Help – I Can’t Find Bottles for my Limoncello

April 5, 2008 at 3:27 pm (Other Drinks) (, , , , )

I’ve been searching everywhere and I haven’t been able to find appropriate bottles for storing my limoncello. The bottles in the liquor store are square with a screw cap and hold about 1/2 a liter. Of course I have the vodka bottles I used to make the liqueur, but they are not attractive and they are a bit too large to store in the freezer.

I’ve checked in the home stores (Linen & Things, etc), the dollar stores, Target, Pier 1, and on eBay. I live on the east coast, just outside Philadelphia. Ikea had some bottles with the flip lids like a Grolsch beer, but they are very difficult to open at room temperature, I can’t imagine what it would be like coming out of the freezer.

Does anyone have a suggestion?


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Pairing Wine with Food

March 28, 2008 at 8:41 pm (Thoughts) (, , , , )

You should have white wine with chicken or fish, or is that chicken or fish with white wine?  Cabernet goes with steak.  Wine snobs are bossing us around, right?  I used to think so.

No.  That’s not it.  Let’s start over.

Certain foods just go great together, like peanut butter and chocolate.  Some don’t work, like brushing your teeth and orange juice.  So let me digress…

This conversation works best if we start with dessert.  Have a piece of chocolate cake and a glass of wine.  The cake is sweet and rich.  If you don’t drink a sweet wine with your cake, the wine will taste flat.   Try it some time.  Have chocolate cake and a light, dry (unsweetened) wine, the flavor of the wine will be overwhelmed by the flavor of the cake.  Sweet homemade blueberry wine and cake – now we’re talking.

It works the other way too.  The wine can overpower the food.  We try to pair the flavors so they complement each other.  I love spicy Chinese food and a German white, like a Reisling.  That works for me.  You’re tastes will vary.
Steak and Merlot – A+.

Grilled chicken and a German white – yep.

Perhaps barbecue chicken and a medium bodied red.

Cake and my Plum wine – oh yeah!

Use the food pairing guides as a starting point and experiment.  Find out what works for you and enjoy both your food and your wine.

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The Legality of Homemade Wine

March 21, 2008 at 5:01 pm (Thoughts, Winemaking) (, , , )

In 1979, the government made it legal for people to make their own wine or beer. Here is the law in a nutshell:

  • You may legally make 100 gallons per calendar year if you are single and over 18, or 200 gallons if there are two or more adults in your household.
  • You may not sell your wine or offer your wine for sale.
  • You can take the wine out of your home for personal or family use, contests, exhibitions, wine judgings, etc.
  • If you make more than the alloted amount, you are expected to pay taxes on the wine.

If you don’t think 100 gallons is a lot of wine, do the math. I get 5 bottles to the gallon, so we’re talking about 500 bottles a year for an individual, 1000 bottles for a couple. That’s an awful lot of wine. It would take sixteen 6-gallon kits to make 96 gallons of wine.

In 2001, my most active winemaking year, I made 11 different batches of wine for a total of 82 gallons. Much of that wine is long gone, but I still have some of that wine aging on my shelves (Blackberry, Blueberry, Cranberry, French Merlot, & Pinot Noir) .

One hundred gallons is a lot of wine, a lot of corks, and a lot of bottles.

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Winemaking Costs

March 17, 2008 at 9:00 am (Kit Wine, Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , , )

Besides being a die-hard do it yourselfer, I’m also quite frugal. I hate paying somebody $100 for a job I can easily do myself. I just can’t bring myself to pay $10 or $15 for a bottle of wine when I can make great wine for a fraction of that cost.

So what does it cost to make wine? Figuring the costs of a kit is pretty straight forward, these calculations are based on a 6-gallon batch producing 30 bottles of wine:

  • The kit itself – roughly $60 for a 7-liter kit. Double that for a 15-liter kit. The 7 or 15 is the amount of juice concentrate in the kit, they all make 6-gallons.
  • Bottles – if you are buying them, figure $1 per bottle. I’m partial to free.
  • Corks – these little buggers are expensive. You can pay 75¢ a piece for good cork. I buy synthetic corks in bulk and pay about 20¢ a piece.
  • Capsules – about 6¢ each, not including shipping.
  • Labels – I laser print my own, I’m past needed to impress anyone. My labels are essentially free.

Taking all of this into consideration, expect a 7-liter kit will run between $2.25 and $4.00 a bottle. The premium kits can run between $4.25 and $8.00 a bottle. As I’ve said before, I scrounge bottles and buy synthetic cork in bulk. I have no problem keeping my per bottle costs at the low end of the scale.

What about wine made from scratch? Here the costs vary quite a bit.

