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The accidental vintners

For one Saugus family, a new home meant a new direction.

Posted: May 4, 2008 12:39 a.m.
Updated: July 5, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Adeline and Kurt Kraut inspect their grapes for ripeness. In past years the family's vines were jeopardized by a variety of wild animals, including birds, raccoons and coyotes. As the Krauts have gained experience in grape-growing, their harvests have improved.

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When Jeff and Toni Kraut were house-hunting two years ago, it took them a while to find the perfect place.
After searching high and low for a home that was larger and quieter than their former Canyon Country abode, they finally found a gem of a property on a hillside in Saugus. They loved the high ceilings, the open floor plan, the long driveway, the yard their kids could play in, and the sweeping views of the Santa Clarita Valley.

They weren't so sure about the grape vines, however.

Completely invisible from the house, the 107 plants sat on the slope of a steep hill, exactly 64 steps below the level part of their 10,000 square foot lot on Ron Ridge Drive.

"We weren't sure what we were gonna do with them," said Jeff Kraut, an electrical engineer. He was referring to the two rows of table grapes, three rows of Sangiovese, and two rows of Zinfandel.

The vines were left behind by the prior owner, a judge who made his own wine. When he handed over the keys to the Krauts, he spent a total of five minutes showing them how to maintain the vines, gave them a how-to book, and casually mentioned that the harvest was coming up the following month.

Unsure if they could handle - or were even interested in - making wine, the Krauts contemplated tearing the vines out. They asked around to see if any other vineyards needed extra grapes, or could offer help with the harvest. But there were no takers.

So, after a little thought, they reconsidered. Why not take a stab at doing it themselves? No one they knew had anything similar on their property, so they figured they may as well take advantage of the unique opportunity.

Two years and two harvests later, the Krauts are full-blown vintners.

Their company, Fountain Canyon Estate Vineyard, was officially registered two months ago, and their operation, though small, is a tightly run ship.

De-stemming, crushing and bottling machinery packs the garage, sitting alongside fermenting vats and sugar-detecting gadgets. In the side yard, two huge plastic aging tubs hog a corner of the RV parking area.

They plan to get oak barrels eventually.

Wine in fits and starts
The Kraut's initial road to wine-making success was a little rocky, however, considering their lack of experience and resources.

After borrowing some equipment from a friend and cobbling together the basic processes and procedures from books and Internet research, they got started. With a little advice from a neighbor in Bouquet Canyon who had 4,000 vines, the Krauts felt confident that they could tackle the task at hand. But the first year's grow got hammered because of some rookie mistakes.

"The first year we didn't know about covering the vines with netting and birds ate half the grapes," said Jeff.

The family picked the remaining grapes themselves, which was a tiring, backbreaking process. They lugged their booty up all those steps, and started crushing and fermenting. As a result of the diminished output, that first harvest only netted a couple hundred pounds of grapes, and only six cases of wine.

The next year, newly installed nets successfully kept the birds out, but they were torn apart by hungry raccoons looking for a meal. Then some of the irrigation equipment was damaged by coyotes looking for water, which the Krauts did not notice right away. For a few weeks half the vineyard was not getting watered, which stunted the growth of some of the vines.

"We have every kind of predator imaginable down here," Jeff said.

Despite the setbacks, they managed to get about 1,200 pounds of grapes. Instead of picking them all themselves, they had a "harvest party," where they invited dozens of friends and family over to help pick and crush, to spread the labor around a little. After all was said and done, they ended up with about 19 cases of wine.

This year they will reap even more. With no predator attacks so far, and all the irrigation equipment intact, the period of trial and error seems to be coming to an end. Assuming all continues to go smoothly until the September harvest, they should net a whopping 2,000 pounds of grapes and garner 25 cases of wine.

"We're still trying to get stuff figured out on our own, but we've got a better handle on things now," Toni Kraut said. "Right now the hardest part is judging the amount of wine we have in terms of the number of bottles we'll need."

A graphic-designer friend is creating labels for the still-naked bottles, which, at this point, the Krauts are giving away to friends and neighbors. They haven't ruled out selling their all-organic vino in the future, though.

In the meantime, they are enjoying the oasis their little vineyard has become, as well as the routines and sensual pleasures of wine-making.

"It's therapeutic to just go and sit down there," Jeff said. "It's really shady and cool in the evening, and it's protected from the wind."

The Kraut's daughter Adeline, who is 10, loves the odor of the brew as it ferments.

"It smells so good," she said. "I love to put my face in it." Faced with an excess of table grapes this year, Adeline and her brother Kurt, 11, even thought about selling them at a curbside stand on their street - the vintner's version of a lemonade stand.

Jeff Kraut finds it very ironic that he has ended up as a wine maker, considering that it's not exactly his beverage of choice.

"I don't even drink wine," he said, "It all tastes like vinegar to me."

His wife, on the other hand, grew up in an Italian-American family where wine was very much a part of daily life. Furthermore, in a weird twist, she recently learned that this was not the first time someone in her family has owned a vineyard.

Her mother told her that back in the 1930s, her grandfather bought a vineyard for her great-grandmother in the town of Bartolomeo in Italy.

Her grandfather had come to America before the war, but his mother was still back in the old country, and he wanted to help her earn some money.

So what's her grandfather's last name? Gallo. No kidding.

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