Wine Making – Unsticking a Batch

In my post, Wine Making – Day 1, I discuss how to start a batch of wine. If you followed that post, your wine has been perking away for several days now. In fact, tomorrow you’ll start to think about doing the Day 10 processing. Of course, this all assumes that everything has gone as planned. In most cases, it does, but there are situations where the wine can simply stop fermenting. The little plug inside the air lock may even float to the bottom. Even if it hasn’t, when the bubbles stop appearing every minute or two (the fermentation process slows as the yeast turns the sugar into alcohol) you know something is wrongyou have a stuck batch.

Don’t fret! Your efforts haven’t been wasted. I’ve never run into a situation where I wasn’t able to get the wine restarted with a little patience.

Start by placing your ear next to the container. If you can still hear some bubbles, you’re actually in great shape. In fact, spend a little more time looking for bubbles because the fermentation does slow considerably by day 10. If you don’t hear anything, you might have to work just a bit harder to get the batch restarted. In most cases, you’re just fine as long as you can still smell the yeast when you open air lock.

The first step is to ensure your wine containers are in a room where it’s warm enough to ferment. The lowest room temperature that has ever succeeded for me is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You normally want the room temperature in the 70 degree range. Having the temperature too high is also unproductive. If you live in a warm climate and the air temperature is 95 degrees or higher, you’ll likely find that the yeast has a hard time continuing to work. Theoretically, the yeast will live just fine all the way up to 110 degrees in most cases, but most of us (yeast included) have a comfort zone.

The next step is to add a cup of sugar to the batch using the funnel. Add the sugar slowly. If you add it all at once and the yeast is still active, there is a tendency for the wine to bubble violently and create a mess by spilling out of the top of the container. After you add the sugar, use the handle of a slotted spoon to stir the sugar in (being careful to disturb the sediment at the bottom of the container as little as possible). Here’s what my slotted spoon looks like:


The spoon is almost flat and it has a skinny handle. This spoon is perfect for working with the fermentation container opening. (I was lucky to find this sort of spoon in plastic, normally you see them as wooden spoons.)

Look at the batch and listen to it again.  If you see tiny bubbles and hear them when you listen to the container, you know that the batch has restarted. Close the airlock and let the wine continue to ferment.

However, you might find that the wine still hasn’t restarted. In this case, add 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient to the batch and stir it in using the handle of the spoon. Listen again to see if you’ve been successful. In many cases, you’ll have to wait about five minutes to see any effectbe patient!

If the wine doesn’t restart after you add the nutrient, try adding some more wine yeast (I generally use Montrachet). The old yeast might still be alive, but there may not be enough left to restart the batch. Sprinkle the full amount required for the size batch you’re trying to create. Remember that one packet of yeast is normally good for around 5 gallons of wine. This time, put the airlock back in place and wait for fifteen minutes.

I’ve never had wine fail to restart by this point. If you supply sugar, nutrient, and yeast at the right temperature, then the wine should ferment just fine. However, the temperature can be a tricky part of the process. Take the wine’s temperature using your dairy thermometer. If the temperature is too low, place the container in a warmer location. Generally, it’s a bad idea to pour the contents out of the container and try to reheat it in another container on the stove. If you do have problems getting your wine restarted, we may be able to work out a solution. Let me know at [email protected].


Wine Making – Day 1

This post is the start of a series showing my particular technique for making wine. There are probably more ways of making wine than you can imaginecertainly more than I’ve seen. The technique I use produces highly repeatable results in small quantities (suitable for the home enthusiast) in 31 days. I don’t use a two-stage fermentation technique, nor do I rely on whole fruits/vegetables as a source of juice. This technique relies on pure juice and is extremely simple, but it does produce some nice tasting wine. If you are not partial to the whole wine making process, you might want to check out some GraysOnline wine online so you can cut out the middleman, but wouldn’t it be fun to make it, order some anyway and compare them? Another plus… you get more wine!

Many foods are preserved using fermentation. For example, we also make sauerkraut, a kind of fermented food. Wine is probably one of the earliest forms for food preservation through fermentation. In this case, yeast (species Saccharomyces cerevisiae) consumes sugar found in juice to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. It’s the alcohol that preserves the juice.

