After my janky attempt to steal a sliver of the essence of Coturri wines through residual yeast, it was time to graduate from the cheap kits. And now, having tasted the year-aged results, it was the right move. It was the summer of 2018, so I also had my eye on using fresh juice in that coming harvest, but wanted to get a bit more practice under my belt. This led me to the buckets of frozen grapes sold by Brehm.
I spent a few hours on their site, sorting through all the grape possibilities, and judging volumes and quantities. They sell frozen red grape must in pails containing about 5 gallons, which they tell us ends up as a bit less than 3 gallons of finished wine. After some internet research, it seemed that my 6.5 gallon fermenting bucket might not be quite big enough for the cap, foam, etc. that would come into play. So, the first new thing I needed to buy was a new, 8 gallon fermenting bucket, for about $20.
Since I was making red wine, I’d also need a tool to separate the skins from the juice after fermentation. Hence my search for a press. This led me down some odd roads, such as researching the possibility of renting a very large press and somehow transporting it to my basement. Turns out, Walmart sells a reasonably priced small fruit press. 1.6 gallons, $40. Obviously larger would have been better, but I wasn’t looking to drop hundreds just yet. (Though, with my plans for this year, 1.6 gallons is looking woefully insufficient!)
Speaking of which, even frozen grapes ain’t cheap. They weren’t last summer either. I combed Brehm’s selection for the cheapest frozen grapes of California origins I could find (the slightest nod to localism). I ended up spending $120 on one 5 gallon pail of frozen grapes. Sure, it was convenient with local pick-up and sized well for a beginner’s fumblings, but a total of $180 all-in for this batch was a lot. Especially given the likelihood that I’d screw it up. Even if you break it down to a finished bottle price, that translates to $12 (including the equipment) or $8 (excluding equipment).
I don’t think my previous attempts would qualify as $12 wines ($8? maybe the whites). Sure hope this would.
By now, I had my new equipment (fruit press, larger fermenting bucket) and I had ordered my frozen grapes (Zinfandel from Brehm). I picked those grapes up by driving out to an industrial loading dock in Richmond, CA in my Ford Focus, where I was almost certainly picking up the smallest shipment of the day in the smallest vehicle. It seems the usual clientele of that warehouse often use forklifts and and heavy-duty trucks; they’re not buying 5 gallon buckets and loading a compact hatchback.
It took a couple days for the grapes to thaw. Not a surprise given their mass, but I was impatient. It did give me time to think about yeast. Native yeast isn’t an option for frozen grapes. I was just off my Coturri yeast experiment (it was probably still hanging out in a carboy at that point), so the stolen-yeast efficacy was unknown to me. And, really, I just didn’t want to screw it up.
I used Lalvin BM4x4 yeast for this one after uselessly intense study of many online yeast charts. Going back to those charts now and trying to deduce my thought process, it’s really not very clear. Since I’m doing this on the cold cement floor I figured that maybe I took the fermenting temperature range as the primary factor. But, BM4x4 has 60 degrees as a lower end, which is probably good enough, though not ideal especially for night. EC-1118 is more flexible for colder temperatures, but maybe I passed it over since that’s what comes with the cheap kits? Who knows. Regardless, when the grapes were nearly at room temperature, I made a little starter of the BM4x4 and some of the juice, got it bubbling, and pitched it.
Then came the first waiting part, that part of all booze-making that I’ve come to enjoy. I’d head down to the basement every morning and afternoon to punch down the cap and generally see how things were progressing. I used a potato masher for the punch down, which worked pretty well, but had the worrying tendency to leave some residue on the sides of the fermenter. I was concerned that this would lead to unwanted bacteria making its way into the fermentation, so I scraped it down the best I could, but didn’t go crazy. We’ll see if that was a mistake.
After a couple weeks when the fermentation had slowed, judging by the cap and, strangely, the sound, the next step was pressing. This was exciting! I got to use the new, (small) fancy looking toy. It took a little bit for me to figure out how all the pieces of the fruit press fit together. And, ultimately, I’m not sure I got it right since I was unable to use the cranking rod after just a few turns when it went below the line of the basket. I’ll figure it out next time.
I was able to get the full 5 gallons pressed in about 3 batches in the 1.6 gallon press (most of those 5 gallons were juice) and I managed to only spill a very small amount! Awesome. This went straight into a 3-gallon carboy for the next phase of fermentation.
[continued next time]