25 Winemaking Tips

Have you ever wished you had an experienced winemaker looking over your shoulder as you prepared to harvest your first crop of grapes or tested acid levels? How about as you scratched your head over how to clarify a cloudy wine or tried fermenting fresh peach juice? We know what that’s like, so we asked some of our most trusted winemaking authorities to share a few of their personal tricks and tips they use for their own wines. Their combined years of knowledge revealed everything from the practical (pick the ‘jack stems’ out of your grapes) to the tactical (move a heavy carboy with a plant dolly). Help yourself to a few ideas and tackle your next winemaking endeavor like an expert.

Grape Growing and Harvesting

Wes Hagen, WineMaker’s “Backyard Vines” columnist.

  • Keep it cool
    Harvest grapes cool and never let them get hot or sit in the sun after picking. Use food-grade dry ice to cool down must in the fermenter to extend cold soak. This is also a great idea for grapes picked on a hot day, or grapes that are hot from transport.
  • Do the legwork Spend some time picking ‘jack stems’ out of your must to avoid stemmy or vegetal character.

Blending, Clarifying and Testing

Dan Mouer, contributor to WineMaker.

Take a taste (or two!) Don’t be afraid to poke a (sanitized) wine thief into a carboy and draw a sample periodically. Make tasting notes in your cellar book or wine log. Taste it shortly after fermentation, then again routinely as it bulk ages. Then set aside a bit of the bottled stuff for occasional formal taste-tests. Don’t forget to top up your carboy after taking your sample.

John Peragine, contributor to WineMaker and avid home winemaker from Taylorsville, North Carolina.

  • Easy fining (gelatin) If you’re in a pinch for a fining agent, try unflavored gelatin. Keep in mind, however, that it will have an effect on tannins.

Jack Keller, creator of The Home Winemaking Page (http:winemaking.jackkeller.net) and WineMaker writer.

  • Easy fining (egg white) Egg white is one of the best general-purpose clarifying agents. It will also improve a too-tannic wine. Gently beat a separated white with a small amount of unclarified wine and a pinch of salt. Use half a white for each five-gallon (19 L) carboy and use by adding the mixture to the wine and stirring with a long, sterilized rod. Refit the airlock and set aside for at least ten days.
  • Easy tannin remedy Add two or three drops of whole milk per gallon (3.8 L) of wine for overly tannic white wines. The proteins in the milk precipitate the tannins in the wine and the result is a fine coating of lees.
  • If you can’t test – taste If you don’t have an acid test kit to measure and calculate additions to a wine you think is acid-deficient, pour a 380 ml sample and adjust it to taste in measured increments. Multiply the amount added by ten times the number of gallons to be treated. You can also use fractions of a teaspoon and multiply.

David Salaba, wine expert at Keystone Homebrew Supply of Montgomeryville & Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (www.keystonehomebrew.com) and graduate of UC-Davis.

  • Get a clean juice sample After thoroughly stirring the must in the open-top fermenter, take a large kitchen strainer and place it on top of the must. Slowly press the strainer into the must with both hands, being careful not to push too fast. A clean puddle of juice will slowly fill the basket – without all of the gunk! You can also use this method for a sample to check the fermentation progress. Just remember that the cap must be broken up and stirred thoroughly or else the ongoing fermentation will change the characteristics of the juice in the cap vs. the juice at the bottom of the fermenter.

Bottling and Aging

Walt Huber, frequent contributor to WineMaker, and winemaking instructor specializing in sparkling wine from Maineville, Ohio.

  • Prevent overflowing carboys When racking from one carboy to another, rack the first cup or so into a wine glass. This gives you a small sample to smell and taste while the racking finishes, and also ensures that the receiving carboy doesn’t overflow. All carboys are not exactly the same. If the first one is a little bigger than the second, it won’t overflow. When the racking is complete, use the wine in the glass to top up the receiving carboy.

Wayne Stitzer, winemaking consultant and professional member of the American Wine Society.

  • Keep a library of your wines Put away a couple bottles of each vintage and variety for future reference and to monitor for aging potential and shelf life. This is also a gauge for improving skills and styles. The only way to know if you are getting better is to have something to compare. This is often overlooked because when a few bottles are produced they tend to all get consumed.

David Salaba, wine expert at Keystone Homebrew Supply of Montgomeryville & Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (www.keystonehomebrew.com) and graduate of UC-Davis.

  • Label everything (part 1 – chemicals) Many chemicals and ingredients degrade over time, losing (or even gaining) potency, neither of which can be good for your wine. As soon as you buy a product, take a permanent marker and write the date on the lid and the label, just in case the container gets reused. It takes only a second or two to do, and can help avoid the, “golly, I wonder if this stuff is still good?” or, “What the heck, I’ll use it anyway” syndromes.

