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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Revisiting Home Winemaking

By Weston Eaton

Perhaps I best begin this essay by noting what it is not about. Rather than providing detailed instructions on how to make wine from grapes or from a winemaking ingredient kit, I want to instead tell the story of my own home winemaking experience. For explicit instructions on making wine, visit Siciliano's Market or their website. What follows here is a description of what it takes to make wine at home, which I present as a primer for those interested in taking up the practice of winemaking, as well as to those of you who have wondered what I am up to out in my garage.

Although increasingly popular and visible, home winemaking is nothing new. Like all fermented products, making wine is essentially a means to preserve produce, in this case grapes or other fruit. All wine, of course, was once “made at home.” In particular, up until the industrial and scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, home beer and winemaking in (Europe at least) was the providence of women working at home. However, along with the rise of science and technology came an increased division of labor between men and women, resulting in the masculinization and professionalization of beer brewing and wine making. While farmers and others continued to make wine from their own grapes, these historic processes were largely successful is separating lay people—me and you—from professionals. As a result, wine was something that was bought, rather than made for one’s self or family.

Steve Siciliano (left) and Wes Eaton
crushing grapes behind Siciliano's Market
In North America, the lay/professional divide was challenged by early homebrewing pioneers such as Charlie Papazian, whose “off-the-grid” ethic personified a movement bent on taking fermentation out of the hands of professionals, whose products were getting stale frankly, and redefining what fermented products could and should be. From my perspective, the home beer making movement is key for home winemaking. However, there are distinct histories, which are likely due to necessary ingredients. Unlike beer, which requires malted barley, hops, and brewers yeast—items not normally grown in the yard—wine can be made from anything (although some ingredients, such as grapes or apples, are likely to produce superior wine than others, such as onions). Due to the accessibility of ingredients, home winemaking remained a practice passed down generation to generation, taking place in cellars, garages, and barns.

"I'm crushed," said the little grapes.
The distinction between beer and winemaking first became apparent to me while working at Siciliano’s Market. Whereas homebrewers were often younger folks generally new to fermentation, and were either in search of a new hobby or fascinated by craft beer and looking for a way to create their own, winemakers were often confident in their general understanding of the practice—they had seen their uncle, father, or grandfather make wine in the cellar or barn years before. When they did have questions, the trick was to introduce some of the ‘science‘ of wine-making–sanitization, yeast, sulfites, pH, gravity, and so on—in ways they were comfortable with and that enhanced, rather than intruded upon, their vision for what winemaking was. Others, including myself, were introduced to winemaking as an extension of the repertoire of possible fermentation activities, including cheese and yogurt making, beer, and pickles. Grapes, however, were not alway available. In this way, I came to understand wine making as a seasonal activity, like maple syrup making, in that one makes wine when the grapes are ready.

Seasonality then is my first point in explaining my winemaking practice to inquiring minds. I use fresh grapes, grown near Allegan, Michigan, by Taylor Ridge Vineyards, although there are numerous vineyards one can order winemaking grapes from. Depending on the year, as well as variety, grapes are generally ready for harvest from late September until late October, which means you must be ready for them. Once picked, it's best to process your fruit within 24 hours, lest the fruit flies and elements dampen their quality. Most home winemakers think in terms of 6 gallon batches, which makes thirty 750ml bottles. A batch generally requires one hundred pounds of grapes.

Bryan Taylor of Taylor Ridge Vineyards
Processing your fruit is my second point. Again, the folks at Siciliano's can provide you specifics; my intent instead is to paint a clear picture of what it takes to make wine. First, your grapes need to be crushed and de-stemmed. One can indeed do this by hand, depending on the volume! Or one can use equipment meant for this, such as that offered for rent on site at Siciliano’s Market. [Editor's note: Contact Siciliano's for more information on renting our crushing/destemming equipment.]

Second, red grapes will ferment on the skins, in a large crock, plastic or stainless fermenter, whereas whites will have the juice pressed off immediately. Fermenting on the skins allows for the extraction of tannins and colors into the must, which is the fermenting liquid slurry. Once fermentation is complete, in about a week, the skins are scooped into a wine press and the juice is collected into a glass fermenter. Once sediment collects on the bottom, the wine is then transferred to a final fermenter, where oak is added, and the wine ages 'in bulk.' In fact, I set my wine aside, on oak, until the following year’s grapes are ready, and bottle only when I am getting next year’s vintage started.

With even this brief description, one can see that winemaking, for me at least, is a process that takes place over the course of the year, and that becomes ingrained in the seasons and in this way built up over time as a family tradition. I’m sure there are other ways to do this, ways that are suited to the constraints of other households and families. But this is precisely the point I would like to emphasize: Winemaking is a rich practice that takes place over the course of months, albeit in numerous short spurts of activity. Its rewards are both immediate—the satisfaction of transforming grapes into must, and activating fermentation for instance—as well as long term. This holiday season, for instance, my family will be enjoying my 2010 vintages.

1 comment:

  1. Making wine has already become a tradition. The process takes place whole-year round, so it has to be passed all throughout generations. Anyway, you did a good job on summarizing the whole process. Thanks for sharing that! Cheers!

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