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