Making wine

Making wine hasn’t exactly changed very much in the last thousand years. Crush any type of fruit or other edible plant to produce juice, sterilize it as best as possible, add yeast, keep air out but vent the CO2, and wait a while. Obviously modern technology has simplified things greatly. Advances in bioscience have made it possible for labs to grow high purity yeast strains at low cost. Virtually any packet of yeast is well under a dollar. Advances in chemistry have trivialized sterilization, with some minor cost reduction. I pay about $18 for a sterilizing concentrate that’s mostly phosphoric acid, probably last about ten batches or so. Aside from the invention of plastic, the rest is pretty similar. Wine is typically stored in a glass carboy during fermentation. This was introduced in Europe in the 1400s, from Persia where it was invented quite a bit earlier. On a commercial level, the wine is aged in a metal or wood cask before being put in a glass container sealed with typically wood. This is also unchanged over the last several hundred years.

Basically the only major change is that some wineries are using plastic corks now, which has mixed reviews. You don’t want to use synthetic corks for red wines in general. Plastic corks also prevent aging. Synthetic corks are complete oxygen barriers, natural cork allows a very small amount of oxygen. The day you open your wine will basically be chemically the same as the day you open it.

Anyways, down to “how to make wine”

Grab a food grade bucket, clean and then use a no-rinse sterilizer. Most folks call the food grade bucket a “primary fermenter”. You use a bucket because this is the stage where you’re adding and mixing the majority of ingredients. Buckets are a lot easier to work with than a carboy, because they have a much larger opener. You could use a glass carboy and a funnel, but it doesn’t have that many advantages. Don’t forget to sterilize the cap as well. Drain. Should take roughly 3-6 minutes, filling with water being the most time. I clean and sterilize all of my equipment before and immediately after using. Makes it significantly easier. If you don’t, or forget, you’ll have to be a lot more diligent in cleaning/sterilizing before the next use. Cleaning carboys with dried out crud can be very problematic, so be very diligent in cleaning them after use.

Add bentonite and some water for removing excessive amounts of protein from white wines and aiding clarifying for red and white wines. Mix well. Pour in grape juice. Top off with water to reach 6 gallons. It might be overkill, but I’d use filtered or bottled water. I’ve used tap water, and it has turned out fine. You want to take a sample with a hydrometer at this point, so that you can determine the relative alcohol content when you are finished. All and all, should take maybe 10 minutes. I try to go slowly so I don’t dump juice, water or implements on unsterilized surfaces. If I do drop a sterilized piece of equipment, I resterilize before use.

Gently sprinkle yeast on the top. I most often use Red Star Premier Cuvee, which come in sealed packets. I try to more or less evenly distribute the yeast on the surface of the grape juice, but it’s not that important. Don’t mix in the yeast. Should take maybe 30 seconds.

Install air lock into the bucket cap. Check the O-ring in the cap to make sure it’s well and uniformly seated. Put cap on bucket. Again, I’m overly paranoid, but I add a very small amount of sterilizing concentrate to the water in the airlock. I’ve heard of people using bleach or vodka. Both would work fine, but I’ll stick with the sterilizing concentrate that is made specifically for homebrewing. Should take a minute or two.

Wait a week. Look at the airlock and if it’s bubbling more often than once every roughly 20 seconds, wait a bit longer. Rack. Racking is transfer liquid to another sterilized vessel, but not transfer sediment in the process. At the first rack, I transfer from my primary fermenter to a glass carboy.

Easiest way to rack is to elevate the container with the liquid and run a sterilized plastic tube between the two. Some people suck start the tube, which I personally don’t. I fill the tube with water prior connecting everything up, and use a plastic squeeze valve (it just clinches the plastic tube) to keep the water from leaking out. Once I have everything nicely rigged up, I release the squeeze valve and gravity takes care of the rest. You want the hose to be near the bottom of the empty container, mixing oxygen into the wine isn’t good. Pay attention to your primary fermenter once the wine is flowing nicely. You want to get as much wine out of the primary fermenter as possible without disturbing the sediment that has collected at the bottom. I’m conservative, and try to stay half an inch from the sediment. But that’s less wine that could be drank later. Everyone makes their tradeoffs. This does take a while, roughly 30 to 40 minutes total.

