Decisions, Decisions: Winemaking

Before I could make Z Line Vermouth, I needed wine (vermouth’s base ingredient).

Though a total novice, I hoped to make the wine myself. My friend Sam is a fourth generation farmer who has started growing chardonnay grapes under contract in the last five years.  Sam graciously allowed me to harvest 100 pounds of grapes for this project, which we harvested overnight to collect them at a cool temperature.  The next morning, I began turning those grapes into wine.

There are recipes and instructions for winemaking aplenty, but there is no one right way to make wine. At each step in the process, the vintner (however amateur) must make decisions about how to proceed. Each of these decisions is a fork in the road on the way from grapes to wine.  There are many possible paths to a good bottle — but also quite a few cliffs, sinkholes, and dead ends.

The path a winemaker may choose depends on so many things, from their values,  to their resources, experience, traditions, finances, autonomy, community, location, materials, history, taste…it’s dizzying to contemplate.

My guidelines for making this wine were, in my view, most prominently:

  • a tight-ish budget. I bought bottles, corks, yeast, and gas to and from the farm, but most of the equipment I borrowed from my father-in-law’s homebrewing supplies. I wasn’t in a financial position to purchase or pay to rent any more equipment, so I had to cut corners and get creative.
  • a desire to let the grapes speak for themselves. Making the wine taste “delicious” was not a priority for me – I can purchase plenty of delicious wine anywhere, at any time. I wanted wine that tasted like this project, that didn’t try to make the grapes into something they are not. I was wary of ingredients that felt more like ‘chemicals’ than ingredients.
  • advice, recipes and instructions from free sources. I followed the advice of home winemaking books from the Contra Costa Public Library and the free instructions online from MoreBeer!MoreWine!. Employees at the Concord location of MoreBeer!MoreWine! were also very generous in sharing advice and wisdom from their own experience.
  • having vermouth as an end goal. This was, after all, going to be turned into vermouth, so I wanted a wine that was acidic, dry (so I could control the sweetness), fruity, but not too funky or flavorful.

Let me lead you down the path I took, choice by choice, from golden grapes to crisp wine.

How to Extract the Juice

Sweet-sour juice dwelled in the clusters of grapes we clipped from the vine – but how to get it out? There seemed to be an infinite array of possibilities for even this first decision:

Take the grapes off the stems, or leave them on?

Leaving the stems on might add a grassy-ness to the juice, a bitter and potentially abrasive herbaceousness.  I didn’t feel confident in my ability to control this flavor, so I brought the grapes to MoreBeer!MoreWine! (my local home beer and winemaking shop) to borrow their crusher destemmer. This machine removes the grapes from the stem and begins the crushing process.

What about skin contact?

Though it might sound salacious, skin contact is the platonic practice of leaving the grape skins in the juice to ferment. This can impart a deeper flavor, with more “varietal characteristics,” but as I was making wine to serve as a base for vermouth, I wanted to keep the wine flavors clean and subtle, so I pressed the juice out from the grapes right away.

Press the juice out by foot, hand, or machine?

My budget was quite low for this project, so I couldn’t rationalize paying for a press. My partner and I crushed the grapes by hand (I was dubious I could sanitize my feet enough to not feel squeamish) and squeezed out as much juice as we could in a fine mesh bag. This was a physically grueling means of extracting juice. We only got 5 gallons from 100 pounds of grapes – a press could have extracted far more, though the harder one presses grapes to extract the juice, the more bitter and tannic the juice is liable to be, so I have no regrets. And 5 gallons was quite a lot of wine!

Next year, I’m hoping to take a more bucolic approach to this phase – crushing the grapes by foot and extracting the juice with a rented wood basket press.

To S02? Or not to S02?

Grapes, when harvested, are dirty. They have been outside their whole lives, and never once taken a shower. Bacteria (and more) get pressed into the fermenter right along with the juice, and most home winemaking manuals warn that these microbes will be competing for ‘food’ with the yeast that turn the juice into wine, jeopardizing the wine’s development. These sources often recommended adding S02 (sulfites) at several stages of the wine making process to ‘clean the slate’ – clearing out any bacteria or yeasts that aren’t lab-grown paragons of wine production.

MoreBeer!MoreWine! manuals go so far as to warn: “wild yeasts and bacteria are usually the enemies of delicious wines.” But, I wondered, how could this be? Wild yeasts have made alcoholic beverages for millennia – it is only very recently that non-wild yeast even exists! I cringed at the thought of adding a harsh white powder to my wine, of treating wild yeast as the enemy. But I was also terrified of spoiled wine. If this batch of wine didn’t turn out, I would have to wait a full year for the next grape harvest to try again.

