Wine Log: All the Grape, but none of the Glory

I’ve been making wine kits for about a year now, and I have been very pleased with the result… and yet, I find them creatively unfulfilling as a hobbyist.

The only kits I have used so far are the Reserve du Chateau 17.5 lbs. kits, which, as far as I can tell, are an proprietary or exclusive brand. Thus far, I have tried the Sangiovese, the Cabernet Merlot and the Cabernet Shiraz. The great thing about these kits is the price. At roughly $45 to $55 a kit (like all Amazon items, the price mysteriously fluctuates day-to-day), these kits give me real wine grape concentrate for about the same price per gallon (i.e. $8-$9) as making the 4 Canister Concord Red, the only truly red wine I’ve been able to make without a kit. To be honest, I didn’t really like the Concord Red I made (one recently-opened bottle that didn’t clear well has become dedicated to cooking), and so I’d be crazy to continue making it when these kits are the same cost AND include additives and corks (in fact, I may never have to buy corks again!).

One downside of these kits, however, is that they are apparently so popular, they keep going out of stock. I jumped on three kits last month when they came briefly back into stock, and I’m glad I did, because there’s nothing to be found in that price range right now. There are other wine kits, of course, but the price of those kits are $70+, and at that point, the benefits start to wane. Sure, they may be higher quality juice or whatnot, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not looking to recreate Napa in my apartment here. One major motivating factor in making my own wine is to end up with a product that represents significant savings over what I could purchase at the local state store. I can get a nice Carlo Rossi Cabernet in the 5L box for $17. At that point, the cost/benefit of expensive kits that provide only a few dollars savings per gallon… doesn’t seem worth it.

As a cost-conscious wine consumer these Reserve du Chateau kits provide a good-tasting wine at an advantageous price point. As a wine-making hobbyist, however, I find them ridiculously easy. What’s wrong with easy? Well, nothing fundamentally. Certainly, there is enough labor in the over-arching wine-making process (especially at the end with siphoning, cleaning, bottling, etc.) that I wouldn’t beg for the process to be more complex. It’s just that whenever I hear accolades from people about my kit wine, I sort of feel like I can’t really take credit. One of my students, for instance, has followed my wine-making progress over the years, and upon trying my kit Sangiovese, he effused praise over the vast improvement since the last wine of mine he had tried… but I didn’t feel like I could truly take the compliment, as I hadn’t done much of anything to affect the wine quality during my end of production.

Perhaps if I had done a wine kit as my inaugural project, before I had attempted any other homemade recipes, I would feel greater satisfaction with the end product, having learned the craft of wine-making along the way. But I’m actually quite glad I did not. The directions for the wine kit are full of a lot of unnecessary hullabaloo that I can confidently wave off, having honed my process on other batches. Perhaps for people who make as big a production out of the process as the directions indicate, using a kit fills them with a glow of creative satisfaction, but I know better.

The grape juice concentrate comes in a bag (think like the inner bladder/bag of a boxed wine); all the necessary sugar water is already in the bag, too. The Reserve du Chateau kits have some manner of yellow spigot/opener on this bag; I have yet to figure out how to open it. On my first kit, I gave up after several tries and simply cut a small corner off the bag with my kitchen scissors to create a small hole from which to pour the sugar and concentrate into my carboy (I use a large funnel to ease the process of adding all ingredients to my carboy). Since then, I never bother with the opener, I just cut the hole and pour it in. I hydrate my yeast (as described in my Getting Started entry), which the directions, oddly enough, do not suggest. Sometimes I use the yeast that comes with the kit, sometimes I use Red Star’s Pasteur Red; haven’t noticed much difference in using one or the other. I add the packet of bentonite that comes with the kit. I also add a tablespoon of yeast energizer to speed the process. I DON’T include any other of my standard additives like pectic enzyme or acid blend. Just the included concentrate, hydrated yeast, bentonite, water to fill. Balloon airlock on top (also described in Getting Started). Haul it over the the hall closet and wait for it to ferment completely.

I honestly don’t know what would be the advantage in making this process more complex. Using a fermenter bucket is unnecessary because it’s just juice and not fruit. Thus, there is no need to start the wine in a primary fermenter, siphon to a secondary fermenter a few weeks later, etc. The directions also make a big ordeal about degassing the wine, but I’ve never had an issue with leftover carbon dioxide in my red wine, perhaps because agitating the carboy in order to “read” the stage of fermentation with the balloon airlock is such an important part of my process, that perhaps degassing happens automatically? Just another reason to use balloons and not airlocks, as far as I’m concerned. Some people seem to like using a hydrometer, and the directions call for one. It seems unnecessarily fussy to me because using a balloon tells me all the information I need to know about where I am in the fermentation process (also described in Getting Started). If you use an airlock it may be helpful, but I don’t soooo… Shrug? Why make the process more involved? It’s still just four basic ingredients, no matter how much you fuss over it.

