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GO-TO GUY FOR HOME ENOLOGISTS: BOB BENNETT HAS A ROADMAP FOR ENTHUSIASTIC, BUT OFTEN BEFUDDLED, GARAGE WINEMAKING NOVICES

If you've dreamed of making wine in your garage but haven't heard the words Brettanomyces, tartaric and varietal character, you need to meet Bob Bennett.

The Healdsburg resident has made it his mission to fulfill your dreams. All you need to get started is a place for your wine barrel (like a garage) and 20 bucks.

Bennett is the founder and chief volunteer of Garage Enologists of North County. It's a life path he never envisioned until he and his wife, Cris, moved here from the Bay Area in 1994 following a career as a logistics specialist for Shell Oil, Dole and Lipton. The couple's love affair with the Wine Country lifestyle began with weekend visits, and it was during those idyllic stays that they decided to relocate when Bennett retired.

They purchased a home on an acre in the Russian River appellation.

"We're in one of the finest wine-growing areas in the world," Bennett told his wife. "I've got to make wine."

The goal for the novice couple was to plant grapes and make wine in the garage. They started with a one-eighth of an acre vineyard. That was the easy part.

To learn how to succeed at their hobby, the couple took every viticulture and enology class at Santa Rosa JC. Reading books on winemaking and attending lectures, the Bennetts wanted to also join a club so they could network with other amateur winemakers.

After discovering the nearest home wine club was 45 minutes away in Sonoma, Bennett placed an ad in The Press Democrat inviting people to his home to discuss their experiences. Seven people accepted Bennett's invitation, and in 1995 GENCO came into existence.

Today, the club has 95 members (81 percent male with an overall average age of 65). They meet once a month, usually at the Healdsburg Public Library, to discuss their successes, pitfalls and often to listen to a guest speaker. Recently, Michael Browne of Kosta-Browne, whose wine had just been selected the year's No. 1 by Wine Spectator, spoke to the group.

In addition to founding GENCO and serving as its first president, Bennett volunteers on a daily basis to do much more.

When a question needs to be answered or if something isn't right in the winemaking process, GENCO members have Bennett's phone number on speed dial.

"He's always there to help," said Liz Thach, who along with her husband, Mike, are GENCO members. "He gives his time freely and if he doesn't know, he'll find the answer for you. He's helped so many of us amateur winemakers."

Bennett doesn't just lecture to new GENCO members. Each year, he takes eight novices and over the next 12 months he teaches them how to make homemade wine. The apprentices get on-the-job training in all aspects of the process starting with making sure the grapes stay healthy on the vine.

After the harvest, the group crushes the grapes and then are taught how to measure ph, acid and sugar. Each student makes a barrel of wine and on graduation day, the group does a tasting to discuss the end result.

"It was an incredible experience," said Peter Goyton, an alum of the program and now a multiple Gold Medal winner in the amateur winemaking competition at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. "Bob is extremely knowledgeable in both the vineyard and winemaking process and very generous with his time."

Every Bennett student who has entered wine in the Harvest Fair has gotten a gold or silver medal.

If you don't have a vineyard, no problem. The Bennetts purchased two acres next to their home and have planted 11 types of grapes. Some grapes go in barrels in their garage. The rest they sell at market price to GENCO members.

"I feel especially proud when a member wins medals in amateur competitions," Bennett said. "It is also gratifying to share information with others, and yes, the social component is also fun."

A board of directors was formed in 2010, and Steve Gower took over as president. Bennett is the secretary, writes the newsletter and plans the monthly meetings. For $20 yearly dues, members can join the yearlong barrel project, attend monthly meetings and the annual picnic. There are also home winemaker dinners and trips to other wine regions.

"I especially look forward to our Christmas party," Gower said. "Every year, Bob leads the group in singing carols and shares with us the song he wrote: 'I Left My Heart in Sonoma County.'"

For more information, the group's website is gencowinemakers.com

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