Wine making 101

Wine making sounds intimidating. If you go to a store where they sell brewing and wine making equipment, it seems even more complicated than you originally thought. It makes you wonder: How did they make wine before all the fancy-pants equipment and ingredients became available? Easy. The trick is finding fruit that has NOT been treated with any chemicals or pesticides (easier said than done if you usually go to the grocery store for your produce). Fruits you’ve grown yourself or get from a friend’s yard are the best way to go. Commercially grown organic fruit might work, but I haven’t tried it myself. And you need something that has NOT been washed. Read on to find out why!

The absolute easiest way to make wine is:

  • Mash fruit
  • Add sugar (and water if needed)
  • Stir vigorously several times per day
  • When the bubbling slows, strain your liquid and put it in a carboy
  • Wait.
  • Wine!

Sounds simple, right? It is! Obviously things can go wrong, but things can go wrong making wine the “normal” way, and that costs an insane amount of money to get everything you “need.” I bought a 2 gallon plastic bucket, a 1 gallon glass jug (called a carboy), and a short length of tubing to siphon it into my wine bottles when it’s done. I spent under $10, and can make as much wine as I want. No extra ingredients to buy, no fancy chemicals needed.

Mash up your fruit in a clean, food-grade bucket. Get in there with your hands, and really squeeze. Grapes and cherries are what I’ve used so far, and squishing them in your hands is….strangely satisfying, a little slimy, and a lot of fun. You want to crush up every. single. piece. Anything left whole isn’t going to add anything to your wine. You can technically use any fruit that’s juicy (so no, you can’t make banana wine this way – I don’t know why you’d want to, but don’t). Apples, all kinds of berries, cherries, grapes, you name it. You can even combine a few different types of fruits to make a more interesting wine. I haven’t made apple wine myself, but I’d imagine you’d smash them up with a hammer or meat mallet or something. Just make sure you crush them up really well, and don’t lose any of the juice! In this picture, I’m squishing up cherries. The pits are kind of pointy, but it’s fun to make them all go POP. And a little messy. There was splatter.

Washing your fruit is a BIG no-no in this instance. Weird, I know, but we’re trying to grow some wild yeast here. Yeast lives on the outside of pretty much all fruits (and everything else, for that matter). Yeast needs liquid and carbs (sugar) to really thrive. And what does yeast produce when you keep it happy with a lot of sugar? Alcohol. It’s like magic. Feed the yeast, keep them happy, and they’ll make you some wine as a thank you present. Isn’t that nice of them?

After you’ve thoroughly mashed your fruit in a bucket, you may need to add some water. You don’t need much if your fruit was extra juicy, but if you’ve got something that’s a thicker consistency you’re going to want to thin it down a bit. Use distilled or filtered water if you can. Tap water contains an unknown (to you) amount of chlorine, and chlorine kills stuff. Good for keeping your water bacteria-free, bad for keeping your yeast happy.

Next, you’ll want to add in some sugar. Honey is an excellent choice, because it takes the yeast a little longer to eat. This means that your wine will have a longer time to develop its flavors. Regular granular sugar can also be used, and it is consumed really quickly by the yeast to get a good fermentation right away. Because honey is expensive, I usually use some of each. But how much sugar should you add? I have literally no idea. Wing it. I have a 2 gallon bucket, which I fill about 2/3 full with fruit and water. For my latest batch of cherry wine (currently in the bucket phase), I added maybe 1/2 cup of honey and… I don’t know…. like… 2.5-3 cups of granular sugar? Hard to say, because I kind of just kept going until I felt good about it.

The reason you can’t give an exact amount here is because it depends on too many factors. If you use a really sweet fruit (like very ripe concord grapes or strawberries), you don’t need a ton of sugar because it’s sweet to begin with. If you use something without much sugar in it (like my super sour cherries), then you’ll need more sugar. Don’t worry too much about adding too much or not enough sugar. You can always add more if it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much in a couple of days (which is what I wound up doing with this batch). Or, if you go a little sugar crazy and wind up with wine that’s way too sweet for your taste, add some vodka to it or something. I’m sure that’ll make it better (possibly not, but it couldn’t hurt, right?). What I’m trying to say here is that it’s fun to experiment. We’re not going for top quality wine here. If we wanted that, we’d spend a couple hundred dollars to get the fancy pants ingredients, special yeast, and weird chemicals that do I don’t even know what. This way is more fun.

After you have it all mixed together, you’re going to want to let it sit. I currently have my 2 gallon bucket sitting underneath an upturned water-bath canner (it’s basically just a giant pot). You want to keep the bugs out (this stuff is a fruit fly magnet), but you don’t want it airtight because that yeast is going to be releasing a LOT of gas in the early stages and it’ll blow the lid off anything you put on it. Plastic wrap with holes punched in it covered with a thin towel might work. I’ve used a plate to cover the bucket before, and that worked pretty well too.This picture is last year’s grape wine after the second day in the bucket. You’ll note that there are a few bubbles, and some of the fruit is bobbing toward the surface.

