An Exploration of Enology

—by Meredith Sommers

“Enologist Extraordinaire” is the title awarded to Gordon Rouse by The Purple Foot Club in Minnesota. An enologist is a wine scientist, and Gordon has been studying and making wine since the early ‘90s. His curiosity about wine began as a college student, when he went into a wine store and saw bottles of wines priced between $1.50 and $150. He questioned what was the difference between the wines, and has been pursuing this question since.

This inquiry eventually led Gordon to enroll in a wine judge certification program offered by the American Wine Society. This organization sets standards that include both objective qualities and personal preference. It took three years of tasting, reading, and testing. Gordon became a certified wine judge in 2004, and at the present, he is the only certified judge in Minnesota. He is called on to judge at the Minnesota State Fair and competitions in many other states.

Interest in winemaking began while Gordon was in Germany on business. A fellow engineer invited him to tour a winery in the famous Mosel River region, where he met growers and vintners, those who make the wine. He brought back several varieties from this region that set a high standard.

He has since tried to find grapes grown in Minnesota that would be comparable. His first attempt as a vintner was successful enough to win him first place at the Minnesota State Fair. He calls this beginner’s luck, but figures that he was extremely exacting with the process that time, and subsequent attempts were not always as successful. He also started experimenting with varieties of grapes and techniques, and trying things that were not in his primer, Grapes Into Wine by Philip Wagner.

Gordon uses grapes for almost all his wines. As a “locavore” he prefers to pick and purchase from local growers who have benefited from experimental work at the University of Minnesota and are raising northern grapes such as Frontenac, Marquette, and St. Croix. Gordon also buys fresh grapes or frozen juices that are shipped from California. With other members of The Purple Foot Club, he often shares a truckload of fresh grapes directly from the Napa Valley.

My own interest in making wines comes from being a food forager. At our small farm in central
Minnesota, my husband and I comb the woods and fields for many kinds of fruits, including chokecherries, red and black raspberries, and a few juneberries. We beg crabapples from a neighbor; and we now have 36 rhubarb plants of our own.

With this bounty, we gather, ferment, and usually produce good wine. My husband isn’t as enthusiastic about our wine, and he would say we occasionally produce pretty good stuff. It hasn’t won a State Fair prize, but it has given us the ranking of “Novice” from The Purple Foot Club.

Wine can be made from practically anything that can be fermented, including dandelion flowers, honey, and tomatoes and other vegetables. My first attempt was with wild grapes and a three-year-old son who was the stomper.

I didn’t realize the grapes needed to be de-stemmed or that the fresh juice, called must, was susceptible to fruit flies and mold. The result was a big mess, but a healthy contribution to the
compost pile.

Home winemaking has a few basic steps. First, prepare the juice, add sugar and yeast, and let the fermentation process begin. Home winemakers use a six-gallon bucket called the primary fermenter. It has a tight fitting cover and a small hole for an airlock. The airlock is a simple device that keeps out fruit flies and oxygen, while allowing carbon dioxide to exit.

After about a week of rhythmic gurgling and sweet aroma, the wine is ready to be transferred into a carboy, a giant glass bottle, also topped with an airlock. It remains there for many months until it stops bubbling.

The final step is bottling and corking the wine, then storing it on its side while it completes its aging. One five-gallon carboy produces about 24 liters of wine.

Because of my experience as a novice wine maker, I appreciate Gordon’s scientific approach, the orderliness of the process, and the facility he has built in the basement of his home in Arden Hills. He has about 20 carboys of many varieties of grapes, all in various stages of fermentation.

Using his skills developed as a judge, he also blends wine from different carboys to combine specific qualities and create subtle differences.

Judging by the size of his wine cellar, Gordon has enough bottles for his lifetime and a huge celebration at the end. Meanwhile, it seems the joy of home winemaking is in the experimentation and discovery of what makes a fine wine, whether it costs $1.50 or $150, and finally, sitting down with friends to enjoy a glass together.

To learn more about home wine making, join The Purple Foot Club, which meets monthly at the Croatian Hall in South St. Paul; borrow books from Gordon, who is the club’s librarian; or take a course in winemaking from Midwest Winemaking Supplies in St. Louis Park.

Gordon Rouse is a long-time member and volunteer at Hampden Park Co-op. When he joined, he mentioned he was an electrical engineer and was immediately enlisted to change light bulbs. Since then, he is a regular for maintenance and advice on the complex systems in our old building.

[Meredith Sommers is a senior member and volunteer cleaner at the co-op. With her husband, Jay Dregni, she makes wine, forages for mushrooms, and enjoys other benefits of retirement.]