Ten Tips for Kit Winemaking

Decalogue is Latin for “ten writings” and the most common use of the word is to refer to the ten commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While this column isn’t written in stone (and certainly not by the light of a burning bush) the tenth anniversary of WineMaker is an excellent time to weigh in with ten solid tips for kit wine success.

Success has a broad definition, however. If one simply wanted to be sure to produce a clear, drinkable wine within the time frame specified on your kit instructions, there’s only one commandment you have to know: Read the instructions and obey them, making no change however small, omitting no detail, however slight (RTIAOTMNCHSONDHS). In one simple step you’ll never have to worry, because even if things don’t turn out quite to spec, your kit supplier will be able to work with you to make it right, because following the directions limits the scope of possible errors in production, and fixes are usually simple and fast.

But if your ambitions are greater than just getting drinkable wine into a bottle on a schedule there are quite a few things you can do to make better wine, from the perspective of the physical processing of the must to your storing conditions you store it in, and even the knowledge you need to judge and assess your wine.

1. Read the instructions

Ha ha ha, surprise! Yes, I said that if you wanted to get more than just drinkable wine on a schedule you had to move beyond this step, but you still have to take it first. Your kit instructions weren’t just written to winemaking theory; they are a set of evolved protocols, based on observed success in field conditions, specific to the individual wine kit itself. They contain important information about times, temperatures and ingredient additions that materially affect the outcome of fermentation, clearing and aging.

The old saying goes: if you’re going to break the rules, you have to know them first. It is no surprise that some of the most innovative and talented improvisers in jazz music are highly trained musicians —if you want to improvise, you must first learn the score!

Also, if a kit is your first attempt at making your own wine, you’ll actually want to follow the beginner’s commandment: RTIAOTMNCHSONDHS. Most wine kit manufacturers offer a guarantee of success with their kits, with only one condition: follow the instructions. Think about your first two-wheeled bike — did you pull the training wheels off, change the seat, put on ape-hanger handlebars and change the sprockets before your first ride? Unless you’re Evel Knievel, probably not. Get a few kits under your belt (and perhaps a few more aging in your cellar) before you start improvising with six gallons (23 L) of must.

2. Drink more

By urging you to drink more I don’t just mean that you should increase your consumption. After all, you can only drink so much before it affects your behavior, health and ability to get up in the morning.

No, I mean that you should take every opportunity you can to squeeze a learning experience out of wine consumption. If you go to a restaurant, order a couple of different wines you haven’t tried before. Get an extra glass and share them with your companion. If you’re going to a party, use the opportunity to pick up a new wine to try. If there’s a wine festival anywhere within a day’s travel of your home, go. Do not stand on ceremony or custom, but hie yourself hence to the tasting. There are few other opportunities available that will let you try dozens (or even hundreds) of different wines under a single roof for a reasonable price.

Another neat trick for learning is to make a pilgrimage to wine country. Every state in the union has its own wineries. Find a designated driver or a bus tour and hit a handful a day for a great education and a really good time.

Also, you should keep a notebook and write down the relevant facts about wines tasted for later reference. It doesn’t have to be much: a typical notation for me: ‘“2004 Cotes-du-Ventoux, Les Terrasses 70/30 Grenache/Syrah, 14%, strawberry, plum, spice, firm tannin, great drinkability, worked with lamb, lots of garrigue.” In around 20 words you can make a taste impression more vivid in your mind.

Even though I’ve switched my tasting notes over to a computer, I still refer back to my old notebooks, both for learning experiences and for nostalgia. Did you know the first time I had Australian Shiraz was in 1984, paired with lamb and couscous? I didn’t either until I re-read it just now — good thing I wrote that down. Which brings us to:

3. Write it down

Georges Santayana always said those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it in summer school, and he was right. The most painful lesson I ever learned about winemaking had nothing to do with sulfite calculations, pH measurement or not parking a forklift on my foot. It had to do with record keeping. I made a triple batch of Yakima Merlot from a kit, and when it was ready to drink I gave away a couple of cases to friends, half of whom phoned me back the second they opened the bottles, slavering with delight at “the best wine I ever tasted.”

I was very proud of the batch because I added grapeskins and special elagic tannins, induced malolactic fermentation and stored it in a used oak barrel for elevage . . . or did I use a new barrel and no malolactic? Was it elagic tannins or tannic acid? How many pounds of grapeskins? Were they Merlot skins or was it from that batch of Cabernet? I’ll never know, because I didn’t write it down! Good records mean repeating your successes and avoiding failures, and not having your winemaking friends mock you for decades because you have no idea how to make that great batch over again. A cheap spiral notebook and a pencil work as well as a laptop and are less likely to stop working if you soak them in grape juice, but any system you actually use is fine.

4. Keep it clean

Yes, I know that as a regular reader of WineMaker you’ve read this at least two hundred times in the last ten years, and you’ll probably read it again next issue. Cleanliness may not have anything to do with divinity, but it sure enough has everything to do with microbial stability, and the number one cause of microbial spoilage in wine is improperly cleaned and sanitized equipment.

Cleaning and sanitation is the single phrase covering the two-stage process of ensuring that your equipment is first free of visible soil and debris and then treated with a chemical product to reduce microbial levels below the point at which they could harm the wine. Scrubbing and sulfites are your tactics, and staying ahead of the bugs is your strategy. Keep in mind that wine is food: anyone slack about washing cutting boards or cleaning dinnerware after use is looking for food spoilage, and the same goes for wine equipment.

5. Do less

Most of the procedures associated with making wine kits are time-compressed versions of traditional winemaking techniques. Modern consumers have demonstrated amply that the one thing they are not willing to wait for is instant gratification. As such, the kit instructions require a couple of specific procedural steps to finish fermentation and achieve clarity in the four, six or eight weeks their schedules recommend. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a little extra time in the process can lead not only to less work, but also to a bit more subtlety in the wine.

