Introduction: Making Wine From Kits

Who can say no to wine at $3 to $7 that tastes like you paid $10 to $25 for it? No one, that's who! If you like wine you should at least try to make it once to get a better understanding of how rotten grapes can taste so good. And ending up with 30 bottles of wine is pretty swell.

Step 1: What You Need

A wine making equipment kit helps. If you're already into brewing beer then you have most of everything you need. If this is your first foray into home alcohol production then you can pick up equipment kits all over the web from $70 and up to $200. Some kits will include wine bottles, some will offer the choice of different juice concentrates, some will have upgraded corkers or carboys (those friggin' huge glass bottles).

You'll need:

A primary fermenter (that big 7.9 gallon white bucket pictured)
A secondary fermenter (that friggin' huge glass bottle)
Some food grade tubing (four or five feet of it)
A racking cane (this is a candy can shaped rod, either made of stainless steel or plastic)
An air lock for your fermenters
A hydrometer for measuring the specific gravity of your juice
A long sturdy spoon for stirring
A corker

All of those things should come with with basic kits. Other things, like cleaners and sanitizers, optional additives, and corks will have to be purchased separately. But the good part about home wine and beer making is that all of that little stuff is usually pretty cheap. So if you start with a basic kit you can gradually add on things that you need or that make the process easier if you stick with it long term.

Bottles . . . well if you can't save up thirty bottles . . . then you probably need another hobby.

But if you're only the occasional wino and want to get into this you could go to one of your favorite restaurants and ask them to save you thirty bottles and they'll likely be able to get you more than enough in a single night.

Step 2: Juice

You can find a juice concentrate for every popular variety of wine out there. Or, if you're lucky, you might even be able to talk a local winery into letting you buy six gallons of juice off of them at pressing time. I'd be very envious because the majority of us home vintners are stuck with boxed grape juice unless there is a homebrew supply store near that gets in 100% juice or even uncrushed grapes. That's pretty rare so get used to box kits like this one.

Not all kits are created equal. You'll pay $55 to $75 ($2-3/bottle) for the least inexpensive kits like this chardonnay I'm making, $80 to $110 ($3-4/bottle) for the next level up, and $120 to $180 ($4-6/bottle) for the highest priced. The difference is the amount of juice in the kit. The more concentrated the juice, the cheaper the kit (probably because of shipping and handling fees). If it has more juice, the price is higher and you'll tend to get a better finished product, but you'll have to let it age longer before you get that good finished product.

Here you can also see pictured a canned concentrate. I had bought this to boost the starting specific gravity (sugar content) to get a little higher alcohol content. Until Winexpert's recent upgrades to their kits the wines made from them were softer on the alcohol side. A chardonnay might only finish at 10% or 11% before. Most wine you buy is 12% to13.5% alcohol. It doesn't sound like much of a difference, but it can effect flavor and the more alcohol a wine has---even a percent or two---is good insurance against bad microbes getting in and spoiling things.

But lo and behold these upgraded kits have a higher sugar content and will come in at 12% to 13%. So the canned concentrate will be waiting a few months for fall to be mixed with local apple cider to make an apple champagne for next year.

Step 3: Cleaning

The majority of your time in wine making will be spent cleaning things.

Cleaning vs. Sanitizing vs. Sterilizing . . . there's a difference.

Cleaning is removing any visible gunk with detergents meant for home brewing and wine making. Some of their names are StraightA, Star San, PBW, Easy Clean, and the list goes on and on.

Sanitizing is attempting to remove as many extraneous microbes as possible from the surfaces that will be in contact with your wine.

Sterilizing is the complete removal of all bacteria and yeast via chemical or physical (heat) treatment. You don't need to do this for beer or wine making.

Much ado is made about cleaning, but when you consider that beer and wine was made thousands of years ago when they didn't have so much as a bar of soap . . . well, you draw your own conclusions. Our over sanitizing is a little fastidious. i consider it an insurance policy against failure, but in nearly a decade of home beer and wine making I've never had a batch go bad. The huge amount of yeast you introduce to your juice or beer will quickly outgrow and take over before any other yeast or bacteria has a chance to take hold and ruin things.