For the first few days, you’re going to want to stir this mixture pretty vigorously. We want the yeast to take over before mold has a chance to get a foothold. Stir it several times per day at first. In the beginning, the fruit usually sinks to the bottom and you’ve got juice at the top. After a few days, you’ll notice that your fruit is floating and looks weird. It starts floating because yeast is filling the fruit with gas. That’s a good thing. It’ll also start to smell a little boozy. That’s a very good thing. It’s going to look disgusting, though. In a good way. I really wouldn’t worry about it. This picture is of my current batch of cherry wine (I know, I know, I’m confusing you by showing pictures of different fruits. Just go with it).

This is on day…. 4? 5? I don’t really remember. I added more sugar after day 3 because it wasn’t doing anything. It took off pretty quickly after that. You’ll notice at this stage that there are a TON of bubbles just under the surface. Vigorous stirring will make those bubbles go a little crazy. It’s like you’re stirring a weird bucket of soda or something.

This is so exciting! As it keeps going, it’ll get cloudy. This is the yeast. That’s also a good thing. Once the bubbling slows down (meaning it doesn’t look like this every time you stir it), you can move it over to a carboy. Strain the fruit out, and get it into the bottle using a funnel or something. There is actual equipment that makes it easy, but I don’t like to do things the easy way. A fine mesh colander will get the fruit out of the way, and then you can use a short length of tubing (you really will want that for bottling at the end, so you might as well get it now) to get it from your bowl or whatever into your carboy. I keep using that word. Carboy. If you’re not familiar, it’s like what they sell apple cider in around the holidays. Just a big glass bottle. A 1 gallon bottle is perfect for our purposes (I have more than a gallon in my current bucket, but the fruit will take away a lot of volume when it’s strained out). You can buy them online or at a local brewing store. (Though if you buy one by clicking this link, I’ll get a small commission and you can help support my weird hobbies).

Once you move the mixture over to the carboy, the yeast will still be working at turning the sugar into alcohol. They’ll still be releasing gas, too. This means that you can’t put a lid or stopper on the bottle. They sell these things that are like one-way valves that fit in a stopper for a carboy, but that means buying something (yes, they’re inexpensive, but still). Instead, I use a balloon. Just pop your balloon on top of the jug and watch your yeast blow it up. It’s fun! And it gives the yeast a real purpose. Makes them work a little harder, because they can see results. That last part probably wasn’t true.

Again, this is last year’s batch of grape wine. You see how it’s super cloudy? That means it’s nice and yeasty, which means that it’s going to be good and boozy. But in a classy, winey way.

Put your soon-to-be-wine in a cool, dark spot of the house. A sunny window upstairs is a bad spot. We’re cultivating a fungus here, not growing a plant (sounds gross when you think of it that way, doesn’t it? Don’t even worry about it). Check on it periodically. Let the air out of the balloon. When it stops blowing up the balloon and the liquid is clear (which will likely take about a month, give or take), that means that your yeast is all dead. Congratulations! The yeast has created so much alcohol that it’s killed them all. What a way to go, right?

Now you can siphon off the finished wine into bottles. Try not to jiggle it too much (there will be a thick layer of dead yeast at the bottom – if you can’t stand the gross get out of the … wine… cellar? I don’t even know). If you need to bring it to another room so as to not make a mess while bottling it, I’d probably let it sit for a day or two on the counter to let the sediment settle down again. Use a short length of plastic tubing to suck it out of the carboy and empty it into a bottle (literally, suck it up like a straw, and let gravity pull it into the bottles). Just don’t let the end of the tube get too close to the muck at the bottom. You don’t want that in your wine. They make these neat little clips to stop the flow of liquid through your tubing so you don’t get wine all over everything when switching the hose to another bottle, but the children lost mine the same day I got it, so I only lost about a half a bottle of wine on the floor when I did this last time. Cork it if you want, but I didn’t want to bother with a big cork thing because it seemed too complicated. I use bottle caps like what you’d put on a beer bottle. It’s cheaper and easier than buying corks and whatever you call that cork-squeezing-and-inserting-into-the-bottle-doohicky. This means that there will be no air exchange through the cork, meaning that the flavor won’t change over time. So it won’t get better with age, but it won’t get worse either. It’s wine. Drink it. You’re welcome.


2 Replies to “Wine making 101”

  1. Wild yeast fermentation? You live on the wild side of life. Do you know what your alcohol percentage is?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *