Yes You Can! How to Make Wine at Home

One of the best ways I have spent a day — usually a Sunday — in California has been making wine. Well, more than making wine. Because making wine, as in home winemaking, is all about drinking wine and having a party.

When the home winemaker is Tim Patterson, author of “Home Winemaking for Dummies,” the wine you drink is very good.  Given that Tim’s wife, Nancy Freeman, was for many years a food writer of note, the menu is coordinated to match the wine. And most of the friends who contribute to the potluck are foodies.

Why I tell you this is to give you the first reason to consider becoming a home winemaker. I have other friends who make wine and always, after we’ve rinsed bottles, filled them with whatever juice the winemaker has left from the grapes since it was pressed some weeks previously; after we’ve squeezed the corks into the bottles with the special foot press that looks like a weapon of torture from Christian Grey’s “Fifty Shades” red room, shrunk the foil tops over the bottlenecks with steam from the kettle in the kitchen (the funniest job) and attached the labels (all tasks done with a fairly harmonious division of labor) — we eat, drink and make merry.  In Tim and Nancy’s case, it’s in their small backyard garden in Berkeley (the garage and the cellar being the home winery spaces). Also in Tim’s case, we enjoy the winemaker’s talk on the wines we’ve just shared in the process of making.

In the interest of inspiring readers, we asked Tim to share some words of wisdom and advice for aspiring winemakers. Anyone can do it, he says. So here goes.

Small Scale Home Winemaking

“There are a couple ways to make really small amounts of wine at home — projects that don’t cost too much money or take up too much space,” says Tim. “If you eventually go off the deep end and convert your entire garage into a winery and fill it with barrels, that’s another story.”

But for starters, “The simplest introduction to winemaking is to buy a wine kit, either on the web or at a local wine and beer shop. Wine kits include concentrated grape juice, to which you add water and sugar to reconstitute the original juice and then yeast to start a fermentation.”
Kits, he says, are derived from just about every grape and grape region on Earth. The kits come with instructions and pre-measured packets of any chemicals and additives you might need.
Besides the kit, you may want to get a 5-gallon carboy jug and a stopper, a length of rubber tubing for siphoning and eventually some bottles and corks. “Kit wine turns around much faster than wines made from fresh grapes and doesn’t require any fancy equipment,” says Tim.

Pros: It’s inexpensive, there’s a small footprint, it’s nearly foolproof and you’re almost guaranteed to make drinkable wine.

Cons: “You’re much less involved in the process — and kits rarely make really great wine,” he says.

Beyond the Kit

The next step up from the kit is to make one carboy of wine — five gallons — from fresh grapes. “The first thing you need in this case is a source of grapes, but again, most cities have a beer/wine shop that brings in grapes at harvest time, or you can order frozen grapes on the web,” says Tim, who adds that your local winemaking shop will likely crush and press the grapes for you, rent you a press at the end of fermentation as well as rent you a filtration rig and a bottler later on.

“That way, you don’t need to make any capital investment in the heavy machinery and there are a dozen good home winemaking books in print that will walk you through the process, and the same shop that sells the grapes and equipment is more than likely to dispense free advice, too.” “Home Winemaking for Dummies” — I’m going to plug as the best book seeing the author is too modest!

A hundred pounds of fresh grapes will give you a 5-gallon jug, with some wine left for topping off the carboy and for tasting along the way, he says. “A 5-gallon white will take from four to six months to come around and be ready to bottle; red, a little longer.”

Either with a kit wine or a small fresh batch, “you can make a couple cases of enjoyable wine without a huge effort or expense — it might cost you $3 or $4 a bottle, including the bottles. And you can find out if it’s really your idea of a good time,” says Tim.

The Basics of Winemaking

“Winemaking, home-style or commercial, involves a small number of basic steps, with endless variations,” says Tim, a long-time and award-winning wine writer as well as a winemaker. “White grapes are stripped off their stems (with a destemmer), then immediately crushed (cracked open) and pressed to get all the juice out. Without the skins and seeds, the juice is fermented with yeast, which turns all the sugar into alcohol, at which point it is called ‘dry’ and is officially wine. Over time, the exhausted yeast and other solid stuff settle out, the wine gets clarified and it’s ready to bottle and drink. All this takes a few months, total.”

