Dan Dailey, Doug Cover and Rex Johnston collectively have nearly 75 years of winemaking experience. Johnston alone has been making wine since 1965, starting with fairway dandelions he plucked while playing golf.
None of their wines, however, is on supermarket shelves. They are home winemakers, content to please themselves, relatives, friends and judges, the latter of whom were especially impressed by their entries at this year’s California State Fair Home Wine Competition.
Dailey’s 2012 barbera from his backyard vines in El Dorado Hills was judged the best-of-show red wine. Cover’s 2014 rosé of syrah from his home vineyard in Petaluma was the best-of-show white wine. And Johnston’s 2014 elephant-heart plum wine made with fruit from two trees at his Walnut Creek home was the competition’s best “other” wine.
With harvest time drawing near, The Bee asked Dailey, a corporate pilot, Cover, a retired environmental consultant, and Johnston, a retired chemist, to answer a few questions that might interest aspiring home winemakers.
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Q: What’s your goal in making home wine?
A: Dailey: To make a wine better than what can be bought in stores. I’m only out to impress myself.
Cover: It’s really rewarding to do everything from the grape to the glass. In growing the fruit, we don’t use any commercial fertilizers and no pesticides. We know everything that goes into the wine. It’s the reward of doing something from the ground up and see it evolve into something to enjoy.
Johnston: I love the challenge to make great wine for less than what you would buy in the store.
Q: What got you started?
A: Dailey: I grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley, “Sideways” country. My brother was a vineyard manager for Brander Winery, and I worked a couple of harvests with him. I was always enamored with wine but I wasn’t brave enough to try it on my own. Then another corporate pilot had wine as his passion and his hobby. I kind of embraced winemaking with him, and his knowledge and passion trickled down to give me the courage to go out on my own.
Cover: A friend in the environmental business had a small cabernet (sauvignon) vineyard in Sonoma. I helped him harvest one year and found it fun, so I took classes in viticulture and enology at Santa Rosa JC and UC Davis.
Johnston: I read a book on making beer by the English author H.E. Bravery. He also had a book on making wine, mostly from flowers and fruits and vegetables. I used Bravery’s recipe for my first wine. I played golf and there were huge dandelions around the golf course, so I made dandelion wine.
Q: Any thoughts of going commercial?
A: Dailey: No. My aspirations are personal enjoyment with my family and friends, to donate wine, and to keep improving.
Cover: Only if it would help me pay for my hobby, but then it wouldn’t be a hobby. No, all the paperwork to get bonded isn’t worth it.
Johnston: No. I am retired. Going commercial would be going back to a full-time job.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in getting grapes?
A: Dailey: Most growers are fairly open to letting home winemakers buy a small lot, after their crew has been through the vineyard. But personally I don’t like a second pick. I have to have first fruit.
Cover: The Beverage People (a home-fermentation store in Santa Rosa) keeps a record of people who have grapes, and word of mouth is a good source. Once in a while I will get a lead on fruit for free, such as a second crop of pinot noir from Russian River Valley. I made a note not to do that again. It took hours and hours and hours to pick.
Johnston: I look for growers who are willing to sell fruit to home winemakers. I have used fruit from friends’ trees. I source berries from a grower who sells fruit at a farmers market. … Clubs like Sacramento Home Winemakers provide a list of growers each year.
Q: What advice do you have for people toying with the notion of making wine?
A; Dailey: The most important thing to know is that the fruit is everything. It’s more important than the winemaker. That being said, if you take on growing the fruit yourself be prepared for a lot of grief. It comes in the form of birds, insects, raccoons and other nocturnal varmints. I’ve had to net my vines, and guard them with my Labrador.
Cover: Start small, with (a 5-gallon jug) or two to find out if you want to deal with all the sanitation involved. Talk with other home winemakers. Clubs out there are very helpful. Talk with commercial winemakers at events.
Johnston: Winemaking is an expensive hobby, if you want to make good wine. Join a local club like Sacramento Home Winemakers. They have resources, training programs and experts to help in all phases.
Q: What becomes of the bottles of wine you make?
A: Dailey: They stay in my cellar until I give them away or drink them. I probably give away more than I drink. People who help me bottle always go home with wine.
Cover: I trade (them) for other varietals, give (them) away for Christmas, and donate to charity events.
Johnston: We drink them.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
California State Fair
▪ At the California State Fair, home winemakers are manning an exhibit of winemaking equipment, giving talks, answering questions and overseeing a display of ingredients with scents common to aromas found in wine. No samples of their wines will be poured, however.
▪ People interested in pursuing home winemaking may want to check out the Sacramento Home Winemakers (www.sachomewine.com), “the oldest continuous operating home winemaking club west of the Rockies.” Founded in 1973, the club offers sessions on winemaking issues, provides opportunities to have wines evaluated by authorities, and serves as a clearing house for information on acquiring grapes, getting equipment and the like.