It all started, as these things tend to, with 90 pounds of rhubarb. That’s a boatload of pies and such, Tom and Marsha Mann thought when they brought home that harvest from nearby Long Lake Regional Park in New Brighton, Minn. Then they hit upon an idea: Why not devote some of this bounty to brewing rather than baking?
So 30 pounds of the rhubarb went into a 5-gallon batch of wine, which “wasn’t very good at all,” Marsha said. But they had caught the bug, and a dozen years and a score of State Fair ribbons later — including first place last year in the “any other berry” category — one of the area’s most accomplished home winemaking teams is this self-proclaimed “mom-and-pop operation.”
“Actually it’s more than mom-and-pop because all our friends give us apples and plums and wild grapes,” said Marsha, who won the “other berry wine” category at last year’s fair and plans to enter up to four wines (apple, raspberry, red grape and possibly pineapple) at this year’s fair.
About a dozen fair submissions are coming from Forest Lake’s Bridget Edgar: cherry, rhubarb, white zinfandel, pear, sparkling pear, apple, gewurztraminer, mead, pinot grigio, strawberry, pinot noir “and maybe a sparkling white zin, but I have to test it to see if it actually sparkles.”
Edgar, who finished second in three categories last year (rose and both sparkling-wine contests), is one of the youngest entrants at age 33 and has been at this for only 3-1/2 years.
“My husband, Olaf, gave me a winemaking kit for Christmas in 2004,” she said. “I was excited because I wanted to learn, and intrigued that you could make your own wine that actually tastes good, and it’s fairly easy. I started making fruit wines and then grape wines.”
Rochester, Minn.’s Paul Morrisette is another relative newbie who has proved a natural. An echocardiographer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Morrisette won State Fair ribbons both years he entered, including second place for a red grape table wine last year and first place for an ice riesling in 2006.
With prodding and counsel from friends in the Purple Foot Winemakers Club and using California juice brought in by “a guy in the Twin Cities who I only know as Jerry the Juiceman,” he’s entering a white zinfandel this year.
“When it finished fermenting, it was very, very dry,” said Morrisette of the wine, which recently won a “best in show” at the Olmsted County Fair. “I had to ask around, learn how to make a simple syrup to get it right. I was surprised at how well it turned out.”
HURRY UP AND WAIT
Having the raw material close at hand helps. Morrisette is eying some rhubarb from his back yard for an upcoming batch, and the Edgars have a hobby farm. In fact, Bridget’s favorite wine comes from their pear tree, although the 2-year-old pear wine she’s entering this year has a checkered history.
“Last year we had a bonfire and drank it there with friends, and it was terrible, just terrible,” she said. “We still entered them at the Anoka County Fair, and I thought they’d put Mr. Yuck stickers on them. But they loved them. Sometimes it takes a good year to year-and-a-half to know whether a fruit wine will be really good. It can just turn overnight.”
Therein lies perhaps the most important facet of this cottage industry — patience.
“You have to test it, and you have to be cautious with sugar, because you can’t undo that (if too much is added at any point),” said Marsha Mann. “Sometimes you have to wait a couple of years, especially with grape wines.”
As excruciating as it might be to wait for a wine to mature, the front end of the process can be every bit as painstaking. Anyone want to try to pick enough blackberries to make 5 gallons of wine? Actually, that’s a piece of cake compared with some of the Manns’ uber-laborious undertakings.
“You can pick wild blackberries and wild raspberries forever and then go ’Oh my, I have 12 pounds to go!”’ said Marsha. “But the most labor-intensive one was a dandelion wine because you pick and pick and pick. It’s backbreaking work. I get sore just thinking about it.”
Blessedly, it all can pay off later, much later, when the juice of their labor can be consumed with friends and loved ones. “My dad once asked us, ’Do you get invited to all these parties because they like you or your wine?”’ Marsha Mann said, chuckling. F or the Edgars at such gatherings, “Minnesota nice” is neither expected nor wanted. “Our friends are really honest,” said Bridget. “They tell us what they really think. But you can really tell when you offer them a bottle to take home.”
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