I’ve been dabbling with wine making for about a year now. I’ve never got bitten by the bug the way some folks have, however. They’ll go and buy all the special yeasts and all the containers and testing equipment, etc., and because they’ve done it, well natually they will think that you must do the same. And if you visit one of the snooty wine making forums on the Internet, and mention this lowly method of wine production, they will have a joyous time belittling you and making fun of your feeble cretinous attempts.
But there’s one important thing to keep in mind that these butt plugs are probably not even aware of: the history of wine making. Now, I don’t consider myself to be an authority on the history of wine making, and I don’t need to be either. But a knowledge of certain key facts is always helpful.
Fact number one — for many years it was reasoned that the wines being drunk during, say, the time of Christ, were rather weak, and not very far from grape juice. Baptists especially prefer this interpretation because it fits well with their no-alcohol philosophy. But in more recent years archeologist have take the time and spent the effort on reproducing the ancient methods as closely as they could, and guess what they discovered? Many of these ancient wines were quite high in alcohol content. So, employing “primitve” vintnering techniques can, indeed, result in a very powerful vintage.
Fact number two — these ancient wine-making techniques are amazingly simple. You’ve heard the old expresion, “It’s about as hard as falling off a log?” Well, you ask me, I think falling off a log is harder. Two thousand years ago and earlier — do we even know how much earlier, I wonder? — large quantities of wine were produced using simple vats dug into the ground. The grapes were dumped into these vats, folks danced on them until all the juice was squoze out, and then the grape hulls were removed. And then they just let the juice sit. Open air. No covering or nothing. Sometimes the wine would get covered with silt or other debris. The folks back then didn’t care one way or the other. The important thing to them was to just let the grape juice sit there for the necessary amount of time. And after this allotted time passed, they filled their ancient amphorae with it and all had a snort or two.
The Dirty Little Secret: If you follow the methods I’m about to show you, the wine you make will be perfectly fine. It will taste good, and will have significant percentage by volume of alcohol. I’m so tight I don’t even own a hygrometer yet, so I can’t tell you exactly how much alcohol my wines have, but I would estimate it to be around 12% or so. And yes, 12% in the wine making biz is a respectable number.
To start, you will need the following items: at least one measuring cup, a funnel or something that can be shaped into a funnel, 1 cup of sugar, one 1/2 gallon bottle of 100% grape juice (concord is best), and one small bunch of grapes — 15 or 20 will be sufficient — the frostiest looking you can find.
I will state this again for emphasis: the juice must be 100% juice with no additives or preservatives of any kind! Citric acid or ascorbic acid is OK, it occurs naturally in fruit anyway and won’t hurt the process. Also, resist the urge to choose a juice other than grape for this, your first time. I have found that a mixture of 2 parts grape to 1 part apple juice works well, but I have found that other mixtures don’t work well at all. Like blueberry and pomegranate. Yuechh. Even though it was 100% juice, I think the yeast — which was hanging out on grapes, please recall, and not blueberries or pomegranates — just didn’t know what to do with blueberry or pomegranate juice. It resulted in a wine that had an initial strongly sour taste with a sweet aftertaste. This description sounds better than it tasted, though. There was just something about the more subtle flavors in that mixture that just really turned me off. It was also noticeably lighter in the alcohol department compared to just straight grape wine. So no more blueberry-pomegranate for me.
OK, to start, first, pour a cup (8 oz) of the grape juice into the measuring cup. You can drink the juice, offer it to the gods of wine, I don’t care. It is surplus. Next, rinse and thoroughly dry the measuring cup — or if you have more than one, grab the spare — and fill the cup with regular old granulated sugar. Place the funnel into the opening of the juice container and pour the sugar in. Cap the container and shake well. Continue shaking until all the sugar is disolved and you see no more settling down to the bottom of the bottle. At this point, what you have is supercharged grape juice. It is way sweeter than it ever was or was ever capable of being. But for those little yeasties, it is just right.
Okay, next step, you need to crush those grapes. Do NOT wash the grapes! If you wash the grapes, you will be washing off all the natural wild yeast that has collected all over the exteriors of the grapes. We don’t want that. We need the yeast.
