At the magic moment, just before grape juice turns to vinegar, meticulous winegrowers halt nature's process to capture the perfect blood of the vine. It's an ego thing, they'll tell you, and no two recipes agree on the timing, the sugar content nor the optimum weather conditions to yield the best living wine. After a woozy afternoon of swilling free samples at area wineries, you'll agree that it's all a matter of taste -- in fact, you'll agree to a lot of things.

Just beyond Olney, at the six-year-old Provenza winery, manager John Paul recently described the grape-to-cork process before an entirely sober gathering of the Olney-Norbeck Homemaker's Club. As the ladies gingerly sipped samples, Paul ventured that this year's dry white table wine should be "the best we've ever made," due to the better-than-usual harvest of white grapes, running early this year thanks to the summer's beneficial hot weather. The Provenza staff is very excited about what they consider to be a perfect 22 percent sugar content in the fermenting juice, he said.

You won't find any foot-stomping orgies, but it's worth a trip to the countryside to learn about the machinery and methods of mashing, straining, racking, filtering, corking and otherwise refining the product en route to your palate. Explaining the difference between white and red winemaking (it's all in the grape skins), Paul advised the group that "wine is funny, it will continue to smooth out over the years. I think the '74 we made here is gonna be dynamite soon." As he stopped short of making a sale pitch, the theme was clear: "Support your local wineries," he toasted, lifting his plastic glass of dry white wine to the full vats all around the sweet-smelling converted barn.

Afterwards, the idea sounded better and better to the club members as they downed more red, white and rose wines with chasers of bread and melted cheese. Most of the homemakers snapped up a bottle or two in the sales office, at $3.65 each (it's cheaper by the case), to take home for further taste-testing.

You may not know a Liebfraumilch from a Pinot Chardonay, but there's no expertise required for an excursion to any of the following wineries and vineyards, all within easy driving distance. Unless otherwise noted, they offer free tours but request you call ahead for reservations.