Friday, January 3, 2014

The Jolly Winemaker

Our friends,  Dave and his wife, proposed that, living here in Northern California, in the heart of one of the most famous wine regions of the world,  it was a natural to learn to make our own wine.  The first step was to get a good book on the topic and learn “how to do it”.  While Judy and I are not “big” wine drinkers, we do enjoy an occasional bottle with dinner so we joined into the project, along with another couple. We thought “if simple peasants in Europe have been making excellent wine for over 4000 years – we certainly can too.”  

Cabernet grapes are small with intense flavor - a good balance  in sugar and acid is essential

Dave found a good source of quality Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and we gathered in their garage on a Friday evening.  Now of course the traditional way to crush grapes is to crush them using bare feet in a vat.  But this process offended the sensibilities of some of our group, so we sat around a large plastic container and crushed the grapes by hand – one bunch at a time.  The goal is to break every grape so the juice could escape.  Excess stems were removed because they release excess tannins that would make the wine bitter.  Until late into the night the six of us crushed grapes until we had prepared them all.  Now the juice and pulp need to "rest" somewhere where the temperature is maintained at about 75 degrees...(Dave's garage)

The traditional way to crush grapes - We did not use this method 

Some of the juice is collected in a tube and a special flotation device called a hydrometer is suspended in the fluid.  The higher the sugar content of the juice the higher the hydrometer floats.   There are numbers of the side of the hydrometer that indicate the level of sugar in the juice, and the sugar content will determine that the correct amount of alcohol is formed.   If the sugar level is lower than desired, more sugar can be added.  Wineries just add in juice from a sweeter kind of grape to adjust the sugar.

Cab grape clusters on the vine

Next the chemical "bisulfite" must be added to the mix of juice and pulp.  Grapes naturally collect a variety of yeasts and bacteria on their skins – some of them naturally promote vinegar production, or inferior flavors.  The role of the bisulfites is to destroy all wild organisms. 

Now a culture of high quality wine yeast (purchased from a winemakers supply) is added to the juice + pulp... The vat is covered and allowed to begin its process.  The smell of fermenting grapes is rich and wonderful and fills the space where it is being made.  You can tell it is working because a tight cap of skins begins to migrate to the top of the juice.  The whole mixture must be well stirred twice a day.  The skin are important because they contain the color and flavor of the red wine.

Fermentation cap formed atop the fermenting mass of grapes

When the hydrometer reading indicates that most of the sugar has been fermented, its time to siphon the juice into 5 gallon glass jugs.  The pulp, squeezed with bare hands to extract all the juice then discarded.  This juice also goes into the jugs.  Now a special plastic fermentation lock is put in the top of each jug to allow any remaining carbon dioxide from the fermentation to escape, but air cannot enter.  Fermentation is an anaerobic process (no oxygen involved), Vinegar bacteria are aerobic – and can only live when oxygen is present.

Carbon Dioxide can exit - but air can not enter

The fermentation stops after the conversion of all the sugar to alcohol, and the wine becomes still.  Sediments will settle to the bottom. The used wine yeast and any grape solids will float to the top  and can be removed  to clean jugs with another siphoning.   Extra sulfite can be added to ensure that no vinegar forming bacteria or yeast are allowed to grow.

Still "resting" wine - sediments are settling

Now the wine must sit and wait – a few months generally until it is completely still and clear.  Now it can be siphoned into bottles and corked.  Red wines need time – one to three years or longer to reach  “full smooth maturity”.

The rich color of finished wine

So in theory that is how it was done.  Finally the dramatic moment when our circle of friends  gathered to open the first bottle of our product.  Color looked good. But  Yuck!  The flavor of sulfur! Way to much bisulfate – our master chemist must have gotten his numbers off!  We thought, oh well, maybe with time the bisulfate will settle out and it will be fine – 3 years, 5 years, 8 years... but there was never any improvement.  I had boxes of wine cluttering our garage all that time.  Finally I saw an opportunity – we had a big hole in our back yard and I neatly stacked the boxes in the bottom of the hole – then piled dirt on tip.  I figure some future anthropologist will be fascinated with this method of aging wine – and who knows maybe down there deep in the soil it will have reached its time of perfection.

Photos from the blog from Google Images - I was not into photograph when we did our own wine making