The only revision I have made to my process of making wine with kits is investing in a 6.5 gallon carboy. Making it concentrated to a 5 gallon carboy (all the kits are 6 gallon), I could never get it as dry as I wanted. When I reconstituted it into six one-gallon jugs, it always had a lingering sweetness. My wine-making mentor at the studio described my first batch of kit wine as “semi-dry.” Semi didn’t cut it for me; I wanted it truly dry. I bought a 6.5 gallon carboy just for making the kits because I only intend to make red kits (my fruit wine pursuits satisfy my taste for whites), and red tend to foam up more vigorously at first fermentation, so having an extra .5 gallon of airspace keeps the yeast from foaming up into the balloon.

As I mentioned above, even with the kits, I use a balloon airlock. The balloon will stretch to fit the carboy opening. It also helps me immensely in determining when fermentation is actually complete, which is vitally important for getting the wine kits truly dry. Whenever a balloon flops on any batch, I always stir up the jug or carboy by grabbing the neck and swirling it around to agitate the contents. Most of the time the balloon will inflate again. One of my daily to-do items around the house is checking on my in-progress batches and agitating all the ones with floppy or wrinkly balloons. Sometimes, if I’ve been agitating the same batch for a couple weeks and the balloon still fills up, I might make the call to finish the batch despite its having a little life left in it. When I’m making a sparkling wine, for example, it can even be advantageous to siphon the batch while the original yeast is still active because it will help the process of in-bottle carbonation. Sometimes, I’ll just siphon the batch out of impatience, in part because I know it won’t make that big of a difference. If a batch of apple wine, for instance, isn’t completely and utterly dry, it’s not so noticeable. The kits, however, have a higher quality and higher flavor complexity juice (not trying to oversell them, just saying so in contrast to apple juice from the freezer aisle). They also have a built-in flavor association with store-bought dry red wines we’ve known and loved. A little bit of sweetness makes a big difference when our palates are expecting a classic dry red.

When I make a kit, I push the fermentation as far as it will go. First off, let me make a public service announcement — anyone attempting these kits should be well aware that the promise of a 4- or 6- week wine kit is completely and utterly false. Fermentation takes as long as it takes. Lots of factors are at play, and if you wait a certain number of weeks, rather than using some other measure (e.g. balloon airlock, hydrometer, etc.), you are probably going to get an incomplete wine. Not so terrible for lovers of sweet wine, I suppose… but really, why are you buying a Cabernet kit if you want sweet wine? They have plenty of “Arbor Mist” style fruit wine kits, Sangria kits, Moscato kits, etc.

DSC01863I’ve had a kit of Cabernet Shiraz going since January 31, 2015. When the balloon began to flop, I agitated the carboy every day, and every day it filled back up. It wasn’t until last night (April 22nd) that, even after vigorous agitation, the balloon would not fill. This morning, I discovered that the carboy had even formed a vacuum, pulling the balloon inversely into the carboy, which is always a good sign that fermentation is probably done. Still, I did a good 30 seconds of vigorous agitation just to be sure, and the balloon did not fill or even change. See the included photo of what my balloon looked like even after those 30 seconds of agitation.

Next in the process, after letting the sediment in the carboy settle for a few days, I will clean and sanitize six one (1) gallon jugs. Some people would siphon into a second carboy at this point, but I have tons of gallon jugs from a compatriot who is a generous drinker. Using gallon jugs for the next stage has other advantages, too. After cleaning, I put a single campden tablet into each jug and fill them from the carboy with my siphon one by one. It is worth noting that I do NOT use the clearing additives included in every kit, chitosan and kieselsol, because I’ve never found that one of the kit wines needed them; all the kits I’ve done have come out quite clear in the end. I save the additives for unrelated batches that have trouble clearing.

A few of the six jugs will be allocated for longer term bulk aging, while the remainder will be bottled as needed. Whenever I bottle a gallon batch (which produces five standard 750ml bottles), I always do a mix of corks and caps. One or two will be a screw-top bottle or a T-cork (i.e. tasting cork, which is synthetic and reusable) for sooner consumption, and the rest will have regular corks with the intention of aging the wine in bottle a while. I usually try to age all of my corked bottles at least a year (post-it notes on each bottle with the month/year of production help me keep track). I’m pleased to report that the kit wines are actually pretty good even just after fermentation is done. I’ve only been making them for about a year now, so I haven’t tried the longer-term bottlings yet, but my hope is that the inherent character of the grapes will come out more the longer they age.

