At Ten Springs Ranch we operate a small hobby vineyard; a little less than a 1/2 acre of Syrah vines. When we initially purchased the property, come harvest time we would give all our grapes to some local winemakers in exchange for a portion of the resulting wine. Over the last few years we have evolved to the point where we harvest enough grapes to make about 25-30 gallons of our own wine and then sell the remaining grapes to a local vineyard manager. Although, starting out I knew a few things about taking care of vines and vineyards through a couple of horticulture classes I had taken, I knew next to nothing about the process of making wine, we simply were good at drinking the stuff.
So, to try and get a handle on how to make wine from grapes, I purchased books, poured through websites aimed at selling supplies to hobby winemakers, and watched a bunch of winemaking videos on Youtube. How hard can it really be I thought? Although, chemically, winemaking is a fairly complex process, with many variables that can lead to either a rich and wonderful tasting fermented grape juice or rancid vinegar, the basic principle is amazingly simple and organic. You just pick some ripe grapes, squish them to extract juice, expose the juice to yeast which converts sugars in the juice to gas and alcohol; voila, you have fermented grape juice, aka “Wine”! In reality, there are a number of things that occur in this process from growing and caring for the grapes, choosing an appropriate yeast to protecting the fermenting and aging wine from bacterial spoilage to ultimately bottling which can lead to a spectrum of potential outcomes. Somehow, miraculously, from the start we’ve been successful at turning grapes into wine and now that we’ve done this a few years we’re certainly not master oenologists or winning awards, but we do understand how to predictably produce acceptable red table wine and we’re slowly getting better.
More importantly, I’ve come to realize there are a couple reasons why I absolutely enjoy going through the trouble of making our own wine, as opposed to just buying it from a store or winery. One, it brings me great comfort to know exactly where the wine (fruit) has come from and what ingredients are included in the wine. It’s absolutely frightening when you realize what some of these wineries add to their wine, not to mention the chemicals used on their vines and land. Somehow, the winemaking industry is one of the few that is not required to list ingredients used in their products; and yes there’s a whole lot more than just grapes and yeast in most bottles of wine (https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/wine-additives/). The second reason I really enjoy winemaking, is that we generally work through the process with family and friends and it’s just a great physical and mental ritual that brings people together in a productive and healthy way. From the seasonal care of the vineyard to ultimately picking and crushing the grapes and lastly bottling. It’s all a moderated and timed process by nature that requires many moving parts to come together in an organized way that ultimately leads to a useful consumable beverage for everyone involved.
Which leads me to this year’s bottling (2021), a year that created a some new wrinkles in our process, particularly in the maturation/aging and bottling phase. First, the Wallbridge fire torched a good portion of our vineyard and destroyed our cabin, more critical to our 2019 vintage, it knocked out our infrastructure, including electricity & water lines. Luckily, the fires spared our barn/shop where we store our aging wine along with all of our winemaking equipment.
With no electricity, from the end of August, 2020 we had no way to run the air conditioner to keep our 2019 wine, waiting to be bottled, cool. In addition, we have had no running water which is obviously crucial in the bottling phase for cleaning, rinsing and all of that sanitary stuff. I was fairly easily able to solve the electricity problem by wiring in a generator to our shop. Additionally, we received a little luck in the form of cooler weather and the fact that our shop and, in particular, the wine storage area generally stayed cool enough that the 2019 vintage was not spoiled. For our water needs, I have loaded up my truck with 10 gallon sanitary containers, which although a hassle, did the trick.
With past vintages, we had been bottling the wine in concert with our harvest date. Essentially, we would crush the new vintage and get it into our fermenting tanks (food grade garbage cans) and then bottle last year’s vintage on the same day. That would provide the aging vintage 12 months to mature. Crushing and bottling on the same day, was a way to make room for storing the new vintage and a way of utilizing our team of friends during during the same 24 hour period of time. It was one fun-filled day, starting at sunrise with coffee and picking grapes and ending with 30-35 gallons of fermenting must, and a big dinner for all involved. The bottled wine was always good (drinkable) but not great, it also seemed to have a hint of effervescence, not like Champagne but it didn’t quite seem right. I didn’t know at the time, but I’ve since learned that “Syrah”, the varietal we grow, really needs more like 18 months, at a minimum, to mature/age before bottling. This year, because of the fire, we had no grapes to harvest, so there was no reason to force a bottling date, so I just let it sit in the carboys through the typical harvest date.
Somewhere around the beginning of January, 2021, while refilling the airlocks on the carboys, my wife and I sampled a little bit of the 2019 vintage which had now aged for 16 months. Wow, the taste was very good, smooth, velvety and no effervescence! I called up the gang and said, “the wine survived the fire, let’s set a bottling date.” We agreed on a date of early February. I have a team of 3-5 good friends who collectively have got this bottling process down. Our set up is simple. After thoroughly cleaning all our equipment, and adding a minimal solution of sodium metabisulfite to each carboy (preservative), we pull the carboys out of storage one-by-one and set them above our little 3 spout bottle filler, start a siphon from the carboy to the filler and we’re ready to bottle.
We’ve been using a classic 750ml green burgundy-style wine bottle with natural corks for bottling and we stayed with this set up this year. In terms of the bottling process, it’s nice to have a team of three to four people to keep things running smoothly. One of us will get the carboy and siphon set up and then monitor the siphon and swap out the carboys as needed. Another person will man the the bottle filler, which is an amazing little invention. Once the bottles are filled, they’re handed off to someone stationed at our manual floor-standing corker, where the bottles are quickly corked. Another person will wipe the bottles down, and in the past have put labels on our bottles (not this year). Lastly, the bottles are returned to their cases, corks down for storage. I’ve been told that it’s best practice to orient the freshly corked bottles this way to ensure that the corks seat properly for the first couple of weeks.
It’s amazing, once we’ve sanitized our equipment and and set up, which takes an hour or two, the actual bottling of 25-30 gallons (10-12 cases) of wine seems to take little time, maybe an hour. Over several seasons, it’s fun to see our group of friends lay claim to various roles in the process, for example, one of my friends loves numbers and calculations and quickly gravitates towards measuring and calculating things like specific gravity, ABV, PH and so on. While others like figuring out the mechanical aspects and adjustments required of the equipment used.
Every year is a little different teaching us a few new things that we try and remember moving forward. What we learned this year, among other things, is that leaving the wine to mature for an extra 5-6 months makes a big difference in the resulting quality of taste. In addition, by focusing on just bottling, we don’t need to rush either the process of the crush and initial fermentation or the bottling process. It just makes for a more enjoyable day in both cases and gives us an excuse to get together, be outdoors, and party a little not just once but twice! This year, everyone involved carried a minimum of two cases home with them, which will give everyone 24 occasions to independently reminisce fondly that day in February, 2021 where we got together for a fun day of wine bottling and friendship.