This form of preservation was probably found by accident in early history. It turns out that the yeast required to produce wine occurs naturally on some fruit such as grapes. When you see that light dusty coating on grapes growing on the vine, part of that dust is the yeast. If you wanted, you could simply crush the grapes and let nature take its course, which is how some people still make wine. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with this approach. However, naturally occurring yeasts don’t always produce the best results and sometimes you can end up with vinegar when the alcohol is oxidized by acetic acid bacteria, AAB, instead of being stabilized to produce wine.

In order to produce wine, and not vinegar, the modern technique is to kill the microbes by adding a campden tablet to the juice. Later this year, I’ll show some techniques for producing and preserving juice for wine making. For now, just assume that you have the amount of prepared juice required for the wine you want to make.

The first day of wine making is the most time consuming, so you can’t become a reverse wine snob super quickly. It can be worth picking up something else to drink in the interim period. I normally set aside three hours to perform the steps required to start two, one gallon, batches of wine that will eventually produce eight bottles. In most cases, I’ll create wine from two different juicesno need to be boring when you’re doing something creative .

To start the process, you gather all of your equipment and sterilize it using a one-step sterilizer designed for wine making. You need these basic pieces of equipment to make wine:

  • Mixing container capable of holding the amount of wine you want to make (one gallon in my case)
  • Four-cup measuring cup
  • Measuring spoons
  • Funnel (for pouring the wine mixture into the fermentation container)
  • Fermentation container
  • Air lock and adapter (you’ll see a picture of it later)
  • Dairy thermometer

You want to gather all of the ingredients as well. The ingredients you use depend on the kind of wine you’re making, but generally you’ll need sugar (food for the yeast), yeast nutrient (helps the yeast to start growing), pectic enzyme (helps produce clear wine that lacks a pectic haze), and acid blend (improves the pH balance of the juice and the eventual taste of the wine). Some wines also require yeast energizer (works like yeast nutrient for some types of fruit) and tannin (helps the wine keep longer, promotes clearing, and improves taste).

Of course, the most important wine making ingredient is the yeast. I generally use a Montrachet wine yeast. It performs well in a wide temperature range, produces a somewhat drier wine (one that has less remaining sugar with a higher alcohol content), and tends not to stop working until the fermentation process is complete (a condition known as getting stuck). The yeast you choose makes a great deal of difference in the quality and taste of your wine. Never use bread yeast for wineit tends to produce a low alcohol result and the wine won’t clear properly. After all, the purpose of bread yeast is to produce lots of carbon dioxide for fluffy bread.

There are a lot of sources for recipes and I’ll eventually share some of mine, but each recipe produces different results, so you’ll have to play around to see what produces the result you like best. That’s part of the fun of making wine. If winemaking turns out not to be your thing, you may instead want to buy a bottle from the best wine store denver so you can get an excellent quality wine without the difficulty of doing it yourself. Here’s a picture of my winemaking ingredients:


After you have everything gathered, mix the ingredients in the mixing container to produce the must (the name of the wine mixture), but don’t add the yeast. The next step for me is to gently warm the must to the optimal temperature for the yeast (105 degrees for Montrachet). Keep mixing the ingredients to make absolutely certain they’re mixed completely. Measure the temperature carefullytoo cold and the yeast won’t start as quickly as it couldtoo hot and you’ll kill the yeast:


After the mixture is at the right temperature, pour it into the fermentation container. Sprinkle the yeast on top. Add water to the air lock and attach the air lock to the fermentation container as shown here:


In this case, you’re seeing tomato wine on the left (delicious with a stronger tasting cheese) and apple wine on the right (a wonderful desert wine). The tomato wine has raisins added to it for taste. I’m using one gallon cubi-containers originally obtained as part wine making kits purchased a long time ago. Buying a kit is one of the better ways to get all of the equipment you need to make wine, but you can easily purchase the components separately. Notice I also put my containers on a cutting board. That makes it easy for me to move my fermentation containers around to more evenly heated rooms or simply to get them out of the way.

Keep an eye on your containers for a while. You want to be sure that the air locks are working properly to keep out foreign yeast and bacteria. Here’s a closeup of my air locks:


The one in the front is already in the right position. Carbon dioxide produced by the yeast has pushed the little cap up in the middle. In order to get out, the carbon dioxide will now need to go down through the water in the air trap and then out through holes in the top. In this way, the container maintains positive pressurekeeping out external sources of contamination. The air lock shown in the back isn’t in the right position yet because the yeast has just started working. Eventually, that cap will rise to the top as well. So, are there any questions about day one? Let me know at [email protected].

