2018 Chardonnay: Using fresh juice

Sporting one of the fancy new labels

That whole FroZin affair I wrote about? That was all in preparation for an attempt using fresh grapes from last years harvest. I thought of the frozen must as a test run for the real thing come September.

Choosing the varietal

I did want to make it a bit easier on myself though, so I decided I’d use pressed white juice bought through Brehm. Other than the frozen Zinfandel must, my experience up until this point had been with kits: a successful white and two mediocre reds. The choice of pressed white juice was playing it safe: better memories of success and no skins to deal with.

I browsed Brehm’s site for white varietals that could be picked up within driving distance of San Francisco and settled on the Chardonnay from Tolay Springs Vineyard (basically the only option that suited my criteria). I ordered 6.5 gallons of it in August and waited.

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FroZin, pt. 2: The verdict

Here it comes

Last week, I started recounting my first non-kit winemaking attempt last summer, using frozen Zinfandel must from Brehm. Check out part 1, here.

Topping Up

Immediately after racking the freshly fermented must to a 3 gallon carboy, I could see a problem coming. There was a good amount of headspace at the top of the carboy. I planned to use this vessel for the aging process after fermentation as well and by that point, there wouldn’t be any protective CO2 coming off of the wine. Doing most of your winemaking education online leaves you with a distinct fear of oxygen exposure. So before the fermentation stopped, I had to get that level up.

I tried to read all I could about what folks do in this situation: marbles, bladders, vacuums, water. The easiest (lazy winemaker here!) seemed to be simply adding other, similar wine. This is a little disappointing since it’s diluting the originality of the final product, but it seemed better than diluting it with water, buying expensive equipment, or risking the marbles breaking the carboy.

I didn’t want to top up with Carlo Rossi, or the closest to cheap, bulk wine that I could find. I wanted something that would minimally mess with any further development that it still had to go through, so stuff loaded with additives wasn’t in the picture. I visited one of our local natural wine–focused spots, Terroir, and their bartenders recommended the cheapest, no-added-sulfites red blend containing Zinfandel that they were able to think of. I’m sadly forgetting the brand.

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FroZin: Fermenting frozen must

Now being used as a garden bucket

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!)

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Rough plan for sourcing fresh grapes

Fingers crossed

A motivating factor for getting this blog going and documenting my first attempts at winemaking was that I plan on doing a batch with fresh grapes this coming harvest season — not just pressed juice like last year, or frozen grapes and concentrate-based kits previously. And, not just a 5 or 6 gallon carboy’s worth, but (hopefully) about double that.

That feels like a daunting goal that I’ve set for myself. It’ll take a few pieces of new equipment, the straining of existing capacity (especially given the size of my press), and probably a good number of bumps in the road — one hopes none critical.

Adding to the complexity a bit is that I want to make a skin contact white.

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Case of the stolen yeast: continued

I wrote last weekend that I loved Tony Coturri’s wine, was generally not impressed by my own cheap-kit attempts (surprise), and planned to nab some of the yeast from Coturri despite that it was virtually guaranteed to not translate any of that wine’s character. Smart.

It started with a starter, however. To create a starter, you need to have something for the yeast to eat, namely sugar. In my previous experience with apples, I’d often pitched commercial yeast in a small mixture of cider and honey just to kickstart it before pitching into the juice. It always worked reasonably well, but this time I would use organic, preservative-free grape juice as the base. I could only find Concord grape juice, so that’s what I used. I figured this would be enough sugar to get any yeast in the Coturri going again.

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Effect of the heat

After clearing out the airlock, but still up to the stopper.

Regardless of the season, San Francisco is almost always between 50–70 degrees. So, the past few days have been a surprise. It’s been in the 80s (reaching 90s at some points) during the day and it’s even been warm at night.

When I went to check on my no-additive kit attempt last night, I was met with another heat related surprise. I had left a very small amount of headspace in the carboy with the intent of reducing oxygen exposure. There was maybe an inch to an inch-and-a-half of space there. But, last night, that space was gone and the wine was creeping up the airlock tube. Judging by the color of the water in the airlock, it had also overflowed at some point.

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Time to shape up

One piece of advice you’ll read and hear as a novice home winemaker is “keep good notes.” I’m not good at that and don’t think I ever have been.

When I started my alcohol crafting journey with liqueurs: no documentation; when I continued it with cider and it’s derivatives: nothing but the end results remain; gin: nothing; the first year and half of basement wine: just a bunch of bottles aging.

But, this season I’m planning on buying some real damn grapes for real damn money (i.e. more than a single carboy’s worth). Figured it’s time to shape up.

Time to start a blog for the (illusion of) accountability.