Turning Fruit into Wine “You can’t rush wine. If you do, the bottles pop their corks. You put two years into it and to lose it on the ground, that’s sad,” says Stacey Embree, whose homemade fruit wines have won many awards at local fairs over the years.
The ranch where Stacey makes her wine is 320 acres up a steep canyon off the Salmon River a few miles from Riggins. The creek that runs down the canyon alongside their road offers year-round water for trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses, creating a swath of vibrant green nestled between the late-August brown of steep, rocky canyon walls. Among those plants near the creek are lots of blackberry vines, even more so after the Teepee Springs fire burned through in 2015. “It’s a weed,” says Stacey. “I’d like to keep only about 20% of what’s there now. They’ve tripled since the fire. The fire killed the trees, removing the shade, and now the blackberries thrive.”
Now a retired pathologist, Stacey was working in the Las Vegas area when she and her first husband bought land outside Riggins in 1995. Nestled close to a canyon wall, they built a geodesic dome structure in 1997 as a retirement home but in the meantime spent vacations there. Stacey would pick the blackberries when at the ranch. “I have been making wine now since 2000, slowly increasing my varieties. I first learned because we had so many blackberries along our road and you can only eat so many pies, cobblers and jam, so wine seemed like a good idea.” The marriage crumbled but Stacey kept the Idaho property, continuing to visit when she could while working full-time in Nevada, and kept making wine.
Initially, Stacey learned winemaking by using a one-gallon jug, pouring from there into bottles and using a hand-corker. Then she moved up to five-gallon carboys (glass containers), sharing the end product with friends and neighbors who loved it and encouraged her to enter some in the Idaho County Fair. The first bottle she entered won a red ribbon, and in the years since Stacey has won 50-60 blue ribbons and best-of-show five times.
Finding a Match Where’s the fun in making wonderful wine without someone special to share it with? A few years after her divorce, Stacey decided to try Match.com, hoping to find someone who might enjoy her lifestyle. After no real connections made and just before her subscription expired, she reached out to another member because his profile photo showed him holding a Canon camera. Stacey is an award-winning photographer who also shoots with a Canon. After emailing and discovering many things in common in addition to photography and occasionally talking on the phone when Stacey was in Boise (she didn’t have a phone at the ranch), the couple agreed to meet. This required her “match” to drive 333 miles for their first date, from one end of the Salmon River – he lived in Salmon, Idaho – to the other, in Riggins. “You just know when you meet ‘the one,’” says Stacey, remembering that first meeting. In 2009 Stacey married her match, De Embree, a native Idahoan who was retired after a life in corporate IT and was game to make a life with her and their combined five dogs off the grid in a Salmon River canyon.
De admitted to me that he initially skipped over Stacey’s Match.com profile. “Her photo showed her wearing a green shirt – green is my least-favorite color – holding a Tasmanian devil, her long hair looking like she’d just been through a storm.” But when she wrote to him about his camera, he took a second look and the rest is history.
De did have reservations about living off the grid at first, telling Stacey, “I’m no Davy Crockett,” but now he enjoys it, including using heavy equipment to move earth for constructing new outbuildings or to build rock retaining walls, slowly increasing their garden and even adding some chickens and peacocks. They had 33 peacocks, but they’re downsizing these days so they gave the peacocks away last spring and will soon give their chickens to friends “when their food runs out.” The Embrees enjoy traveling; finding caretakers for so many animals in a remote location proved an increasing challenge. They’re looking forward to more travel, including a trip to Alaska next year to celebrate their ten-year anniversary.
Experimenting and Learning Living at the ranch full-time made a difference in the quality of Stacey’s wines. Winemaking is a year-long, complicated and precise process that requires careful monitoring and periodic “racking” – siphoning from one container to another – which she wasn’t able to do when here only on vacation, leaving the wine all winter. After bottling, it needs to “rest” for at least a year, better for two or more, so it can be years before the wine can be enjoyed. As her wine experiments grew in quantity and quality, carboys, bottles and equipment slowly took over the cool basement of the dome, nearly overtaking the space available for tools and supplies, including all of the food Stacey cans each year.