So have an insurance policy by getting a detergent and clean the visible dirt off of things and then use a sanitizer to lessen the chance of contamination. First I clean with StraightA and then I sanitize with sulfite solution (2 ounces of sodium metabisulfite diluted in 1 gallon of water). You'll see a lot of suggestions for times to leave the solutions in contact with your equipment . . . personally I just make sure the cleaner touches all surfaces and things coming into contact with the wine and the same with the sanitizer. I don't time it. That will remain up to you to decide. As you gain experience you'll get to know how little you can get away with.

It helps to have a good pair of dishwashing gloves to prevent wrinkly, dishpan hands, and, if you use sulfite solution, to keep your hands from smelling like sulfurous egg farts.

Step 4: First We Add Cat Litter

Seriously. Cat litter. Well, sort of. It's called bentonite. It's a type of clay that, due to it's molecular charges can help winemakers precipitate proteins from wine prior to bottling that might later break down and make the wine hazy or ugly floaty bits in it. The instructions for these kits always say to use about a half gallon of warm water. I've never bothered warming it up. I pour it in, use a sanitized whisk, and whip it until it's a veritable whirlpool. At this point you can slowly drizzle in the clay powder while you continue to whisk and it'll incorporate without clumping (as cat litter is known to do). Just avoid letting the drizzle hit the whisk or it will get a build up that will break off in clumps.

Step 5: Reconstitution

This particular company makes a fancy little punch-out hole built into the cardboard box the concentrate and other ingredients come in that  you can poke the spout of the concentrate bag through to help you pour it out. Uncap the concentrate and pour it into the cleaned and sanitized primary fermenter that is partly filled with liquified cat litter.

The water I use to reconstitute with is store bought 1 gallon jugs of water. I typically use distilled water. You'll see a lot of shi---stuff out there on the internet about not using distilled water because yeast need the dissolved minerals to be healthy. I think that's a load of schtuff. When theses juices are concentrated it is done with vacuum evaporation. The only thing that should be coming out is water (and probably some volatile flavor compounds that we'd prefer to stay in, but what can we do?). Minerals wouldn't magically float away. So cram that stuff. I use distilled water exclusively for wine and it performs wonderfully.

Add some water to the concentrate bag, recap it, and give it a shake so that you make sure you get out as much of the concentrate as you can. Dump it into the fermenter with the rest of the juice.

Top the container up to the six gallon mark with your water of choice.

Step 6: Additives

Since we're doing winemaking-lite we have to come up with ways to get the same tasty wine without having to lay out loads of bucks for things like oak barrels.

Many kits come with oak chips and some have dried elderflowers. I've never ran across the dried elderflowers yet. They are probably used in sweet wines and I don't drink sweet wine. If I wanted a kid's drink I'd have a soda.

If you have made a certain kit several times before you might want to start messing with it. Go for it. It's your saxophone so jazz it how you like. I always add tannin extract to kit wines. It usually comes with instructions. I think the brand I have says 1/4 tsp per gallon for whites and roses and 1/2 tsp per gallon for reds. If the kit doesn't contain oak chips you can try adding some if you want. Maybe the wine tasted a little drab last time you made it. Spike it with some acid blend (a mix of tartaric, malic, and citric acid you can buy at supply shops) to brighten it up.

This particular kit came with 3 packages of french oak chips. I added the tannin and oak chips and stirred them in.

After the turbulence has settled from stirring I put my sanitized hydrometer in to get a starting specific gravity reading. You can write this number down and measure again when the wine has finished fermenting (final gravity). With these two numbers you can calculate the alcohol content of your wine. I typically don't bother anymore. I know that a 1.090 to 1.100 beginning gravity will ferment out to 12% to 13.5% which is a final gravity of 0.996 or so.

The last additive is the yeast. All kits come with a yeast, but you can swap it out for any other yeast you get your hands on. Many strains will be labeled with some of there characteristics that will help you decide which to choose. Less alcohol tolerant, more alcohol tolerant, leaves a more fruity aroma, etc. You can just cut the top off the package and dump it on top of your must. You don't have to stir it in. It will hydrate itself and spread through the wine on it's own.

