Monday, August 16, 2010

Al Jacobson's Oshkosh Wine

Today we're going to take a short break from the beer to visit with Al Jacobson whose unique wines have become the stuff of legend in Oshkosh. Al is one of the founding members of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers and though he brews beer, we'll leave that topic for another day.

Al's Wine Garden
Al Jacobson is sort of different. He doesn't see things the way you or I do. When the average person encounters a zucchini they usually think food. Not Al. He wonders what might happen if he were to smash it to mush and let some yeast go to work on it. Al sees a zucchini and thinks wine. In fact, there isn’t much that hasn’t caused Al to think wine at one time or another. He’s made wine from green tomatoes, corn, beets, rhubarb, dandelions... if it grows, Al has probably tried to ferment it.

He’s been at it now for more than 40 years and he’s been inventive from the start. He made his first batch of wine in the late 1960s without so much as a recipe to guide him. “You couldn’t find any recipes back then,” Al says, “so we experimented. I was working for a grocery store and they had some leftover peaches they couldn’t sell. We smashed them up and put them in a five-gallon Red Wing jar with water and apples and a Red Star yeast of some sort.” It worked. He’d made his first wine. How’d it turn out? “It was a little cloudy, but we drank all of it.”

That same spirit of invention colliding with happenstance continues to inform his wine making. It’s an approach that finds inspiration everywhere. “My neighbor had an apple tree limb that fell off so I took the blossoms from it and made an apple blossom wine,” Al says. When I asked him what the apple blossoms contributed to the final wine he said “the name for one thing.” He wasn’t just being glib. Though much of his wine is made using ingredients some would consider unconventional, the flavors he achieves are anything but odd. His wines tend to be subtle and easy to drink. At first blush, his recipes may appear somewhat unusual but the point is always to make something that tastes good. The popularity of his wines at this year’s Brews ‘n Blues, indicates he’s doing something right. “I like taking it to beer festivals.” Al says. “Some people like it and some people don’t. Then there’s some people who keep coming back for more.”
Al & Kay Pouring at Brews 'n Blues 2010

A quick tour of Al’s amazing wine cellar proves that it’s not all corn and tomatoes. “I do make a lot of grape wine,” Al says. “Mostly from wild grapes. I have a friend who grows fox grapes that I’ll make wine with, or else I’ll go out to Plummers Point and pick wild grapes.” He’s also dabbled with a more conventional approach to wine making. Back in the early 80s he even tried a wine kit. “I got a wine kit and a mushroom kit. The cats loved the mushroom kit,” Al says, but the wine kit was a bust. “That sort of wine making isn’t as satisfying. A kit is a good way to get started, but doing it from scratch is more fun.”

A Corner of Al's Cellar
Most of Al’s wines are made in batch sizes ranging from one to five gallons and they’re often provoked by circumstance. “Last year a guy brought a whole bunch of plums to an S.O.B. (Society of Oshkosh Brewers) meeting. Nobody wanted them so I made wine from it.” Little goes to waste. He and his wife Kay tend a large, practical garden at their home on the East Side of Oshkosh and Al says that “whatever is left at the end of the year becomes wine.” Sometimes he’ll use the leftover trub from a previous batch of wine to make a lower-alcohol “false wine.” Not even the weeds get away. “I like to make dandelion wine, but picking those dandelions is a lot of work,” he says.

A couple weeks ago Al and I were sitting in his back yard going through a binder of his recipes. I asked him if there’s anything he wouldn’t consider fermenting. He looked up at the sky as if the answer might drop on his head and spotted the fat, orange berries clustering in his neighbor’s Mountain Ash. “I’ll have to ask him what he’s gonna do with those,” Al said. I guess I got my answer.

Here's Al's recipe for Corn Wine.

1 comment:

  1. You can never be scared away by what he calls is wine! They are full of surprises. He and Katie always have something good to share. Thanks Al.