For months, Larry Vande Kieft, his wife, Emlagene, and friends, Tom and Daneene Lucas of Bel Air, made the trip to Harford Vineyard to make wine.
They tested and blended spices until they had created their own blend of a Sangiovese. Vande Kieft, a physicist, said he was intrigued by the wine-making process.
"I learned about yeast and the way the acids in the grape juice ferment," said the 75-year-old Street resident. "When you first taste a wine in the early stages of fermentation, it's coarse. The longer it ferments, the easier it is on the tongue."
He is one of dozens of people making wine at the Harford Vineyard wine making facility, the first of its kind in the county, said owner Kevin Mooney.
Opened last May, the facility is on the grounds of the vineyard, planted by Mooney in 2003 on a 20-acre parcel in the Piedmont region of Harford County. The vineyard was started with Vidal and Traminette grapes, and last year Mooney added 1,900 Merlot plants, he said.
"There was a tremendous need for Maryland grapes," said Mooney, 49, of Forest Hill.
With a few good harvests under his belt, Mooney said he wanted to grow the business. On a trip to New Jersey, he attended an amateur wine-making school.
"I thought it was an interesting venture," he said. "It was something I wanted to try."
So the wine making facility was born.
Mooney helps the patrons, who can make up to 250 gallons of wine a year, with the chemistry and blending, he said.
The first step is selecting the grapes or juice to make the wine, he said.
In addition to his homegrown grapes, Mooney imports grapes and juice from Northern California and Chile, which he sells to home wine makers and wineries, he said.
People who want to make wines in the spring, from late April to May, may choose from California grapes and juices such as Barbera, Carignane, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel. In September through November, they can select from Chilean grapes or juices including Malbec, Carmenere, Syrah, and Merlot.
The entire process from grape crushing to bottling takes about 10 months, Mooney said. During that time, wine makers who range in age from 30 to 80, learn crushing, de-stemming, pressing, racking, and bottling techniques, he said. The cost for making wine ranges from $130 for a case, $650 for a quarter barrel or about five cases, and about $800 for six cases.
In January, he offered the first of a series of seminars on wine making, led by Carl O. DiManno Winemaker at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson. He cut off enrollment at 30 people and had to turn people away, he said.
"The seminar was very successful, but I have seen an overall growth in our business," he said. "Wine making is something that you learn new things every time you do it. It's like being an artist. Everyone has their own vision of what they want to do, and it's different for everyone. It's not like licking stamps, where once you do it a couple of times, you're an expert at it."
Making wine is an eye opener for some people, he said.
"People don't really understand how wines are blended," he said. "The first time they taste an unfinished wine, it's pretty coarse ... it's unrefined."
Bob Rucier agreed.
Last fall, Rucier attended a wine tasting in Bel Air, at which Harford Vineyards had a booth. When he learned about the wine making facility, he decided to give it a try.
"Wine is my drink of choice," said Rucier, 57, of Bel Air. "I collect it, shop for it, and enjoy it. So why not make it?"
He signed on to make a quarter barrel of Zinfandel, he said. When he first tasted the wine juice, it had an unrecognizable taste, he said.
"I was amazed at how different my wine tasted at the final tasting," said Rucier, who is retired from a job as a corporate manager. "It actually tasted like a Zinfandel."
Making wine helps to increase appreciation of the process, Mooney said.
"We have people who are very skeptical," he said. "But they try it because it sounds cool. A father and son came in thinking they would be making vinegar. When they find out that they were making something that actually tastes good, they got very excited."
Vande Kieft got back into wine making after a 20-year hiatus, he said.
"I made wine at home until I discovered that my boys got into it," he quipped.
He prefers making wine away from home.
"Harford Vineyard provides the facility, the equipment, the knowledge, the grapes, or juice, and the contacts," he said. "It's a marvelous little facility, and a nice little hobby. I drink to enjoy it, and I make it because it's fun."