Water2Wine puts you in charge of the juice, and produces award-winning wines while they’re at it

The recent list of winners from the 2008 San Antonio Wine Competition was surprising from a number of standpoints — not the least of which was that a Texas pinot noir, the Bell Mountain Vineyards Estate Bottled Pinot Noir Reserve, won a gold medal in its category. We aren’t supposed to be able to grow pinot noir properly in Texas.

Another shocker — and I think shock is appropriate in context — was that among the several Texas wineries to garner multiple medals, the one to walk away with the most hardware was a San Antonio operation. Water2Wine, which took 10 awards, has occupied a storefront in Castle Hills for more than four years, and the minute you open the door, wine-making aromas assail you: It smells like the real thing. There’s a real winemaker, too. But the point isn’t that there is one person with a title, rather that there are dozens of people who share the moniker. One of them could be you.

Dennis Jacks, an apparent jack-of-all-trades at W2W, waits on customers who simply want to buy a bottle of wine (prices range from $9.95-$23.95) from the stock of more than 85 different varietals and blends from all over he world — all of which are vinified right there. He also conducts Wine 101 tasting classes to help beginning wine drinkers past the initial intimidation. “If somebody leaves here a wine snob, I guess we’ve done our job,” he says.

Becoming a wine snob isn’t necessarily a worthy goal, but there are undeniable braggin’ rights attached to having made a batch of wine yourself. And Jacks and the staff at W2W can help you over that hurdle as well. Here’s how it works:

W2W sources juice from 13 countries, according to their brochure, and there are about 67 single-varietal wines and blends currently listed on the website (out of a possible 85). You taste, you determine which wine you want to make, W2W sells you enough juice for a batch (28-30 bottles), you add the appropriate yeast and, voila!, instant winemaker.

The wine takes a little longer, going through two fermentation stages in plastic buckets and glass carboys. The staff takes care of monitoring the process, racking, fining, “de-gassing,” and even adding oak chips where deemed appropriate. (The only oak barrels at W2W are decorative, and though the process of adding oak chips as a flavoring agent seems like cheating, the French recently — and reluctantly, one assumes — approved its use in certain categories.)

You simply wait; the primary fermentation alone can take 45 days. When your baby is deemed ready, you are summoned to do the bottling and labeling. (W2W’s custom labeling program can help you create a prizewinner there, too.)

In addition to the pride of having participated in the creative process, there’s another advantage: tax. The only tax you pay is on tangible items such as bottles and labels, meaning that your batch will cost anywhere from $240-$480, depending on the blend. Try finding an Amarone for $16 a bottle.

Sounds like fun, but how good are these wines? W2W prides itself on adding the minimum amount of sulfites to control secondary fermentation, so the shelf life may be somewhat limited — you’re drinking “fresh wine — none of that old stuff,” just as Steve Martin’s character preferred in LA Story. Yet a little time in the bottle is paradoxically just what many of these wines may need to develop full expression. There’s a fruity, Beaujolais nouveau character to most I tasted, and while that is far from a flaw, it is something to be aware of; holding some back for a few months might make all the difference. For drinking now, however, the Australian chardonnay had a pretty, tropical nose and nice, buttery oak (yes, chips) flavor. The Venetian Red (a Valpolicella knock-off) had bright cherry notes and would be a great pool and patio choice. And the Washington State cabernet franc-merlot blend seemed already to have evolved into a wine with some mature tobacco, sage, and plum characteristics. For me, the Australian cabernet-shiraz-merlot blend lacked the authority and weight of the made-in-Australia model, and the Super Tuscan blend of sangiovese, cabernet, and merlot called Rosso Fortissimo had charm but little horsepower.

But according to Jacks, the wine “we can’t keep on the shelves” (and did win a medal), is a sweet red called Texas Sweet Chianti. In true wine-snob fashion, I wasn’t even going to bother to taste it. But Jacks convinced me — in part by revealing that it was made by producing a totally dry wine to which sweetened cranberry juice was added, bringing the alcohol level down to about 9 percent. And while I have trouble imagining what food I might pair this pariah of the pompous with, as a refreshing quaffer it’s not damn bad. If W2W can help make wine snobs, perhaps they can also help unmake them — a much more difficult task I might have thought.

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