Francis Ford Coppola’s got his own. So does Lorraine Bracco of Soprano’s fame. Mario Andretti too. Ditto for rapper Lil’ Jon. Even noted adult entertainment star Savanna Samson, née Natalie Oliveros, has one. (And apparently it’s very, very good.)
What’s the common thread here? Wine. Or more to the point, the above-noted stars all have their own wine labels. So, why not you?
No reason at all, winemakers say. Though creating one’s own wine label has long been the domain of celebrities and high-powered executives, winemaking has increasingly become a thing for the masses.
“The growth and interest in wine generally over the last decade has really fuelled an interest in winemaking as a hobby,” says Brad Ring, publisher of Winemaker magazine. “With the greater availability of grapes, equipment and information, it’s come on strong as a hobby.”
Ring estimates there are anywhere between 500,000 to 750,000 home winemakers in America today, based on sales of wine grapes and the equipment necessary to turn them into wine.
Want to join them? Read on to learn how.
GET YOUR SUPPLIES TOGETHER
The easiest way to ensure that you have everything you need is to buy a home winemaking kit for a few hundred dollars. But basically, you’ll need the following: several five-gallon carboys or buckets for making and storing the wine (a few will need to have air locks to allow gas to escape during fermentation); a destemmer; a winepress; a hydrometer to take sugar/alcohol readings; an acid-level tester (optional); a straining bag or siphoning hose; and finally, some bottles, corks and a corker. Make sure that all your supplies are sterile before you start.
GET SOME GRAPES
Five gallons is the typical batch for the home winemaker because it renders about two cases of finished product (24 bottles) and the containers, while large, are still manageable. To get started, procure enough grapes to make six gallons as the process requires adding juice as you go. All told, you’ll need about fifty pounds-worth, depending on the grape. Grapes for winemaking are readily available these days: buy California Cabernet Sauvignon in the fall and Malbec grapes from South America in the spring. Winemaking supply stores also sell bottled grape juice specifically for home winemaking.
MAKE GRAPE JUICE
If you purchased ready-made juice or concentrate from a supply store (which some experts recommend for the first go-round), skip this step. If you have a whole lot of grapes on your hands, then time to get your hands (and feet) dirty. Or put that winepress to work. Note that red wine grapes, unlike white grapes, should be fermented with their skins for a few days before pressing.
PREPARE THE JUICE
Once you’ve got your basic juice, it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts of this ancient process. If you have an acid-level tester, use it first to determine if your juice needs some water. Next, use your hydrometer to take a sugar-content reading of your juice. Hydrometers have "potential alcohol" scales, which tell you how much alcohol can be made with the sugars in the juice. You’re shooting for somewhere between 9% and 13%. If you’re below that, you’ll need to add sugar until the hydrometer reading is within that range.
FERMENT THE JUICE
This is the fun part, where you turn your juice—which is typically called a must at this point—into booze. The must should be in an open container of some kind, filled not much more than half-way, as it bubbles considerably during the fermentation process. Add yeast nutrient, pectic enzyme and potassium bisulfite. The first is an energy source for the yeast, the second helps the clarification of the wine and the third kills any bacteria or molds in the must. Wait 24 hours while the potassium bisulfite does its thing (add yeast before that and it’ll be killed as well). Now sprinkle yeast into the must (one package per five gallons) and watch the fun begin. The must will start bubbling—caused by the yeast eating sugar—about 12 hours into the process. Keep the must lightly covered with a cloth and stir with a paddle daily.
FERMENT IT AGAIN
After five or six days of fermentation, transfer the must into a clean bucket or vessel equipped with an air lock. If you’re making red wine, press your grapes at this point. Either way, make sure you leave sediment in the first bucket. The so-called secondary fermentation doesn’t actually require adding more yeast. The yeast already in there will continue working in the new container. Once the fermenting has come to an end—the hydrometer will tell you when that happens—and you’re done. Or, almost. The wine will be “clearing” at this point, which means that sediment separated from the liquid needs to be removed. The clearing process can take weeks or even months, so be patient!
STRAIN, BOTTLE AND LABEL
Once the wine is clear, it’s time to bottle. While not a necessary step, you may want to strain the wine at this point to free it of any remaining sediment. Then, siphon it into a bottle, cork it and store in a cool, dry place. How long you let your wine age depends entirely on you. But if you’re going to let those bottles sit for a while, take the time to design and print some labels for them. After all, you can’t boast about having your own wine label without them!
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