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Grape alternatives popular among amateur wine makers

Justice System

Greg Sliviak's basement looks to be part chemistry lab, part kitchen and part moonshine operation. The table in his workshop is lined with huge glass jugs, filled with jewel-colored juice that's slowly fermenting into award-winning wines.

While most wine-makers, both amateur and professional, start with grapes, Sliviak takes a different approach. His recipes start with raspberries, strawberries, apples, cherries, peaches and other fruit. He learned the technique from his father and uncles, who grew up on a farm near Pittsburgh and "made wine with whatever they could get ahold of,"  said Sliviak, 54, a retired union ironworker who lives in Sykesville and makes and sells furniture and railings.

"I drink more beer than wine, probably," he said. "I never thought I would be a wine-maker."

But the hobby that he started with his father has grown so popular with his friends that he's thinking of someday starting a commercial operation. For now he makes about 40 gallons of wine each year.

"If we go anywhere, there's always an expectation that we'll be bringing the wine," said his wife, Ruth Sliviak, who helps with production. "The moonshine discussion has certainly come into play just because people are like, 'Wow, you make that much.' Even though we're within the limits, you know, it's a lot of wine."

Restaurant wine lists rarely feature non-grape wines. Yet wine can be made from any ingredient that contains sugar. Fruit, of course, but also sweet potatoes, carrots, violets, parsnips and dandelions. 

Patricia Valas, a member of the American Wine Society and a trained wine judge, said she's even sampled wine made with jalapeno peppers.

"Fortunately it was last in the lineup," she said. "It really ruins your palate for anything else, but it was very well made."

The Amateur Wine Competition is one of the highlights of the Maryland Wine Festival, set for this weekend at the Carroll County Farm Museum

About half the wines in the amateur competition are made with ingredients other than grapes, said Valas, who has been an event judge for more than 15 years.

Since the event was founded 30 years ago, participation has grown from about 5,000 people and eight wineries to 20,000 people and more than 35 wineries.

The amateur competition is nearly as old as the festival.

"At the first wine festival, people brought their homemade wine," recalled Emily Johnston, event coordinator. "We decided it was interesting and why not do it formally?"

The Amateur Wine Competition made its debut the following year. 

Typically, 15 to 20 people submit their wine to the amateur competition, Johnston said. They're allowed to enter as many as six.

"We've had wine made of a variety of things over the years, which caused some rather raised eyebrows," she said. "One was made out of corn cobs, and nobody would taste it."

Sliviak's wines have been frequent winners in the contest since he began entering them in 2006.

"I was nervous the first year," he said of the competition, which judges the wines on 20-point scales in the categories of appearance, aroma, taste, aftertaste and overall  impression.

Though each wine is judged on its own merits, there are challenges inherent in creating non-grape wines, said Valas.

"It's much more difficult with a fruit wine to keep the color, especially with something like strawberries," which pick up an orange hue, she said. The pits in stone fruits like cherries and peaches often impart a bitter flavor, she said. Another challenge is starting with clean, high-quality fruit that's uniformly ripe.

Fruit wines tend to be sweeter than grape wines, and are typically sipped with desserts. But they can also be dry.

"A dry apple wine is a lot more versatile than a dessert apple wine, although a nice dessert apple wine would be great with a fall dessert," she said.

James McEver, owner of the Flying Barrel, a Frederick store that sells beer-brewing and wine-making equipment, said many customers ask how to make wine from locally grown fruit.

"It's really popular around here," he said. "Every year, when the harvest comes in, there are a lot of new guys coming into the hobby."

At the same time, he said, "there's a  lot of tradition, a lot of the older generation that has been doing this for ages." 

Bob Jefferson, 71, of Hampstead said he's been making wine since the early 1990s, and frequently takes top prizes in the Amateur Wine Competition and other events. Though he typically uses grapes, he occasionally goes for red raspberries instead.

"It's just an interesting hobby," Jefferson said of wine-making. "Once you get started, you're like, 'OK, I can do this.'"

The most frustrating part, he said, is waiting months or even a year to enjoy the results of his labor.

Sliviak's technique is unusual because he doesn't use sulphites or other chemicals that are typically employed to purify wine and improve stability. He said he ensures the safety of his wine by amping  the alcohol level, typically to 17 percent or so, he explained. He said he sometimes get teased because of the high alcohol content of his wine.

"All our friends like it that way," he said. "Though I do get accused of making rocket fuel."

He starts with 12 to 15 pounds of  local fruit, including bruised and overripe gifts from Larriland Farm in Woodbine. Favorites include raspberries, strawberries, cherries and apricots. He crushes the bounty with a potato-masher, then puts it in a plastic fermenting bucket with sugar, water and yeast.

After a week or so, when the concoction has reached the desired sugar level, he strains it through a cheesecloth, leaving a vividly colored and richly flavored liquid. This goes into large glass containers called carboys for four to six months or longer, giving the sugar time to become alcohol. "It's very simple," he said. "But if you don't have it right it won't work."

Sliviak measures the Brix, or degrees of sugar content, of the wine with a device called a hydrometer, which resembles a thermometer that floats in a tube and works by measuring the density of the liquid. A very sweet wine might have a Brix of three, while a semi-dry wine would be between zero and one and a dry one would be negative one or even lower.

Once fermentation is complete, it's time to bottle the wine and add corks and labels. Sliviak said he gives most of it away to friends and family. Though he's tweaked such details as his mashing technique over the years, he has not strayed far from the formula that was passed down from his father, Walter, and Walter's brothers.

"Fruit, yeast and sugar," he said. "That's it. And lots of time."


Making wine

James McEver, owner of the Flying Barrel , said wine-makers can get started with an investment of between $50 and $100.

The first step is to smash the fruit — seeds, skin and all. Add a sulphite tablet, which eradicates impurities, and let it sit for 48 hours so the sulphite can evaporate. Then mash and strain the fruit and put it in a tub with yeast and sugar. That's when tannins can be added for flavor, or pectin for wine clarity, particularly with fruits that tend toward cloudiness.

After fermenting about a week, the juice is ready to be transferred to glass carboys, a process known as racking. The wine can be moved from one carboy to another several times during the racking, which can take as long as a year. Once the sugar has turned to alcohol, sulphites can be added for stability, or potassium sorbate  as a preservative. Then the wine is ready to be bottled.

McEver recommends two books for beginning wine makers: "The Winemaker's Recipe Handbook," (1976)  by Raymond Massacessi, widely known as "the purple pamphlet," and the more comprehensive "The Joy of Home Wine Making," written by Terry A. Garey and published in 1996.

If you go

The Maryland Wine Festival will run Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sept. 22 from noon to 6 p.m. at the Carroll County Farm Museum, 500 South Center St., Westminster. The Amateur Wine Competition is scheduled for Sept. 22 at 1 p.m. Adults 21 and older pay $30 at the gate or $27 in advance, which includes live music, guided tours of the farmhouse, engraved wineglasses, and a wristband entitling the wearer to wine samples. The cost is $20 for participants 13 to 20, plus designated drivers and other non-drinkers.

For more information, visit http://www.marylandwine.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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