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October 21, 2009 > Bottled with love

Bottled with love

By Alyson Whitaker
Photos By Alyson Whitaker and William Mancebo

The Bay Area is known worldwide for its fine wine. Napa, Sonoma County, and Livermore boast world class wineries, with snazzy tasting rooms, classy decor, and professionally trained staff. The vineyards and wineries are high-tech, closely monitored, and scientifically advanced. Tourists come from all over the world to partake in the experience and the goodness of California winemaking.

Come to Fremont, and look up in the hills above Mission Boulevard and you'll see a different type of vineyard, a different winemaker, and a class of wine all its own. One that takes you back to how it used to be, before wine became a status symbol; when it was just about families spending time together.

Bernie Leal, a lifelong resident of Fremont, lives on the ranch that once belonged to his grandfather, Joseph Leal. Settling in Fremont in 1887, the Leal family originally owned 27 acres of land in the Mission San Jose area. Prune and apricot trees filled the orchard, cattle wandered the hillside, and a small vineyard was nestled in the midst of the other vegetables growing on the land. After a few years, it became difficult to eke out a living with ranching alone. Joseph went to work for another winery, and didn't have time to make his own. His son, Joseph Leal, Jr., helped out with the ranch, in addition to working for a local cannery. Bernie grew up loving the ranch property and all it had come to represent for his family - hard work, good times, and family traditions.

When Bernie retired in 1988 after 37 years working for Leslie/Cargill Salt, he and his wife Marlene were living in a comfortable Fremont neighborhood, where they had raised their children for the past 30 years. The ranch was still in the family, and Bernie's daughter Allison was living in a trailer on the property. One day, Bernie suggested to his wife that he was thinking about fixing up a portion of the old barn, so that Allison could have a little more space and comfort. Marlene's reply went right to his heart. "You know Bernie, you've always wanted to live up there. Why don't you fix it for yourself, and we'll move up there together?" Nicer words had never been spoken.

With the help of his son David, Bernie restored the barn, and he and Marlene moved back to the ranch of his childhood. The old barn was converted to a cozy residence, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a comfortable living area, and kitchen. They did their best to refurbish as close as possible to the structure his grandfather built, even using much of the original lumber. Running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, cable TV, and internet service were installed. The old outhouse still stands out back, now with a flushing toilet, in addition to the 1904 wooden seat.

Elmer Raphael, a good friend of Bernie's from childhood, now lives in Oakdale. As teens, Elmer and Bernie worked together bailing hay from sunup to sundown. Sleeping next to the equipment under the stars, they dreamt of their futures. When Bernie started working the ranch again, Elmer called him up and said "Bernie, I've got a little vineyard, I'll give you some cuttings and you should plant them and start making wine."

Bernie's response was less than enthusiastic. "Oh, that's nice Elmer, but it sounds like a lot of work."

Undeterred, Elmer insisted, "You know, we bailed hay together as kids. Here's one more adventure for us. I've already got the cuttings ready, so let's make wine together!"

The 80-vine vineyard was born. Now down to just over 60 vines, winemaking has become a year-round hobby for Bernie. He has learned most of what he knows from talking to the "old-timers," his ranching friends with limited winemaking experience. If the grapes are good, chances are, the wine will be too.

At 77, Bernie is beginning to feel his age. Managing the ranch, cattle, and vineyard with no hired help is a lot of work. In an effort to ignite some interest from his children, he erected a large sign at the entrance of the vineyard with the name of his eldest daughter. "Brenda's Vineyard," intended at first as a bit of a joke, was a not-so-subtle hint for help. Brenda took notice, and then recruited her two sisters Jan and Allison to join the winemaking efforts. The three began taking a night class at Los Positas College to learn the ins and outs of winemaking. It began with a course on soil maintenance, planting, growing, stringing up, and harvesting the grapes. Now they've moved on to the technical aspects of winemaking.

Bernie couldn't be more thrilled. "I just feel so pleased, so excited that they're doing this. When they come over, we have winemaking to talk about. Now, Marlene can't get a word in edgewise!"

He jokes now that the sisters talk like professional winemakers, concerned about sugar levels, pH levels and more. But deep down, he's breathing a big sigh of relief.

For Brenda and her sisters, this is a priceless opportunity for them to spend time with their father, doing something he loves. Brenda says "Is this rock-hard mountainside the ideal for growing grapes? Probably not. But his heart and soul is in this soil. He's worked hard to make it what it is today."

Spending time with their father, who won't be around forever, is what has driven the sisters to pursue the interest. Each has her own life and commitments away from the ranch.

This past Sunday, October 18, marked harvest day for the Leal Vineyard. Family and friends gathered early, starting off with a breakfast together, before picking the grapes. The children hauled the buckets of grapes to the crusher. Orange juice and champagne were on hand all morning, "in case the grown-ups get thirsty while they're working." Once the harvest was completed, they all gathered on the veranda for a home cooked meal of polenta and last year's wine, of course.

The entire winemaking process takes about ten months. During the first few weeks, the juice must be closely monitored for sugar, pH levels, and temperature. If it gets too cold, Bernie carefully wraps the barrels in sleeping bags so they don't cool off too much, which can slow down the fermentation process. He still has some of the old wooden barrels his grandfather used to store the wine, along with much of the original equipment used by his grandfather a century ago.

The Leals don't sell the wine, reserving it instead for friends and family. Bernie chuckled when recalling a friend's inquiry into how much wine he was making in a year. His reply? "Oh, just enough for family, you know, about 500 gallons!" Bernie and Marlene bring the wine when they are helping other rancher friends.

The labels used on his bottles reflect his love of family, friends, and the ranch he now calls home. The main label, the one Bernie is the proudest of, is a watercolor painting of the old barn, painted by Marlene. The label design won bronze at the Alameda County Fair, and was also named "Editor's Pick" in Winemaker Magazine (December 2006-January 2007 edition).

Even though the Leal's Zinfandel wine may not beckon buyers from shelves next to high-priced bottles sold at wineries, the love, dedication, and history that go into each bottle can't be bought.

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