Scavenging up a new hobby
I’d never seen my father drink a glass of wine — until he became a winemaker. He retired from a full-time sales career and besides golf, gardening, and a part-time job selling men’s suits, he took up winemaking. When I asked why a salesman would pick such an unlikely hobby, he said his father had made wine back on the farm.
In the 1970s, Milwaukee was still a beer and brandy town and wine was a pretty exotic drink. I believed people only drank champagne on New Year’s Eve, just to toast, not because they actually liked it, unless, of course, they were French or maybe Italian. Wine was just not a part of our life.
But soon there were a half dozen six-gallon (23-L) carboys stacked on the shelves in my parents’ condo basement surrounded by winemaking accessories and a sweet fermenting aroma. My father made wine from foraged peaches, pears, and plums and dandelions. I don’t think he ever purchased the fruit. Not one grape. He’d walk through neighborhoods, spot a tree, wait until the fruit ripened, then ask the owner if he could have any leftover fruit on the trees or that lay on the ground.
All summer he’d watch grapevines on the golf course and return when the grapes were ripe to pick, collecting all he could carry. It wasn’t exactly stealing, since no one wanted the grapes. Vintage? Varietal? They were grapes. He always called them wild grapes. He also picked gooseberries and elderberries wherever he could find bushes. I never asked about the dandelions.
I always wondered how he knew the locations of hickory, walnut, and crabapple trees, and in spring wild onions and asparagus.
His scrounging shouldn’t have surprised me. When I was a kid, he’d take me and my brother to state parks and push us over fences to forage adjacent farmland. I always wondered how he knew the locations of hickory, walnut, and crabapple trees, and in spring wild onions and asparagus. On vacations he assured us that taking a few ears of field corn was OK because that corn was as good as sweet corn when young, but mature was just pig feed.
After the “harvest,” he’d freeze the fruit until he was ready to use it. Another surprise was that although he only cooked bacon and eggs he prepared the fruit all by himself. He washed, peeled, and cut up peaches, plums, and pears and cleaned the berries. He either didn’t ask for my mother’s assistance or she’d opted out of his hobby and made it clear she preferred the finished product.
On my parents’ 50th anniversary, my brother and I bought them a microwave as our gift. When my father saw my brother carrying in the big box, he was sure we’d gotten him another carboy.
Bottling began with asking bartenders to save champagne bottles after wedding parties. One Christmas I gave him labels for his “winery” printed with his name as the vintner. He’d write in the name of the wine, usually “Grape” or “Peach,” but the wine that always got the most attention was called “Everything Wine.” Everything was made from the end of year leftover fruit in the freezer and each batch was unique. The best was pretty potent, almost a cordial.
In addition to making the wine, he loved giving away bottles of wine. He’d carry a bottle to a party as if it were the most expensive present. The receiver, amazed the wine was actually homemade, would make a huge fuss.
After my father passed away, I kept one bottle of Everything Wine. A few years later preparing for another move I opened it, planning to drink it as a memorial.
It was very, very, bad.
“Everything Wine” was previously published in Winemaker (June-July 2019 issue).