WineMaker at 5!

As WineMaker celebrates its first five years of publishing, we stop for a minute to reflect on the classic world in which we’re immersed — the world of wine. Who could ever have imagined that this eccentric beverage would chisel itself so deeply into human history? And yet, somewhere in the broad tableau of winemaking history — between carboy and chateau, between my wine and Margaux — are you and I. We’re in that snapshot of the winemaking world.

To capture the spirit of our fifth anniversary, this article will look at the wide world of winemaking in flights of five … from five essential winemaking techniques to five great wines you should taste in your lifetime. So pour a glass of your own plonk, sit back and enjoy.

5 Basic Techniques Every Home Winemaker Should Master

You accumulate thousands of tips as a winemaker — and as an artist, you develop your own style. But there also are key techniques every winemaker should know, whether you’re a pro or just make the odd batch. Here are five:

1. Sanitation: For beginners, the word “sanitation” may conjure images of labor-intensive tedium, the spraying and rinsing of everything that comes in contact with your wine. The fact is … yep, that’s how it is. But you can develop quick and effective methods of sanitizing that will become second nature.

I keep a spray bottle of sulfite near my work sink, quickly spritzing and rinsing anything — anything — that’s going to touch my wine. A cheap basting bulb cleanly squirts sanitizing solution into siphon hoses. To rinse, I hold one hose end over a gooseneck bottle rinser and run clean water through it. Several small brass hooks screwed into the low ceiling of my winery allow hoses and other things to hang and drip dry without contamination. Every winemaker develops a style. Sanitation is a good place to start, because if you don’t, that’s where it ends.

2. Chaptalization: Chaptalization is the process of adding sugar to wine to increase alcohol. If you’ve made wine from grapes and noticed that your wine tasted flabby or weak, it could be because of low alcohol. Low-alcohol wines age and die prematurely. When grapes ferment, the yeast eats the sugar in the grapes and turns it into alcohol. Low sugar equals low alcohol. Alcohol (12% or more for reds, 11.5% for whites) gives your wine body and longevity.

So if you take a hydrometer reading only to discover that your sugar level is low (less than 21 °Brix), you might consider adding sugar. How much? A simple do-it-yourself calculation, or an even simpler pre-calculated reference scale, can help you to determine how much sugar is already there and how much more you will have to add. Where do you get this scale? Check out the August-September 2002 issue of WineMaker.

3. Adjusting acid (and pH): When testing must or fresh grapes for sugar, you should also check the acid and pH, and adjust if necessary. Both are critical to the immune system of your wine. Acid in wine gives it its crispness, protects your wine from spoilage and affects balance. Ideal acid in red wine is 0.6 to 0.8 percent, and 0.65 to 0.85 percent for whites. Knowing how to adjust acid means knowing how much is already there. Acid test kits are usually sold at home winemaking retail stores and the easy-to-follow instructions are included.

Note: Changing the acid will change the pH. pH is a measure of the relative strength of acids in your wine. To know the pH of your must or wine, use a pH meter. The acceptable range for red wine is 3.3 to 3.6; for white wine it is 3.1 to 3.4. Since pH is measured on a logarithmic scale, lower pH means higher acidity. In fact, a wine with a pH of 3 would be ten times more acidic than wine with a pH of 4.

How do you know how much and what kind of acid to add? Check out “Acidity: A Balancing Act” in the Spring 2001 issue of WineMaker. Or “pHiguring out pH” in Summer 2001.

4. Sulfite calculating: Some winemakers prefer not to use sulfites at all — a matter of personal taste — but the vast majority of home and commercial winemakers do. After all, that’s what prevents your wine from spoiling and gives it aging potential. Without sulfite, you will make vinegar.

Sulfite (we recommend potassium metabisulfite in tablets or powder) is the addition of free SO2 to your wine. But the trick is in knowing how much to put in, or how much not to put in. Too much sulfite can ruin your wine and make it smell like a burnt match.

You can measure the current level of free SO2 in your wine with easy-to-use sulfite detectors called Titrets, available at many winemaking retailers. A general rule is to maintain 30 parts per million (ppm) of free SO2, about a quarter-teaspoon of sulfite for every 5 gallons. WineMaker also offers a downloadable sulfite calculator online (www.winemakermag.com). You can also check out “Trouble Free Fermentation” in the October-November 2002 issue.

5. Fining: Fining is the art of clearing your wine. When wine has finished fermenting, it contains millions of tiny particles (suspended vegetable matter, dead yeast and other harmless things) that leave your wine opaque. If you let your wine sit long enough, most of it will fall to the bottom and form a layer of sediment which you can rack off later. Most, but not all.

