The Retirement Plan

Do you have a drip pan under your barrel? Is your press held together with scrap wood and Duct Tape? Or perhaps your old-school grape crusher from your great grandfather can’t be taken apart and properly cleaned. If any of this sounds familiar, maybe it is time to form a retirement plan for your equipment that has served you for so many years. Although it may be difficult to see a piece of equipment decommissioned (I don’t know about you, but I got attached to my first crusher and press) sometimes it is better to move on. Once you get that shiny new press or new sweet-smelling barrel, all of those sentimental feelings just kind of go up with the angels share. In this article I will provide you with reasons to retire old equipment, what to do with the old stuff, and how to increase the lifespan of your new or existing equipment you have now.

Why Are You Getting Rid of That?

The decision to retire equipment and upgrade is an easy one when it comes to things like tubing, buckets, long handle spoons, or other little things that are inexpensive to replace. However, with other pieces of gear such as the wine press or grape crusher, decisions may not be so easy. Maybe replacement is cost-prohibitive or you have an attachment to a press that is a family heirloom. At some point you risk the microbial stability of your wine using old or damaged equipment. I have compiled a list of reasons to retire old equipment to help your batch success be more consistent, sanitary, safe, and enjoyable.

1. Equipment that cannot be effectively sanitized should not be used:

Items such as plastic food-grade fermenters, or PET carboys with deep scratches from the misuse of metal stirrers or harsh scrubs should be discarded. Deep scratches and gouged areas in plastic (and stainless steel for that matter) can harbor bacteria that are not easily eradicated and can impact your wine in a negative way. Old grape crushers that cannot be taken apart to be thoroughly cleaned, or a well-used press with cracked or splintering wood are a challenge to be properly cleaned and sanitized for winemaking. If you have a similar situation, consider replacement or refurbishment.

2. Equipment is too old to find replacement parts for:

Old basket presses and vintage grape crushers can easily be found online and are a great choice for when you just want to dip your toe into the hobby. If the press or crusher is questionable, but it gets the job done, that is great. But if a part breaks, replacement parts could be hard to come by. You are then in the position to have a custom part built or forced to “MacGyver” it. There would be nothing worse than to load up your press with grapes only to have it break. New presses and grape crusher/destemmers have spare parts available and most issues are easily fixed. You could even have spares on hand for the parts most likely to break on a busy crush day so you will not miss a beat.

3. You have outgrown your current equipment set:

With most winemakers (including myself), growth is always in mind. When you make that first successful 1-gallon (4-L) batch you will then want to make a 5-gallon (19-L) batch. Before you know it you are receiving a ton of grapes and fermenting in macrobins! (Sorry, honey, but we will not be parking in the garage anymore). You may tolerate your old equipment, but eventually you will tire of refilling the press over and over again, or even worse, hand destemming grapes! When picking your first pieces of equipment, have an eye on the future, and plan
for expansion.

4. Advanced spoilage issues in oak barrels:

Compared to a winery, home winemakers can get more use out of a barrel. Barrels in a winery will generally see only one to seven fills before it is sold off due to lack of oak flavor imparted into the wine. A home winemaker can use a barrel for years and take advantage of the micro-oxygenation while using oak adjuncts for flavoring and tannin. However there are spoilage processes that can shorten a barrel’s life. In his “Techniques” column on barrel care in the February-March 2002 issue of WineMaker, Daniel Pambianchi outlines the common problems a barrel can face such as Penicillin mold, Acetobacter (acetic acid bacteria), Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus. Pambianchi goes on to say that if these issues are caught in the early stages, they can be treated with a percarbonate solution, followed by a thorough rinse with a citric acid solution. If the cleaning process works, no off-odors should be detected when you smell the inside of the barrel. If the spoilage is too advanced and you notice off-odors after the percarbonate treatment, the barrel should be discarded.

5. Equipment no longer works as intended:

I knew it was time to retire my first press (an Eagle Junior Press from way back) when I poured must into it and I got more wine on the floor than in the catch basin. I would repeatedly seal it up with food-grade sealant every year, but eventually I grew tired of repairing it. I did what I could, but it was time to go. The decision to upgrade also comes down to what you want to deal with. If you don’t mind fixing your equipment to keep it operational there is no reason to retire it. Or if you don’t mind refilling a smaller press with several pounds of grapes over and over to get the job done, that is fine too (I know I did that for years before upgrading.) You will know when you have outgrown your equipment when you spend more time and resources on repairing equipment than using it to make wine. Efficiency is key in the winemaking process. Properly working equipment allows you to work faster, which in turn helps to process the fruit faster. This could help to reduce oxidative pick-up and other problems when handling the wine.

