The Joy of Home Winemaking

Questions and Answers

Q   "Will this stuff kill me?"

A   No, you are suffering from hereditary flashbacks to Prohibition. Your wine might taste bad due to lack of sanitation, poor ingredients, or extremely bad luck, but it won't hurt you unless you actively try to poison yourself by using ant poison or poisonous fruits and herbs.

Homemade distilled liquor might, though, and I don't recommend trying it. Remember the phrase bathtub gin? Think about it. Besides, home distilling is illegal. See the next question.

Q   "Is this legal?"

A   In most states, if you are over 21, you can make 100 gallons of wine a year, or 200 if you are "head of household", whatever that means. You don't have to fill out a form or anything. Don't sell your wine or distill it, and for heaven's sake, use your common sense.

Q   "Do I really need to use yeast? I have this old recipe for beebleberry wine and it says..."

A   Yes!!! Yes!! You need to use yeast. More than that, you need to use wine yeast.

The old recipes which claimed you don't need yeast were depending on Mother Nature, (who might be busy elsewhere that day) to provide wild yeasts. Other old recipes used bread yeast because that's all most people had. Or they might have said to use beer yeast, which gives up at about 7% alcohol, leaving you with wine syrup.

Wineries have devoted centuries to the development of stable, dependable wine yeasts. At any beer and or wine supply store you can get inexpensive wine yeast, usually Montrachet or Pasteur Champagne, for 50-90 cents, which is good for up to five gallons of must (or, as we don't say in the home winemaking business, pre-wine). Either one will do, although the champagne yeast gives a firmer sediment.

Wine yeast yields the maximum alcohol content for making wine, with few or no off-flavors, which is why they call it wine yeast. You can buy fancier varieties, of course, but Montrachet or Pasteur Champagne will do very well with almost any fruit, grain or vegetable wine.

"Yeast is the deal of the century", says Erik Biever, who taught me to use wine yeast.

Q   Why do people keep trying these old recipes and getting into trouble and e-mailing you to help them out?

A   Because they don't realize that there are newer, more modern methods for making home-made wine, which are simple, reliable, and good. They don't realize that although Great-Grandmother Smith was doing her best with what she had, things have improved since her day.

If they had only read a newer book about winemaking before they started (like my book), they wouldn't be feverishly surfing the Net, e-mailing a total stranger who, although she delights in talking to people and answering questions, hates to think of all that good winemaking potential going down the drain because of bad sanitation, the wrong kind of yeast, no sugar, or the parakeet taking a bath in it.

Q   "Will Champagne yeast give me Champagne?"

A   Sorry, no. It's the yeast they use, but the bubbles are produced by another process. The Champagne yeast, as I said above, gives a firm sediment, which makes things easier for the winemaker, who needs to rack the wine a lot.

Sherry yeast will not give you sherry, either.

Q   "Help, the wine is no longer bubbling in the air lock but the hydrometer says there is still (x)% sugar! It's been weeks!"

A   Fruit wines take a long time for the secondary fermentation, as long as 3 months to a year. It will be very quiet, and you won't get the "blup blup blup" you are used to in the primary fermentation, or when you are making beer. Be patient. Test the wine every month or so; be careful about sanitation and keep the wine topped up.

Q   "How do I know the wine is done?"

A   Cleverly, you used a hydrometer when you first started the wine, and know what percent Potential Alcohol is in the wine, right? All you do is wait till it gets to around 0 and there you go.

What, you didn't use a hydrometer? Well, look up how much sugar per gallon you put in the wine to begin with. Generally 2 lbs will give you a very dry wine, 2 1/2 lbs a medium wine, and 3 lbs a sweet wine, depending on the fruit you used. Taste the wine to see how sweet is it. Tap the jug gently to see if any bubbles still come up. If they do, chances are it's still fermenting.

Even if you didn't check the P.A. when you started, you can go out and get a hydrometer at a supply place for under $10.00 and check to see how much sugar is left in there, assuming you didn't overload it with sugar to begin with. Some old recipes recommend five lbs of sugar per gallon(!), which will never ferment out completely.

Q   How do I read a hydrometer?

A   With your eyes. Really. Get one that has Potential Alcohol as well as Specific Gravity and use the P.A. part. It's easier to read. Squirt some of the wine into the testing tube and drop in the hydrometer. Twirl it around to free it from bubbles. Make sure the bottom of the hydrometer isn't touching the bottom of the tube. It must float freely. Place it on a level surface.

Check the middle part of the wine level. The edges kind of go up the sides of the tube and will give a false reading. When starting a wine it should read between 12% and 15% P.A., depending on the temperature of the wine and on how many fruit fragments you have suspended along with the sugar. Discard or drink the wine you tested.

At the end of the fermentation, it should read close to 0 or below for a dry wine.

The whole thing is much better explained and illustrated in winemaking books (like mine) which are available in libraries and bookstores.

Q   "Help, where do I find a recipe for mooseberry (or sweet potato, cloudberry, spinach, starfruit...) wine?"

A   Most wine recipes are the same. The major difference is in the acidity and the amount of sugar used. Get a good book on home winemaking and look for a recipe for a fruit or veg which most closely resembles yours and use it. It will probably be OK. Do your best and don't worry.

Q   "What's the best kind of wine kit?"

A   Beats me. I haven't used them much. I'm told you get what you pay for, and even then some are better than others. Fruit wines are generally cheaper and more interesting to make than the grape varietals and I tend to stick with them. It's easy to buy a decent chablis, but raspberry wine is hard to get in a wine store. However, I have promised myself to try a few kits this year.

What wine-making questions do you have? Send e-mail to Terry Garey.

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Copyright 1997 by Terry A. Garey.