The process of fining involves adding either a finely ground clay called bentonite, or a protein in a form of seaweed, powdered fish bladder or egg whites, to your wine. These proteins will attach to the suspended particles and dead yeast and pull it to the bottom. Knowing what fining agent to use depends on your wine style. It also means knowing what is making your wine cloudy in the first place. A basic knowledge of fining will make you a better winemaker. Check out the December 2002-January 2003 issue.

5 Cool Gadgets (Under $25) That Every Home Winemaker Should Have

Whether you’ve been making wine since childhood or just started two weeks ago, you know your wine will make itself. The question is: Will you want to drink it? Sometimes just a few simple, inexpensive gadgets will help you make better wine. Here are five must-have cellar gizmos:

1. Hydrometer ($13): Perhaps the single most important instrument that tells you what is happening with your wine. The three-scale hydrometer is a sealed, hollow glass tube that resembles a floating thermometer, but with a scale that reads the specific gravity of your wine. Specific gravity is the density of fluid. Water has a specific gravity of 1.00 (at 57 °F), and wine — less dense than water —has a specific gravity of around 0.990–0.995. It is the specific gravity of your unfermented grape must or juice that tells you how much sugar it contains and what your potential alcohol is. As your wine ferments, occasional hydrometer readings help you monitor your wine’s progress and make decisions on when to rack, when fermentation is complete and when to stabilize.

2. Auto-Siphon ($10): Before I had one of these things, priming a racking siphon without contaminating or spilling the wine was like wrestling with a giant worm. The auto-siphon is simply the greatest invention in home winemaking since sliced whatever. The plastic wand that dips into the source carboy is a long thin syringe that, with two or three pumps, gets your wine flowing through the hose and down into the receiving carboy. You never have to prime the thing with your mouth or touch the wine with your hands. I’ve seen on-premise winemakers operate three of them at a time, and rack up to 72 batches of wine in a single day. ‘Tis a beautiful thing.

3. Gooseneck Bottle Rinser ($8): I mentioned this little doohickey earlier. It is a piece of brass pipe bent into a ‘U.’ One end screws onto your faucet, so the water is directed around the U to squirt straight up and out the other end. Simply hold a bottle over the opening, press down on the spring valve and watch a heavy jet of water blow away whatever is loose inside: leftover wine, residual sanitizing solution, crickets and spiders. The jet is not a sanitizer, and doesn’t replace a bottle brush, but is powerful enough to dislodge chunks of sediment off the bottom of 6-gallon (23-liter) carboys. As soon as you remove the bottle, the tap shuts off. It’s great for rinsing the inside of siphoning hoses by placing one end over the rinser, pushing the spring valve with your thumb and running clean water through the hose.

4. Bottle Sanitizer ($12): When I started making wine at home, I prepared a sanitizing solution, poured it through a funnel into the wine bottle, shook the bottle, and then used the funnel to pour the detergent into the next bottle. It worked fine, I guess. But then I discovered the bottle sanitizer: a spring-loaded squirter that sticks out of a reservoir bowl of sanitizing solution. When you place a wine bottle over the squirter nozzle and press down — pumping it a few times —it shoots a quick burst of solution into the bottle, sanitizes the inside and runs back into the reservoir. A half-filled bowl of solution can sanitize about 30 bottles. The apparatus is easy to clean; just rinse it off. It takes the drudgery out of prepping bottles for wine.

5. Glass Wine Thief ($24): To be honest, the glass wine thief is what did it for me. It started with the coffee table books and photos of cellar masters drawing samples from barrels with a slender wine thief, releasing it into a tasting glass, holding it to the light, swirling it, swishing it and — well, I swallow mine. But the wine thief symbolizes the romance of making wine. There are few moments I enjoy more than taking guests to my wine cellar, handing them each a clean glass and watching their faces while I — with my wine thief — draw them a sample from the oak barrel. I, for that moment, am the guy in the coffee table book. And, I might add, it’s a practical tool. Need I say more? Yes. Twenty-four bucks.

5 Pieces of Home Winemaking Equipment (Over $500) You Should Dream About

There comes a time in every winemaker’s life when he has to examine where his passion is leading. So you say, “Honey, I’ll be in the winery,” and you step out quietly, with an idea and a tape measure. Because now it’s all about volume. Suddenly a room full of carboys don’t cut it any more. For the obsessed — or should I say impassioned — winemaker, here are five pieces of equipment you really need to consider.

