How to Make Wine at Home

A Beginner's Guide

Wine happens.  It is the natural fermentation of fruit. When yeast on fruit breaks down its sugar, it creates carbon dioxide and alcohol. 

Loosely speaking, wine can be made from strawberries, blueberries, dandelions, and really, anything that ferments.

But when people speak of wine, they are usually speaking of wine made from fermented grapes.

Because fermentation is a natural process, wine is as old as civilization itself.  A winery has been unearthed in the oldest civilization yet discovered, Old Armenia, whose merry citizens were partaking in 4100 B.C. 

Wine is pretty easy to make.  You may recall the story of JC turning water into wine at the behest of his mother when the alcohol ran out at a particularly jubilant wedding.  Absent wizardry, it does require more than an instant for the juice to separate from its crushed skin and to settle, for the sugar to turn into alcohol and for the flavors to gently resolve into a savory drink.  You will need to invest a touch more time and attention to detail than JC evidently needed before you can be confident that your dinner guests will appreciate your offering.

What kind of wine can I make?

Well, what kind of wine do you like?  That’s what you should make!  

Red and white wines are all made from three basic groups of grapes: European grapes, or vitis vinifera; native grapes, meaning those that grow in nature around you; and hybrids, which are a cross between the two, meaning essentially that one parent is a vitis vinifera and one is a native.

How do I know what wine grapes are best?

Foxgrapes grow wild in my neck of the woods and a lot of folks grow Concords on trellises in their yards.  The flavor of foxgrapes cannot be tamed and concords in my estimation make better grape juice than wine.  The upside of course to native plants is that they are resistant to the pests and mildews that plague the more delicate vitis vinifera, but they have sharp flavors and pungent aromas and do not usually make a smooth wine.

The names you recognize from the wine store: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, to name a few are vitis vinifera which have been cultivated for thousands of years. 

Not long ago something really bad happened which almost destroyed all of the vitis vinifera across Europe.  During America’s colonial years, folks brought these grapevines to America to try to grow.  Likewise, visiting Europeans took home native American grapevines. 

Unfortunately, the soil clinging to the American grapevines was home to an local pest, the phylloxera.  With no local predators, the invasive species quickly spread, chewing through the roots of the vitis vinifera and destroying seventy percent of the vineyards in Europe in no time flat. 

To save the vitis vinifera growers cloned, that is they attached the upper part of the vine to a resistant American root, and that is how it is grown today.  When you order a grapevine, you will select the grape and can also sometimes choose the rootstock you feel will grow best in your soil.

Most vitis vinifera like abundant sunlight, long, dry summers and sandy soil, which obviously does not exist everywhere.  They can be difficult to grow in wet climates where they are susceptible to molds or chilly climates where winter winds freeze and kill them. 

That being said, you will find heartfelt testimonials of tough-love winemakers who swear that clay or chalky soil is preferable as they compel the vines to struggle, imparting a heartier flavor to its fruit.

Hybrids combine the best of both worlds, the hardiness of native grapes and the flavor of the vitis vinifera.  New varieties are becoming increasingly available.  You might recognize Marachel Foch, Chambourcin or Vignoles. 

Find the grapes you like best.  Do you like a light fruity wine or a dry heady wine? You may not be able to secure the exact kind of grape you want in a given year, but you can probably find a similar alternative and you can combine a couple. 

In time you may even decide to grow your favorite grapes.  I prefer organic grapes or better yet, grapes grown biodynamically.  These are not very easy to find and that is another good reason to grow your own. 

If you take one look at the seasonal spraying schedule published by any one of the university agricultural departments for the quantity and frequency of toxic chemicals recommended for controlling pests and mildews, you too may be more particular about which wines you imbibe.

Procuring wine grapes

It is much easier to procure wine grapes than in the past.  If you live near a vineyard, wander over and ask if they have any extra they’d consider selling you. 

You can also inquire at your local wine and home brew store if you live in a mid-size town.

You can try a local wholesale producer if you live in a metropolitan area. 

Too, you can simply search “wine grapes for sale” on the internet.  Grapes from California are available in early autumn and grapes from South America are available in Spring.

How much do I need? The easiest vessels to store it in are five or six-gallon glass carboys (jugs).  One gallon of wine requires about 16 pounds of grapes. 

You will leave some room for fermentation, but some will evaporate as well and you will want to replace it, so go ahead and buy 100 pounds. 

