It’s Fruit Time

May 9, 2008 at 7:43 pm (Quick Tips, Thoughts, Winemaking) (, , , , )

Stupid title… sorry. However, it is the time of year where I start visiting my local fruit stands. We have a place around Philadelphia called Produce Junction. I have no idea if they are a chain or just local. In this place, you get in line, tell them what you want and they toss the fruit on the counter. Everything is prepackaged. If the fruit is in season, it’s good stuff and it’s cheap. I purchased my black plums there a couple years ago, I think I paid $2 for three pounds. Since each three-pound back is good for a gallon, it was easy to get what I needed for a batch of wine. I probably bought seven bags to have a little extra, then pitted them and threw them in the freezer.

The down-side to this place is the seasonality of the fruit. There were a few short weeks when the plums were really good and really cheap. A few weeks later they weren’t even available. The trick is to be a regular, I often walk out empty handed.

I want to make my plum wine again, it is just magnificent. Check out the recipe and watch your local fruit stands.


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I’m Not a Lush

April 9, 2008 at 6:00 pm (Thoughts, Winemaking) (, )

For some reason, I feel like I have to defend my winemaking tonight.  I probably have no more than a glass or two a week.  Sometimes it’s more like a glass or two a month.  Of course there have been nights where I’ve had too much, but I’m getting to old for that.  I absolutely hate feeling hung over.

This is a hobby for me, just like woodworking and golf.  I enjoy digging in and learning as much as I can about my hobbies.  It’s not to be a know-it-all, it’s because I get joy in feeling accomplished.  I like to learn, I expect to pursue knowledge for the rest of my life.  It’s who I am, it’s what I do.

I think winemaking is loaded with hocus-pocus, and that doesn’t work for me.  The real winemakers are very scientific in their work, but not everybody works that way.  My off-the-boat Italian friend has lots of old wives tales about making wine.  I wish I could remember one right now.

It’s hard to experiment.  For the home winemaker, making five batches of wine from the same juice, but with five different yeasts is not at all practical.  Not to mention the fact that it will take at least six months before you can start evaluating the results.  My scientific training makes me want to try, but it ain’t happening.  So we learn as much as possible and make the best choices.

It comes down to control.  I get to make wine the way I like it.  I make big enough batches to I have what I like available in plenty.  I already have more wine in my basement than I can drink in five years.

It’s okay, I’ll share.

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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 – 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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Quick Tip – Cover Up That Carboy

February 9, 2008 at 7:49 am (Kit Wine, Quick Tips, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , )

Put a T-Shirt over your carboy when you have wine in it.  It will help keep the sunlight off the wine.  If you don’t do this, the color of your wine can fade.  It can also cause the temperature of the wine to move up and down as the wine is heated and cooled by the sunlight.  If you make wine in a dark basement, then never mind.  But my carboy sits in the kitchen or dining room right now, and it gets lots of light every day.  So just as you are told to keep your bottles of wine out of the sun, keeps your really big bottles of wine out of the sun too.

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Quick Tip – Using Raisins in Homemade Wine

February 5, 2008 at 8:07 pm (Quick Tips, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , , , )

There are a number of recipes that call for using raisins to give a homemade fruit wine more body. You pick up the sugars from the raisins and the results are definitely better. I seem to think I used raisins in my Cranberry wine. (I just checked and realized I never posted my cranberry wine recipe. I’ll get that posted soon, I promise.)

Here’s the caution, and I never saw this printed anywhere. The raisins are preserved with SO2. That’s not a bad thing, but you don’t have any way of knowing just how much is in there unless you use a test ampule. When I made the Cranberry wine, there was so much SO2 in my must just from the raisins, that if I had added any on my own, the yeast might not have been able to start fermenting.  I knew this because I used a test ampule to give me a reading on my sulfite levels.  I strongly recommend picking up a pack or two if you are going to be making wine from scratch.

SO2 Titrets
These are available from

The image above is the SO2 titrets, they are a one time use ampule that costs about a buck a piece. I purchased a couple of packages way back, but I don’t use them very often. It would be easy to use two or three per batch of wine. If you are planning on testing your SO2 frequently, look into titration using a starch solution. Again, can help.

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Do you have bubbles in your kit wine?

January 30, 2008 at 8:00 am (Kit Wine, Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , )

When you have a blog here at WordPress, you can see what searches bring people to your site. Almost every day I get somebody to here who is wondering what to do about bubbles in their wine.

My very first batch of kit wine had the same problem. Let’s assume the wine tastes fine, it hasn’t turned bad, it’s just sort of carbonated. There are a couple of ways this can happen:

Patience – or a lack of it. That very first batch seems to take forever, doesn’t it? I know, I remember that feeling. One problem is trying to force the wine to finish quickly. It won’t. You can raise the temperature to make it ferment quicker, but that’s actually a bad idea. Be patient. If it says to give it 10 days to finish, 15 days isn’t going to hurt the wine, but it might help it. On the other hand, only waiting 8 or 9 days could be the cause of the problem. It needs to finish fermenting.

