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Vines to Vino: The comprehensive backyard winemaking guide


As far back as I can remember, my dad has been making wine. And before then? He was making wine. And even before then? Yes, he was making wine. We date the family tradition back to the 1800s based on the cast iron grape press we use, but his 'modern' process has really only solidified itself over the past 20-30 years.

This is no small-scale operation. This isn't your hipster friend's 5 gallon "local hops artisanal IPA" experiment. This is a bonafide f*cking production; taking decades to master and weeks of meticulous work to complete each year. But I'll be damned if it isn't worth every second of effort.

We produce enough wine for my parents to be able to drink roughly 750ml - 1 liter a day for the entire "wine year" (a term my sister and I have used to describe the months in which we consume our wine before it runs out), in addition to giving away dozens of bottles to every friend, friend of friend, neighbor, relative, mailman, dentist, doctor, and every other relation in between. Our supply lasts from late November/early December through late August. This leaves a few months of non-homemade wine to be consumed, a period of the year we refer to as the "Dark Age"–an era of struggle and conflict as the family is forced to consume Almaden and the bottles received as gifts throughout the year.

Our wine has become so sought after and precious that I would be foolish not to learn the details of the process, and by doing so, document them here for myself, and for the world. Let the following instructions stand as a triumph of modern winemaking, and family tradition.

I hope you find them easy-to-follow and rewarding.

Good luck. You're gonna need it.

          (No, we don't use our feet.)

-Winemaking-

Step by Step

Step 1. Scouting the grapes.

There are many vineyards out east on Long Island, as well as further north in the Hudson Valley, but they have a very narrow window of ripe fruit, and often produce just enough grapes for their own production. We go to TP & S WineGrapes Inc. in Canarsie, Brooklyn for our annual supply.

We call them up to ask if they have received their shipments from California yet and find out which grapes have made it over. While we have experimented some years, for the most part we stick to the Thompson Seedless and Alicante varietals. At this point my dad usually takes a trip over to their store to assess the freshness and taste of the grapes. If the grapes are juicy, sweet, fresh, and not overly expensive, the decision to purchase is made quickly. If they are at all tart, have clusters of dried grapes or vines, or have clusters of spoiled or crushed grapes he waits for another shipment.

STEP 2. TIMING IS EVERYTHING.

Ideal conditions for primary winemaking fermentation should be between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. We usually make our wine the last week of September or first week of October. The temperature needs to be warm enough to keep the yeast alive and active, but not so warm that it kills it, and not so cold that it goes dormant. Keeping the grapes on the warmer side of the scale yields higher tannins (dryer flavor), as oppose to cooler temperatures leaving you with a fruitier flavor. If you live in an area that is constantly out of range of these temperatures I would suggest using a space heater or a allowing the fermentation to take place indoors where you would be able to control the temperature more easily.

STEP 3. Give it a REST.

Here's when things start to get interesting, and the true 'process' really begins. We received our shipment of grape crates (Alicante and Thompson Seedless) and naturally are excited to get things started, however there is a key step that you need to take before beginning. Let the grapes rest! They were most likely heavily refrigerated and need to warm up to room temperature. We let our crates sit overnight before beginning to work on them, and in the meantime, we get the rest of the materials/hardware cleaned and set up for the following day.

We have two oak and cast iron presses we use, in addition to numerous 55 gallon drums, a grape crusher, liquid pump, demijohns, 5 gallon carboys, buckets, and other odds and ends that all need to be cleaned, sanitized, cleaned again, and left out to dry properly overnight. A clean workspace is a happy workspace.

STEP 4. THE FIRST PRESS.

The day has finally arrived. The first day of real manual labor to produce your first homemade wine. So here's how you should proceed. Make sure you have the following materials and hardware available.

Large, clean or brand new garbage pail

Large buckets

Grape crusher

Funnels

3-tine garden cultivator

Sieves (A coarse and fine one)

Old newspapers to line the ground with

5 gallon glass carboys (amount will vary based on how much wine you're making)

2, 5 gallon plastic containers (water cooler jugs)

Airlocks

Rubber gloves

Large aluminum pot

Tablecloth

A full belly and a bottle of wine to consume as you go along. (You're gonna work your ass off and you'll need it.)

The amount of each will vary based on the amount of wine you intend to produce. You will need about 84 pounds of grapes to make 5 gallons on wine. At 46 dollars per 42 pound crate, and requiring roughly 2 crates to yield 5 gallons, and 5 gallons being roughly 19 liters of wine..

your final cost to make each liter of Alicante is $4.84. 

Let's begin.

Put on a pair of rubber gloves and place your clean grape crusher on top of your clean garbage pail.

Open up a crate of grapes (use whatever means are easiest for you, we tend to use a crowbar), look through them to make sure there are none that are spoiled or rotten, and now carefully, lift and place the entire contents of the 42 pound crate into the crusher. Now, slowly begin turning the handle and continue to to turn until all the grapes, vines included, make their way to the bottom of the pail. Now, continue with your remaining crates until you have reached about 90% capacity on the pail. Again, this will depend on the amount of wine you intend to produce. See above for ratio and cost. Wash any tools and hardware you have used and set them aside to dry overnight.

STEP 5. GIVE IT A REST PART DEUX.

At this point, once all your grapes have gone through the crusher, you're going to want to let them sit and rest in the pail overnight. This allows the naturally occurring yeast to begin to activate and breathe some life into the juices beginning to settle in the pail. Cover your pail with a tablecloth to prevent it from getting covered in flies and bees. Ensure that the temperature in the room/garage you are doing your winemaking in stays between 65-85 degrees to ensure the yeast isn't harmed and that the grapes don't begin to spoil.