  • I found in my notes that I paid $14.50 for a case of 12 pints of blueberries. That works out to $29 for 18 lbs ($1/bottle). That year I could have picked them for $1.29/lb locally, but I missed the window. I will usually pay up to $50 for fruit, that works out to less than $2 per bottle for just the fruit.
  • Homemade wine needs yeast, yeast nutrient, sulfites, sorbate, enzymes, and often a sulfite test ampule or two. This adds roughly a dollar for chemicals and a dollar for each ampule to the total cost. If we round to $3, it works out to 10¢ a bottle.
  • Homemade wine needs sugar. My wife buys 5 lb bags for me when it’s on sale for about a dollar. Most recipes call for about 10 lbs in the fermenter, another 5 lbs or so for sweetening. That’s $3.00 or another 10¢ a bottle for those keeping score.
  • Corks and capsules again for about 30¢ a bottle.

You can see that the cost of the wine is basically the fruit plus about $1 per bottle in chemicals and closures.  So my advice to you is simple; pay for good fruit.  If you invested $90 in fruit, which is quite a bit of money, your per bottle cost is still only $4.

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Quick Tip – Economy of Scale

March 15, 2008 at 6:39 pm (Quick Tips, Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , , , )

I make wine six-gallons at a time. I’ve tried more, I’ve tried less. Six-gallons is perfect, although five-gallons is almost as perfect.

Basically, it comes down to equipment and efficiency. My first batch of blackberry wine was three or four gallons. I fermented what I had in berries. I racked from the fermenter to one-gallon wine jugs and half-liter bottles. I think I had three one-gallon jugs and a half-liter wine bottle after my first racking. The next racking was a pain, the auto-siphon didn’t fit in anything. I racked to more small bottles. It was a lot of work and in the end it yielded only about 15 bottles of wine. But the wine came out great and I wished I had made more.

It’s just so much easier to do one big batch. I can carry a six-gallon carboy. It’s heavy, but I can lift it to the counter siphon to another carboy. It gives me a nice batch of about 30 bottles of wine. That’s two full cases for me and six bottles to give away.

I still keep those one-gallon jugs in case I want to make a small batch of something, but usually I just purchase enough fruit to make the full six gallons.

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Real Cork or Synthetic?

March 8, 2008 at 1:09 pm (Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , , , , , )

This is a bit of an issue for the home winemaker. Most of the corks you can purchase at the supply store are made up of tiny bits of cork all pressed together (called agglomerated). The same way chicken scraps are pressed together to make chicken nuggets. These are the bottom of the barrel as corks go. Wineries that still use corks only use the corks made from a single piece of the cork oak bark, not pressed bits. You can get the agglomerated corks for about 20¢ a piece. The winery quality corks are more like 75¢ each. I have personally found that agglomerated are more prone to leakage and tainting of the wine.

Different types of natural corks - agglomerated on the right Synthetic corks

Did you know that the wine industry has about 5% loss of wine due to cork spoilage. That means one in twenty bottles. Imagine that one out of twenty cans of soda was no good when you opened it. Those kinds of losses are just not acceptable. Cork spoilage or cork taint is caused by a fungus found in cork. Now you know why so many of the wineries have switched to either synthetic corks or screw tops. Don’t laugh, it’s the high end wines that are making the switch to metal screw tops, corks are on their way out.

I’ve been buying synthetic corks for some time now. They cost about 20¢ each in bulk (in lots of 1000) and they have some added advantages. First, they don’t have a problem with cork spoilage. I love that I don’t have to lay bottles down or invert them. Synthetic corks don’t have to stay wet, they are just as happy sitting right-side up. They can also be stored for a very long time before use, there is no issue with the humidity level of synthetic corks. You don’t have to soak them or sulfite them, just grab a cork and seal the bottle.

There is one down side to synthetics, in particular to the home winemaker. If you have one of those hand corkers, you are not going to enjoy trying to insert them into your bottles. You can’t create enough pressure by hand to squeeze the cork down while inserting it in the bottle. You need a floor corker.

There are a few name brands out there; Nomacork, Neocork, Supreme Corq. I’ve been very happy with synthetic corks, I have absolutely no reason to look back.

Harvesting Cork Bark

If you are curious, the process of making corks is rather fascinating. Do a Google search for “harvesting cork.”

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Taste Your Wine Any Time

March 2, 2008 at 8:48 pm (Other Drinks, Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , , , )

First off, I ALWAYS taste my juice before I begin a batch of homemade wine. I want to know what my blueberry juice or blackberry juice tastes like before I add the yeast. I want to know if it is sweet, tart, and if it has lots of flavor or only a little flavor. Good tasting wine should start out as good tasting juice.

A winemaking buddy once told me about a festival where they drink the wine when it’s half-done fermenting. The alcohol level is low, the wine is still sweet, and there is a slight carbonation to the drink. In Austria, they call it strum.

I had never heard of this idea and at first it seemed wrong. After all, it’s not wine yet. I decided to try it, and I must say, it was rather good. Go take a small glass of strum from your fermenter when the specific gravity is around 1.025 and let me know what you think.

I found a link that describes several of these festivals in different countries.

If any of you have been to one of these festivals, I would love to hear all about it.

