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A brief course in homemade wine-making.

AS a homesteader without a homestead, I nevertheless practice many traditional skills, from wood chopping to wool spinning. One of my favorite activities is making wine. I first got into making my own wine when I realized I was allergic to sulfites. Nearly all commercial wines use sulfites--but they aren't necessary in home production. In this article, I will lay out the basics of wine-making: equipment, ingredients, care and feeding, and storing.

Lots of old recipes run something like this: put fruit juice into a crock, float a piece of toast with some baker's yeast on top, and leave it for two weeks. Getting something drinkable out of that is purely miraculous. The principle behind making good wine is to control what lives in it. The first piece of equipment you'll need is not a crock, but a container that can be sterilized and sealed airtight. Generally speaking, a plastic bucket (foodgrade only) is a good choice. Although I am not a fan of plastic, there are times when it makes sense. A plastic bucket can expand under pressure, while a glass container will shatter--and in the initial stages of wine making, a lot of gas will be building up pressure inside the container. Plastic is also lighter than other materials, making it easier to handle the container. I've recycled buckets that once held cookie dough. I've also bought buckets at homebrew supply businesses. The choice is yours.

Whatever container you have (called the "primary fermenter"), the lid will need a hole drilled in it large enough to accommodate an airlock and a rubber cork. Rubber corks with holes can be purchased through a homebrew supply business. You'll need one sized to fit the hole in your primary fermenter's lid. The hole in the cork is to accommodate the airlock. An airlock is a device designed to exclude air from your brew. It allows gases to escape (important!), but not to enter. An old-fashioned set-up might be a glass jug with a balloon over the top. Again, if you want good wine, use good equipment.

There are some other items that are essential. One is a carboy. A carboy is just a glass jug. Glass doesn't hold flavor and can be cleaned thoroughly with sterilizing solutions and boiling water. You can use recycled glass gallon juice jugs; or you can buy larger ones. You'll need corks with holes in them and airlocks for these also.

Another key item is a racking tube. Pouring your wine from one container to another will not allow you to separate the sludge that falls to the bottom from your lovely clear wine. You must use a tube instead--glass or plastic. Typically, the tube is longer than your carboys are deep, with a bend at the top. Attach a length of plastic tubing to it to extend to a second container. I'll explain this process later.

You will need to be able to sterilize your equipment. Boiling water is just not enough. This is where sulfites come in: they are used to kill bacteria and other microorganisms. They work well--but if you are allergic to them, you don't have to use them. Two alternatives are available for sterilizing equipment: bleach, and iodophor. I dislike bleach very much. Some people are comfortable using it, but I'm not. I like iodophor best. It is an iodine-based compound used commonly in the food industry. You can buy it at a homebrew supply service. The directions for using it come with the bottle. The one problem you might find: if you are wearing silver rings, they will blacken temporarily. Just remove your rings. You should anyway, as they can harbor bacteria.

One item I wouldn't do without is a hydrometer. The fancy name shouldn't scare you off! It's just a tool, like any other. This one is designed to measure the amount of sugar available in your wine. It can tell you when there's no sugar left, which is critical if you are not using sulfites. The difference between these two measurements, start to finish, gives you the percentage of alcohol in your wine, roughly.

A few other odds and ends are very helpful: a syringe or turkey baster to draw up wine for testing in the hydrometer; a bottle brush for cleaning your carboys and bottles; a corker; and a scale. You can always start small and add equipment as you discover the need or desire.

Now for ingredients ... I generally don't make wine with grapes. I like to make wines from fruit or plants I've harvested from the wild: blueberry, dandelion, and spruce tip come to mind. I also enjoy making wine from domestic fruit, like apricots, cherries, apples, and strawberries. There are two ways to prepare for making wine whether you are using grapes or fruit: extract the juice; or use the crushed fruit itself. Either one works.

For anything other than grapes (which have exactly what is needed for successful wine all by themselves), you'll probably need to add sweetening. This means sugar, honey, or maple syrup. You cannot use artificial sweeteners--the sugar is what your yeast needs for food. I like to support beekeepers, so I usually prefer honey. There are other advantages to honey: it is antibiotic, thus decreasing the likelihood of something unpleasant living in your wine; and it adds body and flavor to the end result. If you are using, say, rose petals, you might want to choose white sugar instead, so that the delicate flavor of roses is not overwhelmed.

