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.
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.
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.
One of my favorite winemakers is Tony Coturri. The first I heard of him was maybe eight or so years ago, when a friend was describing his tasting trip up to Sonoma/Napa. Something like: “He doesn’t add any yeast, but only uses what’s in the air or comes from his beard.” Beard-yeast. That stuck with me and not in the most positive way. I understood that the secondhand story was merely illustrative and he wasn’t dipping his beard in the juice, but still . . . beard-yeast.
That story aside, my friend’s enthusiasm was infectious, so I had to check it out. I made my own way to Coturri the following summer and became a loyalist in short order. It was really an eye-opening moment for me. His was unlike any other wine I had had up until that point. I was never really big into wine and had been a whiskey blogger for a number of years at that point. But Tony’s wine was something else. It had a character that was exciting and unfamiliar to me; it felt like you could read the production from the flavor; it alluded to the existence of a similar expansiveness that could exist in the wine world that I was following in my whiskey blogging life.
I started off my winemaking with cheap kits I bought off of Amazon. I then moved on to frozen must from Brehm’s and fresh pressed juice from the 2018 harvest. Between those points, I had the idea to give a higher quality kit a try. So, after a good amount of research, I chose the Washington Riesling kit by Wine Expert. I was looking for a white variety since of my first two attempts, the white was drinkable right off the bat and I wanted a kit that might kick out a product that would be pretty decent. Online reviews I read pointed me in this direction.
And yet, just as soon as the kit arrived in the mail, my interest had moved toward planning for the frozen must. At the same time, I was starting to bust out of the closet I was making wine in before moving to the basement. This all meant that the kit sat under my desk for a year, untouched.
My first two forays into winemaking were with the cheapest kits I could buy on Amazon (even cheaper than this): first a white (“Chardonnay”), next a red (“Merlot”). (Quotation marks added because, at least with the Merlot, the packaging clearly called out that it may not actually be Merlot, but grapes like it instead.)
With the wine, the idea was to follow the kit instructions as closely as possible and not screw up. I mean, I should have known better. If there were a lesson I learned from all my other alcohol making projects it was that it’s kind of hard to screw up. Hell, I made Welch’s grape juice wine 12 years ago on instinct alone. Wasn’t great, but it was wine.
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.