August 17, 2009

Sassy Homemade Wine - The Equipment

Last week I wrote about why I make homemade wine. This week I'll start the 'how' portion of it. Ready? Got your notebooks handy? Actually, it might be easier just to bookmark or print this out - much easier on you. This part might be a little boring or confusing to some, but trust me, if you ever want to make your own wine, this is an important part I had to learn about the hard way.

What can be boring or confusing about making homemade wine? I'm glad you asked. The equipment. Some 'old school' people said just mash up the grapes (or various fruit), throw in some sugar water and yeast and let it ferment in a jug with either a balloon covering the opening, or take plastic wrap doubled over, rubber-banded to cover the opening, then put a needle hole in the plastic so the gases can escape. Yeah. About that. If you're a hillbilly wanting to make moonshine, knock yourself out - it works great for that. Or it makes excellent wine vinegar. But not excellent wine. I learned that the hard way.

My very first attempt at making homemade wine I was given conflicting information from all sorts of well-meaning people. So my first batch turned into vinegar which I used to clean out the drain and pipes in my kitchen sink. Of course my kitchen smelled like a distillery for a day or two, and I went back to the drawing board. Or should I say the internet. And searched. And read. And searched and read some more.

I finally decided to try to help ease my confusion by buying a Wine Making Kit on eBay for a reasonable price - one that included a lot of the basic supplies one might need to make a decent batch of wine. When it was all said and done, I still needed to get a few more items to make sure I had everything to make a successful batch of wine (and in some cases easier to use or more efficient), and not make another batch of vinegar. To make it easier for you, here is the list of basic necessities:

  • 7.9 Gallon Primary Fermenter with Drilled & Gasketed Lid
  • 6-Gallon Carboy
  • Drilled Stopper (bung) to Fit Carboy
  • Airlock
  • Hydrometer
  • Floating Thermometer
  • Racking Cane (Siphon Tube)
  • 5 ft Siphon Tubing
  • Bottle Filler
  • Plastic Spoon or Paddle
  • Wine Thief (better yet - a Wine Thief/Test Jar Combo)
  • Test Jar (not needed if you have the 'better yet' from above)
  • 30 Wine Bottles (750ml)
  • 30 new corks (or screw caps - I prefer corks)
  • Corker (Not required if using screw caps)

Starting at the top of the list, the 7.9 Gallon Primary Fermenter with Drilled & Gasketed Lid is usually a food grade plastic bucket. I have also bought buckets from Wal*Mart or Home Depot (you know, like a paint bucket), because they're brand new and are manufactured in the same manner as what is considered a 'food grade' plastic bucket. And cheaper. I make sure I wash it thoroughly with warm soapy water, then sanitize it prior to fermentation.

A bucket is used as the primary fermenter as you want a wide top to allow plenty of oxygen for the yeast in their growth stage. Remember - yeast is what converts the sugar into the alcohol content. You also want a primary fermenter at least 25% larger than the secondary fermenter to allow plenty of room for the fermentation process. During what is considered 'the rapid fermentation phase', the yeast creates carbon dioxide which raises the level of your wine to more than 6-gallons (also known as the 'cap' - which you 'punch down' during the fermentation process). When this phase is finished the level will drop back to the 6-gallon mark. If you use a smaller bucket, like a 6.5-gallon, you run the risk of your wine overflowing the primary and creating a real mess...which won't be pretty!

The next item is the carboy and the 6-gallon size is mandatory. If you decide to buy any wine kits (kits that supply the juice and chemical ingredients), typically they are designed to go into a 6 gallon carboy, not a 5-gallon one. So be sure to get a 6-gallon one as your starting one, and it's also a great idea to have other sizes on hand for any 'extra'.

Over the past several years I've acquired them in varying sizes: 1/2 gallon, 1 gallon, 3 gallon, 5 gallon and 6 gallon - that way I always have something on hand in the odd sizes for the overflow. When you're making wine from fresh fruit, you'll always have overflow. At least I do - you know, because exact measuring is passé. And you don't want any of that precious ambrosia to go to waste! In addition to that, if you use a wine kit from a source like Winexpert, trying to make their kit wine in a 5-gallon carboy will throw off the balance and adversely affect the quality of your finished wine.

A drilled stopper and airlock are used together with the carboy to allow carbon dioxide to escape from the carboy while keeping oxygen out (and using an airlock instead of a balloon or plastic wrap ensures that unwanted oxygen will be kept out of the carboy so your wine won't 'turn' in the process). I prefer the 'S-Curve' type over the other 2...I don't have to worry about breaking it (because it's plastic) and the assembly/use seems to work better and is easier than the 3-piece one.

The hydrometer is used to measure the amount of sugar in your wine. It is important to make sure your wine has the correct beginning specific gravity (S.G.). Depending on the type of wine, the starting S.G. will be anywhere from 1.05 to 1.10. Depending on what you're making your wine out of, the starting and ending S.G. will vary...

