There are five items that are considered essential by geologists for true happiness. To wit: a loaf of crusty bread, a block of cheese, a skin of wine (preferably red), a Brunton® compass and a mountain to map. Therefore I think it was natural for me, a practicing geologist, to become interested in learning how to make my own wine. After all, don’t grapes derive their nutrients from soil, and isn’t soil just decomposed rock?
My fermentation adventure began in 1976 when I decided to make wine in my tiny four-room apartment. I purchased a copy of a paperback describing, in detail, how to make wine from grapes. I purchased red and white table grapes and scrupulously followed the directions for making each style. The results, however, were dicey. The “wine” was drinkable, but not all that pleasant tasting.
At the time when I purchased my winemaking supplies, I noticed that the store stock included winemaking kits for crafting wine from grape juice concentrates. So after my first experience with fresh grape winemaking, I went back and learned about kits from the store’s owner. I purchased a red concentrate and a white concentrate and made two 5-gallon (19-L) batches of wine. The results were pleasantly drinkable, but not much better than low-priced commercial wine. Uninspired, I lost interest in the hobby, but I never forgot the satisfaction derived from making my own wine.
Then in 1996, my wife and I decided to build a house to our specifications. It was my chance to create an ideal environment for winemaking; therefore, I instructed my builder to add a 10-foot by 20-foot (~3 by 6-m) room in the basement for a wine cellar. The cellar was equipped with lots of wine racks, which provide a capacity to store a minimum of 1,500 750-mL bottles of wine.
We spent the first few years in our new house adjusting to our new environment as well as landscaping the 8.6-acre tract on which the house is built. By the fall of 2000, however, I finally found some time to make wine again. This time around, I bought several books describing the arcane art of making wine. It was then that I realized some of the things that I should have done differently.
You see, I started out with inexpensive wine kits: mistake number one — better kits make better wine. I assiduously followed the directions for fermenting, stabilizing and clarifying each of the wine styles adhering strictly to sound sanitation practices, but the white wine was bottled using number 8 corks, the wrong size for 750 mL bottles. The red wine was transferred to a 5-gallon (19-L) American oak barrel for “aging,” which was mistake number three — the barrels made my wine much too tannic, and I should have used a carboy. I checked the ullage in the barrel regularly but then filled with water once a month (mistake number four — I didn’t top up frequently enough). And finally, the red wine was “aged” in the barrel for three months, which was mistake number five. I had read that wine should be aged in young barrels for three to six months because of the high tannin content. What I discovered was that the wine was so tannic that it was undrinkable. I later learned that the recommended three to six-month interval applies to large capacity barrels, which have a much higher volume to area ratio than small barrels.
In conclusion – don’t make the same mistakes that I did! Winemaking is a most rewarding hobby, but if done heedlessly or carelessly, it can be unforgiving. One of the many benefits of winemaking is that it teaches scrupulous adherence to procedure as well as patience. Learn all that you can, and pay attention — as I have found, the devil is in the details.