Grape alternatives popular among amateur wine makers

This weekend's Maryland Wine Festival will feature wine from a variety of fruits

September 19, 2013|By Karen Nitkin
For The Baltimore Sun

Greg Sliviak's basement looks to be part chemistry lab, part kitchen and part moonshine operation. The table in his workshop is lined with huge glass jugs, filled with jewel-colored juice that's slowly fermenting into award-winning wines.

While most wine-makers, both amateur and professional, start with grapes, Sliviak takes a different approach. His recipes start with raspberries, strawberries, apples, cherries, peaches and other fruit. He learned the technique from his father and uncles, who grew up on a farm near Pittsburgh and "made wine with whatever they could get ahold of,"  said Sliviak, 54, a retired union ironworker who lives in Sykesville and makes and sells furniture and railings.

"I drink more beer than wine, probably," he said. "I never thought I would be a wine-maker."

But the hobby that he started with his father has grown so popular with his friends that he's thinking of someday starting a commercial operation. For now he makes about 40 gallons of wine each year.

"If we go anywhere, there's always an expectation that we'll be bringing the wine," said his wife, Ruth Sliviak, who helps with production. "The moonshine discussion has certainly come into play just because people are like, 'Wow, you make that much.' Even though we're within the limits, you know, it's a lot of wine."

Restaurant wine lists rarely feature non-grape wines. Yet wine can be made from any ingredient that contains sugar. Fruit, of course, but also sweet potatoes, carrots, violets, parsnips and dandelions. 

Patricia Valas, a member of the American Wine Society and a trained wine judge, said she's even sampled wine made with jalapeno peppers.

"Fortunately it was last in the lineup," she said. "It really ruins your palate for anything else, but it was very well made."

The Amateur Wine Competition is one of the highlights of the Maryland Wine Festival, set for this weekend at the Carroll County Farm Museum

About half the wines in the amateur competition are made with ingredients other than grapes, said Valas, who has been an event judge for more than 15 years.

Since the event was founded 30 years ago, participation has grown from about 5,000 people and eight wineries to 20,000 people and more than 35 wineries.

The amateur competition is nearly as old as the festival.

"At the first wine festival, people brought their homemade wine," recalled Emily Johnston, event coordinator. "We decided it was interesting and why not do it formally?"

The Amateur Wine Competition made its debut the following year. 

Typically, 15 to 20 people submit their wine to the amateur competition, Johnston said. They're allowed to enter as many as six.

"We've had wine made of a variety of things over the years, which caused some rather raised eyebrows," she said. "One was made out of corn cobs, and nobody would taste it."

Sliviak's wines have been frequent winners in the contest since he began entering them in 2006.

"I was nervous the first year," he said of the competition, which judges the wines on 20-point scales in the categories of appearance, aroma, taste, aftertaste and overall  impression.

Though each wine is judged on its own merits, there are challenges inherent in creating non-grape wines, said Valas.

"It's much more difficult with a fruit wine to keep the color, especially with something like strawberries," which pick up an orange hue, she said. The pits in stone fruits like cherries and peaches often impart a bitter flavor, she said. Another challenge is starting with clean, high-quality fruit that's uniformly ripe.

Fruit wines tend to be sweeter than grape wines, and are typically sipped with desserts. But they can also be dry.

"A dry apple wine is a lot more versatile than a dessert apple wine, although a nice dessert apple wine would be great with a fall dessert," she said.

James McEver, owner of the Flying Barrel, a Frederick store that sells beer-brewing and wine-making equipment, said many customers ask how to make wine from locally grown fruit.

"It's really popular around here," he said. "Every year, when the harvest comes in, there are a lot of new guys coming into the hobby."

At the same time, he said, "there's a  lot of tradition, a lot of the older generation that has been doing this for ages." 

Bob Jefferson, 71, of Hampstead said he's been making wine since the early 1990s, and frequently takes top prizes in the Amateur Wine Competition and other events. Though he typically uses grapes, he occasionally goes for red raspberries instead.

"It's just an interesting hobby," Jefferson said of wine-making. "Once you get started, you're like, 'OK, I can do this.'"

The most frustrating part, he said, is waiting months or even a year to enjoy the results of his labor.

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