Step 7: Now Is When Your Yeast Fart

Put your air lock into the lid of your primary fermenter and fasten it to the top of the bucket. Place the bucket somewhere where the temperature will remain constant at 65 to 72 degrees. Fill the airlock with some water and then within 24 hours your yeast will make that airlock click as the CO2 bubbles out through it. The point of the airlock, in case you are wondering, is to keep undesirable things from being able to fall into your fermenting wine.

Step 8: A Week Later

After five to seven days of smelling a faint yeasty-fruity smell in your designated fermenting room (it's neither unpleasant nor strong smelling) it's time to transfer into your secondary fermenter. A hydrometer reading at this point should be 1.010 or less. Pop the top off of your primary fermenter and behold the frothy bubbling of CO2. You'll notice that most of your oak chips will have fallen to the bottom of the fermenter and that the juice is cloudy with yeast life. At the bottom of your fermenting pail will be a 1/2" of yeast. Try to leave as much of that as possible when you transfer from one container to the next. Don't worry if you suck some up though. You will, you can't avoid it, so deal with it.

Sanitize your hydrometer and take a reading. Less that 1.010 and you're good to proceed.

Now here is where the new coming wine maker and I will differ. The newby will be gravity siphoning their wine from one container to the other. I've purchased a vacuum pump so that I no longer have to do this. It'll also help when we get to the degassing portion of our show.

Raise the primary fermenter above the secondary (carboy) and attach your food grade tubing to your racking cane. Stick the cane into the primary fermenter and apply some suction with your mouth to the other end of the tube. Good huh? You get a free taste! Once the tube is full, poke the hose into the carboy and let gravity do the rest.

For those with a suction set up like mine (it's the Blichmann WineEasy vacuum pump kit) just hook the pump up to the check valve (you don't want to suck any liquid into your pump, ever) and attach it to your carboy. Insert the racking cane through the other hole in the supplied silicone bung and attach the tubing. Turn on the pump and lower the tubing into the wine to suck it up. It's very nice. Pricey as hell, but nice.

Step 9: Sometime Later.

About two weeks later you'll see this mess. Cloudy and generally unappealing. At this point you need to check your gravity. It should be below 1.000. As long as it is, you can add the metabisulfite powder and whatever clarifying agent that came with the kit**. It will probably be isinglass or chitosan. Once this is in you have to stir it in and mix up the crud at the bottom of the carboy. BE VERY CAREFUL WITH THIS. There is a load of CO2 in there and it seems in my experience that whites like to behave as volcanoes. This is why I forked out for the vacuum pump. I can degas the wine by applying vacuum for 20 to 40 minutes. If you don't have a vacuum you have to use a mixing paddle---there are some out there called a mix-stirs and these you mount to a drill. The mix-stirs are fine, they work well. They actually work faster than the vacuum pump, but no matter how careful I was I'd get mild volcano flow and loose a little volume and make a mess. Not cool.

Once you've degassed the wine you need to top up the carboy to within two inches to the bottom of the air lock. You can use water, but I never have. I always use a similar wine, store bought or from a previous batch that is aging. These 6 gallon carboys aren't really six gallons, they are 6+. I don't know how much but I find that when I get to this point I need most of a 1.75L bottle to top off with because of the extra size of the bottle and losses from transferring off of yeast sediment.

**At this point the kit will tell you to also add the potassium sorbate. I throw these packs out. You don't need them if you're making a dry wine and I've never had an issue since I started leaving this out. Plus, if you have a batch of wine that isn't to your liking and you want to make a vinegar with it you won't be able to with the sorbate in there. It stops most all bacterial and yeast activity.

Step 10: Bottling

Always add the extra 1/4 tsp of sulfite powder the kit recommends if you're going to keep the wine longer than six months. What the hell is the point of drinking it early? Whites I can understand and do drink early. The whites won't change much after a few weeks in the bottle, especially the kits that give you less juice. The reds on the other hand need a looooong time. I've got some red just now coming to two years of age and I still don't think too highly of it.

I had accidentally jostled my carboy and mixed up some of the sediment so I had to transfer it another carboy and let it sit for an extra week or two. Also I need another 1/2 racking cane for my vacuum set up. It's easy to vacuum up sediment just using tubing. You could leave it in a carboy to bulk age for months or years. Just make sure the airlock is firmly in place and always has enough water.