Despite feeling I can’t take much credit for the production of the kit wines, I have no plan to stop using the kits anytime soon. They have, however, inspired me to pursue a more challenging path to creating red wines — my Cabernet and Zinfandel vines went in the ground last week. When they start fruiting, new wine-making adventures will surely follow.

Wine Log: The Trouble with Reds, or To Wine-Kit or Not to Wine-Kit

red-wine1From the beginning of my wine-making adventures I always prided myself in the fact that all of my wines, for better or worse, were my own homemade, from-scratch recipes. I started using only juice concentrate. I moved into making small batches with fruit, sometimes on its own, sometimes in combination with juice concentrate. I had many successful whites and many successful blushes, and even successful meades.

The trouble was red. I’m an equal opportunity wine drinker, but when given the choice, I opt for red nine times out of ten. Naturally, when faced with a choice of juice concentrates for my first attempt at a gallon batch, I picked red grape juice. It was a good batch, but it turned out blush. Great! I was happy enough for a dry and drinkable first batch. When I took another attempt at red, I went for two cans of concentrate, aiming for a red.

Well… it wasn’t red. It wasn’t exactly a traditional blush, either. The color was more of a fuschia. Okay then… surely three cans of concentrate would do it. Properly constituted, three cans of concentrate is MORE than a gallon of juice. But alas, still not red! I made a few three canister gallons with a couple different types of dark juice, and all of them turned out to be a deep ruby color, but not red. I even tried adding raisins to my batches when a wine connoisseur advised me that grape skins add important tannins and flavor profiles during fermentation. Clear ruby again! Tasty… in fact one turned out to taste just like cream sherry… but still not red.

b801228h-300-FOR-TRIDION_tcm18-129146I suppose one should consider that the definition of a “red wine” is not fixed. What makes a red wine a red wine and not a blush wine? Where do we draw the exact line between red and blush? My own colloquial reckoning of red vs. blush is that blush, no matter how deep in color, is easy to see through. A red wine, if held up to the light, may have refractions of light shining through it, but also has a somewhat inky, light-blocking quality. It is a continuum, of course. A pinot noir is going to be the most see-through of the reds. Cabernets or dark chiantis, less light refraction. But ultimately, I know a red to see it and none of my attempts fit my definition.

I took to the internet and googled. A lot of people use store-bought kits to make red wines at home, but I wasn’t ready to concede defeat — or to purchase a $70-$80 kit. I found one recipe by a home wine-maker who made a gallon of red with 4 cans of Welch’s Grape Juice Concentrate. FOUR! That’s the equivalent of two gallons of juice condensed into one.

In one last ditch attempt I tried the four cans in one gallon. At long last! A red wine that truly turned out red! Here is my basic recipe for Concord Red, honed over the course of several ensuing batches. Please ready my Getting Started blog before actually attempting any of my recipes. All recipes assume previous at least some knowledge of my general process:


4 cans of concord grape concentrate
zero additional sugar
1 cup of strong black tea
1/2 teaspoon yeast energizer
1/2 teaspoon of bentonite
1/2 teaspoon pectic enzyme
red wine yeast

Hydrate your yeast and brew a cup of tea. Heat the juice concentrate in a large saucepan, if you like, to sterilize it, but do NOT add any further sugar (the small amount of sugar used in hydrating the yeast is fine). There is more than enough sugar already present in the 4 cans of concentrate. The first time I tried this recipe and added my usual 2 cups of sugar, I could not get the batch to ferment to dry, despite a few separate attempts to restart fermentation.

Sangiovese-Sorelle-09-12-copyPrepare a clean gallon jug. Add the yeast energizer and pectic enzyme. Bentonite isn’t strictly necessary, but I’ve found it’s a safe bet for darker wines, as they are more prone to clearing problems (more about bentonite below). The other significant omission here is acid blend. Almost all my blush and white recipes include acid blend, but it will make your reds too crisp (another lesson learned from making kits… more below).

Combine the concentrate and tea with your additives already in the jug. If the mixture is still hot to touch, wait before adding the yeast. Once yeast is added, fill jug most of the way full, but maybe an inch or two below the neck. Darker and denser wines ferment vigorously at first. If you fill the jug too high, it will froth up into your balloon or airlock. Skimp on the extra liquid now, and top it off later when you rack it into a second jug with the campden tablet at the end of fermentation.

So, my concord red recipe is now honed… but it’s sort of limiting. I tried making a quadruple concentrate recipe with other types of red juice, Wild Berry and Blueberry Pomegranate, but both of these turned out dark ruby blush. The 4 cans of concord is the only way I’ve been able to make a “real red” using store bought juice. I can get a little creative by adding fruit (or preserves) to this recipe. I’ve done blackberry, blueberry and strawberry reds this way. But I still felt my red repertoire was lacking.

