Few folks enjoy the fruits of their labor as much as members of the Purple Foot Wine Club.
For a half-century now, the nation's third-oldest amateur winemaking club has transformed a variety of fruit, primarily grapes, into (usually) tasty wine. The membership, consistently 100 strong over the decades, has evolved in terms of fruit sourcing, equipment and techniques. But all the while it's been more about fellowship than the finished products.
"This is really more of a social group than anything else," said Steve Kroll, a longtime member and the group'sunofficial historian. "We certainly emphasize winemaking, but there is just such great camaraderie."
The bond is strong enough that a little thing like a global pandemic was more a distraction than a deterrent. We are, after all, talking about hardy Midwesterners.
Just over a year ago, the group gathered to de-stem and crush a few tons of grapes brought in from the West Coast. "We started in cold weather," said group president Mike Little, "and it didn't really warm up all day. By around 2 p.m. the snow had started.By 4 p.m., we finished crushing about 8,000 pounds of grapes in heavy snow. There were at least 2 inches of wet snow covering the final bin of grapes.It was pretty miserable weather. Fun, though.
"We view it with a sense of humor," he continued, "and more than once I've heard the comment that 'there's an easier way to get this stuff. They sell it already in the bottle at the liquor store.' "
Happily, this year's crush took place on a balmy October day in Little's yard near Farmington. Roughly 5 tons of grapes were split among the members and will eventually become about 3,200 bottles of wine. And the grapes were processed in such an air of devil-may-care bonhomie that one observer said, "You guys do everything one-handed. You always have a glass of wine in the other hand."
Chances are the wine flowing that day was from bottles with homemade labels and produced by club members with grapes grown in Washington or California. In its early days, the club used concentrate or locally grown fruit to make their wine, storing it in glass containers called carboys. But now they import stellar fruit from some of the better vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Columbia Gorge in Washington or Santa Barbara and Sonoma counties in California, and age the juice in French oak barrels.
"I started with concentrates and picking wild grapes, then got my first [cultivated] grapes from Nan Bailly," Kroll said, referring to Alexis Bailly Vineyard near Hastings. "When I first started, we just worked with a few gallons, but about 10 years ago I went down the slippery slope. One year I made 160 gallons. I still have some of that," he said with a chuckle.
Calling the wine doctor
Making good wine is decidedly easier now than it was back in 1971, when Tom Lauerman placed a newspaper ad looking for wine enthusiasts. He and his wife, Mary, had been making wine in their basement and eventually opened a winemaking-supply store on Nicollet Avenue called the Vintner. His first ad prompted 35 people to attend a meeting in the First National Bank auditorium in Minneapolis, and membership grew to more than 100 within six months.
The bylaws of the Purple Foot Wine Club touted "the promotion of the full appreciation of winemaking." From the get-go, the club not only held annual competitions but began annual outings to venues such as the winemaking facility atSt. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.
But there was little direction for amateur winemakers. "When I started in 1979," said Joe Palla of Lindstrom, Minn., "there was just a little book called 'Making Dandelion Wine' [by Glen Davis]."
The mid-'80s brought two edifying tomes: French guru Emile Peynaud's "Knowing and Making Wine" and Phillip Jackisch's "Modern Winemaking." Meanwhile, the Purple Footers started to include educational workshops as part of their meetings; "Modern Winemaking's" Jackisch even spoke at one of them.
The bottom line: "At the beginning, everybody in the club was willing to share information on making wine," Palla said. "And the club is still that way. There are no barriers."
The collaborative efforts go beyond the instructional meetings and tastings where members discuss each other's efforts. A few years ago, Little and a winemaker friend launched a home-visit service called the Wine Doctors.
"Basically, we will go to a club member's house and teach them how to balance and finish their wines," Little said. "We have an actual doctor bag filled with chemicals and test equipment. If the wine is good, we drink it all. If it isn't so good, we give advice and work with the winemakers."
Watch out for squirrels
The temptation to "go pro" is ever-present. Palla spent a year as a winemaker at Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater. Veteran member Rob Fowler now operates an eponymous winery in Hudson, Wis.
Still, most Purple Footers are content to regard themselves as basically "a fun social group," said Beth Mikulay of Minnetonka. She loves the fall crushes — "most years I leave with juice in my hair," she said —and has enjoyed experimenting with miscellaneous foodstuffs, but draws the line at green beans ("not for me").
Like her peers, Mikulay has had winemaking ups and downs. "I've had a few that I dumped, but a lot of good wines." The past few weeks found her turning a batch of fresh cranberries into wine — and recalling a hard-earned lesson.
One time as she was making cranberry wine, she air-locked the container, but apparently not good enough. "A little later I heard this hissing sound and went in, and there was a big red circle on my kitchen ceiling," she said. "I had to get a paint job."
Mikulay's favorite anecdote involves the first time she made wine from red grapes. She left the skins on during fermentation to provide color and compounds, and when that process was complete, "I dumped the skins in the woods behind my house," she said. "A few hours later, I looked out there and saw squirrels falling out of the trees."
But she didn't get close enough to see if their feet — and mouths — were purple.
'The way you like'
Although they are amateurs, the Purple Foot brigade is not averse to see how their wines stack up against both their peers and the pros. They have two club contests every year and enter wines in all manner of competitions, both local and national.
Palla is one of several members who have garnered a raft of ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair; his first win was with a rhubarb wine in 1979. And earlier this year, Fowler captured five medals at the ultracompetitive San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
For her part, Mikulay is not about to change her ways to produce a wine that might be competition-friendly. "No, you make it the way you like, a wine you would like," she said. "Because it's going to be in your wine cellar."
The Purple Food Wine Club is a group of amateur winemakers who say they are "dedicated to helping our members appreciate wines of all sorts, and to produce better wines of their own." Find more information and plenty of resources at purplefoot.org.
Bill Ward is a freelance food and wine writer from Nashville. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.