United We Wine: Generations connect though the grapevine

The author along with his wife and daughter accepting the “Best of Show”award at the 2019 Musto Amateur Winemaker Dinner

Early 2019, my wife and I attended the World of Pinot event in Santa Barbara, California where I bumped into a Master Sommelier. I had to ask him how he developed such a unique skill set. He explained he had a photographic memory and the taste of a wine triggers his memory. He said a taste helps him recall the varietal, soil type, weather, people making the wine, and the vineyard’s history. He told me he was a wine historian with his expertise being the history of what’s inside the bottle.

I have always enjoyed drinking wine but the idea of making my own started after my father-in-law’s funeral. While at a gathering at my wife’s relatives’ home, I found myself in the cellar of her Uncle Gene’s tasting homemade wine from a barrel. I can’t recall the varietal, but it was better than anticipated. The group of older Italians then huddled in the corner without me, waving for me to stay out of the conversation. A few minutes later they came back with a hand written document: It was their wine recipe. They’d agreed to share it with me because they thought I might carry on the tradition. I didn’t think much about it, but driving home I told my wife what happened. She was surprised; you see, to her, the recipe was the family’s “Holy Grail” . . . and I wasn’t even Italian.

He told me he was a wine historian with his expertise being the history of what’s inside the bottle.

Afterwards, my dad and I decided to give winemaking a try. We purchased a whisky barrel and I rented a U-Haul and drove to Musto Wine Grape Company in Hartford, Connecticut to pick up the grapes. There I met Frank Musto and his dad for the very first time. Once back home, we started pushing grapes through plastic milk box cartons and picking out stems. We let the grapes ferment with wild yeast and used buckets to pour the fermented juice into the whisky barrel. The following spring we strained the wine and poured it into Pellegrino bottles with caps I’d saved over the year. Our first wine tasted exactly as expected . . . like a homemade wine with a hint of whisky. Drinkable, but you needed a strong will to enjoy it.

Year two was worse. By the third year, I’d decided to solicit help. I went to Frank Musto to discuss and ended up attending wine school at his facility. I purchased a pH meter, yeast, tartaric acid, metabisulfite, and some reasonably priced Ruby Cabernet grapes. That year was the best wine dad and I had made to date. A year later we decided to invest in grapes grown in the Suisun Valley of California. Fast forward another few years and we ended up visiting that same vineyard and winery those grapes were grown on. Our youngest daughter, Shannon, who’d been working in Los Angeles, California that week flew up and joined us to tour the wineries. It was January 2014 and we serendipitously met Christina Musto, Frank’s daughter, who was working in the tasting room at the Suisun Valley winery. Christina told Shannon all about an MBA program in wine at Sonoma State University that she had taken. Shannon had been looking for a new career so applied for the program, quit her job, and was enrolled by spring.

Shannon met a young man, Chris Hyde, in her class in the wine business. They fell in love and were married a few years later. Currently they manage Hyde Estates Winery in Napa. This past year Chris and Shannon sent 3⁄4 ton of their award-winning Merlot grapes through Musto Wine Grapes, which now sits in French oak barrels in my cellar.

A partial view of the Walker’s wine cellar, generations in the making.

I keep thinking back to that Master Sommelier’s statement about history. Now when I open our wine cellar doors, I think about the history inside. The history of families united through wine.