine for $6,000. Or you can become a partner in a winery for a heck of a lot more.”
Do-it-yourself winemakers at craft wineries such as Tin Lizzie and Vint Hill have a range of pricing options depending on whether they want an entire barrel of wine, and where their grapes come from. At Tin Lizzie, a full barrel costs anywhere from just under $3,000 to $6,750, the latter being ultra-premium cabernet sauvignon purchased from the prestigious Stagecoach Vineyards in Napa Valley and aged in French oak.
Vint Hill customers – Pearmund calls them vintners – can purchase grapes from Virginia, California, Oregon or Washington. Prices vary accordingly, with premiums for luxuries such as new oak barrels. On average, a customer pays $6,000 for a barrel of wine; at 25 cases per barrel, that equals $20 per bottle. They work with Pearmund and Vint Hill’s winemaker, D.J. Leffin, to produce the style of wine they want. A few restaurants have made wines under their own labels, and Paradise Springs winery in Clifton made its initial wines at Vint Hill before opening its own facility. Last year, Vint Hill had about 80 vintners, producing a little over 60 barrels of wine, Pearmund says.
One Saturday in June I joined Paul Dickman at Vint Hill as he and Leffin decided the final blend for his 2010 cabernet sauvignon. Before he retired from the federal government as an energy policy executive, Dickman, 59, of Vienna, enrolled in enology classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville. He also spent weekends volunteering at DuCard Vineyards in Madison County to learn how to prune and trellis grape vines. Through his government ties, he connected with another former nuclear fed who grows grapes in Napa Valley, and that vineyard became a source of prime cabernet sauvignon and merlot for Vint Hill.
Dickman used to make wine at home in large carboys. “When I retired, I wanted to do something with one of my hobbies,” he says, “and I’m lousy at golf.”
In the early stages, Dickman participated in sorting the grapes after they arrived at Vint Hill last October, selecting the yeast for his barrel, punching down the wine to ensure the juice and skins mixed properly, and monitoring the wine’s chemistry. In June he swirled and sipped his way through half a dozen blends before deciding to add 10 percent of Virginia merlot and a soupcon of California zinfandel from barrels Vint Hill maintains from surplus wine. He also designed the label, calling his brand Atomic Wine and the cuvee Schrodinger’s Cab.
What will he do with 25 cases of his wine? Dickman says he’ll give some to friends, but he won’t mind selling some through Vint Hill’s tasting room either. “Everyone who does this has it in the back of their mind to make a wine someone else will want to buy,” he says. He plans on making two barrels this year.
Terry Sullivan has made wine at both Vint Hill and Tin Lizzie. Sullivan, 60, a Columbia, Md., resident, is a home winemaker and author, along with his wife, Kathy, of the Wine Trail Traveler blog. “I think both places are appropriate for the hobbyist and the first-time winemaker, and anyone who just wants to know more about wine,” Sullivan says.
“At Tin Lizzie, it’s more about letting the grapes express themselves, while at Vint Hill the focus is on what you want the end product to be and how to get it there,” he says.
At both schools, customers can participate as little or as much as they like in the winery operations. Pearmund says most of his vintners come to Vint Hill about eight times a year, but some come more often because there’s almost always something to do.
“We had one couple who wanted to start their own winery,” he recalls. “They gave up when they realized how much work is involved.”
Making your own wine at Tin Lizzie Wineworks or Vint Hill Craft Winery is essentially a year-long endeavor, starting at harvest in the fall with the crushing of grapes, and ending the following August with bottling the finished wine. Extended barrel aging is possible, at a premium. A full barrel yields about 20-25 cases, depending on barrel size.
Photos: Dave McIntyre. This article appeared in The Washington Post on October 26, 2011.