If you can, it might be interesting to order 50 pounds each of a vitis vinifera and a hybrid variety you can blend.  Creating sensational flavors is a good deal of the fun.

What are you talking about?

Winemakers have their own language and freely toss about phrases you may never have heard.  Don’t be intimidated.  It is far simpler than it sounds. 

For example, a primary fermenter can be just a plastic bucket.  Lees are just sediment.  Must is floating grape skins. Here are a few more common terms:

Bung: A bung is a rubber stopper to close up the jug.  Ideally it has a hole drilled in it for a fermentation lock.  Even more ideally, it has a sparkling clean double fermentation lock in it that lets bubbles out without letting extra air in.

Campden tablets: A sterilizing agent so that wild yeasts don’t destroy your wine.

Carboys: Big jugs.

Fermentation lock:  There are a few different kinds. I often chip or lose the caps on the small vertical plastic ones and I like the geometry of the double ones a little better. 

Hydrometer:  An instrument that measures the specific gravity or density of the liquid compared to the density of water.  This means that it is measuring the sugar in the liquid. 

This is significant to a winemaker because the sugar turns into alcohol and you want to keep your eye on that process.

Lees: This is just another name for the stuff that filters out of the must.  It has tiny seeds, pieces of grape skin, dead yeast and other things that were part of the grape’s ecosystem and won’t completely dissolve.

Must:  Definitely not as bad as it sounds.  It’s not as though you must do something.  Must happens on its own. 

When the yeast starts bubbling away, filling your home with the aroma of baking bread and happily turning the sweetness of summer into alcohol, the gas bubbles push as many grape skins as it can to the top of the juice.  This layer is called the must.  If you don’t push them down, they will become stagnant and attract microorganisms.  So you punch it down below the surface and mix it back in with a long spoon every so often over the few days it’s in your primary fermenter.. 

It’s also called the Cap.

Pips: What you get on your toes from stomping grapes.  Psych! It really means grape seeds.

Primary Fermenter:  The first vessel the crushed grapes are out in for fermentation.

Secondary Fermenter or third or fourth: Depending how many times you rack your wine.  It is the next vessel you have transferred your wine into so that it is free of the old sediment that has gathered and can set about dropping out a new layer of sediment to be removed later.

Sediment: See Lees.

Top off the Head:   In winemaking, this means to add wine to a fermentation or storage vessel so that the liquid stays near the top of the container and excess oxygen is not allowed to contaminate it.

Rack:  Probably not what you are thinking.  This means to remove the sediment from the wine.

Specific Gravity: The density of the wine juice compared to water, in essence, how much sugar is in it at any given time.

If this short list of new terms is only whetting your appetite and you are thinking that adding a dash of the oenophile might splash an appealing edge to your life, there is an entire language out there just for you.  Peruse a glossary of winemaking terms for possibilities.  You can regale your drinking pals with a chilling story of an acetobacter haunting your wine cellar.  Another night you might share a cigar and discuss the Solera system.  At least you will only be talked about as wine snob rather than a wine nerd, which is in actuality just as appropriate.

Equipment and Supplies

The processes for making red and white wines differ a bit because different results are being sought. 

A red wine is generally more full-bodied. Its more robust flavor can benefit from the acidic tannins in grape stems and its ruby color deepens when it is fermented with its purple-red skins.  

White wine is generally more delicate and the flavor imparted from the stems would add an unwanted bitterness. Its skins are light and do not add significant color.  Accordingly, neither stems nor skins are included in fermentation. 

The grapes also prefer cooler temperatures that require refrigeration. You might seek a more precise filtration process (than a mesh bag and siphon) as the clarity, or lack thereof is more readily apparent in a clear liquid in a clear bottle.

The process for making specialty wines like, port, champagne or sherry are a bit more complex. 

This article is written for the enthusiast who is experimenting with wine-making for the first time.

Red wine is a bit simpler and requires less precision than white wine to make, so let’s start with a red wine.

You can buy all kinds of equipment to make things easier. Visit a modern winery and listen to the hum of the huge polished steel wine presses. Once you have made your first batch of fine wine, you may become interested in further refining your techniques. 

You will want a crusher and a presser if you don’t have a troupe of barefoot merrymakers about. 

At some point you may want a more advanced filtration system and oak barrels.  Many a winter evening can be passed reading about the history of barrel making and the different types of wood preferred by professional vintners.

