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A Beginner’s Guide to Home Winemaking
[September/October 2000]

It's 2 o'clock on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in mid-October when I get the call. Like every other winemaker around the region, I've been tracking a nasty storm that's been fermenting in the Pacific Ocean and is headed for the coast. Within a day or so, Oregon's grapes will get a first bitter taste of winter unless harvest intervenes. So, however ripe the grapes may be, I've got 24 hours to assemble a team, pull the grapes off the vines, and get them into the winery.

By which I mean, my basement.


As the Pacific Northwest's world-class wines garner increased attention, it's no surprise that more and more of us who live here are bottling our own. Making small batches in a corner of a basement or the back of a closet may not yield a home-grown Leonetti or a Domaine Drouhin, but home winemaking can be an enjoyable, educational experience for a fraction of the cost of a premium bottle. If you cross the right T's and dot the right I's, your wine might not taste too bad, either.

Ordinary Joes like me have been making wine for millennia in some form or another. Part of the magic of doing it yourself is knowing that the simple path of harvesting fruit and letting its juice ferment has been traveled by thousands before you. As you pick, so Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans picked with the same crispness bracing the air; as you macerate, ferment, and press, so have tens of thousands of Assyrians, Francs, Germans, Spaniards, and Californians, tasting the same lusty sweetness in the fresh juice and the tang of new wine a few weeks later, all angles and promise.

Still, variations in the weather, grapes, and your own experience make the process different every year, and this is what keeps winemakers -- professional and amateur -- coming back. Rob Kowal, a sound engineer who works part-time in the cellar at Oregon's Bethel Heights Vineyard, has been making his own wine since 1996. "Making wine is surprisingly simple," he says. "If you get grapes and put them in a vessel, you'll get wine. On the other hand, it's incredibly complex and subtle, and you'll never completely master it. The more experience you have, the more variation you see, the more you realize you have to learn."

Settlers introduced the first vinifera grapes into the Northwest in the mid-19th century, many from cuttings they carried along on the Oregon Trail. Most of those early winemaking efforts were wiped out during Prohibition in the 1920s, but the wineries that survived did so by legally selling grapes and juice for medicinal, religious, and home winemaking purposes: a loophole in the Volstead Act allowed Americans to make up to 200 gallons of wine or cider per year for personal consumption. In some small part, home winemakers kept the American wine industry from disappearing altogether.

Today, U.S. law still permits fermenting up to 200 gallons of wine a year for personal consumption. In 1992, the Wine Spectator reported that 400,000 Americans made about 2.5 million cases of wine from grapes. I was one of them.


The morning of harvest, hastily arranged absences from work bring nine of us to a vineyard near Banks, Oregon. This time of year, we're like firemen, poised to slide down the pole with our clippers ready at a moment's notice. When the morning sun sweeps the dew and chill out of the vineyard, illuminating a panorama of fall color and ripe fruit, there's no day job that can hold us.

We're lucky to pick here, because this grower raises quality fruit, selling it to bona fide wineries as well as to would-be's like us. It's a far cry from our first Pinot Noir picking experience in 1995, in a Southwest Washington vineyard owned by neophytes who had bought the acreage because it was "so Danielle Steel." Even seasoned professionals had trouble saving their grapes that year; it was the worst harvest in recent memory. Early winter storms devastated our growers' vineyard with rot and diluted what remained of the unripe harvest to watery KoolAid. As a result, our 1995 Danielle Steel Vineyard Pinot Noir (as we came to name it) has a taste only a mother could love.

Which, of course, we do. We're home winemakers, after all.


The first step in making wine at home is to decide what kind you want to make and what style to make it in. Will it be Cabernet or Riesling? The Pinots Blanc, Gris, or Noir? If Gris, do you prefer the crisp, defined style that comes from aging in glass carboys or stainless steel, or are you looking for a richer, sweeter style derived from a bit of contact with oak?

Answering these questions leads to your most time-consuming chore: to make good wine, you need to drink wine. Make notes about the wines you like the best, and do some digging to find out how they were created. Publications like this one often contain interviews with winemakers as well as surveys of varietals with useful tips on how certain styles are achieved. Wine supply merchants offer books and, often, good advice. During open houses, winemakers are usually happy to answer your questions, though you'll notice a sharp drop in their technical support as harvest approaches.

Varietal and style firmly in mind, the next step is to assemble your tools and ingredients. Most of the basic equipment is surprisingly similar to what the pros use, testament to the comparative simplicity of the process. All it takes is juice, something to ferment it in, yeast and potassium metabisulfite, a few tools to measure the progress of fermentation, and some vessels to keep air at bay as the wine ages. Voilà, Pétrus!

First-time winemakers may find pre-processed juice a good option. Some wine supply stores offer concentrated juice pre-balanced to the ideal sugar and acid content, so all you have to do is pitch the yeast and watch it go. Portland's F.H. Steinbart Company, for instance, offers a beginner kit for about $90, including concentrated juice and all the basic tools you'll need before bottling. At fall harvest, these stores also often carry fresh-pressed juice from local vineyards. Unlike concentrates, the juice will vary in quality depending on the vintage, may require some sugar and acid balancing, and must be processed right away. In short, it's a closer approximation to what the pros face every year.