You'll also need yeast. Baker's yeast is not ideal--it gives an off flavor, and doesn't survive well at higher levels of alcohol. Buy some good yeast. There are lots of varieties. Montrachet yeast usually works fast, but produces some natural sulfites. Champagne yeast will usually work very well if you want a higher alcohol level. Some types are best to use with honey. Ask your local supplier.

Let's follow along on a recipe for plum wine, which will illustrate how the wine-making process goes. Pick a bunch of fresh plums--organic is best. I like the Italian prune variety. Weigh what you pick. For each gallon of wine you want to wind up with, use 6-8 pounds of plums, whole and unpitted. Let's say you're starting small and want to make one gallon of wine. Take some cheesecloth or a jelly bag or other fine-meshed bag and bring it to a boil in water, along with the cotton string you'll use to tie it shut. Pull it out of the boiling water and drop it into your primary fermenter (which you have carefully washed). Fill it with the plums and tie it firmly shut. Squeeze the fruit inside the bag as thoroughly as you can, with your aim being to release as much juice as possible and increase surface area for the yeast to act on.


Now bring a gallon of water to the boil. Measure 1-1.5 pounds of sugar or 1-1.5 pounds of honey and add this to the water. Stir until it is all dissolved. Pour the hot liquid into your primary fermenter. Put the lid on tightly and lay a folded cloth over the hole in the lid. Let the whole thing cool for a few hours or overnight.

Now is the time to use your hydrometer. Using a syringe, put just enough liquid into the hydrometer's container to make the device float. Read the number and write it down. Your wine should have enough sugar to result in 10-14 percent alcohol. If you have too much sugar, you'll need to add some boiled water; if it's not sweet enough, add sugar or honey dissolved in boiled water. Too much sugar will kill your yeast, so you'll have to correct this problem right away. You can always add more sweetener later. Once you have the balance you need, put your yeast into the liquid and seal the lid tightly. Fill your airlock with sterilized water (water to which you've added bleach or iodophor), insert it into a cork, dip your cork in the sterilizer, and plug the hole in the lid. If you don't use a sterile solution in the airlock, mold may grow in there. Be conscious that every surface, especially if it's wet, can grow bacteria; so be liberal with the sterilizer solution, and careful what you and your equipment touch.

Put your primary fermenter somewhere out of the sunlight (never leave your wine in the sun--it will overheat and the yeast will die; or the color will fade, or alter the flavor) and let it do its thing. If you have it in a warm place (near a hot water tank, for instance), it will probably ferment quickly. You'll know if it is because of the gas bubbles working their way out of the airlock. Sometimes the gas smells pretty awful--I've had to evict happily fermenting wine from the space I occupy as a result! Putting it in a cold place will slow things down, but it won't kill the yeast, even if it accidentally freezes.

After about a week, open the container and pull out the bag of fruit, squeezing out all the liquid you can. It should smell yeasty and be bubbly. Reseal it, after sterilizing the lid and replacing the liquid in your airlock with more sterile solution.

If your yeast didn't get going, double check that you haven't put too much sugar in the batch; and add yeast again. Some ingredients, like blueberries, have natural compounds that suppress yeast activity. I've had to start blueberry wine as many as three times before it finally got going.

Now you can leave your wine alone for months, if you like. Check periodically to add more sterile solution to the airlock (in hot weather, check more often). But if you want really good wine, you'll rack it within the first month. Racking wine means running the wine through your racking tube and into a new container (be sure you clean the new container well, and sterilize it). This allows you to separate the clear (or at least clearer) wine from the sediment that sinks to the bottom. Some of this sediment may be bits of fruit; some is dead yeast hulls. If you let your wine sit too long on the sediment, it may give your wine an off flavor. So rack it at least once. You can rack it more often, if you like.

To rack, first sterilize the racking tube and hose, and the container you're racking into. Put the container of wine on a counter. Put the empty container you are racking to on a chair or cooler or other surface lower than the countertop. Put the racking tube into the wine. Suck on the end of the hose, hard, until the wine reaches your mouth. Quickly transfer the hose into the empty jug and let the wine flow in. You will spill some--guaranteed--so do this in a place where clean-up will be easy.

