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The Chemistry of Home Winemaking in Santa Clara

Image by Larry Sacks

Winemaking is all about chemistry for Todd Ferguson, who makes wine from fruit he harvests each summer from a peach tree and a hybrid tree with three kinds of plums in his Santa Clara backyard.

It’s not just lab work to create a pleasing taste. Personal chemistry is part of the pleasure of his home winemaking.

“It’s amazing to me that I’m able to take fruit from my own backyard and make wine that is pleasant to drink and share it,” said Ferguson. “That’s the best part of it — sharing it.”

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Ferguson planted his dwarf fruit trees in 2012 then waited three or four years for them to bear fruit. But a family can only eat so much peach cobbler and share so much fresh fruit.

So, the idea appealed when someone asked, “Have you ever thought about making fruit wine?”

“First you have to decide at what level you want to get into it,” said Ferguson, who became serious about winemaking as a hobby in 2016. “Then you have to get the head knowledge — from books, the library, the internet.”

Ferguson credits Richard Mansfield at Beer and Wine Makers of America in San Jose with guiding him and uses Mansfield’s recipes.

“The chemistry of it is interesting to me,” said Ferguson, who studied electrical engineering in college but did well in chemistry. “I get a different taste different years. I don’t understand how to control the chemistry for that yet.”

Ferguson has eight, five-gallon Italian glass carboys — jugs for fermenting wine. It takes about 20 pounds of fruit to fill one.

Each carboy makes two cases (48 bottles) of wine. That adds up to 384 bottles annually, which he bottles under the label T & J Cellars (for Todd and June, his wife).

He keeps the carboys in the house so he can control the temperature at 65 to 75 degrees, giving the house an initial yeasty smell. However, the smell dissipates as the wine ages. Fruit wine has eight to 10 percent alcohol, about four percent less than grape wine.

Ferguson has invested over $2,000 in winemaking but says that one can start making home wine for an investment of under $100.

Although he is not bonded to sell wine, he gladly shares it. His fruit wine — similar tasting to a Chenin Blanc grape wine — was a popular raffle prize at the Fiat Club America banquet in 2019.

“There’s more to do around Silicon Valley than work in tech,” said Ferguson, who retired in August of 2019 after working 38 years at Lockheed. “I wish I had more land, for a farm of fruit trees to make wine.”

He dabbled in making grape wine and won a bronze ribbon for his 2017 Zinfandel in the 2019 Bottle Shock Open Home Wine Making Competition in Sacramento.

“I should be making whiskey instead of wine,” quipped Ferguson, who was raised in Tennessee and moved to California in 1981.

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