For many amateurs, however, making wine without actually picking the grapes is like coming into a movie half an hour after the opening credits. Often, local growers offer U-pick grapes or pre-picked grapes at a slightly higher price. If you lack access to a crusher/destemmer or a press, some vineyards can also do some processing for you, or they'll let you use the equipment while you're there. Such vineyards often advertise these services on bulletin boards at wine supply stores.

Before the juice lands in your makeshift winery, however, you'll need a few basic tools. Commercial wineries are in the irksome position of buying expensive equipment they actually use only 2-3 weeks a year. Your equipment will cost considerably less even if you decide to spring for your own crusher/destemmer and press.

A fermenter will be the wine's first home if it's red. For professionals, it's a towering silo of stainless steel; for the amateur, it will take a more humble garbage-can shape, though formed of food-grade plastic so the wine won't taste like its container.

You'll need a hydrometer, which looks like a pregnant thermometer, to measure the sugar in the juice, giving important clues to alcohol content as it ferments. Three- to five-gallon carboys, resembling enormous glass jugs, will store your red wine after it's pressed or, if it's white wine, act as the fermenter and then storage vessel. Finally, you'll need a collection of rubber stoppers with airlocks to release CO2 while keeping out fruit flies and oxygen.

Of course, as you learn more and this hobby begins to consume your life, you'll discover that one difference between a respectable wine and truly excellent one is (in part) a winery full of expensive gadgets. At the same time, strangely, you'll note that acquiring them becomes easier and easier to rationalize. This is why it's a good idea to transfer title of valuable assets to trusted friends during the months surrounding harvest.

Luckily, you can close some of the investment gap through experience, training, and attention to detail -- qualities that take time, not money, to acquire. Winemakers these days talk a lot about "letting the vineyard make the wine and getting out of the way," but the fact is that every winemaker makes critical decisions after the grapes come in, decisions that change the way the product ultimately tastes. The choice of yeast, fermentation time and temperature, cooperage, aging time, even how the liquid moves around the winery all influence the pleasure the wine will eventually give you.


Three hours after our arrival in the vineyard, our crew has picked 550 pounds of pinot noir grapes. This year's fruit is healthy and ripe, coming in at about 23 brix, a sugar level we repeatedly confirm by biting into ripe bunches like Roman libertines. Packing the fruit in garbage cans and bags, we head for our high-tech processing facility behind the gardening tools in my basement, where we gently run the grapes through a borrowed crusher/destemmer that sucks the stems off the bunches and breaks the berries, depositing the resulting goo in a garbage-can fermenter below. Home winemakers throughout history have skipped this step and simply "stomped" the grapes directly in the fermenter, breaking the berries and fishing out what stems they can. In either case, revelry prevails and wine flows. Or as Jeff Cox puts it in his fine book, From Vines to Wines, "This is not a bad time to put your Bo Diddley record on the turntable and pass around some wine that's good for gulping."

Next, we add potassium metabisulfite to the "must" (as this grape goo is called), which will kill bacteria and unwanted wild yeasts, clearing the way for the cultured yeast we'll add in about 24 hours.

Now the pace accelerates considerably. Fermentation is the climax of a year's waiting and planning, a wild ride in which temperatures must be constantly monitored and sometimes manipulated, and the "cap" of grape skins pushed to the surface by escaping CO2 must be religiously punched down. For my trouble, the fragrance of sweet fruit will fill the air and my entire house for a week.

While the pace of winemaking is usually measured and leisurely through the rest of the year, this is the time when you need to be positively Prussian in your attention to detail. Missing a punchdown or two can cause ugly things to fester under the cap, for instance. And allowing your fermenting wine's temperature to soar to incendiary heights can be equally deleterious.

Keep everything that touches the wine clean and sanitized, and don't fall behind on your record-keeping. Records will allow you to track the progress of your baby as it rockets through this quick adolescence, but more importantly, it allows you to look back and see what worked and what didn't long after it is safely in bottle.

Once the fever of fermentation has subsided and the cap has fallen into the new wine, the mixture will be pressed off and begin its slow evolution to the bottle. As it gushes from the press, the wine is brilliantly garnet-colored and redolent of cherries. We slip a glass into the stream from time to time to taste the new vintage, and it is tight, awkward, and grapey, free of defects but like a puppy with feet too big for its body. If we can protect it from contact with oxygen -- and this is where most home winemakers are undone -- after a year's aging in an oak barrel it will gain depth, silkiness, and our doting approbation. As Larry Halkinrude, wine buyer for Elephants Deli in Portland and a home winemaker since 1982, says, "Wines are kind of like your kids; they can do no wrong."

By the time it's ready to bottle, we'll be girding our loins for the next harvest, one more chance to pretend we're pros and make the perfect wine. I can hardly wait.


©2000 Matt Giraud. This story originally appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of Northwest Palate Magazine.

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