If there is one thing Charlie Watts will never forget about his late cousin Paul, it’s how organized he was. Paul was a school principal, so naturally, he had a particular way of getting things done in an orderly fashion. This was beneficial for the longstanding winemaking tradition in Watts’s family, where Paul was the chief winemaker.
“Paul knew everything about the winemaking process, and he organized it all. He put everyone in the family to work. Everybody had a job,” Watts says, recalling how smoothly his family’s yearly winemaking process would unfold under his cousin’s oversight, on Paul’s property in Croton, New York.
The grandparents and elderly relatives did all the picking and sorting, while sharing stories of their youth, at one long table. The 20- and 30-somethings hauled boxes of grapes to a press that had arrived in America at the turn of the century from Puglia, Italy, where Watts’s family originated. Even the kids were put to work, pressing grapes to make the juice they’d consume while the adults enjoyed the wine that the family bottled two years prior.
While Watts’s homemade wine is a tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation, across the U.S., younger people are using their passion for wine to start new customs of their own.
Mutual passions create new opportunities
As a Napa wine industry professional, Nick Reinell has worked the harvest and witnessed the winemaking process from start to finish. He loves his work, but cannot deny the rewarding feeling he gets when taking a sip of the homemade wine he created with his wife, Jess Lander, a wine writer and creator of “The Essential Napa Valley Cookbook.”
Lander, who moved to the Bay Area from Boston in 2010, wasn’t much of a wine drinker when she met Nick in 2011, while he was an assistant winemaker at Peju Winery in Rutherford, California. Though Reinell doesn’t come from a winemaking family, he grew up watching his parents both enjoy a glass together and make their own wine too. Reinell started helping his parents with their homemade wine when he was in high school and has bottled 12 vintages since.
Now, after four years of marriage, Reinell has started a wine tradition of his own with Lander. The couple made their first vintage of Zinfandel together in 2020. As of this year, they now have a carbonic tank.
“It’s something you can do as a family and with friends. The year we did our Zin, we called up a few friends. They came over, and we had a party, stomped some grapes, did some de-stemming, and had a lot of fun with it. That’s what it should be at the end of the day,” Reinell says.
Reinell bought fruit from Larry Venturi, grower and owner of Venturi Vineyards in Mendocino, California. Three generations of Venturis have managed the vineyards where the Zinfandel vines, planted more than 50 years ago, are as sturdy as trees, according to Reinell.
Working with local growers, instead of nurturing their own vines, allows the pair to be more creative and experimental with their homemade wines. “There are some growers that have fruit that isn’t necessarily in contract year after year. And you can go and say to them, hey, I’m going to pay you a dollar per pound or something for this, and work out the tonnage. That’s kinda cool too, getting to work with underground fruit that isn’t contracted for commercial use,” he says. “Plus, you get to meet those people who manage the fruit and grow it and establish new relationships by supporting the local growers.”
Napa’s Glass Fire, of September 2019, burned more than 67,000 acres of land and destroyed hundreds of buildings and homes in the region, including Reinell and Lander’s little slice of paradise. Despite all that was lost, the couple still has one barrel of their first homemade Zinfandel. And they hope to continue making wine together in the years to come.
Innovative new methods
Thanks to innovative kits like Master Vintner Wine Starter Kit — which comes equipped with everything from fermenters and thermometers to bottle fillers, among various other tools — people who aren’t remotely experienced in winemaking can make wine at home.
It’s one of several kits that are widely available. However, using them isn’t nearly as easy as buying them.
“It was more complicated than we initially thought it would be,” says Alisha Beck, who used a winemaking kit to make her own Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wine has been an aspect of Beck’s relationship with her husband for as long as she can remember. The couple figured they’d try to make their own batch of the stuff after her brother-in-law told them about the kit he used to make wine. Beck and her husband made their first red wine with a starter kit and a bag of grape juice, in February.
“The very first batch we did, a couple of things went wrong as far as timing and not quite taking the right measurements within the right window, or adding things at the right time, that kind of thing. But it was still drinkable. It’s just a little sweet,” Beck says.
Beck has since experimented with the kit on two more occasions. They haven’t quite gotten their recipe down to a science, but have enjoyed the process. “It’s cool to know that this is something that we made together,” she says.
Of course, everyone hopes their wine turns out tasting great. After all, wine is meant to be drunk, and the better it tastes, the better the experience.
But more exhilarating than the taste are the moments spent sharing something with loved ones. “These are the threads that make up the fabric of life,” says Watts.
A long family tradition
The Watts’ family’s memorable tradition of making wine for personal consumption and enjoyment goes back years before any of his relatives started planting their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in New York. His grandfather came from a family of Puglian olive and grape growers, and when he came to the U.S. in the early 1900s the practice came with him.
The family’s homemade wine was quite tasty, Watts remembered. Their many years of following the tradition allowed them to produce bottles good enough to sell on store shelves. Still, no one in Watts’s family would classify themselves as serious winemakers. According to him, he, along with the rest of his relatives, are merely wine enthusiasts, who make wine to drink with each other.
“It was something that the whole family did collectively, and we all always enjoyed every minute of it,” Watts says. “Paul would throw a family reunion party on the day we bottled the current vintage. That day also marked the first time we’d drink the vintage from two years before, and we would name the vintage from the previous year after a family member who had passed away. It was always a cool way to commemorate and remember them.”
Watts’s cousin, Paul, was the third-generation head winemaker of the family. Now that he’s gone, Watts hopes his nieces or nephews, or perhaps a younger cousin, will take on the role.
“Everything that we look for nowadays is community, right? It’s super meaningful to have this family tradition that we can trace back to 100 years and another country.”
A tradition that many others are now building for themselves.