In a Fruit Wine, Comfort and Validation

By Hank Shaw
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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.

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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.

Maybe it would suck, I thought. And after all, I had plenty of real sherry on hand, and I was making good wines with real grapes now. My 2007 Sangiovese is an excellent wine that even professional critics enjoy, my 2008 Touriga is aging into a big, floral fruit bomb, and I can only imagine what the full barrel of my 2009 Graciano will mature into. So this wan little bottle of raisin wine sat there, collecting dust.

I am trying to be more diligent and seasonal with my cooking, so a few days ago I hauled out the last two venison shanks from Holly's deer and braised them Italian-style, with mushrooms, balsamic vinegar, red wine, tomato paste, and a little vincotto I got from Scott over at Sausage Debauchery. I served it over mashed parsnips. It was wonderful—and needed a particular wine to go with it. The raisin wine's time had finally come. I dusted off the bottle and had a look.

It had oxidized and evaporated in the bottle over the years. The wine was down a full inch from where I'd filled it in 2005, leaving a dangerous amount of head space. "Oh well," I said to Holly. "It might be terrible." I had backup plans in mind. Maybe a Mourvedre. Maybe a Petit Verdot.

I opened the bottle. No funky aroma, which was a good sign. Then I poured some out into a wine glass. It was a beautiful amber, and crystal clear. No sediment at all. I swirled the glass, and a heady floral smell hit my nose. No alcohol blast, just an aroma a little like gardenias. I noticed the "legs" of wine flowing down the glass: They were thick and slow. This wine had some punch.

That's when I remembered Garey's recipe called for extra sugar, which is unusual with grape wines. It jacked the alcohol content up to probably near 18 percent, which also preserved it from that extra air.

Finally we tasted it. I swear to God, if you blindfolded me I would not be able to tell it apart from a decent Amontillado. Smooth, a little caramel, but with a bright acidity I did not expect in a wine that looked like maple syrup. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fine sherry. Made from Costco raisins. In a plastic bucket.

When I sip this wine I get the same feeling that comes over me when I stumble upon something I wrote a decade ago or more, read it, and still think it holds up. This does not happen often; mostly I cringe. But when it does happen, I feel a sense of relief. Maybe I didn't suck all those years ago.

I suspect this feeling is universal. We all want to improve, and most of us do over time. In the end, we are the sum of our choices. But it is comforting to know that not all of those past choices need be dead ends and failures to validate who we are now. This little bottle of raisin wine is one small example of that. I will be sad to see it go.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/03/in-a-fruit-wine-comfort-and-validation/37402/