Home winemakers get into the hobby for a number of reasons, including making high quality wine for less money. But even though making your own wine can sometimes be an economical choice, there are additional ways to save money. This issue, three home winemaking retailers discuss how to save money by planning ahead, avoiding waste — and spending wisely to save more money.
Bob Peak, Partner in The Beverage People, a home winemaking and homebrewing shop in Santa Rosa, California. Before joining The Beverage People in 2003, Bob was general manager at Vinquiry, a wine testing laboratory in Windsor, California.
Trying to make too much wine is one of the ways people lose budget control. Before making wine, decide how much of it you really want. Can your family and friends go through ten cases a year? 30? 50? If you start making a lot more than you can use, not only will related costs of yeast, chemicals, fermenters and so forth run up your cost, but the wine may go past its prime before you consume it and wind up a total loss.
Food-grade buckets (or trash cans) are perfectly suitable as primary fermenters for red wine. For aging, though, they will allow your wine to oxidize no matter how much duct tape you put on the lid — the sidewalls themselves are oxygen permeable. Plastic water jugs have similar problems. To age your red wine or ferment your white wine, use oak barrels, glass carboys, PET plastic carboys, or stainless steel tanks. And make sure everything is topped up during aging.
There are ways to economize, though. One of the best is by sharing. Get together with friends or family to buy grapes, yeast, and nutrients in larger quantities. Almost everything in winemaking is cheaper per unit if you buy a larger amount. You can also share equipment. Buying a stemmer/crusher and a press for a winemaking club spreads the cost out to the point where just two or three years of rentals would come to the same total cost.
Another way to manage your costs is to take into account the short time some items are used each season. This applies not only to sharing equipment among a group of friends, but even to your own equipment. For instance, use your primary fermenters early in the season for Pinot Noir that ripens in early September. After the Pinot is pressed — use them again for a late-harvest Zinfandel in October.
I will sometimes crush my Chardonnay into 32-gallon bins, press that off into a stainless-steel tank for fermentation, and crush my Pinot Noir back into the bin the Chardonnay came out of.
Looked at all together, these suggestions add up to: Plan! Plan your winemaking quantity to avoid getting in over your head, plan to share grapes and supplies to get better pricing, and plan your equipment use to maximize the utility. And one more special tip that is not so much saving money as getting something for (almost) nothing – save the saignée! In the saignée process, some of the juice is run off from a red wine fermenter soon after crushing. The resulting red wine will be more intense in flavor and color, the usual goals of the process. But, that lovely pink juice can be fermented with white-wine techniques into a delightful dry or off-dry rosé. Do not discard the pink juice – save the saignée!
George Cornelius, owner and president of the home winemaking shop Fine Vine Wines — The Winemaker’s Toy Store in Carrollton, Texas. George started home winemaking in December 2001. He opened an Internet-only home winemaking store in 2003, and opened The Winemaker’s Toy Store as a storefront in 2004.
Saving money in home winemaking is actually a matter of spending wisely. A beer guy can start cutting corners by lowering the quality of the grains or swapping out hops, kegging instead of bottling, but in winemaking you need to spend your money wisely on the best grapes, kit or juice in order to make the best wine. People have a limited amount of time, so I think if they’re going to invest their time that they should want to make something good.
Where people often go wrong in cutting costs is spending less on things that can ruin your wine. Often people buy cheap corks, even though they are one of the cheapest things you can buy. For instance, they spend $200 on a wine kit and cork it with a bad cork, increasing the risk of wasting that $200. Always use a good quality cork. You don’t have to buy corks that are the top of the line, but the inexpensive ones are cheap for a reason.
I’ve also seen people try and save money by reusing plastic buckets as fermenters that were originally used for things like pickles. Sure, you’re not spending extra money on a fermenter, but you will also end up with wine that tastes like pickles because the plastic will transfer the flavors.
My best advice for home winemakers that want to control costs is . . . don’t give so much of your wine away! Home winemakers take a lot of pride in what they do and they want to share their wines with family and friends. It’s a bottle here and a bottle there, next thing you know you’re out of wine. I tell this to my customers all the time and they come back later and say, “you’re right — we just gave it all away!” Try to at least figure out a way to share your wines in a way that you can get something back. For example, I had a bottle trading program with my neighbors where they would give me five or ten empty bottles and I would give them back wine in return.
