February 7, 2011

A Toast to Healing

Jason Phelps pours a glass of strawberry wine, made from strawberries
 he and his wife, Margot, picked at a local farm.
Union Leader Correspondent
 Jason Phelps shows off a wooden wine
press kept in his basement wine cellar.
LONDONDERRY -- For Jason Phelps, life is meant to be savored — like fine wine.
Eight years after his diagnosis of testicular cancer, Phelps is feeling better than ever and plans to continue living life to the fullest, sharing
 his love of fine beer and wine with all the new friends he meets along the way.
“It’s nice to be able to tell my story,” Phelps said in his dining room one sunny afternoon last week, as he poured a hearty glass of his homemade strawberry wine.
In 2003, newly diagnosed with
 cancer and undergoing aggressive treatment, Phelps’ wife, Margot, had some words of advice for her workaholic husband.
“She asked me if I’d like to enjoy life, here and now, instead of working all the time,” he said with a laugh.
Working in IT, Phelps recalled a time when he’d work day and night.
“I’d buy IT books like people buy coffee,” he said. “But I always
 wanted to try making my own beer. Margot encouraged this, and suggested I make her some fruit wine while I was at it.” 

An avid home cook, Phelps began with his own twist on dark, stout-style beers. 
“I made a brown ale with some New Hampshire-made maple syrup,” he recalled. “It was just awesome.” 
More home brews soon followed, while Phelps remained on the gradual road to recovery. 
“I didn’t realize, at first, how many resources were available,” he said. “But I’d see catalogs with pages and pages of home-brewing kits. It was all so new to me.” 
These days, Phelps’ health is pretty good: and his wines are award-winning. 
“I’ve been very, very lucky,” he said. “Lately, I just have to go in for annual monitoring.” 
And though he’s returned to his IT job, what he’s learned from his illness is the art of maintaining balance in all areas of life — and to take plenty of time to stop and smell the grapes. 
“Now it’s definitely become an obsession,” Phelps said of his hobby. 
The possibilities have seemed endless. 
From March through May, and then again in September through November, the climate is just about perfect for brewing a batch of home wine. Summer months are a bit too hot for fermentation, while a drastic climate drop can actually cause the wine to take on a sulphury odor. 
Last June, Phelps and his wife stopped at nearby Sunnycrest Farms, where they picked some native strawberries for use in the bright pink, aromatic wine. 
“Just like standing in a strawberry patch,” he said, holding the glass under his nose. 
Other wines have contained such ingredients as white plums, red currants, pears, Concord grapes and even jalapeno peppers, among other locally grown treats. 
There have been a few slight flops. In 2005, Phelps’ attempt at making an apple wine had some slightly rotten results. 
“It just came out too dry,” he noted. “But it inspired me to try making cider instead.” 
While his in-home operation doesn’t currently lend itself to commercial endeavors, Phelps’ home brews have nevertheless managed to capture the interest of the international publication Wine Maker Magazine, among other organizations. 
Last spring, nine of Phelps’ wines were honored during Wine Maker’s International Amateur Wine Competition, held in Manchester, Vt. 
This week, the Phelpses will load up their car to deliver another box of entries for the coming spring’s contest, totaling 12 wines in nine different categories. 
Along the way, he hopes to educate other would-be wine brewers and encourage them to partake in the hobby that’s brought so much healing. 
Keeping a regular food and wine blog, Phelps enjoys pairing favorite foods with the perfect beverage. Pairing homemade wine with a nice, home-cooked meal seems an ideal combination, he said. 
“You cook at home, so why not do both at home,” he said. 
Under state law, a home brewer is permitted to make up to 100 gallons of wine, cider or beer in their homes annually. With two adults in their household, the Phelpses are permitted to make up to 200 gallons, though they usually make closer to 80 or 100 gallons each year. 
Downstairs in the basement, a half-dozen large jugs contain fermenting wine batches, which sit in an empty kiddy pool, awaiting bottling. It’s a tedious process, involving crushing, pressing, fermenting and waiting, sort of like a complicated chemistry experiment. 
White wines usually take less time to perfect, Phelps noted, since the wine grapes are both crushed and pressed prior to fermenting. The reds tend to be aged longer, as it takes time to bring out the natural tannins contained in the grape skins. 
But Phelps doesn’t mind a bit when it comes to waiting the proper amount of time needed to savor those latest creations. 
“If you asked me eight years ago if I thought this would be possible, I’d have never believed it in a million years,” he said. 
To learn more about home brewing, visit www.phelps-online. com or send an e-mail to jasonphelps@yahoo.com. 

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