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PRIVATE LABEL
WITH HIGH QUALITY GRAPES AND NEW EXPERTISE, HOMEMADE WINE HAS NEVER BEEN MORE POPULAR

This is the time of year all the winemakers come out.

Market stalls are groaning under the weight of grapes. Match this abundance with the fact that federal regulations on home winemaking are generous, allowing most households to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year, and you can see why amateur winemakers abound.

It's a pretty simple case of "to your health!" Or "cin-cin!"

Home winemakers themselves are a fascinating breed. They use different types of equipment and follow many different methods.

Well-known local periodontist Robert Genco and his son-in-law, Scott Alford, have been making wine for six years and have a handsome winemaking lab in which to work.

"My father is a scientist, and ever since I was a little girl, something has been fermenting in the basement," says Julie Genco Alford. Her husband, on the other hand, began as a home beer maker.

Now the two men buy cracked grapes of all sorts from a Hamilton, Ont., supplier. Most of the red grapes come from California and include Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; the whites (Chardonnay) are grown on the Niagara Peninsula.

Wine grapes are usually a lot sweeter than the table grapes you may be accustomed to. And there is a wide variety available, from the historic New York State varieties like Concord and Niagara to varietals like Zinfandel and Grenache. Many are shipped in from the West Coast.

Genco and Alford ferment the slurry, press it in an elaborate press, go through several fermentations, eventually aging the reds in oak barrels. They bottle their wines under a specially designed "Barefoot Cellars" label.

Richard Rog, of Tonawanda, takes a simpler route. He has been making wines for about 15 years but doesn't have a lot of fancy equipment.

In fact, Rog crushes his grapes with a potato masher.

And Pete Geraci is even more casual. Geraci once got a letter of recognition from the judges at an amateur wine contest for what he calls his "party wine."

This he found amusing.

The party wine, it turned out, was made from the grape juice concentrate he bought at a supermarket; he simply added yeast and water.

Winemaking can provide some interesting lessons in chemistry. Reduced to its most basic terms, it has been going on for at least 12,000 years. Wine is considered the easiest alcoholic drink to make.

Not to say there isn't a touch of magic about it.

Grape juice is allowed to ferment until at least part of the sugar turns to alcohol. All the rest of the winemaking procedures -- the racking, the added yeast, the aging, the bottling, even the type of grape itself -- are simply window dressing.

Naturally, there are many decisions to make along the way. There are two ways to get that juice in the first place.

The winemaker can either buy (or pick) the grapes and crush them himself. Or he (it's almost always a he) can buy the juice already made. Thereby saving, says Bob Mercurio, president of James Desiderio Inc., in the Niagara Frontier Food Terminal, at least three days of labor.

For the past six Octobers, Desiderio's has been bringing in six-gallon jugs of California juice, adjusted for acid and sugar content.

The winemaker pours the juice into a sterile fermenting vessel, sometimes adding yeast. Once the first fermentation has stopped, the wine is racked, separating the clear liquid from the lees, and allowed to ferment again.

It may be racked two or three times; it may age in barrels. All this is up to the winemaker. But eventually, it is bottled.

For the traditionalists in the crowd, Desiderio's also brings in whole grapes. The firm has been selling whole wine grapes since its founding in 1937; James Desiderio, at age 86, still presides over the aromatic crates.

During the season, about 400,000 pounds of grapes are trucked in and Desiderio's is open seven days a week. It's a gathering place for winemakers, many of whom are second- or third-generation Italian-Americans.

In addition to grapes and juice, Desiderio's sells paraphernalia. Air locks, siphons, carboys, demijohns, hydrometers (to measure sugar content) -- and advice are available.

As it is at Walker's Fruit Basket, Route 39 in Sheridan, another well-known winemakers' hangout. For 23 years, Dick Walker has been bringing in wine grapes from New York, California, Washington and Pennsylvania; he presses them himself.

At this time of year, his presses are operating 24 hours a day.

"We press," he says, "over 1,500 tons of grapes per season."

Walker carefully balances his juice, adding the correct amount of sugar, and then sends it to wineries all over the Northeast. He also sells to individuals. In fact, Walker Fruit Basket delivers juice to winemakers in a truck complete with hose.

The juice is pumped right into the winemaker's carboys.

It's not always that clear-cut, though. Scott Alford points out that a certain amount of trial and error is always involved when making wine.

"Once we aged a large amount of wine from Malbec grapes. When we tasted the mixture, it was pretty bad and we decided we'd have to throw it out. Something that really kills you," he adds.

"Somehow we forgot to dispose of it, though, and about a year or two later we tasted it again.

"This time, after aging, the wine was terrific."

Richard Rog agrees that winemaking is a learning process. "The interesting thing is that every year the wines are different."

Rog's favorite grapes include Concord and the hybrids Ravat and Baco Noir.

"The wines are much better and cheaper than the ones you can buy in a store or restaurants," Rog says.

He always has a little glass of his own wine with dinner, and this year is planning to serve some of his wines that were harvested in 1994 at Thanksgiving.

"I save the wines as long as they are aging well," he explains.

"Very seldom are they bad. The worst thing I ever did was add a little too much sterilizer one year and the wines were too astringent. So I just let them ferment a couple more years and they were fine."

Pete Geraci does a certain amount of research, too. He makes most of his wines from whole grapes, he says, though this time he is going to try the already pressed juices.

"I read up and use my own processes," he says. "I just enjoy seeing what comes out. If I went to a formal wine tasting I wouldn't know what to do."

This year, he's also going to make Zinfandel from the grapes themselves. "I'm going to make it light," he says. "I have my own process."

To make the Zin, Geraci will crush the grapes as he always does -- with his feet.

"Nobody believes me until I show them the photographs, but I scrub my feet real good and put on some music," he says.

"I also drink a little wine while I do it."

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