Now, I happen to own a cool old vintage, hand operated, fruit crusher, which is what I use for this step. I think it probably saves me some time over the old, time-worn method, but it isn’t without its own set of hassles. Now if your local Wally World is fresh out of fruit crushers, don’t despair. And don’t go reaching for your Cuisinart, either. We don’t want to be doing any sort of “processing” to these grapes that a food processor will do. It’ll turn the grapes into mush, a thick slurry. That we don’t need. Remember, we’re just after the juice, but by crushing the grapes with their skins on, we are thoroughly mixing the juice with the wild yeast that was collecting on the outsides of the grapes. So, if you don’t have any sort of fancy fruit crushing contraption, then just do it the way it’s been done for thousands of years, except you’re gonna use your fist instead of your feet. Oh and a good sized mixing bowl — that’s all you’ll need. Now, clench your hand into a fist. Harder. I want to see a really hard fist! There ya go. That’s gonna be your pestle and the bowl is your mortar. Dump 15 or 20 of your frostiest grapes into the bowl and Get Busy.
Grapes can be pretty resistant to crushing, so it can end up being more work than you would expect. Nonetheless, we want to keep crushing them until you’ve got roughly two tablespoons of juice from this aggression quenching activity. Go ahead, admit it. Don’t you feel at least a little better now that you got to pound on something for a while? Next we want to separate the juice from the crushed hulls. Actually probably the easiest way to do this is to gather up all the crushed hulls in your hand or hands, and then give them one good squeeze into the bowl before removing them. You know what I do with the crushed hulls? I eat them. I eat them because they will still have quite a bit of juice and grape flavor left. That is, if they are the non-seeded variety. If they have seeds, I just toss them after giving them one good, final squeeze.
So now you have a mixing bowl with about two tablespoons of a cloudy mixture swirling around the bottom. This mixture is positively loaded with wild yeast, which is the key to our grape juice becoming wine. Carefully pour this elixir of the gods into the juice bottle. Cap the bottle and give it another good shake to mix things thoroughly. Set the bottle in a cool dark place and enter that date into your calendar as day one of your new wine-making venture — or should I as adventure?
Now here’s what’s going on inside that juice bottle right now. The wild yeast, which covered the exterior of those grapes and which was trying to find a way to get inside the grapes so it could consume all that sugar, is now in yeast heaven. It is totally surrounded by sweetness, so this wild yeast begins to eat sugar and reproduce like crazy. And as these little yeasties eat sugar, they, in a sense, “shit” alcohol and CO2. It has often been said that yeast proves that there is a God because there is no more perfect organism. It eats sugar and releases alcohol and CO2 — what could possibly be more glorious than that, eh? So anyway, during this fermentation process, you’ll note that as part of the chemical reaction taking place, CO2 is being released. But the bottle is still tightly capped. What should one do to prevent a possible explosion? Well, some folks will take a balloon and poke a couple of tiny holes in it and stretch it over the bottle’s opening. The balloon will partially inflate and stay that way until the majority of the reaction has taken place. That’s fine, in fact I’ve made good wine doing that. But there’s a way that doesn’t involve balloons that works just as well. What I do now is, each day after mixing the wild yeast into the juice, I will unscrew the cap and see if I can detect an out-gushing of gas. If the bottle goes “whoosh!” or maybe “wheesh!” because of its smaller size and all, then this means that fermentation has finally built up a good head of steam, and it’s time to let it run its course. So to facilitate this, we do not screw the cap down tight again. We want those yeasties to get after it and consume as much sugar as they can, as quickly as they can. So we leave the cap just a bit loose so air (actually CO2) can escape. This process will take about three to five days before it’s run its course. This whole process that has just taken place is known as the Primary Fermentation Stage.