Perhaps you will even hang out in your own laboratory blending different varieties, but for now, let’s start out with a minimal investment and make five or six gallons.

For the first time, here is what I recommend buying:

A plastic food grade pail that holds at least seven gallons.  You will not use the lid at the initial fermentation stage, but a pail with a lid that accepts an airlock can come in handy in a pinch to hold extra juice.

You will need only a thin towel to cover your pail as you want gas to be able to escape, but it does need to completely cover it.

A 5 or a 6-gallon glass carboy. 

I’ve always used a five-gallon carboy and that’s just about as heavy as I want anything to be.  But you may be stronger than me and feel that if you are going to the effort of making five, you may as well make six. 

If you want to buy your supplies separately, rather than buy a starter kit, you can buy a five or six-gallon glass carboy at any winemaking store or easily find one online.

If to start out with, you buy a kit with a carboy, at some point you will want another. It is simpler to have an extra carboy for racking the wine. Otherwise, you have to transfer it to a pail and then back to your carboy after the sediment is cleared. I’m not a big fan of plastic, so the less time my wine comes in contact with it, the better.

If you have an extra, you can just let the wine continue to ferment in that one. But for the first time, it’s probably good to get the extra experience of racking from one vessel to another anyway.  Racking is simply lifting the wine juice away from tis sediment, clarifying it.
You will need a rubber stopper (bung) with a hole drilled through it for an air lock, and the air lock itself, sometimes called a fermentation lock.   The bung should be the right size to fit in the mouth of your carboy.
You will need four to ten feet of 5/16 inch clear food grade siphon hose with a small plastic shut-off clamp so that you don’t have to worry about not squeezing it tight enough and spilling wine all over the room as you move from bottle to bottle. You will need a 5/16 inch auto siphon, which is a hard plastic tube to which you attach the flexible siphon hose.  The auto siphon has a small filter at its bottom to prevent sediment from sucking into the siphon.  You will rest it near the bottom of the fermentation pail a safe distance above the line of sediment so you don’t suck the sediment up.
You will also need a brush to clean out the carboy, an eight-inch diameter funnel that fits into the mouth of your carboy, a thermometer that floats to so you can make sure the juice does not get too hot or cold for the yeast, and a hydrometer with its own test jar which measures the sugar and alcohol content.
Do the math and compare equipment from different companies but it is generally economical to buy a starter kit.  Remember that you will still need a brush to clean the carboy and an eight-inch diameter funnel.
You will need a sterile muslin or other open weave cloth or other mesh straining bag to place in the funnel to collect the grapeskins.  Then you can squeeze the grape skins for more juice before taking them out, dripping across the floor and outside to your compost pile.
A test jar for the hydrometer, which simplifies matters.  That way you can take a sample of juice from your fermenter (pail) and read it more easily and accurately to find the specific gravity than trying to read it in the bucket among the floating grape skins.

Whether you buy the kit or not, you will also need the following:
A sterilizer of potassium metabisulfite, available in one-pound bags or in pill form as mentioned above called Campden tablets.

You need wine yeast.  A decent all-purpose yeast is Montrachet Red Star yeast created by the University of Davis, renowned for its viticulture research.

You might also want a yeast starter, nutrients the yeast likes, to encourage the fermentation process.  You can get a jar inexpensively at a winemaking supply store.

Civilizations probably handed down wine yeasts they cultured to produce reliably good wine. The rate of fermentation and the flavor that results are related to the qualities of the yeast.

If you find yeast you are particularly fond of, you could culture it and use it the next time.  However, it is easy and inexpensive to buy a packet of wine yeast to make five or six gallons of the wine you like. 

Enologists are working on creating new strains as you are reading this: strains that remove histamines from grapes that give many people headaches, strains that slow fermentation time and strains that specifically complement the characteristics of a specific variety.

Yeasts will die if temperatures become too high and will go dormant if too cold, so keep your fermenter covered in a quiet, temperate darkish room.  Yeast only grows between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit and thrives between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

You will need a long spoon, a corker, corks and wine bottles.
Drink a lot of wine to determine what you like best.  And save the empty bottles.  Just be sure to run them through the dishwasher or wash them thoroughly, rinsing with boiling water.  Then store them in a clean, dry place and wash them thoroughly again before you bottle.  You will need 25 bottles for six gallons. 
The Egyptians and Greeks carried and stored their wine in clay vessels called amphorae.  These vessels resemble modern day wine bottles for good reason.