Red wine processing, he points out, differs in one crucial way. “The grapes are destemmed and crushed, just like whites, but then the fermentation is done with the skins and seeds, in order to extract color, tannins and other goodies from the skins. When the wine is ‘dry’, the whole business gets pressed and then the wine gets clarified over time.”  All this takes from six to twelve months. Red wines are generally aged in oak barrels and so are some whites, although most whites are aged in stainless steel — or at home, in a glass.

Tim’s Top Ten Tips for Home Winemaking

“While I was writing ‘Home Winemaking for Dummies,’ I realized there were four things that kept popping up in my own winemaking, so I dubbed them Patterson’s Four Laws of Home Winemaking,” he says.

 1. You can never worry enough about sanitation and cleaning. “Grape juice and wine are both great hosts for lots and lots of microbes — that’s why yeast is so eager to turn grape juice into wine. So winemakers have to pick and choose among good microbes and bad ones and the key to that is sanitation — clean equipment, clean grapes, clean bottles and various steps to encourage the good guys and wipe out the bad guys.”

2.  You can never have enough different sizes and kinds of jugs, bottles and other containers. “In making wine, nothing ever comes out quite even. The grapes that are supposed to yield 15 gallons of wine end up producing 14.3, or 16.2, and you have to put that wine somewhere. Carboys and barrels, the standard containers, come in standard sizes, but the wine doesn’t. Have a lot of storage options with the appropriate stoppers handy.”

3.  Blending is the home winemaker’s best friend. “Commercial wineries make great stuff from single grape varieties because they have lots of it; they can take the best 20 of their 32 barrels of merlot and make their flagship wine and put the other 12 into a bargain wine. You are likely to have one carboy or one barrel, and it might not be perfect; it could use more fruit, or more acid, or more of a finish. And so you might want to blend something in, either another grape you made yourself or — goodness! — something from the local supermarket wine shelf.” The point, he says, is to make wine that tastes good, not wine that’s “pure.”

 4.  It’s very hard to make great wine in quantities small enough to drink yourself. “You can make one terrific orange soufflé; you can’t make just one terrific bottle of wine. Five gallons (two cases) is about the minimum size and that works pretty well; but for really serious wine, you need barrel-size lots — at least 30 gallons — and that gives you about a dozen cases. This is why winemakers need friends and once you make wine, you will have many friends.”

And The Other Six Tips

5.  Make your winemaking a community event. “Wine is the ultimate social beverage and there are plenty of places in the winemaking cycle where you can bring in your friends and neighbors and they will have a ball — harvesting grapes, crushing and pressing, deciding on blends, bottling. You can even do a Tom Sawyer thing and convince them that it’s a privilege to clean your equipment.”

6.  Make wine you want to drink. “Some first-time home winemakers think they have to mimic some famous, fancy, high-priced wine — like a homegrown cult cabernet. The odds of pulling that off in your garage are slim. But if what you really like to drink, week after week, is a medium-bodied, food-friendly red, think about making zinfandel or grenache or barbera. The more you want to drink the wine, the more motivated you will be.”

7.  Whites are harder than reds for home winemaking. “Red wines take a few more steps in processing than whites and have to age longer before they are ready to drink, but whites are much less forgiving. If a white is a little cloudy or has just a hint of a funky aroma, it jumps out of the glass. In a red, no one notices, or it gets called ‘complexity.’ This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do whites, just that you have to be extra careful working with them.”

 8.  Be proud of your wine. “Unless your wine experiment goes bust and ends up down the drain — highly unlikely — let your friends know you’ve made a good bottle. Home winemakers who pay attention to what they’re doing can make commercial-grade wine, time after time. Give the wine a label. Talk it up. Serve it next to a comparable commercial wine. Hey, you’re a winemaker too!”

 9.  Pay attention to detail. “Wine certainly has its artistic and romantic sides, but it also requires sweating the small stuff — knowing the temperature during fermentation, testing to make sure the wine is dry, making sure bottles don’t have a lot of empty air above the wine, etc. The more careful you are, the more your wine will pay you back.”

10.  Write stuff down. “Keep a log of everything you did to your wine, or noticed about it. This is important both to keep track of what you have done and not done on a particular batch and to learn from the experience of previous vintages. And you will want to know this stuff, because you will surely get hooked and do it again.”

See the Home Winemaking for Dummies cheat sheet here.  And when you’ve made your first case, please do remember to send us a bottle.

Read some of Tim Patterson’s articles on the home winemaking magazine website, WineMaker and in the wine trade magazine Wines & Vines.

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.