Making wine starts with picking and squashing the fruit and adding yeast for the primary fermentation process which takes ten days in buckets. Then the “must” (young wine) is racked into glass carboys holding five or more gallons each. Seven weeks later, it is racked again because by now the yeast has died and fallen to the bottom so Stacey is racking off the yeast. Because the glass carboys are heavy and unwieldy, a siphon is used to move contents from one to another. Stacey also has a hydraulic lift table – “My husband’s best ever gift to me,” – to help move containers between a high bench and the floor when they’re full. Depending on how much wine she’s making, this process of racking can take a couple of days and occurs four times over the course of a year, Stacey making careful notes about each container of wine – the fruit(s) used, the type of yeast, its specific gravity (a ratio of density in relation to the density of water), the dates of each step along the process – putting her medical background to meticulous and good use in search of the best possible wines.
Once the wine is in a carboy, a stopper called an airlock is added to the top. Vodka – “the cheapest I can find” – is added to sterilize the airlock. It also kills any fruit flies that might try to sneak in; fruit flies = vinegar, so best for all concerned to let them die happy in vodka.
For variety beyond blackberries, the Embrees have planted raspberries, marionberries, strawberries, gooseberries, pears and plums and pick native elderberries and rose hips growing on their ranch, and apricots from old trees on a neighboring ranch or one special tree found on public land nearby. (Ironically, one fruit the Embrees don’t grow is grapes.)
Stacey enjoys experimenting with combinations of fruits in her wines. The day I visit she’s bottling some gooseberry/plum wine, which she says will be very sweet; other combinations include strawberry/rhubarb, cherry/apricot and ginger/pear. She has even made very some unusual wines, such as zucchini/citrus, pumpkin/spice, and lavender and lilac flower wines. Her hot pepper wine received Best in Show at the Idaho County Fair last year. Stacey typically uses all her own fruit, although one time she bought five gallons of huckleberries to experiment with, not wanting to take the time to pick the tiny berries herself. Unfortunately, some of the huckleberries had started to mold and the experiment was a failure. The fruits Stacey uses all make delicious wines, although her husband De refuses to drink any of the elderberry wine. “He finds it too medicinal, saying if he wanted to drink cough syrup he’d go buy some,” Stacey says, smiling. Not everyone agrees with De on that score, but Stacey admits the elderberry wine does have a medicinal flavor and one either loves it or hates it. “It can make a good spritzer wine,” she says, adding that friends told her they waited five years to open some of her elderberry wine – the longer it’s bottled, the less tannic (that dry feeling on the tongue) and richer it gets – and told her it was as good as any port they’d ever tasted.
Dry or Sweet An aged wine may start as “dry” and by adding sugar syrup can be made sweeter. The sugar syrup helps continues the fermentation process in the carboy. Since this is not an exact science and each carboy results in a bit of a surprise as final product, Stacey tastes each wine before deciding whether it’s ready to bottle and whether to label it sweet or dry. A five-gallon carboy can produce about 23 bottles of dry wine; if sugar syrup has been added, the volume increases to 25 to 27 bottles. Stacey has five, six and seven-and-one-half gallon carboys as well as a ten-gallon oak cask used to add an oak flavor to some of her blackberry wine. “I used one oak cask for four years before it started losing the oak flavoring,” says Stacey. “My husband got me a new one for Christmas, so now I use the old one for some of my elderberry wine.” Last year, she oaked ten gallons of blackberry wine and left five un-oaked.
Stacey relies on friends to provide her with enough empty wine bottles for each year’s production. She likes to put lighter wines in clear bottles but those are harder to come by. Friends are also recruited to help her bottle the wine each year. I tagged along with Mark and Lisa Schneider of Meadows Valley as they helped Stacey bottle most of this year’s wines on August 23rd. This is the third time the Schneiders have helped so they’re seasoned veterans who make an efficient team.
After Stacey removes the stopper from a carboy to test specific gravity one last time, she uses what’s called a wine thief to siphon off a sample to taste before making the final decision that the wine is ready to bottle. After all of us get to sample the wine, the carboy is moved from the bench onto the floor using the hydraulic lift. Lisa starts moving the wine from carboy to bottle with the help of an electric-powered siphon that shuts off automatically when the wine bottle is full. Handing the full bottles off to Mark, he uses a hand-operated floor corker to insert the corks. Mark then hands the corked bottles to Stacey who sets them on their sides on a special rack where she adds hand-made labels that – with pictures – state what fruits are included, the ranch’s name, and the alcohol content (usually 16-18%; Stacey uses an app on her tablet to make the conversion calculation) before putting the bottles into cardboard cases. (Explaining how percent alcohol is determined, Stacey joked, “Yeast live on sugar, converting it to alcohol and when the alcohol gets too high, they die. If the yeast die in the wine while its fermenting, then what does the wine do to our bodies?”)