The narrow neck minimizes the amount of oxygen that can flow into it, shouldered bottles are used to keep any sediment from pouring into the glass with only a slight tilt, and a concave bottom can easily collect sediment that settles out from the wine during its storage.
The amphora were easy to carry.  Picture the maidens in the long white tunics and gold sashes arriving at the party with a curved pot on her shoulder.  That’s what I’m talking about.
If you want to make special labels, just do a little research and you are sure to find an option to please.  You should at minimum, note somewhere the grape and year of your production. 
Until you are at the stage where you are storing your wine in oak casks, you should probably drink your red wine between one and two years old and your white wine, even younger.  You might save a bottle or two to see how they age and how your corks hold up.
You should have a couple five-pound bags of sugar on hand.  Sugar is what feeds the wine yeast so that it makes alcohol.  If there is not enough sugar for the yeast, there will not be enough alcohol in the wine. 
Become familiar with a hydrometer, which measures the specific gravity or sugar content so you can see where your wine is headed and make any necessary adjustments.  For more in-depth information on alcohol and sugar, you can find helpful articles on winemaking supply websites.
For your purposes now, just know that you are aiming for an alcohol content of between nine and fourteen percent. Expect to be on the higher end for red wines and the lower end for whites.
You might want to buy an acid blend for a few more bucks or you can just squeeze in a lemon if you need a bit more acid.

Important Basics

Cleanliness is next to godliness.  It’s true.

All of your equipment must be squeaky clean, that is, as close to sterile as you can get it.

Stray microorganisms from wild yeasts, molds and bacteria can seriously mess with the fermentation and cause your wine to turn to vinegar in an afternoon.  Wild is wild.  There are 1500 strains of invisible wild yeasts lurking about.  If your wine turns to vinegar, well, you can still use it to strip old paint or varnish from furniture.

Do not use chlorine bleach to clean your equipment as its residue may also kill the good wine yeast.

Wash your vessels and siphon and everything else you are going to get anywhere near the wine, with plain old Seventh Generation dish soap, or whatever you usually use and then rinse it very well with hot water and potassium metabisulfate.

You will be adding a pinch to the wine at the beginning of the fermentation process anyway, and it’s cheap, so there is no reason not to have a pound of this crystalline powder on hand and use it for all of your sterilization needs.

Oxygen will destroy your wine.

Oxygen affects fruit as soon as it is exposed to air.  Think of how once the protective skin of an apple has been peeled, in a very short period of time it turns brown and mushy and its flavor is off.  The same thing happens to grapes. 

Oxygen is not a huge concern at the beginning of the fermentation process when the must appears to be bubbling because the carbon dioxide is pushing most of the oxygen away.

The initial fermentation will be done in your pail.  If you don’t have one with a lid, you can simply cover the top with a thin towel to keep out flies and curious children.  For the first 24 hours after you have added the potassium metabisulfite and before you have added the yeast, it is especially important that the gas can escape. You will be removing the towel at least once a day to punch down the must, stir the juice, check the temperature and measure the specific gravity. Once fermentation slows though, it becomes more important to reduce exposure of the wine to air.  This is when you will transfer it to a vessel with a smaller headspace, that is, your glass carboy jug and plug it with a fermentation lock which allows the carbon dioxide to escape, but does not allow oxygen to enter. 

Light and heat encourage oxidation.  That is the reason wine is usually aged in colored glass bottles to shield it from excess sunlight and stored in cool places, like a wine cellar.

As mentioned before, there are also airborne microorganisms that can turn your wine to vinegar in short order.  And fruit flies will appear out of thin air bearing lethal bacteria on their tiny feet. In sum, you need to be vigilant during initial fermentation.

Racking is just a fancy word for removing the sediment that collects as the skins and debris separate out of the juice and drop to the bottom of the carboy.  You can see the clarity and the sediment in the glass carboy and decide when you want to rack. 

It is important to not jostle the carboy and just let the sediment fall.  Then take the siphon, placing it far enough above the sediment that it won’t suck it up and then siphon the clear liquid to the second sterile vessel. 

If you don’t have a second carboy, transfer it to the clean bucket, clean the sediment out of your carboy, clean it thoroughly and siphon the juice back in to continue fermentation and settling. 