Chris Colby, Former Editor of WineMaker and Brew Your Own magazines.

  • Label everything (part 2 – carboys) When you first start making wine, you’ll know that the carboy full of red wine is your Cabernet and the carboy full of white contains your Chardonnay. However, a couple years down the road, when you have multiple carboys and jugs filled – it’s easy to lose track of what vessel contains what wine. Tape an index card to each container and note all the relevant information (type of wine, initial Brix and acid, skin contact time, when the wine was fined – and with what agent, oak treatments, when it was racked, etc.). Every time you rack to a new container, transfer the index card as well.

Wine Kits

Tim Vandergrift, WineMaker’s Former “Wine Kits” columnist.

  • Find your fermenter’s fill line The best way to hit the right volume in your primary fermenter is by filling the carboy up to the neck with cool water. Rack or pour the water into the primary and draw a line with permanent marker at the water level. This will be the fill level.
  • Have patience Just because your wine kit is ready to drink in six weeks doesn’t mean that it’s ready to drink! Try a bottle in three months, another at six, then decide if it’s ready.

Walt Huber, frequent contributor to WineMaker, and winemaking instructor specializing in sparkling wine from Maineville, Ohio.

  • Watch out for water Always use distilled or reverse osmosis water if you’re adding it to your wine, especially in kits. City, spring and well water may have minerals or chemicals that can cause off flavors.

Temperature and Fermentation

Jack Keller, creator of The Home Winemaking Page and WineMaker writer.

  • Start a starter A balanced yeast starter solution begun 20 hours before needed will significantly increase the amount of live cells you start with. Use a cup of water, a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of yeast nutrient dissolved in it. After four hours, add 1/4 cup of must or orange, apple or grape juice. Add another 1/4 cup of must or juice every four hours. For periods beyond 20 hours, begin with a pint of starter solution instead of a cup.
  • Check your calibrations If you purchase (or are given) a used hydrometer, always calibrate it before using it. Very old hydrometers were calibrated at 4 °C (39 °F). Then calibration changed to 15 °C (59 °F) and stayed that way for half a century. These days, most hydrometers are calibrated to 20 °C (68 °F) at which temperature distilled water should measure a specific gravity of exactly 1.000 (0 °Brix).

Jim Harrington, formerly of Harrington Press Winemaking & Homebrew Supplies in Peoria, Illinois.

  • Modify your plastic fermenter Drill a hole in the lid big enough to fit a #10 stopper where the grommet hole is. This makes stirring, taking readings and sampling much easier than having to remove the lid.

Country Wines

Alexis Hartung, WineMaker’s Former “Varietal Focus” columnist .

  • Freshness is key It’s best to use ripe fruit but overripe fruit can bear potential problems (bacteria, off-flavors). Also, cut away and discard bruised sections. For fresh, fruity flavors rack the wine three to six weeks after the fermentation stops.
  • Choose the right additives Use potassium metabisulfite, not sodium metabisulfite to avoid a possible salty taste. Also be sure to carefully measure sulfite to be sure you don’t use too much.

Jack Keller, creator of The Home Winemaking Page and WineMaker writer.

  • Save your peelings If you have a peach tree and make lots of pies or freeze peeled wedges, remember that one and a quarter pound of peelings, with sugar, acid blend, etc., makes an excellent gallon of peach wine. Peelings can be frozen in bags until you have enough to make a batch.
  • Skip the juicer Use a paring knife to cut a slit, crosswise to
    the axis of a lemon, past the center to a depth of about 2/3 through. Place the lemon in a microwave oven with the slit facing up and cook on high for 20 – 25 seconds. Squeeze the juice out through the slit. This method saves a lot of hand strength.


Chris Farley formerly of Northern Brewer homebrew supply, St. Paul, Minnesota

  • Draining your carboys When you’re emptying a carboy filled with cleaning solution, try inserting a small (one foot length or so) tube while the carboy is upside-down so part of it sticks above the water line. Air will exit out of the tube allowing the liquid to come out fast, which speeds up your cleaning time.

Daniel Goodman, formerly of The Good Brewer homebrew and wine supply, Livermore, California.

  • Storing carboys After you clean and sanitize your carboy, you can put it up for long-term storage (or short-term if you turn over wine quickly enough) by putting in a pint or two of water and three or four campden tablets. Place a solid stopper on the carboy and turn it upside down (use a carboy holder if you have one). As the tablets dissolve, they create SO2. Since the carboy is upside down it creates a seal so the gas doesn’t escape. When you’re ready, just empty it out and fill – no prep!
  • Moving carboys To move heavy carboys, use a plant dolly like the ones used for large potted plants. They are only a few inches high, which makes it much easier to get them on the dolly and wheel them to wherever you want them.