6. Equipment has become dangerously damaged:

If a piece of equipment has become deformed and poses a risk then it should no longer be used. Specifically for glass carboys, be sure to examine them for cracks or chips prior to use. If you discover a crack, retire it immediately to avoid injury or lost wine.

7. You Are Maturing In Age:

Eventually as you get up there in years, you will be looking for ways to reduce manual labor. Things like upgrading to a powered crusher/destemmer, using pumps to transfer wine between carboys to avoid lifting them off of the floor, or even forgoing the use of glass carboys all together. I recommend taking a good hard look at your process and consider ways to reduce labor and increase efficiency. This makes the process even more fun, safe, and easier on the body.

Increase the Lifespan of Your Equipment

If you already have a home winery full of functional equipment, there are ways to increase the lifespan of your gear. Below are some tips so it lasts you for the long haul.

• Food-grade plastic fermenters and carboys: Avoid the use of harsh scrubs such as steel wool or a carboy brush (the metal interior within the brush could scratch the plastic). For stubborn stains, perform an extended soak with a percarbonate solution. This will typically do the trick. For stirring your must, use plastic long-handled spoons, or be careful to avoid scratching the sides if using a stainless steel cap punching tool.

• pH meter: A pH meter probe will have a lifespan of about one to two years. In order to get that time out of your pH meter, rinse the probe before and after use with distilled water. Make sure to store the sensor probe in a storage solution (not in distilled water) and never store your pH meter’s sensor probe dry. Occasionally you will want to clean the probe of the pH meter to remove any buildup of wine residue or other material. Please refer to the instruction manual of your pH meter to find the the proper cleaning procedure.

• Wine press: Be sure to properly remove debris from the basket after each pressing. For any stubborn stains and debris, use a pressure washer and/or a percarbonate soak. Repaint any areas that have chipped off with food-grade paint to prevent rust from getting a foothold. Keep all moving parts sufficiently lubricated with food-grade silicone lubricant and keep things free of crud. The pins on a basket press are sensitive to rusting if allowed to stay wet for too long. Dry them off immediately after use.

• Grape crusher/destemmer: Similar to the wine press, it is important to keep all moving parts (chains/ gears) lubricated and moving smoothly. Be sure to do this one last time before it is stored in the off-season. This keeps rust at bay. Crusher/destemmers have a million nooks and crannies where fruit can hide. Be sure to get those areas clear and repaint any areas with chipped paint. Proper storage in the off-season is key. For more information on off-season storage of equipment, read Bob Peak’s “Proper Equipment Storage” article in the December 2017-January 2018 issue of WineMaker.

• Oak barrels: Know what you are getting yourself into. Barrels require the utmost care and upkeep, especially when storing them empty. If treated right, you could benefit from the micro-oxidation effects for years to come. Carefully plan your winemaking efforts to keep the barrel full of wine. When one wine is ready to come out, have another wine ready to go in. This avoids storing the barrel empty, which could open it up to spoilage organisms. Although you can burn a sulfur stick in the barrel that has been in storage, there is no substitute for a full barrel of wine to keep it healthy and free from issues.

• Wine pumps and filters: Wine transfer pumps are sensitive to lees and debris. The use of an inline pre-filter will prevent fruit matter and oak chips from entering the pump head. After use, closely follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning the unit. This typically involves running a few gallons (8–12 L) of clean water through the pump head to ensure no sticky wine residue is left behind.

• Tubing, Plastic Wine Thieves, Long Handled Spoons: After a while, these items will start to get stained and hard to reach debris will reside in the tubing. To get these items looking new (with the exception of tubing, it is inexpensive and easily replaced) soak them in a percarbonate solution followed by a thorough rinse.

The message here is clean, maintain, and just plain take care of your gear. Most pieces of winemaking equipment are heavy duty and well made. With proper care and proper use, you should be able to use the same equipment for years to come.

Never Say Never

When I was asked to do this article, I asked myself; when is the right time to retire equipment? The first answer that came to mind was never! I say this because if a piece of equipment is not too far gone, some elbow grease, handyman skills, and just plain creativity (or if you know some handy folks) can often restore old equipment to like-new once again.

Big pieces of equipment such as presses, crushers, barrels, and tanks should be repaired (or at least attempted to be repaired) before they become a decoration or hit the Craigslist ads. Another reason to make an attempt at repairing old equipment is if money is tight and you need some gear, it can be found used from places like Craigslist or local winery classifieds. Chances are these pieces of equipment are not going to be in optimal condition and some repairs may be needed, but in the end you will get what you need. A press can be stripped down and soaked in percarbonate solution. The metal parts of the press can be powder coated or repainted with food-grade paint. The old wooden slats on the basket can be removed and new ones put in their place or the existing ones sanded down and used once again. If you already have a press in this condition, maybe a total face-lift is needed to get it into sanitary, working condition. The perfect example of buying used equipment and bringing it back to life is demonstrated by one of my winemaker friends, Edward Sewell. When outfitting his winery he found great deals on equipment like a crusher/destemmer, wine press, and winery-grade filter. All that was needed was some elbow grease and know-how. Now his equipment looks and works like new! All for a discounted price.