Sometimes there’s a little bit of wine left over from a jug, or from a wine bottle filled a little too high; all that goes into the “floor-sweepings mix” and eventually into a bottle. No wine is wasted.
Gifts Stacey and De have done the bottling on their own, but it’s a huge job. One incentive for friends like the Schneiders to spend an entire day, maybe two, helping bottle Stacey’s wines (in addition to a wonderful homemade lunch when they take a break) is the promise of all the wine they can drink during the bottling as well as a gift of a case or two when they’re done. “The big draw for us is the whole, interesting process,” says Mark. “We also like sampling the varieties, realizing, oh – that’s good!” Lisa first met Stacey through a Meadows Valley Critter Club’s visit to the Embree’s home and ranch where Stacey gave a seminar on photography. A year later the group visited again to view Stacey’s photos from a recent trip to Africa. Lisa knew Mark would enjoy meeting Stacey because they shared a fascination with geology. “Mark and I hit it off because of geology,” says Stacey, “ogling and awing over my mineral samples. My ex-husband of 24 years was a geologist, so I know something about it.” When Stacey needed help bottling wine, the Schneiders were eager to assist. It’s hard work; this year Lisa figures they corked some 350 bottles of wine in a long day.
The Embrees don’t sell the wine they make. Instead, it’s a hobby that results in gifts for their friends and family, including those who – like the Schneiders – help them make and bottle it. For example, one of Stacey’s nephews is getting married. In addition to gifting wine for their wedding reception, she’s giving the newlyweds a case of wine, one specially-labeled bottle per month for the first year of their marriage. (Hearing this I wondered how I could get Stacey to adopt me!)
Fire and Gratitude Stacey says that life on the ranch, off the grid, has always been challenging but rewarding. The Teepee Springs fire of 2015, however, was a severe test that nearly wiped away years of hard work. The Embree’s canyon came under evacuation order while they were away in Washington state; the sheriff told them to come fast and close up their house. Friends had already taken their seven dogs and two cats to safety. When the Embrees arrived a day later, they opened the chicken and peacock enclosures to give them the best chance at survival, and sprinklers were set up to keep the dome’s roof and two outbuildings housing gas and propane tanks wet a few hours each day.
The Embrees had to quickly decide what to “save” from their home before evacuating. “It’s surprising what little you take with you,” remembers Stacey. “The lives of the animals are first and foremost. But then, I grabbed my father’s minerals, a quilt made from some of my mother’s silk shirts, things like that. My photographs had already been backed up. As the fire came through we had one last look at 11:00 am. As De said, it was like Patton gathering his armies, with fire holding up on the canyon walls all around us. It took only forty minutes for the fire to sweep through the entire canyon.” At 4:30 that afternoon they returned to find the dome and outbuildings spared but one of De’s small Bobcat skid steers just feet away from the dome was burned. “The chickens were still here, the peacocks still alive,” says Stacey. “The ground was smoking for a couple of months afterward. Trees all along the creek burned. De pulled up several stumps and we’ve planted an aspen grove in their place.”
So far Stacey has seen one major flood and one fire on the ranch. She’s hoping that’s all she sees. Since the Teepee Springs fire, Stacey has added new plants to her garden: some smoke trees, burning bushes and golden rain trees, a wink and nod to just how close they came to losing so much. Just as she makes wonderful wine from the fruit of the blackberry bushes that threaten to overrun the ranch’s creek beds – more weed than welcome – so too Stacey uses her boundless energy to create something soothing after the fire that nearly destroyed the nirvana she and De have worked so hard to create: a Gratitude Garden full of flowers, shrubs and shade trees where they can sit, remembering family members who have passed while being grateful for what they have, what the fire didn’t take.
Cheers to that.
(All photos by McCall Digest.)