Holly A. Heyser
The older I get, the more I feel a need to know that what I did in the earlier years of my life was worth something. Nearly every day I wake up and think about how I can improve in my various endeavors, from cooking to writing to just being a decent human. I reflect on my failures and sometimes look back with bemusement, sometimes with regret.
I have made wine for many years. My first batch was mead made in college, and it was awful. I'd used baker's yeast instead of proper wine yeast, and the cloudy, murky liquid that resulted tasted like bitter liquid honey bread. It was essentially prison hooch. Yech.
My first successful wine was also a honey wine, but it was made under the tutelage of my boss at the Horn of Africa, an Eritrean restaurant I worked at years ago in Madison, Wisconsin. Meselesh Ayele was a raisin of a woman—tiny, wrinkled, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, but loyal to her employees. Meselesh made the Horn of Africa a gathering place for Madison's African émigrés, and there were a lot of them—all students or teachers at the university, where I was getting a master's degree in African history at the time. Meselesh would bring out her tej, an Ethiopian honey wine, to special customers. It was illegal to sell, so she gave it as a gift.
Her tej was sweet, syrupy, and brutally alcoholic. There was a bitter note to it from the leaves of some plant from Eritrea, where Meselesh was from. I've since learned it was a relative of buckthorn, which grows in North America. My tej lacked that herb, and the first time I made it the wine fermented almost dry. I liked it better than real tej, as it gave me less of a hangover.
Since then I've made many fruit wines and meads, including some stunners. I made a dandelion wine a decade ago that was so crispy, so dry, and so floral I miss it to this day. It has a stronger hold on my memory than any store-bought white wine I've ever drunk. Years afterward, I held up this dandelion wine as my validation for "slumming" with fruit wines instead of the more noble grape wines I work with now.
Holly A. Heyser
Only one relic of my past remains. It is the final bottle of a single-gallon batch of raisin wine I made in the summer of 2005. I had a cheap corker then, and could not jam the cork into the bottle far enough, so it stuck out the end like a mushroom. I made the wine itself in a plastic five-gallon bucket, with a huge bag of Sun-Maid raisins bought at Costco.
My bible of fruit winemaking for years had been Terry Garey's The Joy of Home Wine Making. I liked that Terry seemed like a fearless, middle-aged hippie willing to make wine out of anything—even parsnips. I tried many of her recipes, and they all worked. Her raisin wine recipe said it aged well and might be a little like sherry.
I like sherry. A lot. So I held back the best bottle of raisin wine, the "++" indicating that this was the free-run wine from the bucket, not the sediment-laden wine I squeezed out of a big jelly bag. But for two winters now—raisin wine ought to be drunk in cold weather, in my opinion—I'd passed on it.