Ron Stringfield works as a wine rep. He has an impeccable ability to taste, define and critique fine and foul vintages.

Ron Stringfield works as a wine rep. He has an impeccable ability to taste, define and critique fine and foul vintages.

But when he's home in Ashland, the concoctions aging in 6-gallon glass bottles, called carboys, are meant to capture only his attention.

He's a hobby winemaker. He doesn't have high-tech equipment or a fancy wine cellar. But when he serves a chardonnay that he made to his guest, he's more proud than any French wine merchant.

"The bug I have is the rhythm and cycle of wine growing," he says. "I love tending vines and being outdoors. I then make like a French guy and cut off clusters to try to make as rich a wine as I can coax from the site."

It's almost effortlessly simple to make wine at home. Making it taste good is the tricky part. But most hobby winemakers develop what's called a "house palate" — they like the taste of their fermented grape juice and, since they're not licensed to sell it, pleasing themselves and their friends is really all that matters.

For Rogue Valley amateurs who aspire to make something better than a nondescript white from a kit or a one-note merlot from the neighbor's leftover grapes, there are plenty of experts willing to guide them to the next step.

Oregon State University's Extension Service and the Southern Oregon Wine Institute team up to offer up to three technical classes a year in Central Point. Umpqua Community College and SOWI have online enology and viticulture courses that can lead to earning a certificate and degree. Southern Oregon University's Hannon Library has hundreds of books and journals on viticulture, wine production, geographical wine regions and wine appreciation that were donated by retired Agate Ridge winemaker Will Brown.

Hobbyists who seek a less academic, more hands-on approach can join the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association, attend seminars, participate in field trips with grape growers and meet with winemakers of all levels. Those who volunteer as cellar rats and vineyard workers can see firsthand what's necessary to improve the flavor of grapes and ageability of wine. Entering amateur winemaking contests at the Jackson County Harvest Fair and the Oregon State Fair lets hobbyists learn what judges think of their wine.

The most entertaining way to learn, however, is from hard-working winemakers standing behind their own tasting room counters. Even the busiest vintners show up at passport or barrel tours such as the Applegate Valley Uncorked Barrel Tours in the spring and fall. Most also pour at wine-centric events such as the JPR Wine Tasting in Ashland in December.

When wannabe winemakers are ready to put their hopes into a bottle, they usually end up at a wine supply store such as Grains Beans & Things in Medford. There, they can read how-to handouts, get connections to grape growers willing to sell by the pound and look over the small-producer quantities of carboys, corks and bottles.

Then they can figure out what kind of commitment feels right:

Buy a winemaking-in-a-box kit (about $70) that includes some form of juice or concentrate, yeast, clarifiers and stabilizers to produce 5 to 6 gallons of wine in about four weeks. Buy grapes from growers and borrow or buy equipment that can be used every year to ferment, age and bottle a small number of cases. Spend $20,000 to plant an acre of grapes and install the necessary support (poles, trellis), wait three years before the first usable harvest, then take the grapes to a custom-crush facility or winery to have the juice fermented, and the wine aged, bottled and stored. Do everything yourself.

Home winemaker Stringfield says any level of winemaking will broaden your understanding of wine and what the Rogue Valley is capable of producing in quality and variety.

"That's what has spurred me on," says Stringfield, the Southern Oregon representative for Galaxy wine distribution who has been making his own wine since 1989.

He thinks his best wines so far are a 1999 cabernet from grapes grown on Eagle Mill Farm and a 2001 cab franc from grapes grown in Del Rio Vineyards.

The grapes are the most important consideration, he says. "It's not what's done in the fermentation or maturation of the wine," says Stringfield. "A good 85 percent of wine's persona is what comes from the vineyard."

Other than the quality of the grapes, success at making wine depends on cleanliness during the process and keeping air exposure to a minimum.

"Air is an underlying evil," he says.

If all fails, your efforts and expenses will go down the drain. But that's unlikely, says Stringfield, adding: "If the Romans and Greeks could do it, so can we."

Reach wine columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or