Let Bacchus' Sons Be Not Dismayed
"People think that it's a lot harder to make
than it really is, [but] it's the same process that's been used for thousands
of years," says Tom Mallon as he surveys the large vats of fermenting grapes
that will become this year's vintage. With a large wooden stick he pushes
down "the cap", the clump of crushed grapes and stems that floats near the
top of the container until, as the fermentation process nears completion,
it starts to sink below the surface. "See this one – there's less of
a cap to it? It's much closer to being ready."
For Mallon and the other members of his winemaking
club, Crush and Stomp LLC (www.crushand stomp.com), it's part of an annual
ritual that begins in the early fall.
"We have an open-house party at the beginning
of grape season," explains the Towson-based attorney who, along with fellow
wine-enthusiast Brian Sudano, has led the club's "few dozen"
members through the entire winemaking process each year for the last several.
"When the grapes start coming in, we'll have an open house where people can
come in, sign up. There are people who want to see what we're doing – everybody's
welcome. That's when a lot of people will order [their grapes]."
The grapes come by way of Sudano's business,
S & S Winegrapes & Equipment Co., which he manages with his cousin, Ben. "My
grandfather started [it] in1936," Sudano says of S & S, which caters to home
winemakers from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas. "Now, we're doing close to
15, 16 tractor trailer-loads [of grapes] a season. That's a lot of grapes – you're
talking almost 50,000 gallons of wine."
The company's warehouse in Southwest Baltimore – the
air inside pungent with the smell of fermenting fruit – also plays
host to Crush and Stomp's operations. "It's a separate company (from S & S),
but we use this facility as well," notes Mallon. "[That way], nobody has
to worry about their house getting all messed up."
There are no dues, per se, for belonging to the
club; instead, members pay a sum relative to the amount of wine they wish
to make. Subsequent duties are then shared, from washing, crushing, fermenting
and pressing the grapes to racking and bottling the finished product.
The process also allows Mallon, a former accountant,
to draw upon his early experience in the sciences.
"I started off when I was 18 as a biology major," he notes. "I took Organic
Chemistry and all that stuff, so I've got that sort of background as well.
"My problem was always –
and I had the same problem in high school – I needed an application for
what I was doing. Then I could understand and then I would remember it. And
that's what I loved about the law: I mean, [for] every class I took there was
an immediate application, whether it was business bankruptcy or torts; I could
see how I could eventually use them. When I took Calculus, I didn't know…you
know…until Calculus III, when the guy said, ‘This is how they
figure out how to build bridges and stuff like that.'"
"Oh," Mallon laughs.
"Now it all makes sense!"
Still, the results can vary. "You're never really
sure what you're going to wind up with," Mallon admits. "[But] if you shoot
for certain goals in the beginning, you're going to wind up with a better-flavored
wine at the end. And when you start with good grapes you're going to wind
up with better wine. That's where more of the art comes into it.
"You want a well-balanced wine. You want one
that's going to be a little bit sweet, a little bit sour – you're going
to be able to taste everything in it. It's going to have a nice fruity smell
to it. It's going to have a nice body to it; it will feel good in your mouth,
as opposed to something that's thin and liquidy. It's going to have a nice
color – it's going to be fairly dark. When it clings to the glass,
you know it's been aged properly."
Because of the brevity of the grape season (September
and October, primarily), Mallon spends the rest of the year tinkering with
his own side-projects at home. "You can make wine out of any kind of juice
you can get – anything with sugar and water in it, basically," he explains. "It's
more stuff [that] you're playing around with –
like, I just made a dessert apple wine."
Most of the wines produced by Crush and Stomp
are aged in oak barrels for up to a year before bottling. By his own estimation,
Mallon produces about 13 cases a year for himself, at least half of which
is gifted to family, friends and colleagues. In addition to making an ideal
gift, Mallon maintains that homemade wines boast several other advantages
over commercially-produced wines. His own wine, for example, contains roughly
one half to a quarter of the sulfites (added to help wine age properly while
preventing it from spoiling) that are typically found in store-bought wines. "A
lot of people have sensitivity to sulfites and they get headaches from them."
Moreover, Mallon seldom filters his wines. "You'll
lose about 10 to 20 percent [of the] flavor every time you filter it," he
"I think we make a better product than most," he
adds, sampling one of the fruits of his past labor: a cabernet/merlot blend.
"I think [that] as people are getting older a
lot more are switching to wine," he notes. "There's a lot more interest in
wine, [in] the Maryland wine industry."
Sudano concurs. "A lot of new people are getting
into it, more and more every year," he adds. "When I was a kid, [making wine]
with my dad – I didn't want anything to do with it. But as [people]
get older, and they get in their late 30s, they want to do something that
their dad or grandfather did, and they keep the tradition up."