I double wash my bottles. You don't have to if they are free of deposits, but I always use an oxygen cleaner like StraightA and then follow up with sulfite sanitizer. In order to save sulfite solution and your cleaner of choice, just dump a little into one bottle with a funnel, then use your thumb or a plastic cap to close it in and shake the hell out it. Put the funnel into the next bottle and dump the cleaner into it. Repeat. Easy. A faucet mounted jet bottle washer is great for getting stuck on bits out and rinsing cleaner and sulfite. Clean your bottles, hit them with a bottle brush if they need it, jet rinse them if you can, and let them hang on a bottle tree to drain a little of the water clinging to the insides of the bottles.

Once you're ready to bottle transfer the wine off of the sediment in the secondary fermenter. Be careful to avoid getting any of it in the container you'll be bottling from. You can filter wines to assure complete clarity. But it's not really necessary unless you're entering contests or OCD. I do have a cheapo filter, but I don't use it because it's a pain. A nice one (meaning an expensive one) would probably much easier and I'd be more likely to use it.

Now that you've got it in a carboy or bucket I just use gravity siphon and a bottle filler. The filler is a hard tube with either a ball valve or spring loaded valve on the bottom. You push it against the bottom of the bottle and it pushes open the valve and lets the wine flow.

Wine equipment kits will come with cappers. I jumped from beer making into wine and had to get a corker. I picked a floor corker because they're super simple to use. Put in a cork, put on a bottle, and pull a handle. Easy.

I like to sit while I bottle and it's good to have everything you need within arm's length. I pick a bottle off the drying tree, put it between my feet (I clamp my feet against it so it can't tip over), and then put in the bottle filler. A lot of times gravity will be enough to keep the bottle filler's tip open and filling the bottle so you can do other things while that's happening. I'll take this time to put a cork into the corker on my right and get another bottle off the tree to my left. Once the bottle has filled (which is usually to the very top of the bottle---once you remove the filler you're pretty much at the exact level you need to be so you don't have too much air in the bottle) I put the filler in the next bottle, cork the bottle just filled, set it aside, get another cork, and get another bottle. Do this however you want. I like to cork right away because it uses that time wasted while filling the bottle, but you could fill all of your bottles first and then cork.

Once you're all bottled and corked leave them sitting upright for a few days to make sure the corks have had time to fully expand and seal things up. I'll also cover them with old beach towels to protect them from light. It's not likely this helps anything, but I do it anyway.

Step 11: Finishing & Storage

Since I've never bought empty wine bottles it goes without saying that I hate wine labels. Every bottle pictured in this instructable had a label on it at one time. And every one of those labels had to be scraped off and the glue holding it on had to be scrubbed off. Labels can rot in hell. So I don't use them unless I'm giving wine as a gift and don't expect the bottle to be returned. There are a few kits that come with labels and I've made one of these and used them. They aren't bad. They are usually plastic and peel right off leaving no residue. But paper glue-on/self sticky labels can suck donkey dung. Here's what I do:

I buy the heat shrink caps, they come in a great variety of colors, and put clear mailing labels on them. I was using the large sheets of clear labels that go through inkjet printers, but I've recently been given a small Dymo label printer and this is the first time I'll be using it. Some of the inkjet labels do like to start curling and peeling up, but not to the point they'd fall off. Here's hoping direct thermal print labels are a little more sticky.

If you end up making a lot of wine you will end up having to store a lot of wine. My hats are off to all those out there with basements. What I would give for a basement. I nearly put a cellar under a shed I built in the backyard. For the rest of us we must try to find a place that doesn't experience wide temperature swings and stays fairly cool. Ideal cellar temperature is said to be around 56 degrees. As lovely as that would be it's hard to find a place in your house that will stay that temperature all year long. I use my crawlspace. It's nicely encapsulated and stays below 70F and above 55F all year long. The daily temperature fluctuation is only 1 degree.

The good part about putting the wine in the crawlspace is that it keeps my wife out of it. For wines whose time has come I've made a rack in a closet in the coolest part of the house. The bottom rack is for homemade wines and the top is for store bought.

So get out there and make your own wine. It's fun. It's easy. And in the long run it saves money.

Copycat Recipes Contest

Participated in the
Copycat Recipes Contest