It’s harvest time!
For everyone in the wine business, this is the critical moment. Fall marks the end of one very important phase and the beginning of another, as wine moves from vineyard to cellar. It's the busiest and most exciting time of the year.
The vines have given everything they have to give. And now it’s time for the winemakers – and Saccharomyces Cerevisiae – to work their magic, mysteriously transforming these round globes of sweet grape juice into something even more splendid and beautiful.
For those of us who have only been on the receiving end in the business of wine, what happens at harvest and afterward is largely a mystery. We know that grapes ripen; they're picked, crushed, and fermented; and the product is aged, bottled, and shipped at some future point when it's deemed ready for consumption. But what actually happens during that whole process?
This year, for the first time, I'm about to find out – and I hope to share my experience with you.
Home Winemaking 101: Learning from Sacramento Home Winemakers
As part of my journey to launch my new business, I’ve been immersing myself in the food-and-wine scene in Sacramento and Northern California, including learning as much as I can about local restaurants, wineries, and related organizations, such as Slow Food Sacramento.
One of the organizations I discovered is the Sacramento Home Winemakers Club (SHW), which has been around for several decades and is a tremendous resource for those who want to make quality wine at home. It’s also one of the most respected home winemaking clubs anywhere.
I stumbled upon SHW through a Slow Food Sacramento newsletter in early August, and for me it was quite a serendipitous discovery. A brief mention in the newsletter about learning to make zinfandel, followed by an email exchange with the SHW membership coordinator, and I was on my way. Six weeks later, the group I joined is about to go through its first harvest and crush. I couldn’t be more excited.
The zinfandel grapes for this crush come from Amador Cellars near Plymouth, Calif., in Shenandoah Valley, the heart of Amador wine country. The group as a whole is purchasing one ton of grapes, and each novice winemaker will buy about 125 pounds, enough to make five gallons of wine (a little over 2 cases). Home winemaking veterans from SHW will guide us novices through every step of the process, from measuring the pH and brix of the newly crushed grapes to inoculating with yeast, punching down the must, racking, and aging.
Equipment and Costs for Home Winemaking
Between my first email to the membership coordinator until the day of the crush, I’ve been on a journey to absorb as much as possible about winemaking. One of my first steps was a trip to Napa Fermentation Supplies to procure all the necessary equipment and supplies. (NFS is a great resource for both home and professional winemakers.) The list of supplies includes yeast, yeast nutrients, malolactic culture, M/L nutrients, SO2, tartaric acid, floating thermometer, hydrometer, fermenting bucket, fermentation air lock, 5-gal carboy, racking equipment, funnel, brushes, and more. What I haven’t bought yet are bottles and corks, but those won’t be needed for another 18 months.
Altogether I’ve spent about $200. The grapes will cost another $100. Add in 750 ml bottles and other equipment and supplies I could end up needing, and the final cost should be approximately $15 per bottle for this initial batch. It’s not inexpensive, but if I make wine again next year I’ll have most of the equipment I’ll need, and my primary cost will be the grapes and bottles. That should bring the cost down to about $5 to $7 per bottle.
Over the next few months, I will document this process with detailed notes and update this blog with my experiences and lessons learned. I hope you’ll find this little journey of mine interesting enough to inspire you to give winemaking a try next year.