Tim Patterson held up the wine glass filled with a ruby red liquid, twirled it, and then tipped it back to his lips. “Mmmm,” he said with obvious pleasure. “Not bad.”
The red liquid in the glass looked like wine, had the scent of wine, and a taste similar to wine. But it wasn’t wine – at least not yet.
The liquid was only minutes old, produced when Patterson pressed a batch of zinfandel grapes that had been fermenting in a vat in his Berkeley garage for 10 days.
Fall is harvest season in the Bay Area, and hundreds of wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties – as well as urban wine outposts like Berkeley’s Donkey and Goat and Broc Cellars – go into overdrive to turn grapes into wine. Winemaking is so important to the local economy that glossy magazines, newspapers, and websites often cover small details of the harvest – the brix number of the grapes, the rain or heat in the forecast, the optimum time to pick, and how this harvest compares to others.
But there is another kind of wine production, one rarely heralded and often dismissed as an anachronism, a throwback to another era. That is the work of the home winemaker. Toiling away in a basement or garage, pressing grapes with rented equipment, enlisting friends to haul and hose down, and tinkering with yeasts and fermentation in the hopes that their amateur efforts turn out something that is more than just drinkable, the home winemaker works in relative obscurity. Unable to legally sell their product, home winemakers are mostly known to family and friends. “I am famous in my zip code,” Patterson joked recently. But their low profile does not mean they are any less passionate than some professionals.
“I am less interested every passing week in tracking down fancy bottles or putting a second mortgage on my house so I can buy red Burgundy,” said Patterson. “But finding and making really good wine with some obscure grape from some corner of Italy – that gets me really excited.”
Nobody is exactly sure how many home winemakers there are, but some estimates put the number at one million in the United States and Canada. While many home winemakers are clustered in places like California, where it is possible to acquire fresh grapes, others make wine by buying frozen grapes and having them shipped or purchasing kits that have a grape juice concentrate that just needs re-hydrating and fermentation.
Berkeley has long been a center of home wine making, in large part because of the presence of Oak Barrel Winecraft on San Pablo Avenue, one of about 200 home brewing stores in the U.S. The company, founded in 1957 as Oak Barrel Winery, originally focused on making its own wine. Selling winemaking equipment from Italy was almost a side business, according to Homer Smith, who has worked there since 1969. At that time, the clientele was mostly Italian and Portuguese families with a long tradition of making their own wine.
In the 1970s, following the back-to-the land movement, there was an upsurge in interest in making wine and Oak Barrel became a hub of activity for amateur winemakers, said Smith. Some even took to the craft so strongly they turned professional, such as Kent Rosenbaum, who opened Rosenbaum Cellars in Alameda, and Jack Cakebread, who started Cakebread Cellars in Napa.
Now the local food movement has prompted another uptick in the number of people making wine at home. When Bernie Rooney and his wife bought Oak Barrel in 1992, the store sold about six to seven tons of fresh grapes to local home winemakers a year, he said. This year, more than 300 customers purchased 90 tons of 16 different types of grapes, including cabernet grapes from Napa, Syrah grapes from Amador County, and sauvignon blanc grapes from Contra Costa County.
“In the last four to five years, the number of winemakers has gone up,” said Rooney.
A lot of people are drawn to home winemaking because they enjoy its precision, said Smith. And many are already accomplished cooks looking to expand their repertoire.
“They understand the romance of it,” said Smith. “You have one shot in the course of a year to make it right. If you don’t make it right in that one shot you can forget it. They are individuals who like to improve things because they are always trying to make that next great bottle and you never think you’ve made it yet and that’s why you keep making it.”
On a recent Thursday in early October, Patterson was in Oak Barrel’s parking lot around 2 p.m. to pick up 250 pounds of Syrah grapes from a vineyard in Amador County. Huge vats of purple grapes sat in white containers and workers used shovels and pick forks to feed them into a large commercial crusher.
Patterson, however, prefers to crush his own grapes in small batches. He and his friend Chris Bacon loaded four vats of whole grape clusters into the trunk of a car and drove off to his home on Derby Street.
This was the 17th harvest for Patterson. Now 66, he didn’t start drinking wine until he was 40 (he preferred bourbon) and only turned to it to impress his soon-to-be father-in-law. But he quickly became fascinated by wine. He abandoned his banking job and soon was penning wine articles for magazines, including Wines and Vines, Wine Enthusiast, WineMaker, and Diablo. He started a blog, Blind Muscat, whose title was a word play on Patterson’s love of the grape and the fact that his eyesight is so poor he often has to hold instruction manuals within a few inches of his eyes to read them. He also co-authored a book on the history of the Concannan Winery in Livermore
Writing about wine, though satisfying, didn’t quell Patterson’s desires. In 1997, he decided to make his own wine, naming the center of his operations (his garage on Derby Street) Subterranean Cellars.
From the start there was nothing underground about Patterson’s wine. He is a born tinkerer, fascinated with gadgets. He instantly loved the technical aspect of making wine – blending different grapes, playing with yeast, aging wine in oak or glass.