Thus my temptation kicked in to try a kit. I asked our wine-makers at the studio and they reported having tried a wine kit with success, but little creative gratification, saying that it felt more like putting together a chemistry set than making a wine of their own.

But, there are worse ways to obtain six gallons of red wine, right?

My resolve was sealed upon further research. Amazon offers wine kits in the $45 to $55 range (depending on if you use their Subscribe & Save option to order it) with free shipping. When I crunched the numbers, I realized I was paying basically the same price, per gallon, for the juice alone to make the 4 canister recipe above… and let’s face it, even the best concord wine is still concord wine. The complexity of a real varietal wine grape at roughly the same price is no contest for concord. It would be worth the price for the juice alone, but these kits also come with corks and additives and yeast and sugar already added to the juice. The kits also come with labels and shrink caps for 30 bottles, but my thought is… I go to enough trouble getting these things OFF the wine bottles I intend to reuse, why on earth would I then put them back on?

Intrigued by the promise of varietal wine grape juice at the same cost as concord, my only concern was how much control I would have over the process? What if I wanted to use my own additives? My own yeast? Etc., etc… I figured the yeast would have to be packaged separately, but would the initial additives already be dissolved in the juice? The sugar is, but not the additives. Essentially, I am free to use whatever additives I please and prepare the juice according to my own recipe, if I wish.

But upon reading the directions provided with the wine kit, I made a few key discoveries. First, the kit did not include any sort of acid or acid blend as an additive, while it was listed as one of the possible ingredients on the box’s master list covering bases for all the varieties in its wine kit line. It did, however, include bentonite, which I had never used before. I was vaguely familiar with this additive as a clearing agent, and so I was curious to read that the directions called for it to be added before fermentation, rather than upon finishing.

I took to the internet to do some research into bentonite. Apparently, it can be added before or after fermentation to aid in clearing, but it is more effective when added at the beginning. The bentonite attaches to certain particles and then drags them down to the sediment layer as it settles. Adding before fermentation means that the bentonite will keep getting kicked up, keeping it circulating throughout grabbing more particles. I added it to my kit and ordered my own supply online right away. It has helped some stubborn old batches to clear, but has done the most wonders for newly started recipes that I’ve had trouble clearing in the past.

I finished up my first wine kit this week, an Italian Sangiovese. It’s difficult to say at this point how it will be. I tried some just to make sure it was dry enough to finish off, which it was, and to make the decision whether to keep it concentrated (it was a 6 gallon kit, but I have only a five gallon fermenter), which I also did. I use my five gallon carboys only for fermentation, and never for clearing/aging. I have only two of these large fermenters, and I have a ton of gallon jugs. To finish off the Sangiovese, and convert it to six gallons, I took 6 one gallon jugs, crushed a campden tablet into each, and then added 3 cups of filtered water to each one before racking the wine into them.

The other decision I made, fairly early on, was that I would not add the chemicals included in the kit to clear the wine at the end, chitosan and kieselsol. I’ve never needed such clearing agents before, and I would rather get away with using fewer additives whenever possible. If the Sangiovese becomes a challenge to clear, perhaps I will try these additives in the Chilean Cabernet Merlot kit that is currently in fermentation. Then again, its balloon is already deflating, after only two weeks! I’m guessing it’s because I added a tablespoon of my own yeast energizer to the batch, which I did not do with the Sangiovese… also, it’s been warm this week. I don’t plan to rack the Cabernet/Merlot anytime too soon, though. A quick stir easily fills the balloon back up, and after racking the Sangiovese into jugs, I’m kinda low on jugs. Yikes! Guess I have to get bottling, especially because I’m looking to increase production of Apple. There will be some serious jug shortages this summer, I fear.

Also this week…

Started a batch of double concentrate Apple with 3 times the acid blend and Montrachet yeast in search of that elusive tart cider flavor.

Replaced the Sangiovese in one of my large carboys with a five gallon batch of single concentrate Apple with double acid (i.e. 2 teaspoons per gallon) and champagne yeast.

Racked that annoying Cranberry Apple batch that has been fermenting since October into a finishing jug for aging, along with a 1 1/2 Apple with 2 times acid.

Started a new recipe for my popular Raspberry & Pear wine using Welch’s White Grape Raspberry and two pounds of pears.

Wine Log: Apple Experimentation

After a year and a half of wine-making, I’ve gotten to the point where I have hundreds of gallon batches (and a few 5 gallons) under my belt, cupboards stocked full of corked and aging bottles, and a solid base of knowledge for growth and experimentation.

