By DEBBIE WACHTER MORRIS dmorris@ncnewsonline.com

There’s a new kind of spirit in the air at this year’s Lawrence County Fair. The grape-smelling spirit of homemade wine wafted into the air Saturday afternoon as 12 bottles were uncorked and judged in the fair’s first homemade wine competition. Jim Combine of Transfer, Mercer County, was surprised to get a phone call Monday telling him his bottle of sour cherry wine had won the Best of Show blue ribbon. Combine also won a first place for his Riesling ice wine in the white, sweet wine category. Twelve empty bottles, some with fancy custom wine labels and some not so fancy, are displayed in the vegetable barn on the fairgrounds, each bottle decked with either a red or a blue ribbon. The contents of the bottles were emptied into jars during judging and placed in the custody of the fair directors for security, so no hands under 21 years of age could get them, explained Bryan Rhodes, who sampled all the wines. “I was pleasantly surprised at how good they were,” he said. The contest was sponsored by the Volant Mill Winery, owned by Rhodes and his father, Gary. The winery opened two years ago, offering 20 different selections. The Rhodeses approached the fair board earlier this year about sponsoring a wine-making competition, and the directors were receptive. “The concept came from visiting other county fairs that had similar contests,” Bryan Rhodes said. Two homemade wine connoisseurs judged 12 bottles in six categories — red, white, sweet, dry, blush and fruit. Sight, smell and taste were factors. The wine with the highest number of points overall won best of show. That was Combine’s bottle. “It was very good cherry wine,” Rhodes said. Combine, 48, of Transfer, was raised in Sharpsville and works in a galvanizing pipe shop at Wheatland Tube Co. He started a hobby about 15 years ago making fruited brandies in a crock with cake yeast, lemons and raisins. Then he graduated to buying grape juice and other commercial wine-making supplies and tweaking his own recipes. He buys his grape juice in six-gallon buckets for $35 to $60 instead of growing his own grapes, because of the convenience. Initially, he bottled his product in used whiskey bottles. He eventually started buying bottles and corking them and shrink-wrapping the tops to make them look more professional, he said. Then he found label designs that he liked to finish off his product. “I think I have nice-looking bottles,” he said. When his wife, Sue, saw the ad for the contest at the fair, Combine shrugged it off at first. “I didn’t think I’d have a chance,” he said. He received encouragement from the Volant Mill Winery where he buys supplies, and he left his bottles there for the judging. “I’m glad the cherry (wine) won,” Combine said. “My cousin’s going to be happy.” His grandfather and great-uncle used to make wine according to their recipe, which he used and adjusted for his entry. “I wanted this recipe because it was from the family and they’re both gone now,” Combine said. He and his wife travel to Erie to pick the sour cherries that give the wine flavor. His winning bottle was made in July 2006, and bottled in the fall. He made the Riesling in the spring, he said. Other blue ribbon winners in the individual wine categories were Bill Brown of New Castle, Josh Edmiston of Zelienople, and Doug Beatty of Enon Valley, who claimed two first places.

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