Billy Maher and Ralph Otte of LaPorte will never again make a batch of rhubarb wine.
“We’re experimenters,” Maher said, explaining that they learned the hard way that no amount of added sugar can compensate for the overpowering sourness of the rhubarb.
Maher, 59, moved to LaPorte from New Jersey 38 years ago and drives a truck for Martin Marietta Materials. Otte, 71, moved from California when he retired from a U.S. Post Office near Los Angeles. In addition to making wine, Otte is an expert wood turner and makes pens from spent shotgun shells.
The two have become fast friends in the four years they’ve been making wine together. Theirs is a no-pressure operation called R & B Bacchus Wines. They make wine three or four times a year at Otte’s home north of LaPorte, producing about 60 bottles at a time.
Otte and Maher, who met over a beer at the American Legion Hall in LaPorte, have surprised themselves with the degree of success they have achieved with their “homemade” wines. They have the medals to prove it. Since 2010 when they entered for the first time, they have been awarded a gold medal, three silver medals and four honorable mentions at the Cellarmasters Amateur Winemaking Competition in California. Entries come from all over the world and number in the hundreds.
“The first time we entered as a joke,” Otte said. He makes frequent trips to California to visit his son and at the same time delivers their wines to be entered in the show. This year the pair have high hopes for their Barolo Syrah, named after a valley in Italy. They are also entering a Reisling and a Beaujolais.
Experimenters at heart, the men have made plum wine they called Plumcrazy and pear wine they called Pearadise. They’re open to using most any fruit to make wine (except rhubarb).
Otte says he might try making dandelion wine, but fears that if he got down on the ground to pick dandelions, he’d never be able to get up. An experiment with crab apples turned explosive when the mixture continued to ferment after bottling.
They usually produce their wine from commercially purchased grape juice but sometimes from locally-grown grapes. Friends who live on Pearl Street in Fort Collins supplied the grapes for Red Pearl 2011, a silver-award winner in California.
Once the grapes are picked and washed, they are crushed with a kitchen tool much like a potato masher and placed into a large piece of cheesecloth to separate the juice from the pulp. The juice is then poured into large plastic buckets for a 10-day period of fermentation. Yeast, bentonite for the yeast to adhere to, and occasionally a little sugar and a few oak chips for flavor are added.
“Some winemakers use oak barrels, but they’re $400 each,” Otte explained. Theirs is a frugal operation. They figure they have about $2.50 invested in each bottle of wine they make and they chuckle at the prices people pay for wine at retail stores.
In a process known as racking, the fermented liquid is siphoned from the buckets into glass carboys, leaving the sediment behind. A small amount of sulfite is added to preserve the wine.
“We try to use the smallest amount possible because some people don’t react well to sulfite,” Maher said.
Using bottles recycled from the American Legion and carefully sterilized, the wine is bottled, sealed with a cork, and identified with a label especially designed and created by Maher’s wife, Sharon, on her computer. After one marathon session during which they corked 60 bottles in a day, Otte declared, “We ain’t doing this again!”
The men say part of the fun is that they’re never sure exactly how the wine will taste. They know that when they began to use a better-quality juice, the wine improved dramatically. Soil, climate and location all make a difference. Maher’s wife, who does not drink wine, serves as their tester.
“If she likes it then we know it’s no good, Maher said.
R & B Bacchus Wines has no marketing department. In fact, the business has never sold a bottle of wine, and it never will.
Otte and Maher make wine because they love to. They’ve learned a great deal about the whole process in the last few years, and they’ve had a good time together, not only making wine but watching football, fishing in Alaska, savoring their wine-making efforts and sharing what they make — even with a nosy journalist come to ask them questions in the middle of the day.
And that’s enough.