Winemaking: Hands-on hobby

Of all the reasons to craft your own bottle of chardonnay — thirst, curiosity, a fascination with the art of the grape — there’s one that takes precedent, says Paso Robles winemaker Charlie Poalillo.

"There’s a lot of ego involved in making wine," the co-founder of Poalillo Vineyards said with a laugh. "When someone says to his friend, ‘Joe, try this wine I made,’ and Joe says, ‘Wow. This is amazing,’ it’s ego personified."

In an area where an ever-growing number of wineries produce some of the nation’s finest vintages, some Central Coast wine lovers aren’t content to taste the fruits of someone else’s labor.

They make wine in their own homes and garages for personal pleasure — not for commercial consumption.

One countywide club, Wines and Steins, boasts nearly 150 members who rely on each other’s expertise and shared equipment to create homebrewed batches of wine and beer.

Meanwhile, the number of homemade wines entered in competition at the California Mid-State Fair has skyrocketed, former program coordinator Ruth Bird said.

Wines and Steins president Jim Mehalick, who grows zinfandel vines on his property near Creston, attributes the surging interest in winemaking to an overall zest for reds, whites and rosés.

"People are coming here for the wine," he said of San Luis Obispo County.

Wine is big business

Central Coast winemaking has never been so profitable.

Wine and wine grapes bring $1.56 billion to the county’s economy, a new study asserts. That figure includes more than 6,000 jobs and about $763 million worth of wine from more than 200 wineries, according to preliminary data from the study commissioned by the Paso Robles Wine County Alliance and the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County.

This summer, Cal Poly offers five classes on growing, producing and appreciating wine through its continuing education program.

At the same time, reality television is staking a claim among the lush vineyards of Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande and the Edna Valley.

"Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes," which followed two "American Idol" producers as they learned the ropes of a San Miguel vineyard, aired last fall on the Fox Reality channel.

Two PBS reality shows about wine, "Uncorked" and "The Wine Makers," are set to air later this year.

Growing field

It’s a far cry from the early days of wines and vines, said Poalillo.

When the winemaker and his wife, Joyce, moved to the Central Coast in 1973, there were just three wineries hugging the hills outside Paso Robles: Pesenti Winery, Rotta Winery and York Mountain Winery.

"The old gag was, ‘What part of Napa is Paso Robles?’ Nobody knew about Paso Robles," said Charlie Poalillo, who turned his Willow Creek grape-growing business into a boutique winery about two decades later.

The couple helped kick off Wines and Steins in 1979.

Today, the club’s 148 members meet monthly and participate in winery visits and pruning seminars, trading wine grapes, bottled vintages and a wealth of institutional knowledge. For a one-time fee of $25, members can rent crushers, de-stemmers, bottlers and other winemaking equipment that would typically cost about $5,000.

The Central Coast Home Vintners Association offers winemaking seminars, field trips and social activities to about 120 members in southern San Luis Obispo and north Santa Barbara counties.

The club also rents equipment and sponsors a co-op that lets members buy grapes from commercial growers at prices comparable to those paid by professional winemakers, member Linda Thunen said.

As Poalillo explains, winemaking is a combination of art and science — the beauty of juicy grapes and aging, tasting and blending radiant liquids coupled with questions of chemistry and acidity.

"Winemaking is not exactly rocket science, but there’s a lot of practical applications that are necessary," he said. "You’re going to hear this over and over again: The wine is made in the vineyard ... Soil and climate. That’s 90 percent of it right there."

It takes all sorts

The process must be working for local home winemakers.

"Our typical member is making commercial-quality wine," Poalillo said, adding that many members fare well at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.

Some, like North County resident Ruth Bird, rely on homemade wine to keep the cellar stocked throughout the year.

Bird and her now-deceased husband started making wine in Woodland Hills and planted their own small vineyard when they moved to San Miguel.

"The goal was to make enough wine that we wouldn’t have to buy any," she said, adding a little sheepishly, "It never did measure up to what you could go out and spend good money on."

Others live for the thrill of creating the perfect bottle, such as Jim Mehalick, the club’s current president. About three years ago, he left a law practice in San Diego to purchase a vine-laden property near Creston.

"I’ve had a passion for wine my whole life," said Mehalick, adding that he was delighted to discover the vines were zinfandel, his favorite type of wine. "I would have planted (the grapes) had they not been here."

He plans to enter his own zinfandel, Romeo’s Rippin’ Red — named after his over-amorous rooster — for the first time in this year’s fair.

Wine in his veins

Led Fortini and his wife Anne, co-owner of Fortini Home Garden Design in San Luis Obispo, were sure to include wine in the equation when they moved to Edna Valley about three years ago.

The Fortinis built their Tuscan farmhouse-style home in the midst of the Corbett Canyon wine country and added a wine room. Like many of their neighbors, they buy grapes from local growers and make their own syrah, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.

"It’s definitely a big drawing card for people here," said Led Fortini, who crafted his first wines while working in the building materials industry in Orange County.

His winemaking roots reach back to his father, who worked as a Paso Robles beer and wine wholesaler during the first half of the 20th century. Led tended the family plot.

"I used to run the tractors in the vineyards, pick the grapes in the vineyards, hoe the weeds in the vineyards," Fortini said. "If I had been born later in life, I would have liked to be in the wine business."

According to Fortini, making two or three varieties of wine each year includes a constant quest to learn more about wine and winemaking methods.

"I constantly have to re-educate myself ... I’m always bugging (winemakers)," he said.

"It’s just a great hobby. It’s fun, it’s creative ... it’s a challenge too."

End result

Virgin vintners and seasoned pros agree that the best part of making wine at home is opening the bottle.

Dolores Talbert shares her wine with the friends who help her harvest grapes from her tiny 60-vine vineyard near Peachy Canyon Winery in Paso Robles.

"You open that bottle of wine and you can remember when you were picking the grapes. You can remember what radio station you were listening to when you crushed them, what friends were helping you," said Talbert, who calls her blend of cabernet and zinfandel Tiger Red.

"It’s just a bunch of memories in a bottle of wine."


Try these home winemaking resources:

Wines & Steins:

Central Coast Home Vintners Association:

Cal Poly wine classes: