Drinking your hoard of booze in lock-down got old fast? Maybe it’s time to start a new, more rewarding hobby. Here in Sonoma County, it’s grape harvest season, the ideal time to start making wine at home.
Here’s a starter compendium of the ups and downs of home wine-making in 2020, with lessons learned from my years as a low-budget garagiste.
Pull your gloves on
“There’s an abundance of grapes,” says Douglas Ghiselin, board member of the Sonoma Home Winemakers club. “Growers are in a real bind this year, from what I understand. People with little hobby vineyards (two or three acres), most of them are leaving their grapes hanging on the vine.”
That’s great news for the home winemaker. In times past, I used to hunt for less-desirable “second crop,” making a nuisance of myself, driving up and down vineyard roads on a cool tip, and smarting from a farmer’s slow shake of the head at my foolishness.
Ghiselin says the club’s members are often happy to advise newbies, via their contact link on sonomahomewine.org, and that Craigslist is also worth a try. The Sonoma County Winegrowers host a grape marketplace at sonomawinegrape.org. Look for ads that say “yes” to “will sell to home winemakers.”
I like to consult the venerable, offline “grape book” at The Beverage People, a fermentation supply shop in Santa Rosa. Gabe Jackson, who runs the shop with his wife, Jane, says that the book is available—along with hand sanitizer—from noon to 4pm, Tuesday–Saturday, at tables they’ve set up outdoors to help customers with purchases and consultation.
Grapes like Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay are going to be easier to find than wild goose chase candidates like Alicante Bouschet, Trousseau Gris, or Charbono. “Even if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for,” says Jackson, “you can call them up and ask if perhaps neighbors do.”
When you go to pick, bring garden clippers. One time, I neglected to bring my own—and again, you don’t want to see farmers shaking their heads at you.
Also, wear gloves. It’s not that someone might have sneezed on the Sauvignon, but if you don’t wind up cutting a finger, bees will surely sting one.
The Beverage People have crush machines for sale, but they won’t be renting out equipment this year. The good news: there are other means of squishing grapes. Feet, for one. Wine bar hipster-approved local producers such as Old World Winery, Pax Mahle, and Jolie-Laide swear by it.
Foot-stomping grapes can be a lot of fun, but if you’re averse to stems, or fun, there’s another way: picking the grapes off the stems by hand. “Everyone I’ve talked to who does hand de-stemming hates it,” says Jackson. So if you just say, “I chose to employ 100 percent stem inclusion,” your wine-loving friends will be awed by your bold technique in the manner of Côte-Rôtie.
In other words, less work and more high-end artisanal wine-making cred. What’s to worry
This is one of the few times where it’s always better to punch down, not up. Grapes mostly make themselves into wine at this point, but it’s best to offer a little help by “punching” the grapes that roil to the top back down into the bubbling juice.
Like many hobbyists, I didn’t bother with white wine or rosé because the juice needs to be chilled, using very expensive equipment. Until a revelatory voice said to me, “Dude, there’s ice for that!” Here’s the method: put your container of juice in a big plastic tub, and pour inexpensive bags of party ice and water around it. Keep it cool with an old comforter, and cycle refreezable ice packs through it daily. Cheap and, with minimal effort, effective
When a wine press is not at hand, for small batches, I just hand-squeeze one saucepan full at a time through a colander. Just say, “I like to drain sweet, and barrel down the free-run,” and you’ll come off like a cult Cabernet guru
Wait it out
Aging wine until bottling is an exercise in self-restraint that’s well worth it—just a year does wonders, and in two, it’s even better. It was a hell of a year, you may say, swirling a savory sip, but a fine vintage after all.
Sonoma Home Winemakers: sonomahomewine.org
Sonoma County Winegrowers: sonomawinegrape.org