The Basement Winery
Pour someone a glass of fine looking wine, then right before they are about to take a sip, tell them you made it—invariably there will a hesitation (the length of which depends on the default courtesy of the guest)—followed by questions. People are leery of homemade alcohol, usually for good reason—it’s frequently awful. But making alcohol at home has come a long way since the moonshine days; it’s now easy to make elegant wines in your own basement for a fraction of their retail cost. Home winemaking is a fun way to fill up a wine cellar, to make gifts for friends and family, and to put a personal stamp on entertaining.
“Most of my customers make their own wine as a hobby. It is fun, easy, and the end product is very good. It is fun for them to share with friends and family, and it also is much cheaper then buying wine. You can make a very good wine for about $3 a bottle”, comments Kevin DeLange, owner of The Brew Hut in Aurora, Colorado whose store and website is an excellent resource for the home enologist. Richard T. Berkey, co-owner of Stomp Them Grapes in Denver, a store which specializes in supplies and equipment for home winemaking, expands upon its appeal,
“Fermentation is fascinating, akin to preparing fine cuisine or baking. You create complex and flavorful concoctions from naturally-occurring, raw materials”.
There are two main ways of making wine at home, one considerably easier than the other, making wine from a kit, and making wine from fresh or frozen grapes.
“The most popular kits are the most common types of wines. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, and Shiraz. The Port and Ice Wines are also popular”, says Kevin. Wine kits consist of either pure grape juice, grape juice concentrate, or a combination of the two, as well as all the other additives needed such as: yeast, oak chips (simulates the flavor of aging in oak barrels), and clarifying materials—and the all important—instructions. Beginning equipment needed to make kit wines can be purchased together for about $50-70. The kits themselves range from $50 to $120. Kits allow wine makers access to uncommon grape varietals. Wine kits usually make about 6 gallons of wine, which fills 30 standard wine bottles. You can buy bottles new from suppliers, but a good source for free ones is a local bar. Used bottles can be cleaned, sanitized, and reused.
Most wines should be fermented between 68-75 degrees F (this depends on the yeast so check instructions), making most basements ideal locations for a home winery. Kit wines need to age from 5-8 weeks, but many benefit from additional aging. Once finished, the wine is transferred into bottles and corked with either real or synthetic corks. You can also make your own wine labels using Microsoft Publisher, a paint program, or a label making program. While there are laws limiting what you can put on wine labels for commercially sold wine, they don’t apply to wine made at home—but keep this in mind if you are going to give a bottle to Grandma as a holiday gift.
Wine from Grapes
The other–significantly more involved option—for home winemaking involves using fresh or frozen grapes. Many brew stores will order different grapes from growers across the U.S., but they get their deliveries from August to October. “Fresh grapes are only available within a limited margin of time each year, in the fall during harvest”, says Richard, “fresh grapes are a delicate lot, and must be dealt with expediently and intently when taken off the vine”. Making wine from fresh grapes—or their must, the liquid resulting from pressing and crushing fresh grapes—takes more effort than kits. Richard explains, “The wine kit product, unlike frozen grape musts, is drastically simpler, since all the basic analysis and chemistry has been done for you prior to opening the package”. There is a long list of equipment involved in this process, and as they are pretty expensive, most people use them at the store where they buy their grapes, or rent them.
The first step in the process of making wine from grapes is crushing, desteming, and testing and adjustment of sugar, acid, and pH levels. Next is the initial fermentation, which takes about 2 to 3 days, then pressing to remove skins and seeds (for red wine, white wine is pressed to remove the skins before fermentation), then another round of fermentation, called malolactic fermentation. The wine is moved into a clean carboy—this step is called racking. Next, oak (oak chips which simulate the flavor of aging in oak barrels) is added. The wine is racked again and then clarification materials are added. Depending on how much sediment is present, the wine may need to be racked every 2 to 4 months. The wine is then aged 6-9 months (total) and then bottled.
Which way you go to your own impressive homemade wine is really up to you. “Kit winemaking is decidedly the more affordable and less daunting way to get involved, since a basic equipment kit can be purchased for around $70. Ingredient kits go for as little as $50, and contain everything needed to produce a quality wine”, says Richard. However, making wine from grape, although more involved, also have its benefits Richard explains. “Others enjoy the camaraderie and widely-felt spirit of celebration innate within a community-based crushing, and return again and again in pursuit of it”.
Regardless of the method, making your own wine is a fun and unique way to add to the celebration and bonding of drinking with friends and family. Its “a personally engaging activity that requires forethought, learning, discipline, patience, and attention to detail”, says Richard, that produces “the pride of sharing, over the home hearth with good friends, a wonderfully complex product that one has created oneself. It is the giving of a gift that comes from within”.
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Credits and Links
I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!