1. Stainless-Steel Fermenter(s) ($500+): Let’s start with one of these puppies, since by the time you’re into these quantities, anything less would just stunt your growth. The serious-volume stainless-steel fermenters are available at capacities like 80 gallons (300 liters) or as high as 1,000+
gallons (4,000+ liters) for the “don’t mess with me” winemaker. The smaller vats come with adjustable lids that allow you to maintain zero airspace above your wine. The largest have a manhole door you can crawl right into. Prices start at $500 for the 80-gallon vats and rise to the “if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it” price range.

2. 10-Pad Semi-Industrial Filter ($600): With a filter rate of 350 liters per hour, one set of 10 filter pads will polish 400 liters of your finest wine to a high gloss in a single afternoon. Choose between coarse, medium or fine pads — fine enough to filter individual cells out of your wine and give it that award-winning luster at competitions. If you want to get into massive volumes, you can pick up a fully industrial one-and-a-half horsepower, 81-pad filter. But by the time you get to that point, it’s not a hobby any more; you’ve hired staff.

3. 4, 6 or 8-spout stainless- steel bottle filler ($1,100+): If you’re this far gone, you’ve got so much wine to bottle that doing it one bottle at a time is no longer practical. These fillers work by inserting four or more bottles onto a trough, while the stainless-steel filling wands fit into the bottle. The filler handles all four (or more) bottles simultaneously and stops at the designated level so you can keep rotating through several groups of bottles all day long: up to 800 gallons in a day.

4. Pneumatic Corker ($1,000): This is the Harley Davidson of corkers. Mostly used in small pro facilities, and, of course, by the odd home winemaker. Excellent for that huge volume of wine you just fermented in your stainless steel tank(s) and then filtered with your ten-pad filter. The pneumatic corker has an adjustable spring pad to hold the bottle still while you insert a cork, close the transparent door, and watch the pneumatic piston hiss down on the cork and properly insert it into your bottle at the right level. It’s so safe and easy to use your 3-year-old daughter could do it — which is perhaps the family-fun angle you could pitch to justify the purchase. Don’t tell them the air compressor isn’t included.

5. Professional Shrink Wrapper ($700): So now you’re gawking at several hundred bottles of corked wine. And the thought of applying shrink-wraps with a heat gun, one bottle at a time, makes you consider switching to beer. You need a professional shrink wrapper! This bench model looks a bit like a floor corker, except there’s a 220-volt heating sleeve where the corking piston used to be. Just put your bottle on the pad, pull the lever and the hot sleeve slides down over the neck and shrinks the cap. Pricey, yes, but it’ll wrap 800 bottles an hour. Ooooh.

5 Dream Wineries You’d Like to Own…If You Had the Money

After getting to this point in your winemaking life, it’s either time to get licensed, or get help. Or…begin fantasizing about buying a winery. Now there’s a thought. The following is a list of wineries you might dream of owning — if they were for sale, and if you had the money to buy them.

1. The Château Margaux (Bordeaux): What kind of fantasy would this be if we didn’t start with the most evocative name in wine? Château Margaux. The icon of icons. The first growth of first growths. The – well, you get the picture. There it is: Your long driveway lined with tall poplars, dappled sunlight filtering through the window of your Daimler as you roll by the gravelly soil of your 40-year-old Bordeaux vineyards. A fantasy, yes. But not to everyone. This piece of prime real estate was, in fact, recently buyable. It was up for sale in February 2003 and sold within a week to Corinne Mentzelopoulos, who happened to be the managing director of Margaux. The final selling price was close to $400 million. And why wasn’t I called?

2. Blauuklippen (South Africa): This obscure little winery in Stellenbosch has been around since 1690. Picture a gleaming white manor house, covered in a thatched roof, adorned at the front and sides with ornate Cape Dutch gables, on a property surrounded by jagged mountain peaks, red earth, blue sky, stately oak trees and vineyards. The arched double doors of the white stucco winery lead to the cool damp air of your own barrel room.

I had the privilege of visiting Blauuklippen once. After the tour, you can enjoy an assortment of cheeses, meats and sliced bread, paired with several varieties of estate wine. You sit on the patio, under the vine-covered trellis, while being watched by baboons lurking in the trees. I couldn’t keep the winery. But they let me keep the glass.

