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Personal-batch wines for the High-end Set

by Robert P. Farmer

In our do-it-yourself world, people remodel their kitchens and build their own outdoor decks. Now, add to the list, making their own wine fine wine. Sure, folks have been making their own wine (and outrunning the local sheriff) for centuries. But, of course, today we're talking about Wine Country and personal-batch wines in these parts are always up-and-up, and more often suitable for sampling along with fine cuisine than for sipping from a jug in a shed 'round back.

The individual-label wine trend is growing. And as part of its natural evolution, the trend for personal premium wine is growing too. In Napa and Sonoma counties, the trend is fostered with the help of professional winemakers who possess both the facilities and the patience to help interested parties learn about and appreciate the effort it takes to make their own wine. Individuals like this can be found at Owl Ridge Winery, whose custom-crush services at Owl Ridge Winery gets under way this year in the form of Sonoma Grapemasters.

Owl Ridge Wine Services has long been a favored provider of wines to commercial clients. But now the Russian River producer has pared down the application and customized it for individuals interested in creating their own premium. Created by program director Stephen Yafa and Owl Ridge Wine Services creator John Tracy, Sonoma Grapemasters is designed as a vine-to-bottle program in which clients select a grape variety and style of wine to produce, then consult with a winemaking veteran to guide them through the process of turning a barrel of wine into an exceptional case to call their own.

"This is our inaugural effort, but w''ve already got about two dozen people interested," says Yafa, who mentions the program will get under way with a small-sized group, but will expand as it gains momentum. Yafa says that the varietals the initial group will produce will be representative of the growing region while also responding to the desires of the individual clients. We're in Russian River," he says, "where we have an ability for individuals to make premium pinot noir and also chardonnay. Because of our location, those will be core varietals for us. But there's really no telling how many people we'll attract as we go and we'll of course offer high-end cabernets, for example, as the demand warrants."

The Grapemasters program will be designed to let customers become as involved as they like to keep as much distance from the process as they are comfortable with. Clients can get out in the vineyards and drop fruit, can be present during harvest, and through the crushing process, and stay involved through blending and bottling.

In terms of walking the vineyard and drop fruit, most people don't really know what it's really like out there," says Yafa, 'or how that early stage of the winemaking process works. We're really about education - educating people as to what is really involved in making a premium wine. Obviously, we can't have people operating some of the machinery, but they can get involved in sorting and things like that. We'll be teaching them all about that. And, a lot of it really has to do with blending, so we'll be there to teach them and to help them understand that process."

The process culminates with each indi-winemaker bottling roughly 24 cases of wine. "They own a barrel," says Yafa, "which gets them about 24 cases. That's sort of our basic volume, but really I don't see any limit to how much the client can make-it will be entirely up to them." The wines, Yafa predicts, will be on the level of most upper-end pinots and chards produced in the region; able to fetch more than $40 per bottle if they were to end up on retail shelves.

But indeed, these wines never find their way to stores. Like prize possessions of their owners, they'll be limited to home display and bragging rights at dinner parties--maybe a dinner party held on the deck built all by yourself. For info on the program, visit: www.sonomagrapemasters.com

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