Dealing with Overabundance

Gardening is never a precise science. In fact, there isn’t any way to make it a precise science, despite the best efforts of growers worldwide to do so. There are too many variables to consider and each season is unique. A heavy snow winter can delay spring, which reduces the time in which you can plant some early season vegetables. A humid, cool summer favors some vegetables; a dry, hot summer others. The presence or lack of insects makes a difference too. Too many cloudy days changes the environmental landscape, as do myriad other environmental factors. Every season is unique and brings unique challenges.

It’s hardly surprising then that some seasons tend to produce an overabundance of certain vegetables. For example, last year was an especially good year for okra. I don’t think I’ve ever seen our okra plants get that tall or produce such an abundance. That has partially meant having a lot of gumbo this past winter. Rebecca also made pickled okra for me, a delicacy I seldom get.

In many cases, overabundance means having leftovers at the end of the year. In fact, we usually try to plant with a three-year plan in mind. The tomatoes that grew so well this year, very likely won’t grow all that well next year. (Tomatoes are one of the few vegetables that you can count on producing something every year, even if they don’t produce enough to meet your annual needs.) So, during a good year, we can the excess because canned foods have a longer shelf life than frozen and once canned, they require no electricity to keep them fresh. According to eHow you can store high-acid foods for a year and low-acid foods for two to five years without any problem.  Practical experience shows that canned goods will keep longer than that when stored properly, but we throw anything over five years old into the compost heap to become new vegetables.

Try canning your food in various ways. For example, tomatoes are easily canned as whole peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, tomato juice, tomato jam, ketchup, and in many other forms. Rather than buy these items from the store, make them up in advance during canning season so they’re ready whenever you need them. Now, whenever you need a quick meal, you already have it stored in your larder; making that trip to the fast food restaurant unnecessary.

Some food items won’t can properly or the loss of vitamins is so exorbitant that canning makes the result less desirable nutritionally. Anything that’s high in vitamins A or C, thiamin, or riboflavin is less desirable canned than frozen. Consequently, we try to freeze these foods more often than not to preserve their nutritional value. However, this choice has consequences too. Freezing incurs a constant storage cost and there is limited space for freezing in the typical home. Frozen food also has a significantly shorter shelf life than canned food. We try to empty the freezer by the end of each season and will can some remaining foods just to keep from losing them.

This is where many people end their efforts to store excess food. There are many other techniques you can use, however. One of the techniques we use is dehydrating the food. zucchini cans terribly and the frozen result isn’t much better. However, zucchini plants typically produce very well and they’re quite nutritional when you choose larger plants (rather than the baby zucchini favored by stores, which aren’t much better than drinking water). I’ve found over the years that much of the food value in squash is in the seeds. Dehydrated zucchini served in place of potato chips is an exceptionally nutritious (and tasty) snack food that I love and it provides an outstanding way to preserve excess zucchini. Eggplant also preserves well this way, as do many other plants. We dehydrate them and eat them as a low calorie snack food during the winter months.

Another interesting way to use excess vegetables is to make wine. I tried my hand at tomato wine this year for the first time and the results were amazing. Each gallon of tomato wine requires an entire quart of tomato juice, so it’s possible to preserve quite a few tomatoes using this technique. I’ve also made wine from excess pumpkin, along with all of the usual (and a few unusual) fruits. I understand many people use other vegetables to make wine. A friend of mine makes turnip wine.

You can always give your excess to other people. It’s interesting to note that not everyone in a particular area will have your success in a given year with a given vegetable. Last year was a horrible year for tomatoes and zucchini for us. Yes, we received some of each, but not nearly enough to meet the year’s requirement, much less enough to put away for the future. We were able to trade extra food such as potatoes with other people for extra food they had gotten from their gardens. The result is that everyone ended up with a more balanced larder.

These are just a few of my ideas for dealing with overabundance. What are the techniques you use? Let me know at [email protected].