Apple WineWith spring temperatures (finally!) becoming the norm, it’s the perfect time to step up production. I’ve been through two winters, now, as a home wine-maker, and one of the most frustrating things about the cold weather is that fermentation slows to a crawl. This winter in particular has prompted me to start dating each batch with start of fermentation, just out of curiosity. I have at least one gallon batch (cranberry apple) that has been fermenting since October (learn more about my process here), and while it is slowing down, its staying power is persistent.

The promise of faster fermenting provides the perfect opportunity to stock up on one of the staples of my repertoire: Apple Wine. After the long winter, I’ve found myself in a “wine, wine everywhere and not a drop to drink” situation. Many of my summer batches bottled last year have only just reached the 6 month mark, and while that is an important aging milestone for significant improvement of taste, I find myself reluctant to delve into a well-aged bottle a) unless it’s a special occasion and/or I’m sharing with friends, or b) because if I can hold out just a little longer, the one year mark promises an even bigger improvement.

Apple Wine is one of my staples because it is cheap to make (as little as $3, give or take, per gallon), easy to clear, and pretty drinkable even without significant aging. Moreover, the cheaper and easier it is to make, the less I’m concerned with letting it age to full potential. I might set one bottle per batch aside for aging, but the rest gets used up pretty quickly. Some gets made into Sparkling Apple Wine (a fan favorite among my regular group of tasters), some gets consumed as a light, crisp, everyday white, and good bit gets used for cooking. The light, and relatively neutral flavor makes it ideal for recipes when other flavors present a culinary head-scratcher (“Would mango wine taste okay in this risotto?”).

It is also neutral enough to serve as a base for other fruits and flavors, including various spices, citrus and/or vegetables. White grape juice serves a similar function in this regard, but white grape juice is more expensive, clocking in at around $2.50 for a single canister of concentrate (i.e. 2 quarts), where I can get the same amount of apple for 99 cents. The price tag of apple inspires greater risk taking in recipe experimentation.

Let’s start with a basic recipe for Apple Wine:

apple basketBASIC APPLE WINE

2-3 cups of sugar
Champagne yeast
1 or 2 canisters frozen apple juice concentrate
1/2 teaspoon yeast energizer
1/2 teaspoon pectic enzyme
1 or 2 teaspoons acid blend

If you haven’t already, please read my general instructions first, as this and all my recipes will assume previous knowledge of the process of wine making and the equipment necessary.

Start by making a sugar syrup and hydrating your yeast. When I’m using frozen concentrate, I like to thaw it and mix it in with the sugar syrup as it heats in order to sterilize the juice — I started doing this after one batch of apple went bad. You just never know if frozen concentrate has been accidently semi-thawed during transit.

For a one gallon recipe, I use a dusting of yeast, rather than a whole packet. I used to use an entire packet, but I find that a small amount of yeast (say, an 1/8 to a 1/4 of a teaspoon — I don’t measure), if it’s well hydrated ahead of time, will do just fine since yeast multiplies as needed during fermentation.

Measure your additives into a clean and sterile gallon jug using a large funnel. Add the sugar solution and juice when slightly cooled. Fill about 3/4 of the way with water (I use a Brita faucet mount to filter my tap water for wine-making). Feel the side of the jug. If it is still hot to touch, don’t add the yeast. Let it cool to the point where it is only as warm as hand-comfortable tap water.

Add yeast to the cooled-down jug. Fill to about the neck with water. Cover the mouth of the jug with your balloon airlock and secure with a rubberband. At this point I like to label my jug with a large post-it note indicating the type of wine and the start date.

balloonwineFermentation should be in full swing within two days. You know that it is fermenting well when the balloon inflates to the point where it can stand up on its own.

During the warmer weather, my apple wine tends to finish fermentation within a couple weeks, depending on the precise ingredients. Using 3 cups of sugar makes the wine stronger and fermentation takes longer. I found 3 cups a bit too strong for an everyday table wine, so I reduced my regular recipe to 2 cups.

Using one cannister of concentrate produces a very light wine, and some of my tasters have found it a bit too light-bodied for their liking. I’ve also made batches with 2 canisters per gallon; they are certainly more flavorful, but they also come out of fermentation with some harsher notes, requiring a longer aging period to smooth out the flavor profile. The single-canister batches are much more drinkable, even with only a week or so of aging. I’ve also been experimenting with 1.5 canisters per gallon (for which I usually start 2 gallons at a time, dividing three canisters equally among them), hoping for a happy medium.

I’ve also experimented with a number of spices. I’ve done Apple Ginger, Apple Cinnamon, Spiced Apple (with a mulled cider type of spice mix), Apple Cardamom and even Apple Ginger & Cinnamon. In search of a flavor more tartly cider-like, I’ve increased the acid content either by using double my normal amount, or by adding limes and lime juice. I juice the limes (2-3 per gallon) into the jug and then simmer the rinds in with my sugar syrup and juice. I’ve made Apple Lime, Apple Ginger Lime and Apple Cardamom Lime. I was once told that my Apple Lime tastes like a fine Sauvignon Blanc… though, consider that the taster was drunk at the time. My co-worker refers to my Apple Lime as “Corona Wine.”