The second fermentation stage can last up to seven months, so if you are gentle and inclined to do so, you can rack it a few times before you bottle your wine.

After the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed and placed in the primary fermenter, add a couple pinches of potassium metabisulfite.  It will kill the wild yeasts. Wait 24 hours before adding yeast or it will kill your wine yeast.

The packet can be sprinkled on top of the must and gently stirred in. Most packets are for five gallons.

Acid blend – To add or not to add?

If you have a scientific bent and want to measure and control the amount of acid in your wine, you can buy pH strips or a wine titration kit that can advise exactly how much acid you want to add. 

There is an abundance of information about acidity in winemaking to guide you.

A wine’s acidity obviously affects its flavor and professional winemakers who produce large quantities must measure the acid levels so that they are not selling wine that makes your lips pucker and your eyes roll at the first sip.  

But for your first batch of five or six gallons, just add a pinch of acid blend or squeeze a fresh lemon at the end of fermentation to increase the acid to a desirable level.

Wine is good for you.

In Cato’s book on homesteading practices written around 160 BC, the oldest surviving book of Latin prose, he recommends planting a vineyard.  Dionysius and Bacchus were worshipped as gods of wine.  In recent years, California has upped its game in wine production and other states are following suit production, as its popularity has grown in the United States. 

A plethora of articles on the health benefits of regularly drinking moderate amounts of wine have been published recently in popular magazines and even in scientific journals.  Food and Wine magazine recently ran an article citing scientific studies indicating that wine promotes longevity, reduces the risk of heart attack and heart disease, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, lowers the risk of having strokes and of getting cataracts, cuts the risk of colon cancer and slows the decline of brain function. 

Let’s Do It!

You’ve cleaned your equipment, you’ve got your grapes, now let’s get to work.

1. De-stem and crush your grapes.  Yes, there is lovely equipment to do this, but you don’t have it yet, so have some friends over. 

Wash your hands, try to get 90% of the stems out and then crush the grapes.  If you are going for an old-fashioned grape-stomping, make sure feet are clean and remember things can get slippery.

2. Throw the grapes into your primary fermenter (plastic pail) and test the sugar content with your hydrometer. 

Adjust the specific gravity to 1.095 by adding water if necessary.

If you have decided to measure the acid content, adjust the acid to .65% by adding acid blend or freshly squeezed lemon juice.

3. Dissolve a pinch (1/3 ounce) of potassium metabisulfite in a small bit of water and add to the fermenter.

4. Check the temperature of the must.  Remember it should be between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. 

If it’s over 80 degrees, lower a tightly-sealed bag of cracked ice into the fermenter until it cools and if it’s too cold, increase the heat in the room.

5.  If you are going to add yeast starter, do it now.  Cover the fermenter with a thin towel.

6. After 24 hours when the temperature is around 75 degrees, add the yeast.  Stir in gently.

7. When the cap forms, that is when the grape skins have bubbled to the top and formed a bit of a ceiling, punch it down.  Stir the skins back into the mix.  This will help keep the microbial levels down and the skins will deepen the color of the wine.

8.  Punch the cap down at least daily and keep an eye on the temperature as it will heat up and could get so hot that it kills the yeast.

9.  After five or six days, it is time to rack off the free-running wine into a secondary fermenter.  You will need to lift the pail to a higher surface than the carboy. 

Place a funnel in the carboy and a mesh cloth to catch grape skins that come through and funnel into the carboy.  Try not to splash or get extra oxygen into the wine.

Squeeze the juice from the remaining pulp through the mesh.  You want to always keep the carboy at least 7/8 full, so put remaining juice aside under similar conditions to top off the juice in the primary fermenter as its liquid evaporates.

10.  Add a touch of potassium metabisulfite to the fermentation lock and plug the carboy. 

Keep in a safe, quiet place free from temperature changes where it can continue to ferment for five to seven months.

11.  After a few weeks and periodically thereafter, you will want to rack the wine, that is, transfer it from one vessel to another, leaving the sediment behind.  Use the siphon so you can extract the juice out without mixing in the sediment.  Too, there is less chance of oxidation.  

If you have just one carboy, transfer it to the pail, wash out the sediment and return it to your carboy.

12.  After five or seven months, when fermentation has stopped and you are pleased with the clarity, carefully siphon your wine into clean wine bottles.  

Store them on their shoulders in a cool, dark place and drink as you please.