Memories of My Father and Wine Making


A mouse had gotten into my winemaking supplies, eating some of my dried elderberries. I decided at that point to make the elderberries into wine. It's now happily fermenting away.

And all of that brought back some good memories from my childhood.

For the most part, I didn't get to spend much time with my father. He delivered newspapers, and the hours he had to work, as well all of the clerical work he had to do, kept him busy. But a bottle of vinegar led to some very good memories with him.

I was always fascinated by the idea of making wine. I had no idea how to proceed, but that didn't stop me. When has that ever stopped a child? Kids have this habit of thinking they know about something, even though they have never done it or researched it.

I got some apple juice and some yeast, and put the mixture into a pint size salad dressing bottle. I didn't put a towel or anything else on it: the juice stood in the open air.

And then the fruit flies came. A little cloud of them hung over the fermenting wine. Naturally the stuff turned into vinegar. I gave up on it and poured it down the sink.

This inspired my father to action. He had some knowledge of the subject, and so he decided to show me how it was done.

Allow me to interrupt the main narrative for a bit of family history.

I know more than a few of my relatives made bootleg home brew during Prohibition. I am almost certain that my grandfathers on both sides did. I do remember, as a small boy, being told stories about this or that relative who had made home brew. I just remember the stories; the names of the people (and their relation to me) are long forgotten. If you haven't heard stories from your grandparents about the home brew they made during Prohibition, then you need to talk to them more.

When I was a teenager I wanted to try brewing beer. My mother recalled the awful home brew she drank. She'd always dismiss my desire to home brew, saying “I don't want any heingemacht.” (German for “home made.” Apparently my family had used this term during Prohibition)

My family's home brew stories are probably much the same as any other family's: 1) How the beer bottles would explode at random. 2) How one family member got so good at home brewing that he never went back to the store-bought stuff. 3) How the beer they made tasted awful-- but it had alcohol, so they drank it anyway.

A relative had died, so my dad was the one who had to clean the place out. He had known this woman for years, and in the 1940s, he had stored a lot of his stuff in her house. He brought back most of the stuff he had there, including some interesting bottles filled with liquid.

I say the bottles were interesting, because they were bottles that once contained a product called Pluto Water, which was used as a laxative. If you looked at the bottom of the bottles, you could see this image of what looked like the devil, complete with horns, tail and so on. (Since these were crown cap bottles, years later, when I started brewing beer they were filled with home brew).

He siphoned the liquid into more appropriate bottles, and he affixed labels to the bottles: “1942 pear.”

Back then, he had a book about making wine. The author only had grape wine instructions; he dismissed wine made from any other fruit. He also sniffily dismissed Concord grapes as being inappropriate for wine.

My father figured that he could just use the grape wine instructions he had, only with pears. So he crushed up some pears, added some yeast, put the stuff into spruce barrels, and let it ferment. I think that now it would be classified as a cider.

I tried that 1942 pear wine. It was dark brown, and a little sweet. It didn't taste like wine or like anything else; it wasn't bad: just bland. This was about 1975 or 1976 or so.

After that, my father bought the best book ever on the subject: “First Steps in Home Winemaking,” by Cyril Berry. He assembled his equipment, and then decided on a recipe. What to make? Something that he could make with ingredients he already had: coffee wine.

He put the must (unfermented wine) in a 1 gallon jug, put on an airlock (a kind of water seal that keeps out bugs and allows the CO2 gas the yeast produces to escape), and put the jug on top of our refrigerator. Within a few hours, the airlock was making a steady “blup blup” sound every few minutes. My dad would sit at the kitchen table, watching the airlock bubble for several minutes at a time.

We drank the coffee wine a few months later: it was bitter, sweet, and sour all at the same time. It did have alcohol: good enough.

Even before the coffee wine was done, my dad was expanding his winemaking operations. Since we had a shower that didn't work, that became the winemaking room. There must have been 20 gallons of fermenting wine in there at any given time.

At this point I should describe my father as I knew him. This narrative takes place for the most part in the 1970s and 1980s. In those years, he was slightly overweight, with bifocals. His major feature, the one most people noticed first, was his beard. His beard was white. He did a lot of work with wood, and with that he found a use for his beard: he'd slide a pencil into it, which always kept it handy.

Naturally, when you have a man in his 50s and up, overweight, with a white beard, kids are going to see one thing. I remember my father telling me that on at least one occasion a kid came up to him and asked “Are you Santa Claus?” In an odd way, he was: he had dressed as Santa for a couple of events for children.

To make wine, you need fruit. What's the best kind of fruit? Free fruit. Sure, we had some fruit trees (and at one point a grape vine) in the backyard, but that wasn't enough.

My father had read that elderberry bushes often grow alongside train tracks. September is when elderberries ripen, so he took me along and we went out on a fruit hunting expedition.

My father delivered newspapers for a living, so he was familiar with the local streets, and where any railroad tracks would be. He would take roads parallel to any railroad tracks.

At my age, I suspect I was a little pessimistic. Like a lot of kids, I felt my father didn't know anything; there would be no elderberries I thought. Mark Twain said it the best: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

When I was young, I automatically assumed that I knew about something because, well, I KNEW it. That's all. That all encompassing knowledge was not based on what I read or had done; I just felt it. “I haven't heard about it; therefore it isn't real,” was my motto (I hadn't heard about elderberries and railroad tracks, therefore I KNEW that idea wasn't true). Every kid, from the dawn of man to the present, has thought this way. Maturity brings on uncertainty. Uncertainty is a good thing.

And then... well damn. He was right. We found several elderberry bushes, all full of deep purple ripe berries. We went to harvesting, coming up with enough for 5 gallons of wine (which would have been about 15 pounds or so).

Elderberries are small berries that grow in clumps. You can't pick them as you would any normal fruit: you have to harvest them by putting a bucket under the clump of berries, and use a fork to pull them off, several at a time. The berries themselves are mostly seeds.

It was a nice time with my dad that day. I am sure we talked about a lot of things while we were picking the berries. I wish I could remember what the conversation was. I remember the basics: I was with my dad for the day, which happened all too seldom, and I remember coming home with the berries.

The elderberry wine was wonderful. It was a very dark red: held up to the light, you could see what my dad called the ruby. It had a good, intense flavor, rich with tannin, and a good, thick body.

We made more than a few batches of that wine. My father liked the wine so much that he bought some elderberry bushes and planted them.

I have mentioned that my favorite meal at that time was a wedge of cheese, a glass of elderberry wine, and a big bowl of Chex party mix.

Next up, my dad knew where some persimmon trees were. The Missouri persimmon is not the same thing as the persimmons you see in the store. Missouri persimmons are small fruits, about the size of a quarter. You'll never see Missouri persimmons in any store: they need to be tree ripened, and to have gone through a frost. They have to fall off of the tree, and you harvest them by picking them off of the ground. Ripe persimmons here have the same texture as sloppy overripe fruit.

And there we were: in a small field of persimmon trees. The ground was littered with persimmons. Some of them had started to ferment a bit. I say this because there were more than a few bees on the ground, crawling around like drunks after the bars close. They didn't even notice us. Imagine it: drunk bees!

That day we got about 30 pounds of them or so; good for about 10 gallons of wine. There were no persimmon wine recipes in “First Steps in Winemaking.” My dad had no recipe to follow. The standard fruit wine recipe calls for 3 pounds of fruit per gallon, so he went with that.

I remember making this wine well: my dad crushed the fruit, and added the appropriate amounts of water, sugar, and so on. The next day, they stuff was hissing like a snake, and all of the persimmons had risen to the surface: both signs of a really intense fermentation. Oh yeah. This was going to be good stuff.

The wine itself: a good straw yellow, great body, semi sweet, and a decent flavor, completely unlike any grape wine. Oh, and lots of alcohol too.

I remember coming in from a morning's snow shoveling. There was some persimmon wine upstairs, so I poured it into a glass. In less than a minute, all the cold in me left. From that point on, it became what I called “snow shoveling wine.”

My dad later bought a persimmon seedling from a nursery. It was a male tree; there were no female trees in the area. Around that time I had planted a persimmon seed to see what would happen. The plant grew quickly: within a few months the seedling was planted in the ground. The tree was a good, healthy one: it grew to full size within a year. The fates were not kind: it was another male tree.

The final fruit hunting expedition was for some blackberries. There was a small field with some blackberry bushes in it. My dad hired teenagers to help him with delivering newspapers. He brought a couple of them along to pick the berries. This was a job too big for just two people.

I had never seen anything like that place in my life: the blackberry bushes were enormous; at least 7 feet tall. They had formed these domes, which were hollow in the middle. We pushed our way into the domes, and harvested the blackberries from inside of them. A few rabbits had set up home there, and every few minutes another rabbit would see up and scamper off. In a short time, we got several buckets of blackberries.

The blackberry wine was great: a deep, rich red, with decent body and a good balance of flavors.

I remember reading about blackberry port. Basically that is blackberry wine with brandy added to make it about 20% alcohol or so. I did some calculations, and mixed in the proper amount of brandy.

I don't remember the flavor. But considering that the wine and the brandy were both good, it must have tasted wonderful.

That was the last fruit hunting expedition with my dad. The land that the blackberry bushes had been on had been plowed under and made into a subdivision. The same happened to the persimmon field. And since my father had planted the elderberry bushes, there was no need to look for them..

And there it is: three very special times I spent with my father, all of which came about because I tossed a bottle of vinegar down the drain.