Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pick Me, Squeeze Me, Wine Me - The Amazing, Alluring Elderberry

My love affair with wine goes way back. Perhaps not quite to “knee high to a pig’s eye” stage, but I can remember sipping my mother’s White Zinfandel at the tender age of ten – under her supervision, of course. Around the same time, my dad taught me the basics of wine tasting (sniff, swirl, gaze, taste, rinse, repeat…), which allowed me to wow adults at gatherings who were astonished at my alcoholic savant-ness.

Elderflower wine, freshly bottled by yours truly
Despite this promising beginning, I would not call myself a wine aficionado.  In fact, I don’t even know some of the most rudimentary basics about wine. But I have never allowed this to stop me from appreciating what I consider to be a decent glass of fermented grapes. In fact, in some ways I think my ignorance has freed me from the fetters of the pretension and arrogance of wine appreciation. I like a wine because I like it, not because I’m supposed to. And if a wine I like isn’t quality enough for someone with more discerning tastes, that’s just fine. More for me.

That being said – Brightwood Vineyard and Farm is also a winery. They are even listed in the 2011 Virginia Winery Guide, a move that has already garnered them some attention from consumers who apparently memorize said guide every year. (“Hi, I saw your winery listed in this year’s guide, and you weren’t there last year!”)

Susan and Dean’s winery operation is small, to be sure, and is quite unusual – although they grow grapes, they currently don’t grow enough to make wine. They make wine primarily from other berries and fruits, all of which are either grown here on the farm, or come from their neighbors when there is a surplus. Dean calls it “wine your grandmother made” – mulberry, pear, peach, blackberry, and so forth. But their biggest contributor is the elderberry plant.

Yeasty sediment in some racked elderberry wine
Dean actually uses two parts of the elderberry to make wine – the berry and the flower. Dry elderberry wine is comparable to a good Cabernet Sauvignon, and if you are untutored and/or don’t have a glass of the real deal nearby, it would be quite easy to mistake it for one.

Full-strength elderberry wine is a teensy bit too hard-core for a lot of people, however, so Dean prepares several versions of it. Of the dry wine, he makes rosè, middling, and full-on. More popular, though, is the sweetened elderberry wine. There is also elderflower wine, made from the blossoms of the plant in almost exactly the same way you make it from the fruit. Unsweetened, it tastes a bit… well… flowery. Kind of like liquid honeysuckle, I thought. But he also makes a sweetened version with brown sugar that resembles port or cordial, and is fabulous as a dessert wine or an accompaniment to some good cheese.

I learned much of this today – as well as getting a general overview of the wine making process – as I helped Dean rack* and bottle a few different wines. I also got plenty of experience in washing and sterilizing the accouterments of wine making, which are many.

Dean demonstrates how to siphon wine
Mostly, I got a fabulous view of what happens to wine after it is racked for the first time. With Dean’s guidance, I helped re-rack two carboys** of rosè and medium-strength elderberry wine (one each); sweeten a demijohn of elderberry wine and rack it into three carboys, a gallon jug and a very large wine bottle; and bottle a carboy of the brown sugar sweetened elderflower wine. I also got to heat-seal aluminum caps on all the bottled wine, only slightly singeing myself in the process.

And to put a finishing touch on the day, a cottage guest*** came to visit the basement winery…and she happens to be designing part of an exhibit on wine for the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Perhaps Dean and Susan will be able to play a part in that exciting saga…who knows?!

Sweet elderberry wine, ready for bottling

*Rack (verb): to put wine into a containment vessel for storage and continued fermentation. I made this definition up, but basically you rack wine for several months before you bottle it.
**Carboy (noun): A three- to six-gallon jug. Another useful vocab word is demijohn (a 15-gallon jug).
***The farm also has a cottage that they run as a B&B sort of deal.


  1. "In fact, in some ways I think my ignorance has freed me from the fetters of the pretension and arrogance of wine appreciation. I like a wine because I like it, not because I’m supposed to."

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I wish more people could see it this way!

  2. Good stuff! The writing, I mean. :-)
    fyi - carboys are available in a multitude of sizes; I've never heard of any smaller than 3 gallon, and once you get past 10 gallon they get a bit unwieldy and difficult to maneuver. I have a 5 and a 6 gallon for brewing beer. You're welcome to them if you desire to do some fermenting of your own.

  3. 1) We're definitely in agreement about enjoying wines you actually like; There's something pretty awkward about having people stare at you expectantly as you try their favorite--often expensive--wine, only to disappoint them with the information that it's "just ok."

    2) I just cannot resist asking: after helping make the wine have you confirmed that your mother smells of elderberries? (I'm pretty sure that your father isn't a hampster though...)