Ask Wine Wizard

What are your top five rookie mistakes to avoid in winemaking?


Jennifer Scott — Brooklyn, New York asks,

I’ve been making wine for about a year now and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to help me out with a wrap-up of some of your winemaking wisdom. What are your top five rookie mistakes to avoid in winemaking?


That’s a great request. Sometimes I forget to really distill what I believe when it comes to fine winemaking. Just like anything in life, having a concentrated, bullet-pointed list of the essence of a thing is very important. It can guide us in times of challenge and inspire us to make even better wines. So here goes:

Top five rookie mistakes:

  1. Picking too early or too late: I can’t say this enough — it all starts with the raw material. Pick too early and your Cabernet will never lose that nasty green bell pepper aroma. Pick too late and your delicate Malvasia Bianca will be a flabby, high pH flop with 15.0% alcohol. Making the pick call is the single most important decision a fresh grape winemaker will make in a wine’s life — be sure you make it right. Do be informed by analysis (Brix, pH and TA) but even more important, use your taste buds. If you’re a home winemaker getting someone’s second crop, try to let it hang on the vine as long as you can to lose some of that acid and get to the flavor profile you’re looking for. If you’re making wine with a kit, buy the very best quality you can.
  2. Inappropriate must adjustment: Acid, water, enzymes, nutrients, tannins, bentonite, sulfur dioxide. The list of things we can add to our freshly-crushed grapes is too long to enumerate. Many beginning winemakers believe that the more “tweaks” and additions they make, the better their wine will be. I try to keep my winemaking minimalist and think about using additives only when the grapes really call for it. The idea is to get such good grapes that you don’t have to add anything at all if you don’t want to.
  3. Not understanding the destructive power of oxygen and spoilage microbes: After the carbon dioxide from the primary and secondary fermentation blows off, your wine is vulnerable to attack by oxygen and spoilage yeast and bacteria. Leaving wine uncovered, untopped or unprotected by insufficient sulfur dioxide is asking for trouble. When a wine is actively fermenting it can be roughed up, left uncovered and moved around without much worry. Once a wine goes still it’s critical to protect it.
  4. Not understanding the constructive power of oxygen and good microbes: Believe it or not, oxygen is critical for a wine’s early development. A healthy fermentation actually needs oxygen to perform its best and young wines, especially, can benefit from an aerative racking in the first months of life. Good microbes like yeast and certain strains of lactic acid bacteria are your partners in the fine winemaking process. Learn about how to use these tools to your advantage and to actively manage their interactions with your wine.
  5. Keeping inadequate records: So much in winemaking seems to happen by chance — the weather influences the grapes, a cold cellar can slow down a fermentation and a random spoilage yeast can invade a perfectly good wine. To maximize the level of control you have over your wines, keep good records during the winemaking process. Only by logging in dates, treatments, wine analysis and tasting notes do we learn what works, what doesn’t and how to improve.
Response by Alison Crowe.