Part of the lure of home winemaking has always been getting some wine on the cheap. And as long as you don't charge for your own time, there's nothing cheaper than picking free grapes.
Traditionally, the home winemaker's standby was "second crop" grapes. Most grapevines produce two clusters at the base of each new shoot. After these have been picked and trucked off to the winery, however, vigorous vines are free to plump up a secondary crop of tiny clusters farther on down the shoot. They may be just a few berries each, and it can take hours to glean enough for a few gallons of wine.
"In my experience, Zinfandel and Charbono are the best for second crop," says Vince Tofanelli, who grows some of the last such "heritage" varieties in the Calistoga area. "Given a long growing season, those little bunches can make for a very nice table wine."
But don't go knocking on Tofanelli's door. His son-in-law has dibs on the second crop—and even then, he has to share with an Italian family that's been gleaning the vineyard for the past 35 years.
"Second crop is probably not as big a deal as it was 30 years ago," says Nancy Vineyard (yes, that's her name), co-owner of Santa Rosa's fermentation outfitter the Beverage People. Time was, says Vineyard, when home winemakers just waited until after harvest and then moved in to pick it. "But that has completely changed."
Diligent growers are trimming excess crop to enhance the quality of the first crop. Many home winemakers are now farming their own hobby vineyards and selling excess crop to others. Beverage People keeps a binder of free listings, with grapes mostly offered at market price, from $1 to $4 per pound. The price tends to drop as it gets closer to harvest time.
Vineyard pays at least $2 a pound for Pinot Noir from a grower down the road to make what she calls "end of the road Pinot." That's a lot of cash to make a barrel of wine, which takes more than 700 pounds of grapes to fill. But it's still under $5 a bottle. "And this is the stuff that you buy for $40 or $50 a bottle," Vineyard says. "This isn't Charles Shaw."
If you can't find grapes, the North Bay provides plenty of free harvest opportunities for making blackberry wine—providing that time is no constraint. "People who want to pick blackberries are very committed," says Vineyard.
The Beverage People, 1845 Piner Road, Santa Rosa. 707.544.2520.