There aren't too many Howard County businesses directly affected by the weather in California, but Tin Lizzie Wineworks is one of them.
Record-setting heat and a drought this year are pushing grapes into an early harvest, including in the towns of Lodi and Napa and in the Central, Sonoma and Suisun valleys, where Tin Lizzie owner Dave Zuchero gets the bulk of the grapes for his make-your-own-wine operation in Clarksville.
Area residents who know enough about wine to know that winemaking can take place as late as Halloween — depending on the type of grape — may not realize that for the 2014 season, the third week of September is the targeted start time, he said. That's about two weeks earlier than normal.
Fortunately, the magnitude-6.0 earthquake that struck Napa last Sunday didn't harm the fruit.
"I'm told the grapes just kind of swing on the vine [during an earthquake] and that's it," said Zuchero, a Highland resident who is head winemaker and instructor at Tin Lizzie.
"Downtown Napa had just undergone a renovation, and new building facades fell and bottles and barrels of wine crashed to the floor," he said. "But I've talked to people and gotten a lot of emails, and the reports show no damage to the vineyards."
There may also be an upside to the pervasive heat and dry conditions there.
"Less rain can make for smaller, more concentrated and flavorful fruit," said Zuchero, who also works full time as a home-based consultant in the pharmaceutical industry.
Winemaking at Tin Lizzie isn't limited to California grape, though that's what many people choose.
"I can get grapes from Italy and Argentina, as well as Washington, Oregon and Maryland," he said. "Whatever a customer wants, I can do."
Zuchero, who leases the building for his do-it-yourself operation from Wayback Farm, a 150-acre working farm off Greenberry Lane, was raised in an Italian-American family in a Philadelphia suburb "where making family wine was and still is a big deal," he said.
"We would crush, ferment and squeeze the grapes down in the basement in the fall," he said. The experience stayed with him.
After meeting a New Jersey man who told him he was planning to open a wine school, Zuchero was intrigued by the idea and decided to import it to Howard County, where he's lived since 1988. He received his winemaking certificate from the University of California, Davis in 2006 and has won awards for his wines.
Tin Lizzie Wineworks, named for the original 1915 Model T Ford that greets visitors to the farm, took a while to implement, Zuchero said. The grand opening was pushed to 2008, when the national recession struck. Zuchero remains somewhat amazed that he was able to pull off opening a business during an economic downturn.
"It was a bad time," he said, "but we survived it, and have grown each year."
In fact, a lot of wine is getting made at Tin Lizzie these days — about 36 barrels a year, which is the equivalent of 1,900 gallons or 9,600 bottles holding 750 milliliters each, he said. That's the most Zuchero is able to store in one season.
"It's amazing that we make that much wine on such a small footprint," he said. "And keep in mind, this is a business that depends on discretionary income."
While he figured when he started out that a county as affluent as Howard had real potential for embracing such a business, he acknowledged that growth has been a bit slower than he'd originally anticipated.
"It's taken us some time to get some traction and to get the word out that we're not making wine from concentrates," he said. "We have real equipment, grapes and barrels, just like a professional winery."
But that's where the similarities end.
Tin Lizzie operates under federal regulation of the Treasury Department that permits adult citizens to make 100 gallons of tax-free wine a year, with a limit of 200 gallons per household containing two or more adults. Zuchero's business is categorized as a family beer and wine facility, not a winery.
"Whatever wine is made here is owned by others, with the exception of my personal stock," he explained. No wine can be sold on the premises.
"We're trying to expose people to the actual process of winemaking to defuse some of the mystique."
Terry Sullivan — a Columbia resident who co-writes books and a blog on wine and maintains the website winetrailtraveler.com with his wife, Kathy — said Zuchero is flexible about customers' needs and wants, which enhances the winemaking experience.
"The great thing about Dave is that he will let you get as involved or not involved as you want," said Sullivan, who prefers the former. "We've learned a lot about the process at Tin Lizzie, and not all places will let you do that."
Everyone is always pleasantly surprised by the fruits of their labors, Zuchero says, except for repeat customers, of course.
Jody Aud, who lives on the Howard County side of Mount Airy, is the president of a women's networking and wine-tasting group in the Washington area called Girls Who Swirl. GWS was Zuchero's first customer in September 2008, and the group returns each fall.
"I always think the women are going to get tired of it, but they never do," said Aud, noting the group's 20 members have gone from making one barrel their first year to making three. "We made a pinot grigio that was out of this world, and we have not been disappointed yet."
Tin Lizzie hosted a wine tasting Aug. 21 to help people decide if they'd like to make a blend, Zuchero said.
"We all ventured our opinions," he said of the wines served to the evening's dozen guests.
Raj Kathuria, owner of Bistro Blanc in Glenelg, attended the tasting.
"I love that place," said Kathuria, who sells Stagecoach Vineyard wines from California that cost between $150 and $400 a bottle at his restaurant's wine bar. "I've been a great proponent of Tin Lizzie since it opened. I've made malbec and chardonnay, and every year I make a cabernet from Stagecoach grapes — all for my personal use.
"To have your hands on the grapes is a lot of fun and the wine is absolutely good. For $30 to $35 you can make a quality wine that competes with what we sell."
It's important to remember that everybody's palates are different, Zuchero said.
"I try not to steer people in any one direction. That's the beauty of what I do," he said. "In my business model, I'm focused on the taste of the customer."