Homemade wines: Hit or miss

Not long ago I was contacted by a woman who said she had a cellar worth of wine and wanted me to check it out.

I took my old Ford pickup to her house and was greeted by a very friendly, older woman who chatted me up about her "vast" cellar. I followed her down to the cellar, and found, to my amazement, more than 100 cases of wine. When I looked at the cases, some of the wines had cheesy labels on them. I turned to her and smiled. Homemade wine.

This has happened to me before, but not in some years. A lovely lady, good-looking cellar with temperature control, but, alas, homemade wine.

Not all homemade wines are bad, of course. There are some very talented winemakers who don't have the desire or scientific background to make wine for commercial enterprises. This woman's wines were stored well, and some of them had "labels" made of masking tape that listed date, type of grape, where picked and oak time, if applicable.

She called me for a reason. What did she want me to do with the wine? Did she want me to taste it? Did she want me to find a home for it?

Yes, she wanted me to evaluate the cellar for sale. This puts me in a hard spot because, of course, one cannot legally sell non-commercial wine. I suggested, maybe, she might want to "trade" for the juice, but this was just a suggestion, of course. She really wanted me to taste the wine.

This is also a dicey deal. If, as most homemade wines are, the stuff is really bad, how exactly do you tell the cellar owner? "Oh, hey, all of your wine is crap!"

It's common for folks to love what they make, and being honest can hurt someone's feelings. But the only thing one can do is taste and be honest; there is no way out of it, especially if you are considered some kind of an expert.

Once, many years ago, I went into a cellar and found more than 100 cases of wine sitting under a house. The grandfather had died and the grandson asked me to evaluate what was there. There were some commercial wines, but for the most part, the wines were made by the older gentleman and looked in horrid shape. Under heavy insistence, I tasted the wine and it was bad. Really bad. To the point of being not drinkable. I told him as nicely as I could, and he really got hot, I mean hot! He explained to me over and over again that the family had served the wine at every holiday and some "special" Sundays and "everyone loved the stuff." I really did not know what to say further. He demanded that we open other bottles. God, the stuff stank and I could hardly get it down. Finally, I excused myself and made it to my car. He stood there, incredulous, with his hands on his hips. Sorry, buddy.

This is the general rule: When called, I ask about the wine before I go. Most folks are honest, but some folks are hedging a bit and do not tell me that some, part, or the entire cellar is composed of homemade wine.

In the latest instance, I was put in the same position, most of the wine being homemade. She brought me down a glass and a corkscrew and off I went, searching the stacks. I pulled out a bottle of "cabernet sauvignon, 1999, Sonoma County grapes, new oak." OK, here we go. The wine smelled like soft, ripe plums and spicy oak. It displayed unctuous fruit and had a wonderful palate weight. The wine was, quite truly, formidable, beautifully crafted and one of the best cabs I've tasted in years!

She begged me to open others, which I did, from different years and viticultural areas, and they were all very, very good. Her boyfriend had made the wines and, whoever he was, had done a fine job, indeed. These wines remain high commercial quality level. I suggested that she trade with farmers market folks, give them as gifts, whatever. The wines are really lovely and I appreciated very much the time I spent in her cellar.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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