Lush Life

The Grape Escape

By Mara Zepeda
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 1, 2008

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A nation of winers: It takes a lot of people to transform squashed grapes.(photo by michael persico)

In uncertain economic times some luxuries will go by the wayside, but thanks to the Wine Room, a hands-on facility, wine doesn't have to be one of them.

On a recent evening a group of close friends and co-workers met up at the Room, a cavernous warehouse in a Cherry Hill, N.J. industrial park. They gathered around a cheese board illuminated by strings of festive bistro lights while their young children zipped among hundreds of oak barrels.

The group has visited the Wine Room for the past four years. In the fall they congregate for the California crush. Come spring, they take advantage of the grape offerings from Chile.

"Part of it is the social, fun experience," says Kathy McHugh.

"It's great to go to someone's house, give a bottle as a gift and say, 'I made it myself,'" adds Ellen D'Auria, who's often bothered by the high quantities of sulfites in store-bought wine.

The group is proud of their handiwork, and some of their bottles have won gold medals in amateur contests.

Tonight starts the first step in the winemaking process. The group gathered together previously at a winetasting open house and decided on making a barrel of cabernet sauvignon using grapes from El Dorado County, Ca. All told, the barrel, which yields about 240 bottles of wine, will cost roughly $3,000.

To begin, they rake 750 pounds of grapes into a stainless steel Italian grape crusher. It efficiently de-stems each cluster, crushes the grapes and extracts many of the seeds. This mix gets fed through a tube and lands in a gargantuan barrel.

Kenton Nice, owner of the Wine Room, guides the group through each step, peppering his explanations with anecdotes and winemaking facts. He reminds his customers that this pure, delicious grape juice, at 25 percent sugar, is twice as sweet as Coke. The sweeter the grape translates into higher alcohol content.

Mary-Beth Henry, a sturdy, enthusiastic nurse, begins to vigorously mix the puree with a PVC pipe stirrer. Next Nice adds a sterilizing agent that kills the preexisting yeasts then stirs in proteins, enzymes, a yeast mixture formulated for the grape varietal and a small amount of sulfites.

This mix will sit covered for seven to 10 days, fermenting and developing a carbon dioxide blanket. Twice a day Nice and his staff will stir up the mix to allow for proper aeration. The group will return for their second visit to assist with the press. The wine is poured through a mesh-lined barrel to extract all of the seeds and skins. This filtered must (not juice, not wine) is siphoned into Missouri oak barrels.

A few months later the wine is filtered once more (sometimes with the help of customers) to remove any remaining sediment. The barrel is topped off. It then ages for one to two years, depending on the grape.

Some oenophiles will stop by the warehouse during that time just to visit their wine and give the barrel a little encouragement. All told there are four opportunities to visit each barrel, and then customers muster tremendous patience as they await the fruit of their labor.

"To me this business is about celebrating the harvest. Everyone leaves happy," explains Nice.

The Wine Room prides itself on being "anything but stuffy."

"There's none of that sniff and swirl stuff," says Nice. "We really try to stay away from that type of formal environment."

With that, the group sits down to a buffet dinner of penne with creamy tomato sauce, salad and bread. They know that while the economy may go barrels up, some barrels.

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