Spring Cleaning for Winemakers: Tips from the Pros

Spring is often seen as a time for cleaning, and there’s plenty for the home winemaker to do after a long winter. This includes scrubbing away the grime, dust and cobwebs that have accumulated in your cellar over the last few cold months. But, as our winemaking pros point out in this issue, “spring cleaning” isn’t really an accurate term for home winemaking. To make the best possible wine, they recommend making sanitation a part of your everyday routine, especially on the days when you are handling your wines. Year-round sanitation is the only way to make wines that will ever come close to perfection. That said, there’s more to do in spring than blow out the winery dust. Perhaps you’re thinking about blending your wines, or letting malolactic fermentation take hold as cellar temperatures heat up. Maybe you are getting ready to bottle, or if you have a home vineyard, you’ll begin planning for the impending growing season. Whatever the case, these three pros offer some helpful seasonal advice.

David Higginbotham of Catacula Lake Winery in Napa, California. David has been in the wine business for twenty years. He has a degree in business from U.C. Berkeley and learned winemaking on the job.

During the winter the goal is to top off wines, monitor cellar temperatures – ideally these should be between 55° and 65° F, or 13° to 18° C – and run malolactic fermentation if you can raise your cellar temperatures enough. Malolactic fermentation occurs best between 70° and 80° F and has a hard time below 60° F. I don’t like wines to be dormant in the winter. I worry about the stability of the wines and prefer to see activity. Many home winemakers probably won’t be able to maintain these temperatures because they don’t have the same cellar control as the professionals. For example, at home you probably will not be able to do malolactic fermentation until the late spring or summer, when temperatures are up. Outdoor temperatures need to be above 70° F before cellar temperatures will rise to exterior temperatures.

During the winter and into the spring, you should be topping wines every other week. Top with a similar, but bland commercial wine, if you don’t have smaller vessels of the same batch to top with. The goal is to eliminate any airspace above the wine, since this air can lead to oxidation. Late winter is also a good time to take care of any cleaning you neglected after the crush and, with spring upon you, it’s important to take care of everything – floors, walls, barrels inside and out, and scrubbing out carboys. I recommend to clean the cellars once a month, no matter what. Wash the walls to eliminate mold and mildew and scrub the floors. This will all improve your wine.

I don’t like using chlorine for a cleaning material because if you don’t rinse well enough, the flavor will be imparted into your wine. There are better choices. I prefer to use soda ash. This allows me to raise the pH to a point where nothing will be able to live. It works great for cleaning stainless steel and hoses and it’s also an essential caustic agent for barrel cleaning. (Use two pounds of soda ash in five gallons of water, roll the barrel to clean. Drain and rinse well.) I like to use a citric acid rinse, then I do a clean water rinse. With this regimen, I’m confident that there is no flavor going into my wines. This also eliminates everything that can hurt my wine. Home winemakers must realize that cleaning is a continuous thing. If you haven’t started yet, start now.

Andy Colaruotolo of Casa Larga Vineyards in Fairport, New York. Andy was born in Italy and grew up there during World War II. He did lots of work on the family vineyard as a boy. After the war, he came to America and started a construction company. He later planted some vines for home use. That eventually grew into a successful winery.

Over the winter all of our wines have been fermented and racked at least twice. Some of those wines have been transferred to oak. By the spring we’re blending our wines, trying to find that perfect blend that will taste great in the bottle. Once they’re blended, we allow them to stabilize. This means we put the wines in a cold room with temperatures in the low 30s. By storing them two or three weeks at those temperatures, all the tartrate crystals separate out and fall to the bottom of the wine. This prevents fallout from happening once the wines are in the bottle. Most wine drinkers don’t like to see those little crystals in their wine.

Of course, by late spring (May or early June) we’re ready to bottle our whites. Most of our reds will need longer oak aging, so we don’t touch them at this time. When it comes to cleaning, we don’t wait until spring. If you want to make wine as good as God, you have to be clean all the time. There’s no time in our winery when we aren’t cleaning, making sure the hoses are clean and put away, or the floors are all sanitized. Serious home winemakers really need to think about cleaning as a year-round process. For us, springtime means vineyard work over and above everything else. We spent the winter making sure the wines were stable and in good shape, so we’re able to leave them alone as we go out to the vineyards to do our work. And there’s plenty of work to do. We’re out there pruning the vines and then tying them. We also cultivate the rows.

But we need to tie the vines by May before the growing season starts. Once the grapes start to grow and shoots come out, these shoots are so tender and fragile that you can knock them off easily and lose grapes for that whole year. Also, it’s easier to tie back the vines when the shoots aren’t out.With the shoots out, you have to be slow and careful. That takes up lots of time.

Cynthia and John Nagle of Rainey Valley Winery in Glenoma, Washington. A commercial winemaker helped the Nagels to get started and consulted with them for a year. They are now in their fourth year of business.

When springtime rolls around, we get everything absolutely sterilized. The worst thing for winemakers is bacteria or dirt. The most important thing is being clean. We go through our entire inventory of equipment, from carboys to scrub brushes, and clean off any cobwebs or mold that may have developed over the winter. There are plenty of good cleaning supplies out there to choose from.

We’re also getting ready for bottling at this time of year. We’re a really small operation and do everything by hand, so I’m worrying about getting our labels together and making sure I have help lined up to run our hand-filler, labeler and corker. Our goal is to set up a production line that will let us be as quick as possible.

This not only shortens the work day during bottling, but it also promotes better wine. We don’t want oxidation, so we’re trying to fill the bottles as quietly as possible and get them corked and sealed. By working fast and having a good team, we’ve been very successful in all of our bottlings.

We’re also careful about oxidation in our bottling tank. We don’t use pumps but have a very basic gravity-fed tank that sits just above the filler level. First we get this tank totally clean and sterilized. If you aren’t careful, you can have great wine up to this point only to ruin it with a slightly dirty bottling tank. We fill the tank with as much wine as possible so there is little or no airspace above the wines. This prevents oxidation and improves the final product. The gravity-fed tank works great for us. With the hand filler, we can’t find a small pump that won’t overpower it. So we ended up with a system where gravity brings the wine down and we control the flow by hand. While bottling, we still practice total cleanliness. We have towels down to absorb dripping, and we immediately clean up any spills. Also – and this is something I often tell home winemakers – we never use corks that have been dropped on the floor. They might look fine, but using them is a great way to ruin a bottle.