Pastor David Blank has an unusual talent.
He can turn grapes into gold.
Blank, who serves as Senior Pastor of First Lutheran Church in Warren, has been fermenting in his free time for approximately three decades after learning to make wine at home.
Times Observer photo by Jacob Perryman
A winning vintage
Pastor David Blank of Warren has been making wine for approximately 30 years. Since he began competing in wine-making competitions in 2009, he has garnered more than 85 awards and medals, including nine at the 2013 Wine Maker International Amateur Wine Competition, the largest competition of its kind, where he won a gold medal.
In 2009, Blank's eye for enology roved to the competition circuit and, since then, he has garnered more than 80 medals and awards.
This April, he hit what he referred to as a new milestone when he took home nine medals, including a gold, in the 2013 Wine Maker International Amateur Wine Competition. Blank's gold was awarded for a white French-American hybrid varietal.
The competition is the largest of its kind in the world and received 4,564 entries from nine countries. Entries hailed from all 50 states, eight of ten Canadian provinces and a number of foreign countries including such wine-world heavyweights Italy and Australia. It was also the largest competition Blank had ever attempted to enter.
"We entered just hoping to maybe get a bronze," Blank's wife Judy recalled.
What they got was Blank's gold plus a silver for a white native American varietal, a bronze for a white French-American hybrid varietal, two silvers for red French-American hybrid varietals, a silver for a red native American varietal, a silver for a riesling, a bronze for a red table wine blend and a silver for a berry fruit wine.
Blank explained the wine world can be a little different than most are used to about competition.
"Competition is very different in the wine circles," Blank said. "Ultimately you are pitted against each other, but it's based on a scale, so there can be multiple winners. Some of the competitions, it's basically just the prestige of winning a medal. Some of them, it's a very small cash prize. I think my largest was $150 in gift certificates. It's just basically the recognition you're going for. It's interesting to note that a wine can do well in one competition and not even score at another. It's really the beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
International gold didn't come overnight.
Blank's journey began while he was serving as pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Sheffield.
"It started out with a parishioner just asking me if I wanted to try some homemade wine," Blank recalled. "I was thinking dandelion or something made in the fridge. I was pleasantly surprised. It was very good and very clear."
From there, Blank began decades of experimentation that would eventually lead to producing a catalogue of more than 32 distinct types of wine at his home.
He also expanded from a humble two carboys a glass or plastic vessel used in brewing for fermenting and conditioning beverages to a collection that "is taking over my basement."
"I've definitely expanded my understanding of the process," Blank said. "You can add yeast. You can add oak. You can add sugar or ferment it dry. I've experimented with various pumps and filters you can use. I've learned to measure the alcohol content, the sugar and the acidity. I've learned to adjust it to other palates. As much as you try to scientify it, it can vary by what type of season you have. It just comes with experience and investment."
Blank's pursuit of knowledge on the subject has even led to certification through the National Center of Excellence's Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA) which offers college accredited programs funded by the National Science Foundation.
The certification led him across the country according to Blank, as courses were mostly online but required some sort of in-person lab.
"In addition to online classes," Blank recalled, "there was at least a weekend seminar you have to go to."
He's also learned from other wine makers, both professional and amateur, and is a member of the Cellarmasters of Los Angeles.
"When you talk to people who are professional wine makers, how ready they are to share their knowledge with you is surprising," Blank said, pointing to his experiences with individuals at Presque Isle Wine Cellars in Northeast, Pa. "I've found that's true of almost all wine makers. It's quite a community. It's been fun meeting people that way."
Blank even has his own wine press which he uses to press his own grapes, a situation that has led to an annual party.
"Normally we invite parishioners and neighbors over to press" Blank said. "We have about 25 to 30 people over to press grapes in the driveway and have a tasting."
Blank said that sort of gathering is part of what he enjoys about making wine.
"The part I enjoy is serving something people like. It's like giving away a Christmas present," Blank said. "I like hosting gatherings and having people come in and try it; hosting Power Points on how it's made and differences between wines; bouquets and tastes."
It's not just parishioners who like Blank's wine.
"My wine is ecclesiastically approved," Blank joked. "My bishop likes it and I have a friend who became a bishop recently. So now I say it's the wine of bishops."
Blank attributed much of his drive and success to the support of his wife.
"A lot of it was, certainly, my wife's urging. She's my number one fan and also my number one critic," Blank summed up. "It's just a lot of fun. It's a good distraction from church work with the parish and it's a creative outlet."