The newest wrinkle on my apple wine experimentation is to try using a different strain of yeast. When I started wine-making, I used Champagne Yeast for everything. I invested in a supply of Pasteur Red when I pushed my recipes toward deeper blushes and reds. Recently, while browsing wine supplies online, I happened upon a good deal for Montrachet Wine Yeast. According to the description, this yeast aids in developing aroma complexity and aids in producing full-bodied reds OR whites. I decided to try using the montrachet in my latest 5 gallon batch of Apple Wine. The single-canister-per-gallon apple is far from full-bodied, but I was curious if the Montrachet would bring out more flavor. This past weekend I did an initial bottling of this batch. Three gallons went into 15 bottles of Apple Sparkling, while two gallons went into jugs for clearing.

As with many apple batches in the past, these two batches cleared very quickly, and I bottled them only a few days later (in part, anticipating a batch of fondue this weekend for which I’d need some wine, and in part because I’m trying to keep gallons open for when my five gallon Sangiovese kit is done). I’ve sampled a bit already, and I find it… well, so far not that different. Certainly still very light, perhaps a bit cleaner in initial flavor. Aging will likely tell a better tale but, how do I compare it to apple wines that have been aging a longer time or shorter time? It occurs to me that if I truly want to put different yeast strains to the test, I’ll have to start two otherwise identical batches simultaneously to see how they fare side-by-side as they age.

Tough job, somebody’s got to do it…

Also this week…

I started my second wine kit, a 5 gallon batch of Chilean Cabernet Merlot. I added a tablespoon of my own yeast energizer, and fermentation has been vigorous! Perhaps too vigorous… I hate when the fermentation foam froths up so high it leaks out of the pinholes in the balloon.

I bottled a gallon of Mango Guava and a gallon of Apple Ginger Cinnamon as five bottles each of sparkling wine.

My Mango with Montrachet yeast has been transferred to a second jug for clearing.

I started a gallon of Berry Burst Blush with the intention of making it the second entry in Sabrina’s Pink Sparkly Wine Challenge. Also, I am experimenting with a new formulation of a wine I like to call “Strawberry Julius,” the process of making it much improved by the discovery of bentonite! And finally, I am starting a batch of concord red with no acid.

Home Wine-making: Getting Started

My biggest creative pursuit of the last few months has been to tackle the challenge of homemade wine. It should surprise no one that making my own wine is a prospect I’ve contemplated for a few years. Unfortunately, it took me a while to make the leap to actually attempting the task because of less-than-helpful information. Many how-to books on home wine-making are overly complex and full of intimidating mandates for buying bulky equipment. Perhaps the ambitious home wine-maker wants to invest in oak barrels and several-gallon fermentors in the hopes of making Napa-quality pinots noir, but I just wanted to make a jug or two that would rival Franzia.

As fate would have it, a couple new to taking lessons at our dance studio this year turned out to be home wine-makers. They brought a few bottles to a studio dance party one night, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it tasty and dry; every homemade wine I’d ever tasted before that time had been cloyingly sweet — another source of my reluctance to make the effort myself. Who wants to go to the trouble of making a wine she hates? I remarked on the wine to this couple, struck up a conversation about their home operation and discovered that many of my previous assumptions about difficulty of making my own wine were vastly overblown. Two revelations from that night put the prospect of wine-making within reach for me and what I was willing to fit into my lifestyle:

1) Wine can be made from store-bought juice: While the iconic practice of grape-stomping has been rendered unnecessary in the modern age, the use of actual fruit in home wine-making adds a huge amount of inconvenience and expense to what can otherwise be a very simple process.

2) Wine can be made in batches as small as one gallon: Many home wine-makers opt for 5 or 6 gallon fermentors eventually, but one gallon containers are much easier, cheaper and more convenient to come by for the home wine-maker looking just to “give it a try.” One gallon fermenting also offers the opportunity to try out lots of different recipes and flavors easily and cheaply without having to build an addition onto your home. Batches smaller than a gallon would, of course, be possible, but in my opinion, there is no space or convenience or cost advantage to making less than a gallon at a time.

At this point, I took to the internet to find a basic recipe for a gallon of wine, and found surprisingly few… let me rephrase, I found many recipes, but very few had been posted by people who’d actually tried them out, and so lacked instruction on many of the finer points of wine-making.

Not wanting to invest a lot in equipment upfront, I was attracted by the recipes for “Homemade Balloon Wine,” but again found many recipes woefully lacking in any expertise from the people posting them. I went back to our dance studio wine-makers and asked more questions, got a basic recipe from them, did some further online searching and then resolved to try out my first recipe.