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Picking Fruit to Make Wine

February 29, 2008 at 9:29 pm (Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , )

You want to make fruit wine. Where do you get the fruit? I would suggest you think about this for a minute or two.

Supermarket fruit is often one step above wax fruit. You have no way of know how long it has been there, how ripe it was when picked, or how it was grown. Chances are pretty good that supermarket fruit is lacking in flavor. Produce markets are a better choice. Farms or your own yard is an even better choice.

I think it matters. If you are going to make wine, you need fruit with flavor, lots of flavor. You want the fruit to have ripened on the vine or tree, not in a boxcar being infused with a compound that induces ripening. You also don’t want to spend a fortune if you don’t have to.

If I really have a choice, my fruit is picked by me at a local farm. The berries are just off the vine, picked when ripe, and oozing with flavor. Sometimes I can only pick a couple of pounds at a time because I’m early in the picking season. I just wash the berries, package them in three-pound packages and store them in the freezer. Three pounds is the amount of fruit needed to make one gallon of wine.

Here’s my thoughts that I just related to someone who emailed me a question. My first year making blueberry wine, I went to the local pick-your-own place and picked blueberries. It took a lot of hours to pick the eighteen pounds of blueberries I needed for one batch of wine. The bushes were small and the berries were scattered. That was the best blueberry wine I ever made.

My local place changed hands and they stopped pick-your-own berries. A friend took me to a big farm in NJ that grows acres of blueberries. They are huge, beautiful berries that burst in your mouth, and you can take them off the bush by the handfuls. I picked about 25 pounds of berries in two hours. The wine they make is lacking in body and flavor compared to that first year’s crop. I suppose I have two choices, use more berries, or find another source. I’ll do both, but mostly I’ll keep my eyes open for a new source.

Some fruits are perfect from the produce market. We have a Produce Junction nearby. This place has fruit by the bag and the prices are typically quite good. You need to know what you want and you need to be choosy because their fruit it not always right for wine making. The best wine I’ve ever made (besides that first year blueberry) was a Black Plum dessert wine. I made that from Produce Junction fruit. I think a bag was three pounds for $2. I bought six or eight bags, split the plums, took out the seeds and froze the fruit. When a fruit is in season, Produce Junction is the way to go.

Develop local sources. You can make great wine from whatever your local fruit supply provides.

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Quick Tip – Temperature and Fermentation

February 22, 2008 at 6:55 pm (Kit Wine, Quick Tips, Winemaking Tips) (, , , )

If you ferment your wine at a lower temperature, the wine will have more flavor. Most yeasts need to be above 65°F to get started, but once well under way, the temperature can be dropped to slow fermentation and increase the extracted flavors. My blueberry wine has been fermenting at about 59°F.

I learned this tip just last week from my buddy at a local winery.  He put cooling jackets on his 1000 gallon vats so that he can ferment at 56°F.

This is just as valid for a wine kit, just remember that you can’t go by the number of days in the kit instructions.  You will have to use a hydrometer to know when your primary fermentation is nearing completion.  It will take longer, but it will taste even better.

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More Winemaking Toys

February 15, 2008 at 8:51 pm (Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , , , , )

Yeah, you’re hooked. Me too. The good news is that your not going to spend a fortune to move up one level in the food chain. Here’s what you need to ask Santa for:

  • Floor Corker – this is the best $70 you will spend. Trust me, you are going to get sick of that hand corker in about 4 minutes. This will take the pain out of bottling.
  • Bottle Tree – Get the big one. I wash my bottles and put them on the tree to dry, then store them in their cases upside down to keep the dust out.
  • Washer/Injector – This little baby lets you fill a bowl with Iodophor solution and spray the solution into your bottle by pushing the bottle down on a plunger. Sanitize or your hard work goes bad.
  • More Carboys – I have five 6-gallon carboys and three 5-gallon carboys. If you have only one carboy, you can only have one batch of wine in the works. It’s not uncommon to have wine in a carboy for 3 or more months. Buy a couple.
  • pH Meter – This is my wish-list item. I still don’t have one and I should. This is for the advanced lush, but maybe I’ll find one in my stocking if I post my wish here.
  • Chemicals – No, you don’t want chemicals, you do need them though. You’ll need grape tannin for fruit wines, yeast nutrient, pectic enzyme, yeast packages, acid blend, Potassium Metabisulfite (kills off wild yeasts), and Potassium Sorbate (halts yeast growth).
  • Wine Thief – This is a tube you lower into your carboy, cover the top (like a straw) and out comes about 25 ml of wine to taste or test. Very inexpensive and very useful.
  • Vinometer – This little thing is also inexpensive, but I really like having it. When your wine is done fermenting and all the sugar is gone, you put in a few drops of wine until it starts dripping out the bottom, then turn it upside down. You can read directly the alcohol content of your wine.

See, that wasn’t so bad. All of that together is probably about $200, and now you are in serious winemaking mode.

What toys did I miss?  Post your suggestions.

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