If you haven't set up your press and cleaned out the carboys/demijohns you plan on using, now is the time for that.

Rest up. Tomorrow will be a long day.

STEP 6. Hard pressed.

And now for the hard work. 

Put on your rubber gloves. Slide your pail so it's adjacent to your press. Place newspapers all over the ground where your press and pail are set up.Place a bucket below the lip of the press to catch all the juice that will begin to stream down from the press. Set up a 5 gallon plastic container with a funnel inside of it, and place both sieves inside the funnel. Coarse grain on top, finer grain below.

Remove the tablecloth and begin to scoop the grapes into the press carefully, avoiding splashing and getting grapes all over the ground. We use a thin aluminum pot to scoop. Keep filling until  your reach about 6 inches below the top edge of the press. As juice begins to flow and fill your juice-catching receptacle, use a ladle or small pot to scoop up the juice and place it into the 5 gallon plastic container you have set to the side of your press. As these fill up, you can either place them in a clean drum or directly into a 5 gallon glass carboy, filling only until the glass transitions from vertical to curved.

If you decide to fill your carboys up directly at this point, clean and set up your airlocks and place on your carboy. Be sure they are sanitized and you have placed the right amount of water inside them. Now, take a piece of tape, write the grape type and date, and leave them be, they will begin fermentation shortly.

If you decide to go the other route and place all the juice you have into a larger receptacle for later distribution into demijohns, simply put your juice inside  your large container and then cover with a tablecloth.

At this point the juices from your initial placement in the press should barely be trickling down, and you can now begin to place the wood blocks inside the press. Place them down two at a time beginning with two round ones, and building up to the crank in a Jenga-like manner (cross-stitch pattern). Leave room for the final 2 round blocks and then begin to crank down your press, a few cranks at a time. You don't want to rush the press process. You could break your press, and the grapes will not be fully juiced if you rush!

As the juice begins to flow, continue to ladle your juice into your 5-gallon plastic receptacle and distribute as you deem fit into your primary fermentation chambers (carboys or demijohns). When you reach a point where you can no longer continue to press down, or juice is no longer coming out of the press, undo the press and remove all the blocks.

STEP 7. RAKE TIME.

Use your handy-dandy cultivator to rake up all the remnants inside the press. Place vines and all inside a large receptacle and cover with a tablecloth. This does not get throw out yet! Now that we have finished our first press, these remnants can be used with whatever other remnants we have from following presses to make a "second-press" or "second run" wine (more about this later).

STEP 8. RINSE AND REPEAT.

Now that you have finished one press, continue to repeat the above process until all your grapes have gone through the press once and have been set aside.  At this point you are likely exhausted. Treat yourself to a hefty glass of wine and then rinse off all tools and equipment used. Set up everything but your crusher. Tomorrow, we work on the second press.

Step 9. The second press.

How are you feeling this morning? A little sore? Hungover? Perfect. Wait, what's that sound?! Ah yes, that sound is the new science experiment you have now created. You are noticing the sound of gases escaping your fermenting carboys and demijohns. Your grape juice has already begun its journey to becoming wine. Rejoice! Time for a glass of wine.

Alright, back to work. Put on your gloves.

Slide your buckets of "leftovers" from your first press yesterday and place them inside your press. Continue to fill to the proper amount (roughly 6 inches below the surface) if you have that much, and then add roughly a half gallon to a gallon of fresh clean, distilled water (NO TAP WATER! NO CHLORINE!).  Repeat the process of placing your blocks and pressing, but this time make sure that when you place it into a glass carboy or your fermentation vessel you label that this is a SECOND PRESS. This version of your wine will taste drastically different. Higher tannin levels and far lighter body, this wine will be ready to drink in about 3 weeks, rather than the few months your 'regular' wine will take.

Now, time to clean up all the equipment and put it away for next year. The only remaining equipment you'll need are clean carboys for secondary fermentation (explanation coming below) and a pump or funnel to rack (also to be explained) your wine from your primary to your secondary.

STEP 10. The waiting is the hardest part.

Your primary fermentation can take anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks or longer depending on the type of wild yeast your grapes had on them and the conditions your current 'must' (not quite grape juice, not quite wine mixture) is in. Be sure to check on your wine daily to ensure all the airlocks are still properly sealed and releasing gas. Until all your fermentation vessels completely stop bubbling, your wine will continue to ferment. When the day finally arrives that it has completely stopped bubbling, its time to move on to our penultimate step.

STEP 11. SECONDARY FERMENTATION.

So your fermentation has stopped? Great! Time for another one!

Set up a clean carboy or demijohn and siphon or pour your must through a funnel and sieve into your new clean receptacle. Be sure to pour/pup/siphon as slow as possible. You don't want to add the gunk that is currently sitting on the bottom of the carboy. Now, clean out your airlock and reseal your vessel for its secondary fermentation. Depending on how active your yeast is and how much sugar is still left to be consumed by the yeast, the bubbling can start sooner or later and last up to another week or two.

STEP 12. BOTTLING!

AT LAST! The day you've been waiting for! Your secondary fermentation has now ceased, and you're now ready to bottle your wine. 

Gather up and clean and sanitize the bottles you wish to use and set them aside to dry. Now, remove the airlocks from your fermentation vessels and either set up a pump or funnel to distribute your wine into its final home. 

Once your bottles are filled, feel free to label with the type of grape and date of bottling and date of first fermentation so you can gauge how long it will be before you are ready to consume. Because this is a sulfite-free and added-yeast-free wine, you should aim to consume the wine within one year. You will notice that the flavor characteristics change as time goes along. Keep track of how long you wait before tasting each so that next year you can aim to open your wines around the same period. Winemaking is a lot of trial and error. I wish you the best of luck on your vino-making journey.