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My Grape Expectations

By Thane Peterson As I type these words, I have a large vat of grapes fermenting in the basement -- and the delicious sweet smell has permeated my house. It's kind of like living in Bordeaux or Burgundy during the autumn harvest, when the smell of grapes wafts into every corner of every little village. If all goes well, I'll be serving a fine Chateau Peterson Pinot Noir to dinner guests in a year or so.

I'm just one of hundreds of thousands of Americans doing some home wine making this fall. Once largely associated with immigrant families that brought the tradition over from Italy and other European countries, the hobby is rapidly catching on with professionals all over the country. "More and more of our customers are young, white-collar, and almost snobbish in their attitude toward wine," says Jess Faucette, owner of Alternate Beverages, a large home wine- and beer-making store in Charlotte, N.C. Faucette says early this year, he quadrupled the floor space of his store to 7,000 square feet, largely to accommodate burgeoning sales of home wine-making products.

BY HAND OR BY FEET. The big advantage of making your own wine is the price. Typically, even a beginner can make halfway decent table wine for around $2 per bottle, about one-quarter what you'd pay for comparable wine in the store. The process can be time-consuming, especially if you start with fresh grapes. But it's also a lot of fun. We pulled the stems off the grapes by hand, but if you want, you can take off your shoes and stomp the grapes like people do in the movies.

However, the amount of wine being made at home in the U.S. is just a drop in the vat compared to Canada, where the hobby has become hugely popular over the last decade. That's partly because taxes on store-bought wine are even higher in Canada than they are in the U.S., giving Canadians greater incentive to make their own.

However, it's also because in the early 1990s, Canadian companies pioneered the development of easy-to-use kits that allow wine to be made in small batches -- 25 or 30 bottles -- from grape concentrate. In some cases, the kits use a speeded-up secondary fermentation process that allows the wine to be fermented and bottled in just 28 days, vs. months using traditional wine-making methods.

BIG IMPROVEMENTS. Around 15% of all the wine consumed in Ontario and British Columbia, two of the biggest Canadian provinces, is homemade, according to John Arthur, vice-president for development at Wine-Kitz, a Markham (Ontario) company that manufactures wine-making kits. In many other areas of Canada, the figure is as high as 10%, Arthur says. The hobby's popularity has fostered a big retail home wine-making industry in Canada. Wine-Kitz operates 115 stores that sell kits and other wine-making gear. All told, Canada now has about 1,500 home wine-making shops, Arthur says.

In the U.S., beginning wine makers may want to use a kit to make their first batch. Wine made this way is vastly improved from 10 years ago, when wine concentrate was shipped in a can -- and tasted like it. Canadian companies such as R.J. Spagnols, Wine-Art (the parent of the Wine-Kitz retail chain), and Mosti Mondiale have come up with ways to remove the water from grape juice without sacrificing taste. The consumer simply adds water and yeast to start the fermentation process.

The least expensive kits cost only about $50. So, with some glass jugs and other basic equipment you can make a batch of 25 or so bottles of wine for as little as $100. Wine-making kits are now widely available on the Internet or by mail order. Just do a Web search, or check the lists of U.S. retailers at the Web sites of the wine-kit makers listed above.

SIMPLE STEPS.If you're more ambitious -- or, like me, have a friend who is an experienced wine maker -- you can start with fresh grapes, which can be bought every autumn in specialty stores that can be found in most urban areas. If you don't want to clean the grapes yourself, the same stores sell a wide selection of fresh grape juices that can be stored chilled and are available all year. All the most popular grape varieties are available, both fresh and in juice form.

Making the wine is actually fairly simple. My BusinessWeek colleague John Byrne, who is helping me make my first batch of wine, buys his grapes at Corrado's, a bustling store in Clifton, N.J., that has catered to home wine makers (including John's grandfather) for more than 50 years. We paid $35 per 36-pound crate, or a total of $210, for six crates of pinot noir grapes. Most other popular varieties go for only about $25 per case.

From there, it was just a matter of removing the grapes from their stems -- which took three of us a few hours -- adding yeast and several balancing ingredients two days later, and fermenting the grapes for several days. Then, John and I pressed the grapes -- another three hours or so of work -- and put the juice in large glass jugs, known as carboys. We'll have to rack the wine (pour it into other containers) several times in the coming months to remove the sediment, and then bottle it for aging.

FRESH IS BEST. We expect to end up with 12 gallons of wine, or about 60 bottles. The grapes aside, our main expense was equipment such as a grape presser, a crusher, and a holding vat, which cost about $350 total. I see that money as an investment -- the equipment can be reused for many years. You can get basic instructions and recipes from any number of books, as well as from Web sites such as the the University of California at Davis' Viticulture & Enology Dept.

Just how good is homemade wine? I've never taste-tested kit wine, but my friend Paul Swanson, a San Diego-based biochemist with Dow Chemical, has made both white Burgundy and pinot noir from Canadian kits and found the end product "very good, though not quite as good as wine made from fresh grapes." The manufacturers claim that wine from one of their basic kits is comparable to store wine costing $6 or $8 per bottle, while the more expensive kits yield wine comparable to a $12 to $15 store-bought bottle.

As Swanson notes, however, homemade wine from fresh grapes can be far better. In the annual contest for home wine makers at Corrado's, which is judged by professionals, the winning entries usually score 18 or higher on a scale of 20. Byrne has never entered his wine in the contest, but when he and I taste-tested his 2001 pinot noir on Sunday, Oct. 6, it easily bested a moderately priced store-bought pinot noir from France. And the new vintage we have fermenting in my basement is going to be much, much better, I'm sure. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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