VERMILION LAKE TWP— With summer soon to make its turn to autumn, it’s the harvest season for local winemakers, who are taking advantage of an abundant crop of chokecherries, raspberries, and …
VERMILION LAKE TWP— With summer soon to make its turn to autumn, it’s the harvest season for local winemakers, who are taking advantage of an abundant crop of chokecherries, raspberries, and other wild fruits to gather the makings of their upcoming wine creations. We know that plenty of people create their own wines in the basement. Yet a lot fewer of them make a high-quality, well-finished wine that is a pleasure to drink.
You can count George and Barb Peyla, of rural Tower, as among that distinguished class of winemakers. For this winemaking couple, George is the hunter and gatherer of the wild fruits, and he already had gathered about a gallon of chokecherries as of late last week. They weren’t as ripe as George prefers, so he was going to wait a few more days before heading back into the field.
“He’s always liked gathering wild fruit,” said Barb, who’s the chemist of this winemaking duo.
George is a Tower native, with longtime roots in the area (his grandfather Pete Peyla was the first and only postmaster in Peyla, the name of the tiny rural hamlet that used to exist in the vicinity of the Y Store), but he and Barb lived in St. Paul for a number of years during their work careers. George was a federal contracting officer who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and later with the U.S. Immigration Service, while Barb was a budget analyst at the Forest Service’s experiment station on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.
As he neared retirement, George began thinking of how to make use of the wild fruits he liked to gather, even in the city. He asked a neighbor, who was an accomplished winemaker, to show him and Barb the ropes of winemaking and the rest is history. In 2001, they decided to enter a couple of their homemade wines in the annual competition at the Minnesota State Fair, which was located just a few miles from their home at the time. They won a second-place ribbon that first year and followed up the next year with the first of many blue ribbons at the state competition. Since 2001, their various wines have won 43 ribbons, and in 2010, they were second runners-up in the overall State Fair wine competition.
They stopped competing in 2016, mostly because the State Fair is a long way to go from Tower, not because they’ve cut back on their winemaking. In fact, they had several batches at various stages going this past week, including wines made from grapefruit, blueberries, Concord grapes, rhubarb, and even carrots, which George says make a very nice wine.
It turns out, you can make a wine out of just about anything, said George. His winemaking mentor even once made a wine from bright blue Kool-Aid, just to show it could be done. It wasn’t bad, said George, once you got over the bright blue color.
If Kool-Aid wine doesn’t sound appealing, just imagine being the State Fair judges who had to taste one of the more unusual entries a few years ago— army worm wine, made from actual army worms, or forest tent caterpillars to be accurate. According to George, the judges described the wine as technically accomplished, but noted that it tasted like grass clippings.
While still in St. Paul, George and Barb joined a local winemaking club and it became an active social group. The club had frequent get-togethers where winemakers could share their creations and the various tricks of the trade.
On the basic level, winemaking is remarkably simple, typically involving little more than a juice base, yeast, and sugar. Mix it all together in a pail or fermenter and you end up with wine within just a few days.
From there, however, comes the work that ultimately determines the wine’s palatability. After the initial fermenting, the wine spends weeks or months finishing, typically in five-gallon glass carboys topped with an airlock that allows remaining gases produced by the yeast to escape without allowing air into the system, which could quickly turn the wine into vinegar.
Once at this stage, the chemistry of winemaking comes to the fore. A good wine is a balance of flavors, sweetness, and acidity and getting it right can take considerable adjustment. Tartaric acid can help the wine flavors pop, while a little food grade glycerin can help the wine coat your tongue to boost your taste sensation. If the wine is too tart, a sugar syrup can bring back a bit of sweetness.
“We keep testing until we get it where we like it,” said George.
“That’s the finishing test,” said Barb. “Would you want to drink a full glass of it?”
George said he generally defers to Barb’s more accomplished palate when it comes to final tasting.
It can take weeks of adjusting before it’s ready to bottle, but the final product vinted by George and Barb makes the effort worthwhile. While homemade wines can often range from sickeningly sweet to sour, the wines produced by George and Barb are often pleasantly dry with lots of complexity and fruitiness— which is why their wines have consistently been winners at the State Fair.
So, what do they do with all their great wine? “We really don’t drink that much of it ourselves,” said George. But unlike that skunky wine your uncle used to give away, a bottle of Peyla wine is a coveted gift for friends and family.
They also go through a lot of it during social occasions. “We always have a wine night at the hunting shack,” said George. “That’s a good time.”
They recently brought four bottles to a wedding, where it all disappeared remarkably quickly. Even visitors, like this nosy reporter, go home with a bottle. Now I just have to think of a reason for a follow-up story!