Wait 14 days. You could rack to another glass carboy at the 7 day marker, but for kit wines follow the directions. Use your own judgment and experiment with smaller batches if you’re making wine from scratch. You should only see roughly one bubble from the airlock every minute. If it’s not that slow, let it ferment longer. Whenever you decide it’s finished, stop the fermentation with metabisulphite and sorbate. Stir vigorously to drive out CO2 for at least two minutes. I use a metal stir rod attached to a drill, and that is a highly recommended practice. Add isinglass clarifier. Top off. I don’t rack at this stage on most wines.

Wait 14 days. Keep an eye on the airlock, and make sure everything is properly sealed. If you’re keeping tabs on it (and you should), the wine will start to clear at the top and gradually work its way down the carboy. At the end of 14 days, give it a good look. If it’s still not clear, wait until it is. Should be a max of 7 additional days.

Take a sample of the finished wine at this point. Use a sterilized wine thief, or sterilized turkey baster. Run it through the hydrometer again to calculate the alcohol content. I usually then consume the sample to verify the wine is actually drinkable. It’ll be a bit rough, but you’ll know in short order if it came out fine or not. If you spew the sample everywhere and immediately start scrubbing out your mouth, your airlock is broken or you messed up on sterilization. No point in bottling a bad batch. Dump it down the drain, try not to cry too much, start over. Pay closer attention next time. If it tastes fine, move on.


Your wine is going to spend the majority of its life in said bottles, so this stage is very critical. If you’re buying new bottles, you just need to give them a quick rinse with sterilizing solution within a couple minutes prior to bottling. If you’re reusing bottles, clean them. A lot. I let the bottles soak in extremely hot soapy water (helps take off the label too) for a bit, drain, rinse, toss in some baking soda and some water, drain, rinse, and then use a sterilizing solution approximately 2-3 minutes prior to bottling. This is kinda annoying and can take a while, but is absolutely critical. If you let your wine sit for a year in a badly sterilized bottle, it’s going to taste very bad. Small mistakes can be very costly. I also dunk my corks in the sterilizing solution prior to corking the bottles.

I sterilize perhaps five or six bottles, line them up, shake out any leftover sterilizing solution just prior to filling. I’m working on a rig to hold the bottles inverted (opening down). After I have one, I’d be a lot more comfy sterilizing all of my bottles and doing them in one go. I’m trying to minimize the time period between sterilization and contact with the open air.

To bottle, spend the extra couple bucks and buy a bottle filling wand. It’s a section of hard plastic tubing with a valve on the end. When it is pressed against something (the bottom of the bottle), it flows. When it is not pressed against something, it doesn’t. Bring the wand straight up and down out of the bottle. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll hit the wand on the lips of the bottle and spill the wine all over the floor. Yea, I still do that on occasion… That’s why I lay down paper towels in advance. You could use a squeeze valve to control the flow, but it’s annoying. I use a squeeze valve as a backup, and clinch it when I’m preparing a new set of bottles.

Once you’ve filled your segment of bottles, use your corker. Repeat until you’re emptied the carboy. You again want to stop just short of disturbing the sediment. This whole bottling process is the most strenuous part and will take a couple hours. Goes a lot faster if you sucker a buddy into helping and specialized equipment (stuff for cleaning the bottles (buy the squeezy thing for shooting sterilizing solution into an upside wine bottle, trust me the guys at the brewing store will know what you mean), bottle tree for holding said bottles, etc etc). Don’t buy all the extra “helper” stuff the first batch, except for the squeezy thing. See how it works doing it by hand, and buy equipment for anything that is extremely annoying/hard.

Leave the bottles standing up for a couple days so the cork can fully expand and create a good seal. After that, turn them on their side so the cork stays moist. If you don’t want to buy specialized wine bottle holders, just put them back into a cardboard wine case, and tape it closed. Wait 30 days (theoretically), drink.

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