Rod Byers: Sierra Moonshine is ready for harvest
John Lyon is the new owner of Sierra Moonshine (sierramoonshine.com), our local winemaking and brewing supply store.
Lyon, like most everyone involved in the wine business, journeyed a long way from where he started to where he is now.
He grew up in Kentucky, in the sphere of Cincinnati.
The region had a strong German heritage with plenty of fondness for both beer and wine. It was commonplace, Lyon recalled, to have wine on the dinner table when he was growing up.
Science equals wine
So, what is a curious boy with an interest in science, chemistry in particular, to do? The answer seemed obvious.
At the age of 12, he made dandelion wine. The source materials were both abundant and free.
“It was a great science project,” said Lyon. Not quite done with the project, he then turned the wine into dandelion brandy.
Not being a drinker at the time, he wasn’t too sure about it, but he remembers his dad thinking it was pretty good. Thanks, dad.
Lyon went on to earn first a science degree and then a Masters in organic chemistry at the University of Houston. He stayed in Texas, working for Texas Instruments in the semiconductor field. He moved to California for a position in Silicon Valley in 1986.
Although he didn’t make any more wine since his dandelion days, he did retain a consumer’s interest in wine. He had joined a wine tasting group in Houston in 1979, where he learned about the newly emerging California wine industry through wineries like Ridge.
A high school friend turned oenophile would visit him in California and together they would go wine touring.
“He taught me a lot,” Lyon said.
Working with wine
His next move was to Nevada County in 2012 and back into the heart of wine. Hearing it was an up and coming wine region, he attended a meeting of the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association.
“It was very positive, nice folks, and interesting,” Lyon said about that first meeting. Smitten, by 2014 he was making both Zinfandel and Merlot, his first wines since childhood.
And here comes the critical turn. He knew he wanted to get more involved with wine, and, like a lot of folks, thought of planting a vineyard. Somehow that didn’t feel quite right.
Then it hit him. He already had a personal chemistry lab in his laundry room for wine analysis. Why not set up a real lab to help others with their winemaking?
He approached the owners of Sierra Moonshine in 2014 about setting up a lab to offer scientific analysis to both home and commercial winemakers. In 2015, they agreed, offering him a five-foot table in the back room of the already cramped space they rented in the Loma Rica Business District.
Although the lab was independent, little by little the owners asked Lyon to fill in for them at the shop and soon he became a part time employee. He liked it because he got to learn a lot about beer while slowly increasing the store’s emphasis on wine, and still offer lab services.
It all worked out pretty well. In July of this year, he bought the business. The first thing he did was add “Winemaking Supply” to the business name.
Help one, help all
Sierra Moonshine has always had a great reputation as the place to go for supplies, information and practical knowledge.
Lyon hired Zach Orlandi, a longtime customer and brewer, to maintain the strong focus on the beer side of things while Lyon worked to increase the focus on wine. Gary Larsen, a Sierra College chemistry professor and home winemaker helps out in the lab.
“Whatever you are making,” Orlandi said, “we want to help you make it better.”
Whether it is hops, yeast, or enzymes, refractometers or pH meters, barrels or fermentation buckets, they offer all the equipment you will ever need. They also rent equipment like crusher/stemmers, apple crushers or bladder presses — things you might only use once all year.
With the fall harvest looming, they have a bulletin board with people offering to buy or sell grapes.
Not surprisingly, there is a new array of glass beakers, pipettes and graduated cylinders for sale, as well as a variety of chemical solutions like sodium hydroxide that Lyon produces himself, guaranteed to be the correct concentration.
The day I was there, Jackson Starr, winemaker at Sierra Starr Winery, stopped by to standardize a solution he uses for measuring acidity.
“The solutions are competitively priced and there are no hazardous material fees or shipping charges, which can be quite high,” Starr said. “Plus, you get to learn from a master chemist.”
A little later, home winemaker Steve Maraglia stopped by to pick up some fermentation bins he had ordered.
“It’s convenient, it supports local business, they have or can get everything I need,” said Maraglia. “John is extremely knowledgeable and likes helping his customers”.
Fermentation is all about science and at Sierra Moonshine, fermentation can take many forms. They specialize in winemaking and brewing but they can also help with cheese-making, yogurt cultures, fermented foods like kimchee and sauerkraut, and even pickle-making supplies.
“There is a lot of opportunity to help people,” Lyon said. “We want everybody to make the best product they can.”
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk On TV. You can find information about his wine classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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