In the Summer 2001 issue of WineMaker, my column (“Making Your Kit Wine Shine”) featured a timing modification to the kit instructions following a 5–20–40–90 day schedule for primary fermentation, rackings and assessment. Which absolute schedule you follow is less important than understanding the intent, which is to treat the kit like a straight grape must. Make the kit up on day one, as per instructions regarding additions, temperature, stirring and yeast, and then pretend it’s fresh juice that’s never seen the inside of a bag or box. Ferment in a large container until vigorous action subsides, rack to a carboy, wait several weeks until fermentation is complete and the wine begins to clear, rack to a clean carboy, sulfite the wine appropriately, top-up and wait for several months, doing nothing. At the end of that period, assess the wine for clarity, test for sulfites, adjust if necessary and go to the bottle or age further in bulk.

When is it ready to bottle and what should you do to finish it? You’re the expert now, you tell me! This step means understanding the process enough to make those judgements on your own. But low-intervention winemaking has the charms of less labor, and unhurried wine that coasts its way to completion and maturity.

6. Learn to taste

This isn’t the same thing as “drink more.” This is a little bit harder. Tasting wine is like music appreciation: you don’t need to read music, play an instrument, or identify the different parts of a score to enjoy a tune, but if you want to think deeply and critically about music and discuss it on a high level with others, you must learn the language and understand the concepts.

So how do you learn? There are courses available, both online and in person at community colleges and cooking schools. The Copia facility in Napa has an excellent teaching program and seminars that can open many doors. One thing I’ve recommended over the years is Decanter magazine’s free home wine tasting kit (http://www.decanter.com/pdf/tastingkit.pdf). It covers everything from setting up a tasting, which glasses to use, how to taste, making notes, etc.

7. Join the club

A wine club, that is! There’s nothing like a bunch of like-minded souls gathered together in the spirit of fellowship and discovery to start a bunch of really good arguments. Learning from the mistakes of others will allow you to make similar mistakes with confidence — or to avoid those particular mistakes and make entirely new ones of your own.

Seriously, winemaking clubs provide a valuable service. Membership usually has connections and experience with local suppliers, long-term members who have expertise with techniques you may have only read about, and there’s always someone willing to share tips and advice. Most clubs run beginner classes and do structured wine tastings, all for nominal cost.

You could also join a wine tasting club in your area. In Canada we have the Opimian Society (https://www.opim.ca/), which regularly holds tasting events and offers education on a national basis. In the US, the American Wine Society has chapters throughout the country. Membership includes national publications on winemaking and a national conference with amateur competitions (www.americanwinesociety.org). Find a club online at www.winemakermag.com/referenceguide/clubs/index.html.

8. Oxygen is your frenemy

Kit winemakers need to understand that exposure to oxygen is at once the best way to ensure a healthy, thorough fermentation and the quickest route to disgusting, oxidized wine that is fit only for the drain. The key to understanding the use of oxygen, as in most things, is timing.

First, yeast is a complex little beastie with an agenda that is for the most part at cross-purposes to yours. Yeast would vastly prefer not to make alcohol and carbon dioxide for a living. Like all rational beings, they’d rather be reproducing — contentedly converting resources into new daughter cells and budding them off. It isn’t until they reach a concentration of ten to twenty million live cells per milliliter that they stop with the kinder and get on with the kuchen. Getting the yeast up to this concentration as quickly as possible means that your fermentation will go quickly, and finish out on time.

The mechanism that allows the creation of new yeastlings works through a couple of pathways. First, yeast can soak up YAN (yeast available nitrogen) from the must and use that to make a new layer of fatty acid esters and fill it with the biological works that make a yeast cell yeasty.

However, there’s only so much nutrient they can use at one time. Another mechanism they can use is to uptake oxygen dissolved in the must. Breeding yeast greedily devour dissolved oxygen and churn out the progeny at a fantastic rate. This is why almost all kit wines tell you to stir vigorously on the first day: a good stir gets air into the must. Some kits ask you to rack five to seven days after the onset of fermentation, to aerate the must slightly and give the yeast another little kick to finish out.

Once your wine has finished active fermentation it’s game over for oxygen. From that point on wine should be under an airlock, topped up and treated with sulfite to protect it. Oxygen affects wine just like it affects an apple left open to air: the exposed flesh browns before your eyes, losing aroma and freshness.

9. Build a cellar

Whoa, put down the picks and shovels — leave foundation work to the experts. This tip is about accumulating wine for storage and aging. Building up an inventory of wines for short, mid and long-term aging is one of the funniest things a winemaker can do. It’s like buying your own birthday presents for years ahead and waiting to open them just when they’re at their best.

Of course, not everyone has perfect cellaring conditions, or even the space to store hundreds of bottles of wine. But most folks can manage to tuck away at least a few cases in a cool, stable spot to let them age out. Giving your kit wines, especially the premium and super premium reds, two to three years of aging is the single best way of improving them. No additives, manipulations, or tweaks will ever exceed the simple expedient of waiting until the wine is actually at its flavor peak before drinking.

10. Have some fun

Making your own wine should be all kinds of things: fun, relaxing, enlightening, educational and even economical. But at the end of the day, it’s just wine: a relaxing, delicious beverage that people have been making and enjoying for thousands of years. Don’t take it too seriously.

A great way to have some fun is to share your wine with others. There’s nothing quite like it when someone with an amazed look on their face says, “You made this?” Who knows, you might even encourage someone to try it for themselves, and passing on the bug is the best sort of fun there is.