Fine and Dandy: Winemaking fun awaits just beyond your back door

Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon – amateur winemakers don’t need these or any other well-known grapes for bottling adventures. No, they need only a common backyard weed to make wine: the dandelion.

Dandelion wine, the beverage that Ray Bradbury immortalized in the title of a 1957 novel and likened to “summer caught and stoppered,” is considered a country wine, the term customarily applied to beverages concocted not from grapes but from other fruits, flowers – and even gold-crowned plants that most folks consider targets for the weed-wacker. Like most country wines – and despite a brewing history that stretches back in time generation upon generation – dandelion wine isn’t readily available commercially; to sample the age-old brew, you’ll have to make some yourself.

“Friends of mine have made it, and it’s great wine,” said Nancy Snider, conservation education consultant with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “It was very, very strong, but very, very good. The dandelion was more like, to me, drinking vodka – if someone hadn’t called it dandelion wine, I wouldn’t have thought it was wine. It could’ve been also the person, how they fermented it or how they processed it, too.”

Yes. Don’t underestimate its strength, which can vary from batch to batch. The dandelion wine made by Steve Schmitt, a member of the Missouri Winemaking Society and a teacher in the Rockwood School District, for instance, has averaged 11.8 percent alcohol by volume, although he added that “12.5 percent alcohol is a good reference point for having a natural preserving effect in a wine so it doesn’t go bad quickly.”

Additionally, depending on its preparation, homemade dandelion wine can vary vastly in its flavor, according to David Deaton, president of St. Louis Wine & Beermaking shop in Chesterfield, which stocks everything needed to make dandelion wine – except the all-important petals. Those, you’ll have to gather yourself.

“The best edible species of dandelion in Missouri is the non-native one, Taraxacum officinale,” Snider said. “It was actually brought to this country on purpose. It’s a garden plant that then escaped, and that’s the one you see everywhere. Often you’ll start seeing the leaves come up even when there’s snow on the ground … the end of February, March and into November.” Still, for winemaking and other purposes, Snider advised using dandelions early in their season.

Deaton agreed with Snider’s advice but voiced a warning: “You don’t want the entire dandelion head. You just want to trim off the yellow petals on it – and that goes to make the wine. For each gallon of dandelion wine, it requires about 7 to 8 cups of just the petals. So if you live near Forest Park or someplace that has billions of dandelions, you should be able to do that in a few hours.” He chuckled at the thought of such labor, confessing that it had deterred him from making dandelion wine himself.

Schmitt noted that stray greens among the petals would make the wine bitter. Despite dandelion wine’s labor intensiveness, though, Schmitt himself has made, over the years, up to 3 gallons or roughly 15 bottles at a time. To lessen the labor, Schmitt has harvested the flowers incrementally. “I’ll do it for half an hour every afternoon until I acquire enough actual yellow petals,” he said. “I put them in a freezer bag and freeze them until I have enough to make that 1-gallon batch.”

But be careful that you don’t just pick any ol’ dandelion – as with any foraging for culinary purposes, winemakers should avoid harvesting flowers from areas treated with herbicides. “By example of the Forest Park dandelions, you’ve got a lot of dog traffic that may be ‘fertilizing’ the dandelions, and maybe they spray for them and other things like that, so you have to be cautious,” Deaton explained.

Beyond safety, there are other elements to consider, too: Schmitt suggested avoiding the stray sunburned flower – “it’ll be kind of brown and crinkly, just not as pretty as the next one” – for flavor-related reasons.

Yet even the heartiest, healthiest dandelions still result in a very delicately flavored wine, said Schmitt: “Any time you make a wine out of flowers, you’re not really getting flavor, you’re getting aroma. … Once you’ve got this wine that’s been aged in the bottle a little, tiny bit, a few months, and then you go to swirl your glass and sniff it, you smell springtime, you smell summer. … It’s kind of magical how it captures that essence of time.” Schmitt also cited a delicate honey taste to his dandelion wine: “I don’t think that’s on the forefront of the palate, but it’s definitely part of the after-flavor.”

That delicacy of flavor, however, can make building the wine’s body a bit tricky. Schmitt augments his wine with a few so-called body-builders. “I throw in 3 ounces of light raisins just to make a gallon of wine, just cooking raisins, basically,” he noted. “I use zest and juice [of] two oranges and two lemons. And I still have to add some sugar and a little bit of what they call acid blend, because you have to get the chemistry with the wine correct, and the flowers themselves can’t do that.”

The result is “a lighter-flavored wine, but otherwise, it’s a little thinner, texture-wise, than other white wines. … I usually add a tiny bit of grape tannin to my wine as well, and that kind of helps give it a little bit more mouth feel,” Schmitt explained.

He also, of course, adds yeast, the component that ferments the sugars into alcohol. “If you use a wine yeast, the most common being just a basic Champagne yeast, … it’s gonna get the job done,” Schmitt said. He plans to experiment with one called RHST: “It’s a yeast that’s actually been developed to bring out more aromatics in a wine, [and] in a dandelion wine, that’s right on.”

Deaton, who noted that dandelion wine matures fast, within a few months of fermentation and clarification, suggested pairing your backyard wine with “something lighter, stuff you might have white wine with – maybe fish.” Schmitt recommended dishes without overpowering seasoning or herbs so as not to mask the wine’s fragile flavor.

“But from my experiences,” Schmitt continued, “dandelion wine truly is a social wine. It makes people really happy – even before they have too much of it. It’s just a novelty. … It’s truly a wine that gets people talking or reliving some of their moments picking dandelions or whatnot.”