If there’s any secret behind Katherine Zajaceskowski’s award-winning wine, it’s likely rooted in the partnership she’s developed with one of her two sons.
Several of Katherine’s family members are in town this weekend to celebrate her 90th birthday. But watching her move around her meticulously clean home, it’s hard to believe that she was born in 1918.
Katherine has lived in the home her husband, Andie, built back in 1950 using wood from the family farm. She said her husband, who died 15 years ago, had to help rebuild the saw mill used to cut the wood into lumber.
She recalls holding one end of the large saw she and her husband used to cut down trees, she said, adding that she later gave the saw to her neighbors, who have it displayed on their garage.
For years, Andie Zajaceskowski was the family winemaker and Katherine served in a “cleanup” capacity. Then Andie passed away.
“I looked at some of the books he had and said, ‘why don’t I give it a try?’ ” Katherine said.
In the 15 years since, Katherine has given away probably hundreds of bottles of wine. She makes most of it out of fruit and seldom uses grapes.
There are two apple trees and blueberry and raspberry plants at her home and a neat lawn she mows herself that produces stock for dandelion wine.
Other fruits she uses includes blackberries, mulberries and peaches.
In both 2007 and 2008, Katherine took home gold and silver medals at the Wine Maker International Amateur Wine Competition held in Vermont. There were more than 4,300 entries in this year’s event.
Her son, also named Andie Zajaceskowski, is a 68-year-old retired engineer and pharmacist and considers himself his mom’s helper.
He’s not really retired, though. He works as a recruiter for Experience Works, a federal program that helps retired workers get back into the workplace. He said he’s tried to get his mother a job, but she’s not interested.
“I don’t want a job. I worked enough,” said Katherine, who worked as a cook for the Galway schools.
Andie said when he realized people enjoy the wine so much, he talked his mother into going to the competition “just to get feedback.”
“He’s the one that drives me up there,” Katherine said.
Andie’s also in charge of heavy lifting, and he prints labels for the wine bottles because his mom doesn’t have — or want — a computer.
A few years back, he discovered a pump system he figured his mother would be happy to use to replace the piece of plastic tubing she used to siphon the fluid wine out of the containers where it’s made.
“I won’t use it,” Katherine said. She likes the old way. She did agree to one innovation, though: a machine that puts corks into the wine bottles.
Katherine said in the old days, they’d place a piece of wood above the cork and hammer on the wood until the cork was fixed in the bottle.
“She’s have me come over, hold the cork, and she’d be whacking the two-by-four,” Andie said. “It was awful. It was scary. She fought with me for years, but I really got a good deal on it,” he said of the corker.
Trial and error
Katherine has a notebook she uses to write down exactly how much fruit and other ingredients she uses in each batch, how long it takes until it’s done and other details.
Though her product has generally been made of fruits, Katherine tried beets one year. The two entries for the beet wine are crossed out in her notebook with “don’t do” and “don’t do again” written on top.
“God, that was awful,” she said.
It may have been the cinnamon she put in it, Andie said.
In her defense, Katherine said cinnamon was in the recipe.
One of the keys to the operation, Katherine said, is getting fruit from other people. “That’s the trick, you get the fruit for free,” she said.
She said she knows plenty of people who contact her when they’ve got fruit available; then she only has to buy yeast, sugar and the acids used in the wine-making process.
“They call me up and say, ‘if you want some peaches, come and pick ‘em.’ Luckily, I’ve got friends that donate a lot,” she said.
The bulk of the wine-making work takes place in Katherine’s cellar, which she calls the “dungeon.” Neat and tidy as the upstairs, the production room consists of a workbench that holds several five-gallon batches of wine in various stages. Dozens of bottles of the finished product sit neatly on a shelf alongside canned goods.
Katherine explained that once the fruit is crushed and poured into the containers, about half of the material that winds up on the bottom is trash; the clear stuff on top is the wine.
Some wine can take as much as two years to finish, a lesson they learned one year when they got about five pounds of peaches from a farmer who couldn’t sell them.
Andie said they decided to make peach wine then, but when Katherine gave it a taste test after a few months, “She said the wine is terrible,” Andie said. “I said, ‘Mom, give it some time.’ ”
They waited a year and a half and realized all it needed was time. “It was wonderful. We don’t have much left,” Andie said.
As for the finished wine, Katherine said she doesn’t drink it.
“People don’t believe that. But I enjoy making it, I enjoy giving it as gifts,” said Katherine, who said she gives some to her doctor, her friends and “whoever’s nice.”
For her next adventure, Katherine said she wants to try making wine out of potatoes.
Andie said after his own experiment, he’ll probably just keep helping his mother out. He made a batch of banana wine and entered it into the wine-making show.
“They didn’t care for it out at the competition,” Andie said. He said he liked it anyway.
For Katherine, winning the wine competition is a little acknowledgement for years of winemaking. “This is only one of my hobbies,” she said while demonstrating how the corking machine works.
“She’s got nothing to do,” Andie said with a smile.
No idle hands
In the cellar, there are several buckets of apples waiting to be made into wine. They sit next to a big pail of beets Katherine will use to make borscht, a vegetable soup popular in Ukraine, where she traces her roots.
Andie said from what he’s seen, his mother is more active than most people he knows.
She’s got a dozen cactus plants in the garage waiting to be brought down to the basement for the winter. There are grow lights set up there, and over the years, some of the cactus plants have grown seven feet high or more.
She had dozens of different types of cactus in her earlier days, all grown from seeds.
“I had 63 varieties; now, I’m downsizing. I can’t do it,” she said.
Katherine has been treasurer of her local Gladiolus Society, and she’s got a few containers of ribbons for winning competitions with her glads.
She’s still gardening. She’s been covering her flower beds with blankets at night against the cold and noted that hers is one of the only homes with flowers still blooming in October.
In the winter, Katherine said she does a lot of reading and paints watercolors; her work is hanging in her home.
Up until two years ago, she made it a point to visit senior citizens at local nursing homes. “She’d go out and visit the ‘old’ people,” Andie said with a smile.
Katherine, who served as an EMT in her earlier days, said there were five nursing homes she’d frequent with a group of her friends over the course of 14 years.
“I do think these people need some visitors. Some of these people never had a visitor. Now, many of those people that went with me are in nursing homes themselves,” Katherine said.
Andie said he’s proud of his mother: “I think she deserves to be shared. For 90 years old, she does a hell of a lot more than me.”