As I sat pondering what I hope will be a helpful fount of information for anyone thirsty for knowledge about winemaking and wine in general, I hardly knew where to start. So I decided to start at the beginning with how this incredible journey began 35 years ago.
I am not your average winemaker. I was not born into a winemaking family, nor did I take classes and get a degree in enology, which is the art of making wine. I am self taught for the most part. I have no chemistry background…never could figure out what all those weird hexagon shapes all linked together meant. I went from being a clueless non-wine drinker to an amateur winemaker to a really serious amateur winemaker. I then judged amateur competitions, actually became a certified wine judge, then an internationally certified wine judge, a professional winemaker, consultant and wine educator. What I do have is passion….an intense passion for the wine and the process. That’s what makes it all work. It has been quite a ride.
Believe it or not, it all started one day in 1972 when my good friend Kathy, who by the way is still my good friend, gave me a one gallon wine kit. They were very popular, along with beer making kits, in the 70’s. There were no grapes, just juice in the form of a concentrate. In those days, they really didn’t have a handle on concentrating fruit and keeping the fresh taste. The resulting wine was almost as enjoyable as a kick in the head, but not quite. I dumped it down the drain. But I read through the book and was very intrigued with the process. So I visited my local winemaker supply shop and got some better ingredients as well as better advice. My second wine could have almost given cough medicine a run for its money, but only in a wheezy, over-40, couch potato chasing the dog that stole the remote kind of way. The only reason I could drink it was because I could taste the “love” in it. Things turned around when people who grew backyard grapes found out I made wine. You can only use so many of those grapes for jelly. So I was offered fresh fruit. What an improvement! Then I found out about a local wine club in the vicinity and decided to check it out. There were many accomplished amateur winemakers, some who also eventually went on to become professional winemakers. I learned so much from them.
In the meantime, I actually started to drink wine. After all, how can you make wine if you don’t know how it is supposed to taste? Once again, my good friend, Kathy, helped me out in this respect. After all, we reasoned that it is not healthy to drink alone.
I started to enter my wines into competitions at local and state fairs and won many awards and also Best of Show several times. They needed judges and so they asked me to judge. Their opinion was that, if you made award winning wine, you probably would be a good judge of what deserved an award. During these times I continued to enhance my appreciation of wine by visiting wineries in many states. Along the way, I learned so much from the mostly owner/winemakers who were so willing to share everything they knew with me. Winemakers in general are very free with their information and, for the most part, will share even the tiniest details of how they made a specific wine because they know that nobody can really duplicate it. Where the fruit grows, how much sun, how it is pruned, how much rain, the earth it grows in, are only a few of the factors that make one person’s wine different from another.
For Christmas in 1979, my mother-in-law gave me a membership to the American Wine Society. She had picked up the brochure in a store in Williamsburg, VA, while on vacation, thinking it might be a nice gift since I was so interested in wine. She was very good at picking out gifts to match the person. I had never heard of this organization, but in the late summer of 1980 I received my invitation to come to the national conference which was to take place in Grand Island, NY. Our children were very young and we didn’t know who would baby sit for a whole weekend. My mother-in-law volunteered, so off we went. There was a large amateur wine competition involved with this conference and so I entered my wine. I was the first woman to ever win an award in an American Wine Society National competition and it was very exciting. My husband tells me that the smile stayed on my face all the way home, even while I was sleeping in the car.
After that first conference, we were hooked. There were so many educational sessions and programs and great people to meet. Someone from Pittsburgh, close to where we lived, looked us up at the conference and asked if we wanted to start a local chapter. So, in 1980, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Wine Society was born and I was one of the founders. This chapter very shortly became the largest chapter in the Society at about 180 members. They eventually split and now have two chapters, Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh East, and each have over 100 members still, among them some of the best friends anyone could hope to have.
Next week: Judge as Ye Be Judged