Retiree Becomes Amateur Vintner

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The first wine Don Manthe ever made was a red.

He poured it down the drain.

That was more than three decades ago when he was newly retired and just learning about viticulture, the science of growing wine grapes.

Now Manthe, 83, bottles a variety of wines from the 350 grape vines he grow on the slope of his secluded Payson property.

Most are wine grapes, but some are seedless varieties his wife uses to make raisins.

Enology, the scientific process of making alcohol from grapes appealed to Manthe's background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals.

"... I do like to drink wine," Manthe laughed. "I started out with 30 different varieties. I eliminated most of the ones grown in California, so I went to French hybrids I got from the East Coast."

Payson's spring climate is too volatile for many varieties of grapes and a late May frost could ruin a crop.

His friends help him harvest the grapes; the quantity of wine he makes and shares in a given year depends on the quality of his crop.

By law he can ferment 200 gallons, but the norm is anywhere between 75 and 150. It is against the law for him to sell it.

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White grapes like Cayuga and Seval Blanc go directly into the basket of the wooden wine press, where the juice is strained. Manthe keeps track of his harvest from year to year.

"My family all drink wine and they are always glad to get a case," he said.

The Chateau Manthe process

Red grapes, like Foche Chancellor or Baco Noir, are dumped into a crusher-stemmer. This machine crushes the grapes with rollers and removes most of the stems with paddles.

The remaining stems provide the tannic acid for fermentation. Red wine is fermented "on the skin" because the skin contains most of the pigmentation.

White grapes like Cayuga and Seval Blanc go directly into the basket of a wooden wine press and their juices are strained.

White or red, before Manthe does anything to the juice, he uses a hydrometer to determine the amount of sugar in the grape.

The correct blend and balance of sugar and acid are essential to fermentation. Water is at zero. Sugar makes the juice heavy and the float go up.

If necessary, he adds sugar -- a practice prohibited in California commercial wineries.

Acid content is tested with a pipet and sodium hydroxide lets Manthe determine the neutral point of the liquid.

If there isn't enough acid he adds it.

The indigenous yeast that grows on vineyard grapes does not produce good alcohol so a metabisulfate is added to kill it.

After the juice sets for a while, he adds a wine yeast to start the fermentation process.

The Manthe's home was built at a time when bomb shelters were all the rage. The thick cement walls of the shelter make a perfect wine cellar.

"It keeps its temperature the same all year round," he said.

The fermenting juice must sit in a well-insulated coldroom set at 60 degrees. The cool temperature counteracts the heat given off during fermentation.

And for whites, special caution is added; the wine cannot tolerate a 10-degree heat variation.

As the fermentation slows down, the balling number lowers to 10.

At this point, Manthe partially fills 5-gallon jugs with wine and airlocks the tops.

The airlock keeps the carbon dioxide from coming off of fermentation. It goes through the water and doesn't let any oxygen back in to ruin the wine.

"When the balling content gets down to zero or minus, then I siphon off the big layer of sludge at the bottom of the bottle," he said.

He then fills a new 5-gallon jug up to the neck.

At this point, the wine rests for months on end. This allows the solids to settle before the wine can be siphoned again, and it's another opportunity to add more metabisulfate to kill any oxygen that might have accumulated. Manthe could also filter the wine again if it's still cloudy.

Now the wine is ready to be bottled and corked. The corks are steamed, a process that sterilizes and softens the cork for insertion.

Although the winemaking equipment has been a big investment, Manthe said the most expensive endeavor is maintaining the grapes. Since his well dried up, he must use town water.

Manthe recommends to anyone wanting to start their own vineyard to purchase plants that are already rooted. Cutting, he said, takes a year to root; transplanting and tending to the developing plant could take another four years.

Manthe has also made apple wine and pear wine. Last year, he had a bumper crop of apricots -- he made them into wine too.

"It was pretty strong," Manthe said.

He even made orange wine after a friend brought him tons of oranges.

"I don't drink it," he said with a grimace.

Rather, Manthe prefers to enjoy a bottle of his wine on the deck watching the sunset.

"I like the whites and my wife, Phyllis, likes the reds," he said.

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