My other advice is to use the best quality ingredients you can afford and use patience. When winemakers aren’t patient they tend to mess with the wine too much, which can lower the quality.
Desiree Knott, Owner of High Gravity Homebrewing & Winemaking Supplies in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Desiree started brewing beer and making wine in 2002. She is a certified beer judge and president of her local homebrew club, the Fellowship of Oklahoma Alemakers (FOAM). Check out her blog at http://blog.highgravitybrew.com/.
I believe the most common way home winemakers waste money is in picking the wrong wine to make for their needs. Purchasing expensive wine kits that require a year or two of aging and then drinking them when they are only a few months old defeats the purpose of making a high-end kit and is a waste of hard-earned money. The wine may still taste pretty good but they are missing out on what a truly great wine they would’ve had if they had let it reach its full potential. Winemakers that want to be able to drink their wine in just a few months should try a wine kit that is ready to bottle in four weeks and will be very drinkable in just a few months.
Another way that winemakers waste money is by making a varietal they don’t like. Nothing is more disappointing than opening a bottle of wine you’ve been aging for months only to find with the first sip that you hate it. If you don’t know what a Gewürztraminer tastes like, don’t make it. After all, you are going to have 30 bottles of the stuff! Trying commercial versions of different wine varietals will help home winemakers make more informed decisions about what to make themselves. Also, ask the employees at the winemaking store questions about the kits. Is it dry or sweet? Is it a white or a red? Is it fruity or tannic? These are important things to know when purchasing a wine kit.
For winemakers that use their own grapes or fruit, the worst way to cut cost costs in my opinion is to use additional sugar in place of fruit. Adding sugar is a good way to adjust the gravity of the must but many home winemakers will reduce the recommended amount of fruit and replace it with sugar to make it more economical. This creates a thin wine that is hot with alcohol and has very little fruit flavor. It just isn’t worth it to skimp on the main ingredient of your wine. Sacrificing quality for quantity never ends well in just about every aspect of winemaking.
Kit winemakers that are used to making six-week or eight-week wine kits shouldn’t switch to four-week wine kits to save money. Four-week kits are usually lighter in body and total dissolved solids, both of which lends towards making a very drinkable wine at a young age but sacrifices complexity and long term aging. Winemakers that make higher end kits are used to wines that have more body and complexity. I always point this out so customers have the right expectations if they choose to switch to the less expensive wine kits.
For customers who purchase online, the biggest way to cut costs is to purchase in larger quantities. Many online stores, including ours, offer a flat shipping rate regardless of the quantity. That can turn into quite a bit of savings, especially when ordering bottles and equipment.
Another simple way to save without sacrifice is to subscribe to your homebrew/winemaking store’s newsletter. Newsletters will let you know what is on sale and some newsletters offer special discounts that only subscribers receive. It adds up to a lot of savings over time.
Winemakers can save money by taking advantage of the limited edition kits that wine kit manufacturers announce yearly. These kits are high quality kits that aren’t available throughout the year plus they are generally priced lower than the regularly available kits.
Yet another way to cut costs is to purchase standard wine bottles instead of the more expensive “fancier” bottles such as the cobalt or stretch hock bottles. While they are very pretty to look at there isn’t any real advantage to using them over the green and clear Bordeaux bottles and their cost can be 40-60% higher. Even better would be to not buy bottles at all and recycle your commercial wine bottles. My favorite tip on saving money while making wine is to contact local restaurants and ask them to save empty wine bottles for you instead of throwing them away. I have found that many restaurants are very happy to set their empties away rather than tossing them into a landfill.
One piece of advice I have for winemakers that like a large variety of wines in their cellar is to make trades with other winemakers. If you love Shiraz and Merlot, find a winemaking buddy. You make the Shiraz and he/she makes the Merlot, then exchange half the batch. It is a great way to build up a cellar with a large variety and still stay within your budget.