But, for many of us (including myself, sigh . . .) we need to look to buying our equipment in good working order, which is just fine too.

Let Us Get Creative, Shall We?

When I visit a winery, I love when they have old winemaking equipment decorating the tasting room. Old World presses and crushers add a cool vintage vibe to the room. You too could have this when you retire your equipment. Next, for when repairing really isn’t an option, let’s run through some ideas for your old gear to decorate your tasting room. Of course, you could also keep the old pieces as a back up just in case, or selling is also an option as other folks may have interest in your old pieces of equipment for those reasons.

Wine press: An old wine press sitting in the tasting room looks cool without having to do anything to it. But a press could also be a water fountain, which adds some nice ambiance to a room. Find a decorative catch basin, fountain pump, and some tubing to fit the pump. I even went as far as to fill the press basket with faux-grapes and dye the water wine-colored for an authentic look.

Oak barrel: This is an easy one because what can you not do with a barrel? It could be a bistro table with a glass or wooden top to be used as a tasting table. A barrel could be used as a water fountain or it can be made into a wine rack. And we’ve all seen the barrels cut in half with flowers planted inside for a nice outdoor look.

Old-school grape crusher: I would just hang this baby on the wall. It can also be mounted on top of a barrel and filled with faux-grapes for a great decorative look.

Scratched PET carboys: Coin bank. Save up for wine stuff. Cash it in when it is filled to the top.

Buckets and primary fermenters: Picking buckets or — hey, look, a new garbage can!

Tubing: Jump rope. (Sorry, I could not resist.)

In the End

The decision to retire equipment really comes down to how handy or creative you are, how much time you want to spend fixing things, and how deep your pockets are. We cannot all just go buy things so we refurbish the old stuff. Some of us cannot refurbish, so we buy new! The point is that there are options for all walks of life and once you retire the old guys, they can grace your cellar with their presence, or make you a little cash on the side. If you refurbish any old gear, please feel free to share the before and after pictures to WineMaker’s Facebook page to inspire the rest of us!

When to Retire Equipment (sidebar)

Vineyard and winemaking equipment differ in the sense that vineyard tools can get scratched and beat up and still be functional, as is the case with shovels, hand-held cultivators, rakes, etc. The choice is clear when to retire these items — they get replaced when you break them. The choice may not be so clear with other pieces of equipment such as pesticide sprayers or pruning shears.

Sprayers get retired due to wear and tear. The use of granulated fungicides will accelerate the breakdown of the sprayer. The good thing is the various parts that break can be replaced or repaired. This avoids the need to buy new. You may choose to get a new sprayer because you have outgrown the old one, or you are tired of lugging it around on your back and want to just cart it around for ease of use. I decided to upgrade to a 12-gallon (45-L) ATV sprayer that runs on a tractor battery because I got sick of lugging around a 4-gallon (15-L) sprayer on my back; not to mention the constant refills. Now I can just cart it around the vineyard and walk down each row and spray with ease. The choice to upgrade here was quality of life improvement. The backpack sprayer works fine, and I can still use it for when the shoots are 1 to 12 inches (2.5 to 30 cm) long; for when it is not really worth getting out the big guy. Plus, it is nice to have a backup.

Pruning shears are a tool that needs to be in tiptop shape. Nice clean cuts are what you want. Once your shears do not accomplish this consistently, it is time to replace them. Some higher-quality shears can be taken apart for cleaning, sharpening, repair, and replacement of parts. Lower-quality shears cannot be taken apart for repair and they should be replaced when they do not work as intended. With anything, you get what you pay for, but in the long run the higher-quality shears will save you money because they can be maintained and cared for. Be sure to spray the shears with WD-40 after each use and in the off-season to prevent rust and keep the pruning shears loose.

In my home vineyard of 60 vines, my equipment is limited to a lawn tractor, cart-mounted sprayer, good-quality pruning shears, and the usual equipment that would be found in a gardener’s shed. Before the start of the season everything is evaluated and repairs and tweaks are made where necessary. If I need anything, I have a chance to get it well in advance of the growing season. This preseason evaluation should not be limited to just the equipment to operate with your hands. This check should also include, wire tighteners, vineyard posts, tension wires, lawnmowers, and of course the vines themselves!