3. Bryant Family Vineyard (Napa): Vintages from Bryant Family Vineyards score 100 on the Robert Parker ratings. Not even the best first-growth Bordeaux vintages can top that. The character of their Cabernet Sauvignon has been described with words like “mind-boggling.” This winery has only been around since 1992. But the 1997 and ’98 Cabs are selling for $850 per bottle, if you can find one. These wines have an aging potential of at least 20 years, and Robert Parker wrote, in his professional tasting career, that this is one of the few times he chose to swallow the wine rather than use a spittoon.

4. Iron Horse Vineyards (Sonoma): After reading “A Cultivated Life: A Year in a California Vineyard” by Joy Sterling (Little, Brown and Company, 1994), you’ll put the book down and say, “Dahling, I simply have to have that vineyard.” You enter your estate (in a Ferrari this time), surrounded by 300 acres of rolling hills covered in grapevines, and drive down a long driveway lined with palm and olive trees that leads to the winery. Iron Horse wines are served at famous restaurants around the globe. They also have been chosen for White House state dinners and historical summit meetings in Washington and Geneva. I doubt if the winery will ever be for sale, but you can keep their number on speed dial.

5. Château Chez Vous: Château Say Who? Chez Vous. Ah, c’est moi. Whatever. Maybe owning your own professional winery — even a small one — is a vision you keep going to bed with, and it’s still there when you wake up in the morning, and it’s there when you wander to your private cellar and stare at the homemade labels pasted to bottles of wine you made yourself — maybe from the grapes you grew on your own land. Well, professional winery owners are ordinary people like you and me. Many started as aspiring closet vintners and fermented their way into history. (For inspiration, check out the “Go Pro” in the August-September 2003 issue and watch for an upcoming article on getting an education in professional winemaking.)

5 Commercial Wines You Must Taste At Least Once in Your Lifetime

Are they rare? Yes. Expensive? Baby! But money be damned: Here are five wines you must taste at any cost — if only to say they passed your lips.

1. 2000 Château Latour: The Bordeaux 2000 vintage was touted as one of the most outstanding of the last several decades. That, and the fact that it has a millennium date on the label, has driven the per-bottle price through the roof. Bordeaux blends are often 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 1% something else. If you’re into buying futures, you still might have a chance for one of these. All five of the millennium first growths in Bordeaux (Margaux, Lafite, Mouton, Latour and Haut Brion) sold out for insane prices as futures two years before they were out of the barrel. The wine is already appreciating in value and collectors are selling their firstborn to buy it … before the bottles are even on the shelves.

No one really knows what it tastes like, because it won’t be ready to uncork for another decade. But you might ask Robert Parker, who says it’s to die for and scored it close to 100 points. Wine Spectator gave it an even 100 points, too. This wine has an aging potential of 50 years, so there’s lots of time to connive your way into possessing a bottle.

2. 1994 Proprietary Red Harlan Estate (Napa): This vineyard is only 35 acres. In 1994 only 1,500 cases were produced, and what you can find of it now and auction later would pay for your kids’ tuition. But you might rather drink it. Why? This is one of the few wineries in the world that sort through every single picked grape by hand. Yes, every single grape is dusted off by hand. Every leaf or stem, or bit of grass or dirt, is removed before the berry is put into the fermentation tank. What agony. But the wine it produces equals, if not rivals, the finest Bordeaux. Many famous wine critics have openly stated that the 1994 Proprietary Red is the best wine they have ever tasted anywhere.

3. 1994 Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa): Speaking of family vineyards, only 175 cases of this Cab were produced this vintage. That low number makes them virtually unaffordable and almost impossible to find. Even so, the 94s have been rated as one of the best Cabernets ever produced in California. This Cab has an aging potential of 25–30 years. If you’re tempted, here’s an incentive: the owner of the winery donates every penny to charity.

4. 1998 Château La Mondotte (St. Emilion): I think drinking any kind of wine from St. Emilion is worth every penny. But if you can score just a glass of 1998 La Mondotte, you’ll stand up and say, “oui.” Some have said it is so full-bodied it resembles dry vintage Port. Less than 1,000 cases of this vintage were produced, but there probably are several bottles still around, since it has enough tannic horsepower to give it an aging potential of 30 years.

5. 1990 Château D’Yquem (Sauternes): If you’ve ever seen photographs of freshly picked grapes covered in mold, this is the wine that’s made from them. The mold is called Botrytis. It’s a good mold. And the golden sweet wine dominates the air with a bouquet of tropical fruit and subtle oak. Some wines are designed to be an emotional experience, and paying for a bottle of this stuff would be just that. But it’s one of the few wines that have an aging potential of 50 to 100 years. This wine will last longer than you. The only way you can change that is if you drink it first.