Home Wine Brewing: First Hand Experience Making A High Quality Grenache Wine
Turning Dumpsters into Wine
Home brewing wine is not something that I thought that I would ever do. In the mid-90's, I tried my hand at brewing my own beer, and was met with all the typical challenges that every homebrewer faces... Boiled over wort, long hours of prep and bottling, and then hit-or-miss results on the output. Although I got better at it, I soon found that I didn't have the time to dedicate to the art. Based on that, I always thought that brewing wine would be much harder, and since I've tasted hundred of wines that were less than par, I never thought that I would want to take the time nor effort to make vinegar... or worse.
Flash forward to 2012, and now I own a roll-off container rental serving Dumfries, VA. As a business owner, I meet a local landlord who's cleaning out a tenant's leftovers. After some discussion with the cleaning crew, it is discovered that we both enjoy fermented grape juice, and it is learned that their basement is filled with some homemade nectar of gods, of the Merlot variety. I then managed to cajole of couple of bottles out of their vault.
After tasting, I was amazed that homemade wine could be of such exceptional taste and quality. This, to me, was so surprising, because I'm not typically a Merlot fan, but this wine was definitely a higher quality, flavor, and alcohol content that can't be found in most grocery store shelves. After those couple of bottles, I was hooked and wanted to know how to make such a great libation. They informed me that they would be brewing a new batch this year, and I BEGGED to be included. With my previous brewing experience, I knew that I was willing to put in the time and effort to reap such a high quality return. They accepted my pleas, and so the journy began...
Bottle Corking Machine
Wine Making Equipment
One of the reasons that I was happy to get aboard with my new mentors was that they not only had knowledge and experience, but they've already invested in the needed equipment to be successful. I definitely wasn't about to splurge for any, so if it only meant that I had to clean the existing equipment, then point me to scrub bucket.
Although wine can be brewed without a barrel, a barrel gives wine lots of character, like an oak finish. Many vineyards use leftover Bourbon or Whiskey barrel to help flavor and increase the alcohol content.
Grape De-stemmer / Crusher
The next tool of the trade is the Grape De-stemmer / crusher. This machine looks like it was invented before time, but it's simplicity is what makes it so great. Theres a hopper on top, with a spinning auger, which acts like your ice dispenser on your fridge. It just spins and pushes the grapes to their demise.
Under the end of the auger trail, there are two rollers that squash the grapes and rips out the stems. Under that is another paddled shaft that allows the juice and skins to drop straight down, but the stems are routed out of the opposite end of the machine. (Check out the video for a small demonstration.)
Crushed Grape Tub
As described with the crusher, the juice and skins drops down, and so a tub is needed to catch the remnants. A 70-gal tub is good, because after pressing, will distill down to the 55 gallon barrel. (Math is important!)
After the crusher does it's work, next is the press. The idea of the press is to extract the maximum amount of juice from the remnants of the crushed grapes. It's another fairly simple concept in that you pour in the crushed product, and drain out just the juice.
At some point, you'll need to get the wine out of the barrel. A carboy is a good step down, and can also be used to continue the fermentation process. They come in numerous sizes, but 5 and 15 gallon are common.
When you're ready to store the fruits of your labor, then you'll need bottles and a machine to stuff the cork into the bottle. This unassuming little lever is a symphony of torque and finesse, as it first squeezes the cork long-ways, such that it easily slips into the bottle, then a peg jams it down into the opening.
Crushed Grape Tub
Grapes of Wrath
Hardly an arduous journy, but the first steps included figuring out if the barrel we had holds water, literally. We rolled the barrel out of the basement and up to the garage, where we attacked it with the hose. (This also served the purpose to clean out any residuals from the previous brewing season.) Without fail, the barrel leaked from nearly ever seam, and we questioned the success of the effort. After all, there's no need to buy grapes, if there's no fermentation destination station. After 3 or four fillings, the wood began to expand naturally and the barrel leaked less and less. Throughout the week, more test fillings occurred, and the barrel fully resealed at all the slats.
Next, we pulled the de-stemming/crusher from the garage and lubricated the metal intertwining bits, and then hosed out the hopper and the 70 gallon catch tub. As the grapes wouldn't be available for a couple more weeks, we tucked away all of the equipment and went back to the basement to finish off the remainder of the previous years harvest by bottling it from a 15 gal carboy.
The big day arrived to pick up the grapes, so we drove an hour or so to the Jessup, MD produce mart to taste the grapes, and secure our bounty. The first interesting thing was the number of old Italian men had flocked to the location. In the world of wine, you know you're doing something right when old Italians are doing it. It was fun to watch them move from grapes to grapes haggling with the vendor.
I tried my hand at tasting the grapes, and they were definitely sweet! Nothing like what you'd get at the chain-based grocery store. As I tasted them, I tried to pretend that I was tasting a wine made with that grape, and see if I my tongue could "picture" the taste outcome. It was a fun game to play and I tried it with all of the different red and green grapes they had.
A little more background is that we had come to the decision that we would not buy grapes, but instead, just buy the juice. For starters, it's cheaper, and it's a lot less manual labor. Upon making this decision I was a little bummed, because it would cut out playing with some of the fun equipment, like the crusher and the press, and since this was my first time, I wanted to see the process happen live. But, I deferred my decision to my mentors and they felt this was the way to go. Also, the plan was to get Merlot, to duplicate the product made in the previous year.
That said, when we got to the market, I don't know what changed when, as I was only there as chauffer and muscle, but the thought leaders held congress with the vendor, and the next thing I know, I'm loading crates of grenache grapes into the truck... not that I minded, I'm here to learn, and make some great wine.
Grape Run Road Trip
Upon arriving home from the grape run road trip, we set up the tub and crusher, and unloaded our boxes in preparation for the fruit orb massacre. With little fanfare, we plugged in the crusher and began dumping the grapes, one box at a time, into the hopper.(Be sure to wear old clothes, because there is plenty of grape juice splattered about.) As the catch tub gets full, a little stirring is required, which we did with a basic plastic canoe paddle. This process only took about an hour or so, then we hosed off the crusher, and prepared it for another year of storage.
During the week, the vat of leavings soaks the juice in the tannins and pulp, and starts the fermenting process. (my better half reminded me that this is just a really fancy word for "rotting". She won't get any wine.) This also helps add to the flavor.
I didn't get to participate, but my mentor said he would be stirring the concoction a couple times of day to circulate fresh air into the mix.
Soon, we will press!
To Be Continued
This will be an ongoing article, as I'll post updates after we hit some of the major milestones:
- Pressing & Adding to the Barrel
- The Fermentation Process
- Review of the final product