Ask Wine Wizard

Advice For A Beginning Winemaker


Maria Latham — Duluth, Minnesota asks,

I’m just starting out making wine and I’m a little petrified of making some (OK, a lot) of mistakes as I go along. Do you have any advice?


Winemaking is always a learning process and even those of us that have been doing this for a long time still learn a lot every harvest and all year-round! However, that being said, I do have some tidbits for new winemakers. In my Winemaker’s Answer Book I spell out what I think are probably the top five “Rookie Mistakes” that those new to winemaking are prone to make:

  1. Picking grapes too early or too late: Once you pick you can’t go back and the path to wine is already laid out before you. Pick your reds at 22 °Brix and you should make a rosé . . . wait for riper fruit to make a “proper” big red wine.
  2. Inappropriate must adjustment: You can make little tweaks by adding acid (if pH is too high), water (if too ripe), or, in the case of home winemakers, a little sugar if needed to boost alcohol. Overdo it, however, and you’ve just thrown the whole balance off.
  3. Not understanding the destructive power of oxygen: Oxygen can ruin wine, oxidizing its bright color and encouraging spoilage microbes. Always keep finished wine away from oxygen by keeping your aging containers fully topped up to minimize exposure. There are many small tricks to minimizing exposure to oxygen but topping up is the most important.
  4. Not understanding the constructive power of oxygen: Yeast need some oxygen while fermenting and it can help tannin development in young wines. Embracing oxygen early on while a wine is still producing carbon dioxide (which protects the headspace) is a good idea. Just make sure the wine is protected once it stops producing its own carbon dioxide gas or oxidation and spoilage may result.
  5. Keeping inadequate records: Did you make a wonderful wine? If you weren’t writing down what you were doing, you’ll never be able to recreate it! Similarly, if you don’t like what you did, you won’t know what to avoid doing next time.
Response by Alison Crowe.