Calculating an Hourly Wage

Yes, I know that most people work in the garden for the sheer joy of doing so. In fact, many gardens do really end up as places to putter around; there are a few of this and a few of that, but not a lot of anything. However, when you begin looking at your garden as a means to feed your family all year round, it takes on added importance. The garden is suddenly larger and consumes a great deal more time. It’s entirely possible to get sucked into a black hole of activity and to begin wondering what you’re really getting from your efforts.

It won’t help that many people won’t understand the obsession to produce the majority of your own food. Some people will make snide remarks about how much it must cost to garden in the first place and how you could better spend your time working a second job. A lot more people won’t make any comment except a halfhearted, “Wow” and think something completely different. So just how do you handle the naysayers?

Well, there is always the argument that food from the garden is significantly fresher than the food purchased in the store and therefore more nutritious. It’s almost certain that someone will rebut your argument with the latest article saying there is no significant nutritional difference between the food you grow and the food in the store. Of course, you can break out your equally compelling article, but fail to convince the other party of anything except that you must be a fanatic. The truth likely is that there are instances where your garden grown food is indeed superior, but that the effort in growing it will eclipse any benefit for most people. In short, they really don’t want to hear that your food tastes better or is better for you.

You could also make the argument that the food grown in your garden is pesticide free. Whether such an argument holds any weight with the person you’re talking with depends on their knowledge of the adverse effects of pesticides. Many people are of the opinion that the media has done a good job of denigrating pesticides and that they can’t possibly be as harmful as many people seem to think; some people simply don’t care.

The only argument that appears to hold weight with many people is how much you make when working in the garden. So, just how do you figure it out? The best approach is to start by weighing the food you bring in from the garden. For example, one year we brought in about 50 pounds of green beans from our garden. At the time, green beans sold for $1.50 a pound in the store (they’re over $3.00 a pound now, but that’s not an appropriate comparison; I don’t have any fresh green beans now either). So, it would have cost me $75.00 to purchase the green beans in the store.

Of course, I have costs when raising the green beans. The seed packet was $2.00. I also had to water the green beans. Computing the value of the water is a little harder when you have a well; you need to approximate the amount of time the water is used to water the green beans, multiply by the flow rate of your hose, and multiply by the electrical rate for your area. I estimated that I spent another $5.00 on water (mulching significantly reduces the cost of the water). I didn’t have any cost for fertilizer; my rabbits supply all I need free of charge. (Well, not precisely, but where else would I use it?) We also don’t use any pesticides on the green beans, so there is no cost there. The profit from our green beans then is $68.00.

My wife and I worked about ten hours total on the green beans. So, you take your profit and divide it by ten to come up with an hourly rate of $6.80. That’s below minimum wage, but you’re definitely not working free of charge. Now, you need to consider the supplementary benefits of gardening. For example, the cheapest gym membership in our area is approximately $43.00 a month. Because we were in the garden, there was no need for a gym membership and we can add that cost to our hourly rate. By working in the garden, I’ve also reduced my weight, which has reduced my blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Instead of four pills each day for my diabetes, I now take one; another cost savings I can add to my hourly rate. There are also fewer runs to town, which means a cost savings in gas. By the time I added everything up, I figured that I had earned about $8.00 an hour gardening.

Just how is it that I can say that I earned $8.00 an hour growing green beans though? After all, there isn’t any additional money in my pocket. The gain comes from not spending money. By making the money you have now go farther, you don’t have to spend as much time worrying about where to get more. In short, the benefit is real. By saving the money I did, I was able to use the money I earned for other things that I can’t produce myself.

There are some pitfalls when your self-sufficient and you need to consider them as well. For example, when you only grow food for the summer, you don’t need to worry about storage. If you’re like me and grow food to last all year, you need to consider the storage costs as part of the cost of the food. Many people turn to the freezer for storage. Some foods do require freezing if you want to keep them (some foods don’t store well at all). However, you need to consider other means of storage. The lowest cost long term storage method is canning. When you can your food, all you need to consider is the cost of the electricity or gas used to can the food, the partial cost of jars (they last nearly forever), and the cost of lids (around $2.50 for ten of them). However, don’t overlook techniques such as drying. My wife dries a number of vegetables in the form of chips. For example, nothing tastes better than a bag of zucchini or egg plant chips in winter; it’s a taste of summer from vegetables that don’t store particularly well in any other way.

I’ll discuss storage techniques in a future article. In the meantime, think about how much you make each hour growing your own food. You might be surprised at how much profit there is in having fun!