Residual Sugar – Another possibility is that there was unfermented sugar in the wine when you bottled it. Then over time the yeast slowly digested the remaining sugar. This is why you don’t want to rush the process. If you don’t see any bubbles in the wine, it should be done. Check the specific gravity, if it isn’t around 1.000 or lower, you probably still have sugar in there. You might want to add a package of yeast and see if it can restart the fermentation. I’ve never had this problem, but fermentation can stop if you have too much sugar or it got too cold. If there is too much sugar, the yeast will ferment until they get drunk and die. Most wine yeasts can handle up to around 15%, some will go as high as 17%. After that, they just can’t convert any further. If it’s too cold, the yeast may inactivate. My most recent wines were fermented at around 60 degrees C without any problems.

Stir – You know how it says to add the chemicals and then stir for two minutes? Did you only stir vigorously for one minute? Maybe you stirred half-heartedly. Then you had to add the fining agent and stir vigorously once again. I know, your arm hurts, poor baby. Take a break, come back and stir a little more. I stir in one direction, then once it gets going, reverse. Repeat until you stirred for at least the required time.

Rack – When I make homemade wine, I will rack the wine at least once before bottling, even if it is just to a bottling bucket. I believe the racking process releases a lot of the trapped gas. The kits don’t tell you to do this, and I think most starter equipment kits don’t come with a bottling bucket. It’s funny, I’ve never had a problem with gas in my homemade stuff, only kit wine. I’m not sure why. I’m thinking maybe the bentonite traps some of the gas in the pores of the clay. Maybe the multiple rackings releases the gas.

Sweetened? – Is it possible you sweetened the wine with sugar and didn’t add Potassium Sorbate before bottling. You need a half a teaspoon for every gallon of wine, 1 tablespoon for a 6-gallon batch. If you added sugar thinking the yeast has been left at the bottom of the fermenter, think again.

So you have bubbles in your wine and it’s bottled. Open the wine bottle and decant it to something else, let it sit for a few minutes and pour glasses from the decanter. It will help remove most of the bubbles, but it won’t make it perfect.

Drink it and enjoy it, it’s still delicious wine.

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What are Campden Tablets?

January 27, 2008 at 5:44 pm (Thoughts, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , )

Let me start by saying … “Who came up with this?” Okay, I get the idea, it’s the stuff we use to kill wild yeast, but it comes in pill form?!? I find that kind of bizarre and creepy.  This is one totally toxic pill.

Look, Campden tablets are Potassium Metabisulfite, or at least they are supposed to be. Sometimes they are Sodium and not Potassium. Here’s what I recommend. Buy a small jar of Potassium Metabisulfite in powder form. It’s inexpensive ($3) and you can make however much you want at whatever concentration you want.

It’s very hard to control the dosage with a pill, so I make a 2.5% solution by adding 28 grams (approximately 4 teaspons) of powder to one liter of water. I typically make half liter batches, you want the solution to be fresh.  I bought a small jewelers scale on eBay, but you can get them all over the place now for like $12. It’s so much easier to deal with chemicals if you can weigh them accurately.

I have a table that tells me how much of the 2.5% solution to add to get the desired level of sulfites. When I am making my own wine, I will typically add 50 ppm of sulfites to the must.  That means I need 17 ml of 2.5% sulfite solution per gallon, or 100 ml to a 6-gallon batch.  Scale accordingly or email me if you have questions.

I also use the solution in the airlocks.  I once had a problem with mold in the airlock, but that won’t happen if you use the sulfite solution.  Even if the liquid draws back into the wine, it won’t hurt anything.

More on this topic another time.

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Sweetening Homemade Wine

January 22, 2008 at 10:31 pm (Wine Recipes, Winemaking, Winemaking Tips) (, , , , )

Let’s start with the basics.  When your wine is properly fermented, there is no residual sugar.  In other words, all of the sugar, whether it’s from the fruit or the stuff you added, it’s all gone.  Every bit of it has been turned into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and some other stuff we won’t discuss.

So your juice is now wine.  It has been sitting in a carboy for a couple of months and it is beautifully clear.  Time to bottle.  Only you want a wine that is sweet, not dry.  I believe it is a common misconception that you somehow stop fermentation with some sugar left over.  Nope.

Here’s the secret.  We add more sugar.  Yep, that’s it.  You absolutely must also add something to stop the yeast from getting reactivated.  The common chemical for that is Potassium Sorbate.  A 6-gallon batch of wine needs only one tablespoon to inhibit the yeast from partying again once the sugar is added.

So how do you decide how much sugar to add?  It’s basically trial and error.  What you do is make a syrup of 2 cups of sugar to 1 cup of water, heat it until it’s clear, then let it cool a bit (this gives you 500 ml of solution).

Now draw off a 50 ml portion of your wine and start adding sugar solution by the drop.  I do this rather crudely, but basically I’ll add 5 drops and try it, then another 5 and try it again.  You end up with less and less liquid, so once you think you got it right, you might want to try again.  When the taste is where you like it, calculate how much sugar solution you need.  The formula for this is:  (# drops) x (45) = the number of ml of solution for a 6 gallon batch of wine.

I rack the wine to a bottling bucket (a 7 gallon plastic bucket with a stopcock) and mix in the Sorbate and the calculated sugar.  Stir the sugar in well, then bottle.  Give the wine a couple of weeks to recover from bottle shock and give it a try.

Now that you know this, if you are drinking some wine and you think it would be better if it was a bit sweeter, add a little table sugar.  That’s all the winery is doing.  Cheers.

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