It is probably a good idea to pour yourself a small glass of the wine at this point, carefully holding the bottle so you don’t mix up any of the sediments at the bottom — yes sediments, which are mostly dead yeast. Take a sip of the wine. Most likely it will still be quite sweet, but you should also be able to feel the kick from the alcohol. At this point the wine contains probably about 10-12% alcohol by volume (abv). This is also a point where it is usually a good idea to transfer the contents of the juice bottle to another sanitary container of approximately that volume or more. This is done mostly for clarification reasons; when you do the transfer, if you’re careful about it, you will separate the wine from most of the sediment that has collected at the bottom of the container. My favorite container to use for this transfer is an empty 1 gallon jug that used to have distilled water in it. We always have those laying around because of our cat. He easily gets urinary tract infections and one way of preventing them is to see to it that he gets only distilled water. Plus I consider empty but capped distilled water jugs to be naturally sanitary, so I don’t have to do anything extra with them. Obviously if you don’t have empty distilled water containers laying around, then use what you’ve got, but make sure it’s sanitary.
Transferring the contents can be tricky. The easiest way is to siphon it. I use a long tube of clear PVC hose I bought at the hardware store. About 4 feet long and 5/16″ internal diameter is sufficient. Let’s do this in the kitchen so that, if you make a mess, it’ll be easier to clean up. Set the empty sanitary container on the floor next to the kitchen counter, and set the juice bottle on the counter top directly above the empty container. Insert the hose into the juice bottle and push it down as far as it will go. Then, with your mouth at about the same level as the container on the floor, start sucking on that tube. As soon as you see wine come rushing down the tube, drop the hose down into the container. And then just sit back and let flow physics + gravity do their things. Once the liquid is down to about an inch from the bottom of the juice bottle you will likely notice that the liquid has become very cloudy — a muddy brown color. It still tastes fine, it just looks nasty. So usually at this point, I pull the hose out and discard the remaining liquid. If you’re feeling particularly in touch with Mother Earth at this moment, thanks to the gifts she’s given us via such lowly but perfect yeasty creatures, then instead of just dumping the clouded leavings down the drain, you might want to present it as an offering to Mother Earth and spread the leavings around the backyard or something. Cumbaya and all that. Whatever floats your boat.
Now, at this point, you have a perfectly drinkable wine. Its flavor will be rather simple, not having any of the complexity you might be used to with a nice vintage, and it will most likely be rather sweet. But it will have a goodly percentage of alcohol and if all you want to do is tie one on, you need go no further. This vintage will get the job done in that respect.
But if you are willing to be a bit more patient, by allowing secondary fermentation to run its course, you will wind up with a more sophisticated vintage, and, in my opinion, well worth the wait. To enter this stage, first secure the cap tightly to this new container. This last stage is not strictly necessary, but I like to take things all the way to the end and I think you have a better tasting product with even a higher abv once fermentation has finally concluded. This final stage can vary in its length. One week? Maybe two? My most recent one took almost a month. It’s actually rather hard to tell when it’s ended, although one thing’s for sure — if it gives off a hiss of escaping air when you crack open the container, it isn’t finished yet. So, if this happens to you, better to put it back up for a few more days. When it finally gives off no hiss when the bottle is opened, this final stage is complete. You can decant the wine into another container if you want, but it isn’t really necessary. So now, at last, it is time to enjoy.
My experiences have been that this final product is still quite sweet but also packs quite a wallop, not unlike a good Madeira. It should be a medium reddish maroon color, somewhat lighter and more reddish than the raw juice was. Why this is, I haven’t a clue. The wine’s nose I’ve found to be rather simple and not complex. This is, I believe, a result of the grapes that were selected for the juice. I’m sure that their selection is based on a number of factors, all of which are meant to determine consistency from one batch to the next. Whereas wine coming from a winery will have been fermented from varietals, perhaps unique to a region or even a very small geographic area, and these differences will reveal themselves in the nose of a more “sophisticated” wine. Nonetheless, this simple vintage — and it really couldn’t get much simpler — has a surprisingly good flavor and didn’t really require any special techniques or equipment to produce. Indeed it harkens back to the way wine was fermented thousands of years ago, and by all accounts from the ancient literatures, that ancient wine packed quite a wallop as well.
So, give it a try if you’ve a mind to, and enjoy some of the bounty that Nature has provided for us all.