It was a dark and stormy night…wait, no it wasn’t! I had always been curious about how wine was made. Sure, I made all the fun winery trips when I used to live out in Seattle, and a ‘vacation’ was a road trip to visit a bunch of wineries, enamored by the complicated process of winemaking at a huge winery.
But what I was curious about was making it myself. How hard could it be? I mean, how hard is it to throw some grapes in a bucket, smoosh them to oblivion, add some water, sugar and yeast and wait
impatiently for it to turn into wine?
The very first batch happened because we had a boatload of grapes growing on the ancient grape vine in our backyard that came with the house when we bought it. I had already made a bazillion batches of grape jelly, and still there were grapes for days. So I decided to do a quick search online to see how to turn them into delicious wine.
I was clueless.
Boy, was I clueless.
I bought a bucket and a carboy and followed a simple (read: hillbilly) recipe for making a batch of wine. It suggested that during the fermentation in the carboy you either use a balloon to cover the opening (to allow the ‘gasses’ to escape and allow no oxygen in) like so:
Since I didn’t really like the balloon idea (you know that smell a balloon has? I was worried that it would infiltrate the taste.) I did the saran wrap method. I also bought a 1-gallon glass jug because I also read that using the plastic jugs isn’t a good idea, either.
I used regular old bread yeast as per the recipe I was following. Everything seemed to be going along fine and dandy, and I transferred it several times as the ‘must’ settled and when it was finally showing no more signs of fermentation, I bottled it.
Good thing it wasn’t a very big batch.
Little did I know that reusing corks from previously imbibed wine was also not a good thing to do. After all, there’s a hole in it from the cork screw. But I figured if I flipped it upside down and sealed it with wax, it should be OK – you know, because the hole didn’t go all the way through. And the wax would seal the partial hole. I didn’t know that corks tend to disintegrate over time – and a used one? Has seen better days already.
I let the bottles of wine sit in my nice cool, dark basement for a good six months before I decided I should open one and see how it was coming along in the aging process.
It was horrible.
The smell hit me first – that distinct vinegar aroma with a hint of lingering yeast. I knew it was going to taste horrendous, but I forced myself to taste it anyway. Not only did I spit it out, but I dumped the entire bottle down the sink. And all the other ones, too.
I suppose I could have kept it for cooking when the recipe calls for wine vinegar, but I was so disgusted with my failed attempt at making actual wine, the only way I felt better was to watch every bottle do its glug-glug down the drain. While I held my breath.
Lessons Learned: There is no substitute for a genuine air lock or fresh, brand new corks. The oxygen that infiltrates the wine automatically turns it into vinegar. You also do not want to use regular bread yeast to make wine – it leaves a bitter off-taste to the final wine.You can make homemade wine vinegar simply by removing the cork and letting it sit in a warmish area for a couple of weeks. I’ve read that doing this, homemade wine vinegar actually is better in your recipes than the store bought kind.
I decided that if I really truly wanted to make excellent wine, I better educate myself. So I spent the next year poring over multitudes of winemaking websites and forums and bought excellent winemaking books. I read. And read some more.
The next year I was ready – I had purchased more equipment including actual air locks, wine yeast, brand new bottles and corks, and various other sundries to make sure this time I would succeed.
I decided to take a chance and make a big 6-gallon batch. Because I was sure this time it would work out. I was right.
A passion was born.
Winemaking can be an enjoyable thing, as long as you’re passionate about it. And patient. And have the ‘proper’ tools to do it right. Sure, you can do it the hillbilly way if you prefer wine that will put hair on your chest or remove paint from walls. I prefer to keep my chest hairless, thankyouverymuch, and I’d like the painted walls to remain painted.
Making a fine wine is like creating a gourmet meal. You sample and taste and adjust as needed – to make sure the final outcome is exactly what you’re striving for. And that others can truly enjoy, too.
After all, why bother to make it if it can’t be enjoyed by everyone?