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California Wine: Garagistes Go for the Gold

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When you're a home winemaker, you might as well practice saying, "We learned that by trial and error." When you're a home winemaker, you might end up choosing a chemist to work with you because you met him while walking your dogs. When you're a home winemaker, it's wise if your team includes someone good at wood-working to build the cold room in the garage where you keep your wine at a pleasant 67º. When you're a home winemaker, if one of you owns a van, and doesn't mind if the suspension gets shot hauling a half-ton of grapes, so much the better.

When you're a home winemaker, like the folks behind Kemabu Wines in Santa Barbara, you might also achieve garagiste greatness: they won two bronze medals for their debut 2010 Malbec and a gold medal for a 2012 Syrah from the annual Wine Maker magazine amateur competition. Kemabu currently is Kevin and Kathy Kelly and Tony and Krista Mastres -- hence the Kema -- the "bu" was for Dan Burke, the original chemist who got his Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara and moved on.

Tony admits home winemaking is "not for the faint of wallet," for even at a pretty good deal, their syrah grapes from Rancho de Voladores in Paso Robles cost them $1000 for a half ton. Their first year when they made the malbec, that vineyard owner just wanted the grapes out, so they only cost $600 for a half ton ... but the group had to pick the grapes themselves. Turns out that's harder than it looks, for as Tony jokes, "I'm pretty sure we're not going to make it as migrant workers."

There's all kinds of equipment involved, from a destemmer to a high tech chemistry kit to a host of blue drums, "the same ones they dissolve bodies in in Mexico," Tony cracks. That chemistry kit was purchased when Krista took over for Dan Burke, for she points out, "I wanted to do it right and have a real piece of equipment that I could rely on. The windows are narrow for pH levels and you need to be precise."

While they admit to gleaning knowledge wherever they can, from the internet to helpful winemakers like Aaron Walker at Pali, Larry Schaffer, then at Fess Parker, now at his own Tercero, Norm Yost at Flying Goat, and Matt Brady at Jaffurs, "The only thing we've done at a winery is help Jaffurs bottle," Tony confesses. "And while they've taught us a lot, they haven't taught us everything they know."

So that means all kinds of trial and error -- just balancing oak when you're using smaller, newer barrels is a chore -- but the tricky part is you really can't apply your knowledge until the next year's wine. "It's like trying to get a college degree one class at a time," Tony suggests, "every year we refine it a bit more and a bit more." Alas, while they had good success with their debut malbec, they got bit by the sophomore jinx, although Kevin asserts, "I'm the only one holding out that the 2011 syrah is still going to be good."

In the meantime Krista says, "Waiting two years for what you started is hard," and Tony chimes in that "home brewing is something to do between harvests...I think our beers have been pretty good, but they're made from kits. With wine there is no kit, there's just grapes."

As for the future, says Kathy, "We want to branch out to other varietals, make some sangiovese, some nebbiolo, which we did make. Of course then the Los Angeles Times came out with an article about nebbiolo as the new pinot noir, the hardest grape to make wine out of, and we thought, 'What did we do?'"

So while the winemaking happens in the Kellys' garage (a cooler part of town facing north), and the equipment gets stored at the Mastres' house, the Mastres also have a tiny vineyard started in their backyard. "I want to learn vineyard management, how to get the grapes to grow, how to trellis them," Tony says. "Ideally we'd like to get a block or row in a vineyard that we'd get to manage." In the meantime, Kemabu makes wine for itself and its friends. Tony points out, "This year we'll have about thirty cases of wine. That's a fair amount of wine even with how we drink."

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