“At first, it was just so amazing that I could make something drinkable in my garage, I wanted to do more,” said Patterson. “But what keeps me going is that it gives me something to do, a major something I do well, that’s mainly based on my senses and my muscles, which is entirely different from all the talky thinky stuff I’ve always done for a living. There are a lot of physical hobbies and sports and such that just aren’t on my agenda, because of my eyesight [legally blind], but this one I can handle just fine.”
Patterson’s knack for making drinkable wines was quickly recognized: a bulletin board in his garage is covered with numerous first place ribbons he has won from fairs and contests around the state. He often gives his wine whacky names, like the series that was a one off on classic European wines: Toscono Falso (false Chianti), Rioja Falsa, and Douro Fabricado (false Portuguese). In 2011, Patterson did a series from theoretical physics — the Uncertainty Principle (a two-grape white blend), Unified Field Theory (a zinfandel-based field blend), and Le Photon Rouge, a lighter-bodied Rhone blend. In 2012, the vintages will be named for Shakespearean comedies, such as Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure.
“He just likes being able to blend a couple of different grapes together, to come up with a new flavor, a new taste in wine,” said Smith, who has watched Patterson’s evolution as a winemaker. “Something that is a little bit unique and different.”
In 2010, Patterson wrote Home Winemaking for Dummies, which instantly made him one of the country’s experts on the issue. (In a funny coincidence, one of the country’s other leading experts on home winemaking is also from Berkeley. Sheridan F. Warrick, the executive editor of AAA’s Via magazine, is the author of The Way to Make Wine.)
Patterson generally purchases enough grapes to make about 200 gallons of wine, or about 60 cases, annually. “I drink heavily,” he admits. It is also the limit legally permitted by the federal government. In addition to the syrah from Oak Barrel, in October Patterson sourced grapes from a backyard vineyard in the Dry Creek area near Healdsburg. The vineyard belongs to a couple who planted it in the old California style, with a mix of zinfandel, syrah, petit syrah, and carignan grapes.
“The blend is really made in the field, not the winery,” said Patterson.
That particular batch of grapes reflects Patterson’s desire to create unique wines, ones that can’t be found on a supermarket shelf. He strives to make wines that harken back to another era when California reds weren’t big, bold, high-alcohol fruit bombs. They had restraint.
“If I wanted an $8 Merlot I would just go buy one,” said Patterson. “I wouldn’t want to make one. I like the oddball grapes and cooking up blends.”
For Patterson, winemaking is a social activity. He has a large group of friends who come and help with different parts of the process. A group drove up to Healdsburg to pick the field blend grapes and bring them back to Berkeley. Another set of friends came by to help with the crush. Bottling the wine always brings a crowd. Some of Patterson’s friends have been helping out for 15 years. Others are relative newcomers. Patterson rewards their efforts with a few bottles of wine at the end of the process.
“People do enjoy getting their hands dirty,” said Patterson. “People really like playing farmer for a day. It gives them a little appreciation for the manual labor.”
On the Thursday that Patterson picked up the syrah grapes from Oak Barrel, Tricia Goldberg of Berkeley was waiting by the garage to help destem and crush them. She and Bacon lifted the dark red grapes out of a vat and loaded them into the destemmer while Patterson cranked the handle. The machine spat out green clusters of stems in one bucket and slightly crushed grapes in another. Little squirts of grape juice splattered Goldberg’s clothes, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“I love seeing all the stages that go into the making of wine, which I didn’t know much about,” said Goldberg.
After destemming, Patterson put the grapes into large plastic vats where they would ferment for about 10 days. Then he loads the grapes into a large wooden press that compresses the solids and squeezes out a red juice that tastes like grape juice with a hint of alcohol. Patterson transfers the juice into plastic 5-gallon carboys and lets the solids settle out. Only then does he put the wine into oak barrels to age for up to a year before bottling.
It’s a process that has Patterson constantly tinkering in the garage that sits next to his bungalow. On any given day, the door may be open and passersby can look in and see stacks of barrels, carboys, hoses, and whiff the permanent smell of fermenting wine. His neighbors and the students at nearby Longfellow Middle School are so used to the sight that they generally just wave and walk by.
The one person who doesn’t seem to have much patience for Patterson’s obsession is his wife, Nancy Freeman, a food writer. Although the couple has a food and wine consulting business together, she steers clear of his winemaking efforts. She doesn’t drink much, so she doesn’t get to partake in the wine, and all she is left with is a crammed garage and no place to park her car. But her impatience is mostly manufactured and seems to be an excuse to give her husband some old-fashioned ribbing. “This is his project,” she said in resignation one day as she watched Patterson crush some grapes.
Considering Patterson’s fascination with wine and the innumerable blends he has yet to create, Freeman is right to downplay her objections.
“The wines of the world are so endlessly diverse you can never get tired of them,” said Patterson. “You could never taste them all. That keeps me interested in both making wine and drinking it.”
The article has been updated to correct the identity of Sheridan F. Warrick. It originally said that Warrick was the former director of The International House. That is W. Sheridan Warrick, 91, Warrick’s father.