I know, right now you're thinking 'blah, blah, blah!' I'll supply links to resources on all that when we get there, it's too early in the game to try to explain as it will confuse you even more...as it did me. Also, as the fermentation progresses, you will use the hydrometer to tell you when to perform the next steps. It's absolutely a handy tool to have, because the length of time wine ferments will vary depending on the absolute temperature of the room you're doing the fermentation in.

A racking cane, also called a siphon tube, is a rigid piece of plastic with a cap at the bottom. You need this to transfer (rack) your wine from vessel to vessel. You attach the siphon tubing to the cane, place the cane in your wine and the tubing in the empty vessel. Then you start a siphon to rack the wine into the clean vessel. The cap at the bottom of the cane is to minimize the amount of sediment transferred as the primary reason for racking is to remove the sediment from your wine.

At some point you are going to want to bottle your wine, thus the need for the bottle filler. The bottle filler attaches the end of the tubing and has a trigger at the bottom to start and stop the flow of wine as you move from bottle to bottle. This has been my lifesaver to use - I didn't start off with one, and ended up having to try to juggle things with one hand while 'pinching' the tubing to stop the flow of wine from one bottle to the next...not a pretty sight! This makes it so much easier:

The plastic spoon or paddle serves 2 purposes. One to mix your wine concentrate and water when you begin and when you add the stabilizers and fining agents. The second purpose is remove the carbon dioxide (CO2) from your wine. This is referred to as "de-gassing your wine". These spoons are specially designed to fit through the neck of the carboy, and you can get them up to 28-inches long so they'll reach the bottom of the carboy.

Due to the small neck on the carboy, it is extremely difficult to take an S.G. reading by putting the hydrometer directly into the carboy. The easier way is to draw out a sample with the wine thief and put it into a test jar. Then you can put the hydrometer into the test jar to obtain the S.G. After you get your reading, you can pour the sample back into the carboy.

The easiest way is to use a Wine Thief/Test Jar combo (pictured) - this multi-purpose "toy" replaces the wine thief and test jar, giving you one less item to maintain. This product has a trigger-valve at the bottom to trap the wine and the diameter is large enough to accept the hydrometer. Just lower the Wine Thief/Test Jar Combo into your carboy and when it is about 3/4 full remove it. Then put your hydrometer into the Wine Thief/Test Jar Combo and take your reading. When you are through you can release the wine back into the carboy. You can also use this item to take samples for tasting.

Obviously, you will need bottles for your finished wine. Most people use the standard wine bottle which is 750 ml and get a little over 30 bottles from a 6 gallon batch.

You can recycle wine bottles, or you can buy them brand new. I do both. I like to look for unique ones that really stand out. My preference is the cobalt blue ones, but I'll get the dark green ones for red wine, clear or light colored ones for white wine.

You want to make sure you shop around - you can find good deals on eBay once in a while (but be wary of where they're shipping from and how much the shipping is...you can buy from a supplier online for less shipping and overall savings).

You can have your wino friends or family save their empties for you (ask them to rinse the residue of the wine from it first, to eliminate having to do extra work to clean them out later). Some labels are hard to remove, but if you fill the bottles with scalding hot water and let them sit for a while, it can sometimes loosen the glue that binds the label to the bottle.

Sometimes you'll still be left with sticky residue after you painstakingly peel or scrape the labels off - Goo-Gone works wonders to get rid of the rest of the residue. I always make sure I thoroughly wash any used bottles with warm soapy water, rinse thoroughly, then sanitize them immediately prior to bottling (we'll get into the whole sanitizing process next week when we go over the various 'chemicals' you need for wine making).

You will also need new corks - you don't want to use used corks because they will leak, and the hole that is in used corks will allow oxygen to permeate your bottle of wine and turn it into vinegar. That's also something I learned the hard way. You can find brand new corks on eBay, or from various suppliers online (preferable - then you know they're brand new), or from a local source. We'll go over the 'where do I get all that stuff?' in a later post... I have some favorites and recommendations.

You can use T-Corks (aka 'Tasting Corks) for your bottled wine, but it's not recommended unless it's for a bottle you're going to be using for tasting. I buy these for my homemade Kahlua that I make, or for the wine tasting bottles.

The last item on this list is a corker. There are several types - do not use the funky 'hand corker' that is made of plastic:

Trust me, trying to cork your 30+ bottles will be a comedy of errors and cause more wine spillage. There are other hand-corkers that are like this:

That's what I started off with (after I killed my hand trying to use the plastic hand corker), and believe me, when you get to your 30th bottle, let alone your 60th bottle, your arms, hands and knees are tired. The only way I was able to use this effectively was by sitting on the floor to brace the filled bottle between my knees and pull the levers down...I did have a bottle or two 'escape' in the process, and the air above my head turned blue. I finally invested in a floor corker which looks like this:

Super easy to use, and cut my corking time way down. I now want to get another one so I can use them simultaneously and cut my corking time down even more.

