At Carafe, put a cork in it

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Lamar Brown is a man with a ready smile and a firm handshake. He doesnt fit the stereotype of a computer guy, though he works by day in IT security for Lockheed Martin.

Nor does he fit into the stuffy, tie-clad stereotype of the wine guy. Yet, with his opening of Carafe Wine Makers in Old Town, hes become more than a wine guy hes a winemaker. And now other Alexandria residents can become winemakers, too.

At Carafe, patrons participate in the winemaking process to create their own batches of vino.

You can actually start your wine in about 15 minutes, said Brown, 29.

Walk in, choose a wine, and Carafe staff will mix grape juices from vineyards all over the world, skins, oak chips, and/or other flavorings to create the wine you requested. Four to six weeks later, during which Carafe handles the fermentation process and the racking removing sediment and transferring the wine to another container you come back to bottle, label and cork your wine.

You cant mix and match wines or flavorings because Carafe cant guarantee how the final product will taste, but the 21 wines on the menu so far Brown plans to expand rapidly are varied and delectable.

The process is surprisingly inexpensive, with most wines coming in at under $10 a bottle. Bring in 30 empty wine bottles, and Carafe will wash and sterilize them on site and youll pay even less. (Thirty bottles? Maybe after youve had a party, or after a large family gathering, suggests Tanisha Townsend, a wine educator who will be teaching classes at Carafe.)

For patrons coming in from the blustery autumn weather, the store is cozy, like someones home, not like a grocery store. Theres wood flooring, a fireplace and leather chairs, lively jazz on the radio. At the bar, trays filled with cups of Mayan Merlot and Gewrztraminer wait to be tasted.

Brown, a Virginia Beach native, still works at Lockheed Martin, where his co-workers are already asking for free wine. (That was to be expected, Brown said.) Then he commutes to Alexandria to spend evenings at Carafe, checking the wines in production, racking those that must be racked and so on.

What about groceries?
Good question. Its extremely busy. Thats the only way I can describe it. Groceries are … pretty much eating out every night.

Despite the long hours, Brown said so far hes having fun. My day job isnt nearly as fun, he said.

Fun may be the biggest draw for patrons of Carafe, too. Browns aiming to turn the process into a social occasion by opening the store up for private events like bridal showers or holiday parties. And theres something appealing about the idea of dropping in and looking at your creation in the making; Brown invites every would-be winemaker to stop by and check on his or her batch any time the store is open.

The biggest draw, he said, is when youre done, you can say you made the wine. You have party favors or a house wine with your name on it.

You put your stamp on it, Brown said. Its yours.

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