As long as you can see bubbles coming up from the bottom of the jug, your wine is alive and perking. If you see no bubbles at all, you can test it to see if it's finished. Draw some wine out of the jug with a syringe and put it into your hydrometer tube, adding enough to float the hydrometer. Read the number. If you're at or below zero, there is no more sugar in the wine, and no yeast can continue to grow. It's time to bottle.

Get yourself some wine bottles. You cannot use screwtop bottles--the neck is weaker and may break. Use proper wine bottles. You can also use Grolsch-style bottles, with a rubber gasket and a clamp. Wash them very well, and sink them in a sterilizer solution before you fill them with your wine.

For regular wine bottles, you'll need corks and a corker. You cannot reuse corks--you'll have to buy new ones. You can use real cork, or plastic. If you use real cork, the bottles must be stored on their sides to keep the corks moist, or they will disintegrate and your wine will be ruined. If you use plastic, you can store your bottles upright, which also reduces the likelihood of wine spilling if a cork blows out. Corks sometimes pop out if there is still yeast at work in the wine, or if the wine gets too hot.

I highly recommend spending money on a really good corker. Mine is a floor-standing type that is easily operated by anyone. A cheap corker will cause you a lot of work, possible spills or breakages, and a good bit of frustration.

Rack the wine into the bottles, and cork them. Rinse the bottles so you don't provide a home for mold. When they're dry, label them, and store them in a dark place with a stable temperature, if you can.

The method I have just described is for wine that has no sulfites. It requires that the wine be fermented out until it is dry--that is, not at all sweet. If you like your wine sweet, you'll either have to use sulfites (which are added throughout the process, or just at the end to kill the yeast and whatever else may be growing in there); or you'll have to play more with your wine. You can keep adding sugar to your brew, a little at a time, until the yeast finally die from the high amount of alcohol, for instance. Then you can sweeten it as much as you like.

There are also additives that can increase your success. Adding lemon juice or acids can perk up wine. Meads (honey-based wines) like a higher acidity. I use a commercial acid blend that is consistent in its level of acidity, helping me duplicate good results with greater success. You can also add tannins. I use powdered tannin; but have also added toasted oak chips to my wine while it brews, giving the flavor of cask-fermented wine without the risks involved. Tannin is what provides astringency, and saves your wine from being insipid.

Another great additive I highly recommend is essentially vitamins for yeast. Sold as "yeast energizer" or sometimes "yeast hulls," I add these not only at the beginning, but also whenever I want to boost the activity of my yeast, or assure myself that the yeast really is done.

If you are using a fruit that has pectin in it, like blackberries or currants, you should definitely add pectic enzyme. This enzyme breaks down any pectin present. Add this 24 hours before you add any yeast. I add it to any wine that contains fruit. So for our hypothetical plum wine, you should plan on adding it after the solution cools, putting in your cork and airlock, and waiting a day to add the yeast. Amounts of this and any other additive can be obtained from the package, the supplier, or a book or website.

There are some things I have found helpful in learning to make wine. One is a good book. I happen to like "The Joy of Home Winemaking" by Terry Garey. She maintains a website, too: Another useful resource is your local homebrewing supplier. The folks there hear lots of stories in addition to having their own experience, and can be great resources. A third resource is a mentor, someone you can contact for suggestions, advice, and encouragement. I've taught a number of classes in winemaking and am happy to help others learn this ancient and enjoyable skill. I can be reached at juliagustavus@; c/o 725 N. Sherman, Olympia, WA, 98502.

The fourth, and maybe most important, thing is to take detailed notes. You will forget what you put into your wine by the time you bottle it. You will forget what your hydrometer readings were. You will even forget what kind of wine is in that jug! Label your jugs, label your bottles, and record your observations. You'll be able to go back years from now and say, "Gee, that pumpkin wine didn't turn out so bad after all. How did I do that?" And you'll know.

I started making wine in spite of not having a permanent home. I move my wines along with all my other belongings, sometimes multiple times a year (this year, seven moves--a record, and not one I care to have set). Don't let a lack of a permanent home stop you! Wine is best when it is at least a year old--so start building up your "cellar" now. You'll be glad you did next year...


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Author:Pinnix, Julia
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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