Gathering the equipment needed for making wine by the gallon is not difficult, but it does require collecting a few items you might not have “around the house” already. Some of these items you will need to start the batch; some you will need to finish the batch. Fermentation takes anywhere from a few weeks up to a month or more to complete. The first list is what you’ll need to start fermentation, the second is what you’ll need when fermentation is complete.


Gallon jug (glass is best)
Rubber bands
pins (i.e. like those used for sewing)
funnels (a set with different sizes is best)

optional wine additives:
acid blend
pectic enzyme
yeast energizer

I have used plastic milk jugs in the past, but have come to prefer glass wine jugs (a 4L jug of wine is the practical equivalent to one gallon) for starting fermentation. I started my collection by purchasing a 4L jug of Carlo Rossi wine at my local wine store (added bonus — you get to drink the contents first!). Wine supply shops sell wine-making kits with plastic buckets as the primary fermentors, but I have found that’s not necessary if you’re not using fruit (and even then, adjustments can be made for using glass jugs). Wine shops also have air-locks and stoppers, but I like the old traditional balloon because it works essentially as a built-in indicator of the status of fermentation. The wine additives can also be found at a brew shop. I recommend using them because it will make the process easier and more timely, but they are not necessary.


A second glass jug (clear glass is a must!)
A siphon (fresh aquarium tubing is cheap and easy to find)
Campden tablets (a wine additive that stops fermentation)
Beverage bottles and some way to seal them

When wine ferments it creates sediment as a by-product of the fermentation process. Sediment affects the flavor of the wine and makes it appear cloudy. The second jug is necessary for allowing the wine to clear before drinking or bottling (wine can also be kept in this jug for aging), which is why I suggest using a clear glass jug only, so you can assess the state of clearing. The only way to get wine out of any container without disturbing the sediment (and thus clouding up the beverage all over again) is to use a siphon to remove it. There are all sorts of helpful siphon devices at wine supply stores, but I prefer to use a simple tube in order to keep control over the tube depth myself, since some wines produce more sediment than others.

Even if you purchase no other wine additives, I recommend Campden tablets because there’s no way truly to stop fermentation altogether without a stabilizer (stable wine is necessary if you’re going to cork it… also if you don’t want your bottles to explode). After wine clears, in the second jug, it will need to be siphoned again into bottles for longer term storage, or for more immediate consumption, just to assure that the wine remains sediment-free even when jostled or transported. I started by collecting screw top wine bottles. Sometimes I even used juice bottles. Eventually I invested in a corker so that I can reuse any old wine bottles.

Once you have all the equipment needed from the first list, you can start a batch of wine. Specific wine recipes will follow in subsequent blogs, but here is an overview of the process for making a gallon of wine with fruit juice.


1. Make Sugar Water: When I first started making wine, I was shocked at the amount of sugar required for one batch, but don’t worry… it’s not going to turn out sweet unless you stop fermentation early and it’s not going make the caloric intake of your beverage astronomical. The alcohol content in wine is created when yeast interacts with sugar. The actual sugar is consumed in the fermentation process, provided fermentation is allowed to finish (stopping it early will result in a sweeter, lower-alcohol beverage). By dissolving the sugar in water ahead of time, thereby making a sugar syrup, you ensure that all the sugar is available to interact with the yeast, and no granules fall to the bottle and get trapped underneath the growing layer of sediment that will form during fermentation. To make sugar water, simply measure out your quantity of sugar into an appropriately-sized saucepan, and add just enough water to cover. Heat on medium low fire until it reaches a gentle boil. Then remove from heat and allow to cool.

2. Hydrate the Yeast: If you’ve ever baked homemade bread before, you’re probably familiar with the process of hydrating yeast. The process is pretty simple and takes maybe 10 minutes at most. Put a small amount of sugar (1 tablespoon, give or take) and a small quantity (you can use a whole packet, but I seldom do unless I’m making a larger batch) of yeast in a cup or small bowl. Add enough warm (but not hot) water to cover the dry ingredients; the yeast will float a little, that’s okay. Yeast will activate and get a little foamy. I do this right after putting the sugar water on the stove.

3. Add First Ingredients to Jug: Start with a sanitized jug (I use soap, hot water and rubbing alcohol, but wine supply stores do offer other sorts of chemical sanitizers). Use a funnel to add your fruit juice concentrate (if applicable to the recipe) — in the alternative, fruit juice concentrate can also be boiled with the sugar water as an extra measure of sanitation. If using any wine additives, such as pectic enzyme, acid blend or yeast energizer, add them at this time and swish them around in the fruit juice.