I decided to clench my jaw and add a small amount of S02 just after pressing the grapes, but then I disregarded the advice to add more at every subsequent stage of winemaking, knowing that this decision made my wine less stable and more vulnerable to spoilage or off flavors. I would have to remain vigilant in smelling and tasting the wine, staying on the alert for sulfuric flavors that would indicate something had gone awry.

Filtering and Yeast

Should I filter the juice and feed the yeast? 

Once the juice was pressed, it was cloudy with grape matter. Some recipes recommend filtering away all those floating particles, and to add in ‘yeast food’ to support healthy yeast. Exasperated, I refused to pay to remove nutrients that would support a healthy yeast colony, and then to pay to put lab-grown variants of those nutrients back in. I skipped the recommended steps of filtering and adding yeast food – hoping my yeast would find nourishment in grape-y goodness and accepting cloudiness not as a flaw but as a part of the process.

Should I add flavors or compounds?

Some winemakers add sugar or tartaric acid (or a host of other compounds) to balance the sweet and acidic flavors of the wine, to ensure a successful fermentation, and to direct the wine to a particular flavor profile. I did not add sugar, acid or any additives to the juice, choosing instead to let the grapes sing with their own voice, whatever that timbre may be. (This would be considered risky in the eyes of many home winemaking manuals!)

What to do about yeast?

Though I wished to experiment with wild fermented wine, I chose to play it safe for my first batch and add a purchased wine yeast. I selected a Pinot Grigio yeast to balance out the chardonnay grapes, hoping for a neutral-tasting white wine. Stirring in the 5 grams of yeast, I whispered a fervent prayer that the yeasts would enjoy the grape juice and survive long enough to make a delicious wine.


How can I best chaperone the yeasts as they work? 

As the wine fermented over the next weeks, the yeast ate the sugar in the juice and transformed it to alcohol. I watched them swim around the fermenter, the airlock bubbling away, releasing gases emitted by the hard-working yeast. I stirred the mixture every third day or so (a nearly random choice – some guides said to stir daily, others warned not to stir at all), hoping to help the yeast find the remaining sugars and giving any sulfuric smells (warning signs!) a chance to let me know something was wrong.

One day, the airlock stopped burbling. I grew panicky at what this might mean. It was far too early for the fermentation to be complete. Had the yeast died because they ran out of food? Had the honestly quite warm California room temperature killed them? (My budget had not stretched to cover a temperature-controlled fermenter).  Fearing the worst, I opened the fermenter and was hit with a decidedly wine-y smell.  Not grape-y, not yeast-y. WINE. I poured a small glass and sipped, my heart beating out of my chest.

Reader, it was divine. Crisp, fruity, tart. I knew I had succeeded.

The wine was dry enough that I knew the yeast had not died prematurely – they had eaten all the sugar and turned it into alcohol. The warm fermentation temperature, a risk, had luckily not ruined my wine but it had certainly sped up the process.

The little yeasts, their work complete, now lay dead on the bottom of the fermenter. But before they expired, they gave me an incredible gift – a truly scrumptious wine.

The End?

The end of fermentation is just the beginning of winemaking (usually). Wine is aged, often for months, to foster polymerization: when molecules join up to form larger and larger molecules, developing increasingly complex flavors.

I chose to skip aging and turn my wine into vermouth straight away for three reasons:

  1. I did not want to add any more S02, but without it, the wine was not definitively stable. I couldn’t be sure the wine, perfectly delicious out of the fermenter, would not spoil in the months following: good turned bad in pursuit of great.
  2. I would be adding botanical tinctures and honey to this wine to create vermouth, so I didn’t need to build up increasingly complex flavors at this stage to be assured of a tasty and nuanced final product.
  3. I was impatient.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

My approach to winemaking was certainly atypical, and I expect most professional winemakers would shudder at the decisions I made along the way. At each fork in the road, I tried to balance my ideals of winemaking with minimized risk, within the circumstances I found myself at the time. I’m lucky that the wine turned out delicious, and that Z Line Vermouth was such a success. I’m still mulling over what decisions I will make next time around — Cheers! to next year’s batch!


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Teri Romanek says:

    Thank you for another fine culinary journey!

    Liked by 1 person

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