One other item of note is that some starter packages come with 5/16" or 3/8" racking canes, bottle fillers and tubing. Although that size works well for beer making, the flow rate is extremely slow for racking and bottling wine compared to their 1/2" counterparts. The flow rate for the 1/2" tubing is 77% faster than the 3/8" and 150% faster than the 5/16". I ended up buying a different racking cane, bottle filler and tubing after I discovered this anomaly. It definitely made a difference switching to the 1/2" tubing - less 'hurry up and wait' mode going on.

OTHER USEFUL ITEMS:

  • On/Off spigot for the fermenting bucket
  • Auto-Siphon
  • Drill mounted stirrer (aka Whip Wine Degasser)

This spigot is located about 1" from the bottom of the bucket and can be used to perform the first racking, in lieu of the siphon. That's something I'm going to be adding to my stash soon - I have a drill and I know how to use it, so my various size fermentation buckets will be getting a mini makeover by adding a spigot to them. For now I just siphon with:

The Auto-Siphon (aka 'easy-siphon): Instead of sucking on the tubing to create a siphon, this handy little "Toy" simplifies the racking process by creating the siphon for you. One-to-two pump action and the wine starts flowing nicely.

The Whip Degasser can save a lot of effort. Using a standard 3/8" variable-speed drill, you can de-gas your wine in two minutes. Very efficient and economical, it is also safe with glass. This particular item is extremely useful when adding the stabilizers and fining agents to your wine in the carboy and de-gassing your wine. Due to the size of the neck of the carboy, stirring with a paddle or spoon can be very difficult and tiring. A drill mounted stirrer makes this job much easier. Princess Nagger loves to watch me use this fun toy.

That's probably enough overload for this week...next week we'll go over the (short) list of chemicals needed (sanitizers, clarifiers, yeast, etc.) which really is a 'short' list. I'll also take you through the quick and easy process of making wine from a kit - at least the first batch, since the fermentation lasts for 7 days which will be perfect for showing the 'next steps' on that...and it's one of those kits that produces drinkable wine in 28 days (but you still want to have it age for several months to get outstanding wine).

Meanwhile I'm hunting down a Refractometer - I've decided I want to get one this year to test the grapes before harvesting them off the vines to ensure the perfect measure of sugar (which converts into alcohol during the fermenting process...) If you pick them too early, your wine won't be as robust, if you pick them too late, well, you lean toward the side of 'moonshine' instead of quality wine... :)

23 Random Sassy Comments:

Laoch of Chicago said...

Wow. Great post.

Brian Miller said...

lots of good stuff here. my father in law used to make dandelion wine...was actually pretty good.

otin said...

Stacy, that seems like an awful lot of work! My wine would never get past the smashed grape phase! :)

Yaya said...

Wow. Who knew it took so much??




PS I don't see puppy pictures yet....

Tami said...

I give you credit.. it looks overwhelming! Yet fun.

I'd love to try some. LOL

Sherri @ Luv a Bargain said...

I would LOVE to learn how to do this...even if it does look a little intimidating.

Chrissy MacCEO said...

WOW! Thanks for writing this! This has always been something I've wanted to try!!!

Hit 40 said...

I am impressed that you taught yourself all of this information. Nice work!! A refractometer sounds like a good investment.

Mango Girl said...

I am thrilled you shared this with us! I want to make wine, but not until I get off the island and away from Tattoo! (ha)

Might I add some of those devices used are eerily reminiscent of stuff a doctor uses to poke and prod you with.

Martha in PA said...

That is a lot of information! Wonderful post. I think though, I will let YOU make the wine, and I will help support your hobby!

kyooty said...

You mean this isn't the project about going blind? My hubbie used to make beer when we first got married, and it was his goal t make it as alcoholic as possible. Ah the younger years :)

Granny Annie said...

The only question remaining is "Why?" We can buy delicious Frontera wine at our local liquor store for #11.99.

buffalodick said...

I still have that stuff somewhere, but I never had a "wine polisher", that last filter that makes it clear as a bell...

Casey said...

Jeez, some of your tools look a little kinky.

Firefly@www.firefly-shop.org said...

Lots of work but so good in the end :)

Kathy B! said...

WOW! Talk about a labor of love. Is it possible to blow something up making wine? If it is... I would.

theselfloveproject said...

We would so love to do this. I am going to bookmark this one!! Right now we are brewing kombucha tea and still learning tons about how to do it right. The learning curve is huge - but lots of fun.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge!
~April

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blueviolet said...

That is all really complicated and involved. I didn't know what a carboy was all these many times you've mentioned it and naturally, it turns out to be such a simple container.

I would never have the patience for all this! Bless all of you winemakers in the world!

carma said...

I'm very impressed! especially as I am someone who gets overwhelmed with recipes requiring more than 3 ingredients. You rock!

betty said...

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Megan said...

Very interesting!!

I could totally see my mom doing something like this if she had the property and time. Me? I'm not patient enough. LOL

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