4. Prepare Your Balloon: Wash out one balloon in hot tap water. Pierce the balloon with a sewing needle or pin to make four to six holes in the latex. Stretch out the opening of the balloon to get it ready to fit over the jug.

5. Add Remaining Ingredients: Make sure the sugar water is cooled down before adding it because water that’s too hot can kill the yeast. Or, if you’re in a rush, use a large funnel and fill it with ice cubes, then pour the sugar water through the ice cubes. Add the yeast mixture (it should be pretty foamy by now), and then fill up the jug the rest of the way with water.

6. Secure the Balloon: Stretch the opening of the balloon over the mouth of the jug, and use a rubber band to secure it. As fermentation begins, the balloon will fill up. It does not matter how large the balloon gets; it can still be pretty small, as long as it’s taut with air. Occasionally and unexpectedly my balloons will get larger. I haven’t found that it matters much either way. Some particularly vigorous fermenting recipes can bubble up into the balloon, usually darker reds; in instances when I know a wine will bubble up, I won’t fill the jug all the way and simple top off after siphoning later.

7. Wait: Fermentation can take a few weeks (I’ve noticed when using yeast energizer it really cuts down on fermentation time) or a few months (now that the weather’s gotten colder, all of my batches are taking longer). If you stop fermentation too soon, you will get a sweeter, less alcoholic beverage. To get a dry wine, make sure to wait until fermentation is complete.

8. The Balloon Flops: When fermentation is slowing down, you will notice the balloon may start to get a bit wrinkly looking and may droop. Sometimes this means fermentation is over, sometimes it is a “false positive” of sorts. Now that the weather is colder, the batches I keep in my spare bedroom (where all the heating vents are closed) will slow down to the point where the balloon flops over, but when I stir up the contents and move it out to my front hall closet (fermenting and aging beverages should be kept out of direct light), the balloon fills up again and fermentation resumes and continues for another few weeks. When my balloons start to flop now, I always stir them up (by grabbing the neck of the jug and swishing it around) so that the balloon refills as a test. If they no longer fill up easily upon stirring, they are ready to siphon.

9. Let the Jug Settle: When your balloon has flopped for certain, take your jug and place it on a table or other high place where you plan to set it for siphoning. Make sure to cover it with a dark or opaque cloth (I use pillow cases) while it rests. In order to siphon from one jug into another, the jug to be siphoned must be placed higher than the jug the liquid will be siphoned into. I use my dining room table and siphon into a jug on the floor. Place the jug with the flopped balloon on your table or other surface and then wait another day or two. This will ensure that any sediment that was stirred up by moving the jug will settle before siphoning.

10. Siphon Your Wine & Stop Fermentation: Prepare a second, empty, sanitized jug. This one should definitely be glass because this jug is where your wine will sit while it clears. Crush one Campden tablet (I use my mortar and pestle) and pour the powder into the clean jug. Cut a length of clean plastic tubing long enough to reach from the bottom of your filled jug to past the neck of your empty jug when they are sitting wherever you plan to place them during siphoning. Rinse out the siphon tube with hot water, then fill the tube with cold water and carry it over to your jugs with the tube ends up. Keep one end covered with your finger while inserting the other into the jug. Thread it deep enough that it’s near the bottom layer of sediment, but not close enough to draw sediment out. Guide the covered end to the mouth of the clean jug and then let the water flow to start the siphon (a little extra water in your wine won’t hurt). When the liquid gets low enough in your first jug, you may need to tip the jug gently (try to disturb the sediment as little as possible) and re-position the tube to get as much semi-clear liquid as possible. If a little sediment gets sucked up at this stage, it’s not the end of the world, but stop short of siphoning up the sludge.

11. Wait Some More: Cap your jug tightly and move it to a cool, dark place where the stilled wine can settle. Allow the new jug to settle for a couple weeks. If you check on it frequently, you will actually see the top clear first as the sediment progressively sinks.

12. Drink or Age: Once the wine clears, it’s drinkable. Though, your wine will get better with age, so you can also choose to leave it in the jug for a few months. Alternatively, you can bottle the wine. A gallon jug will produce roughly five 750 ml bottles. Many wines, even highbrow wines, come in screw top bottles, so save those along with their caps for an easy and reusable bottling option. A good corker is easily available for around $45. Corks and empty bottles can be purchased online and at wine supply stores, or you can save wine bottles and soak the labels off (reusing wine bottles is great, but always get fresh corks). Bottling the wine now will allow you to drink some today and age some for later. I try to save at least one bottle of each new flavor to see how it will age. Note: As my collection of bottled wines grows, I have taken to labeling my wines with small post-it notes with the type of wine and month of bottling so that I know how long each has been aging.

Stay tuned for more wine-making adventures, and specific recipes…