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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wine Making is a Family Affair

Stomping the grapes
I grew up in a home where both my parents were involved in food prep. My mom tended to make the every day suppers and my dad specialized in Chinese food and meats.
My family's diet was a lot more varied than that of my friends' families, typically eating food from around the world (and not the standard American diet) but even so, our one big claim to fame in the community was that our basement housed a "beer room".

"Beer room" was a misnomer My dad has always considered himself a biochemist (and that was what he got his degree in before going to medical school), and because of that, he loved kitchen biochemistry- making and fermenting things.
We fermented so many different types of things growing up, and by we, I mean the whole family. Even though it was my dad's initiative, we kids all pitched in to do the work involved, helping to mix, mash, schlep, siphon, and bottle.
What did my dad make? 
What didn't he make is the true question. He made all different types of wine. Port, dandelion raisin wine, Zinfandel, Cabernet Savignon and sweet wine. Beers- stouts, lagers, ales and pale ales. Ginger mead. Honey mead. Sake (Japanese rice wine). Miso. Hard iced tea. Hard lemonade. Etc. And we helped him do it all.

When the things were finished being made, they'd go into the beer room to age, as alcohol tastes much better with age. (Also stored in that room was his homemade maple syrup, which I plan to talk about this coming winter.)

The best memory I have of making these things together as a family was wine making, as I thought it absolutely hilarious. After purchasing cases of wine grapes from the market at 4 in the morning, my dad would come home and we'd pick through the grapes, taking out the icky ones, and putting the good grapes in a large fermenting bucket.
And then the fun would begin. My dad would take my little brother (who then, was actually little, so far removed from the hulking 6 foot 5 giant that he is today that its hard to imagine him being that small), wash his feet very well, and then carry him across the room to the large bucket where all the grapes were.
And then he'd begin stomping...

Well, enough reminiscing. Let me tell you about how we made our wine today.

As it was when I was growing up, wine making in the Penniless household was definitely a family affair. Everyone, parents, preschoolers, and toddler alike were involved in the preparation process. (And everyone got tired, and filthy as well, in addition to our floor ending up looking like... I'll spare you the imagery.)

We didn't go on any trips to the market at 4 am. Instead, we picked two different types of grapes from 2 different neighbor's grape vines. The neighbors had so many grapes that even after taking everything they needed for their family, and making wine themselves, there was enough to go around that they begged me to come over and take it off their hands so it wouldn't fall onto the ground and rot.
Instead, at 6 pm last night, I and the two little ones walked to the neighbor's house armed with bags... and an hour later, we walked home, arms weighed down by a good 25 lbs of green grapes.
And because that wasn't enough for me, this morning I walked over to the other neighbor's house, and returned home with 15 more pounds of grapes, this time purple.
All organic, of course.

Grapes you pick yourself differ from grapes you buy in the store, because somehow, the clusters of grapes in the store have grapes that all ripen at the same time. Not so with self picked, organic grapes. Within one cluster, one might be hard and green, another slightly purple, another dark purple, and another shriveled up, raisin like. Because of that, you absolutely have to go through each cluster of grapes, taking out the mushy grapes, the buggy grapes, the rotten grapes, and the shriveled grapes.
Mike and I did that together this morning, going through ALL 40 pounds of grapes. The good grapes went into a food grade plastic bucket for the next step.

Green grapes, sorted, cleaned, and waiting for the next step.
 After we had the grapes sorted, came the next step. The stomping of the grapes to squeeze the juice out of the grapes.
Yes, traditionally people would stomp on buckets of grapes. That is the traditional wine making process and isn't gross or anything. Its efficient, using the whole body weight of a person to crush the grapes instead of just using the strength found in their hands. Tourists even do it in wineries today.
I washed off little Lee's feet, because his feet were the only ones small enough to actually fit into the bucket (other than Ike, but I don't want anyone in a diaper or along the stages of potty training in the deep grape bucket).
I then plopped him into, or rather onto, the bucket of grapes.

Lee ON the bucket of grapes
Those grapes were strong and held his weight rather nicely. They didn't crush nearly as easily as I thought they would. Then again, a 40 pound toddler (guestimate- haven't weighed him in ages) trying to crush 40 pounds of grapes. No wonder!
Slowly, making sure not to splash anything, he stomped the grapes.
Little by little, he made progress.

Grapes starting to get crushed. Note the must around his feet.
The longer he continued, the deeper his feet sank into the grape and juice mass. This juice is called must.
He was having a great time and thought it absolutely hilarious that mom and dad were allowing him to step on food!
Little Ike got jealous of the fun Lee was having. So, just to amuse him, I washed off Ike's feet well, put a few clusters of grapes into a large plastic bowl, and let Ike stomp around. He had a great time doing that, being just like his older brother, but also insisted on eating the grapes out of the bowl that he was stomping in.
As the grapes got squished down, there was more room in the bucket, so we added the 15 pounds of purple grapes to the 25 pounds of green grapes already in the bucket, and Lee stomped them as well.

And then he got tired. I understand why! It's hard work!
So then mom and dad took over.
Only my feet are a lovely size 12 American shoe, and my husband's feet around the same size. Our feet would never actually fit in the bucket, so we used our hands.
Pressing, squishing, squeezing.
And taking out the bits of stem that had now been freed from the grapes.
It was very, very tiring.
Even with myself and Mike both doing the work together.
The must was very acidic, enough that it made my arms start tingling and being uncomfortable.
Eventually we had enough, figured that was the best we could do, and washed ourselves up.

All the squished grapes.
The bits floating on top are the seeds and the peels.
The floor was disgusting. It needed to be swept, then mopped, then swept again, then mopped again, just to make the floor moderately clean. (We'd started out with a very clean floor because we knew that we'd be working with food close to the floor.)

I then added sugar, water, and some alcoholic iced tea I had made a week and a half prior. My dad the wine maker had suggested making that hard iced tea, as the tannins in the tea are beneficial to the wine making process, and the fact that the yeasts are very much alive and bubbling in the hard iced tea helps kick start the fermenting process in the wine.
I honestly didn't follow a precise recipe, as the exact taste is less important to me than the fact that I have a free source of wine for when I need it.
And if it happens to flop? Well then I'll have a free source of wine vinegar, something pretty expensive round these parts.


I then loosely covered the bucket, and placed it in an area where I knew it wouldn't be disturbed.

According to my dad, twice daily, I should mix the wine and "break the cap" of grape skins, pits, and stems  to ensure that the wine comes out better. (Read the benefits of breaking the cap here.)

In 5-7 days, the wine should become a blood red, after the skin have a chance to color and add flavor to the must. At this point, the wine is siphoned off the solids into a fermentation container, where it should ferment for a long time, at least a month, preferably half a year or more.

Once you siphon off the wine, you can add more sugar, water, and yeast to the make something called "seconds", another batch of wine, albeit a little weaker than the first.

This way, you get double as much wine as you would otherwise.

I can't wait for this wine to be ready! It feels so awesome to make something expensive at home for virtually pennies!

Just five notes:
Camden tablets. Standard wine making recipes call for camden tablets, which are made of sulfur, and even my dad, who is totally not scared of using chemicals in food (he's the opposite of a natural foodie), advised me not to use the camden tablets, as they're "not healthy", in his words. Camden tablets are put in wine to kill any wild yeasts or bacteria that may be on the grapes, but according to my dad, if you put in alcoholic iced tea that is very much alive (constantly bubbling), the yeast will be strong enough that it will stop any other bacteria or yeast from taking hold in the wine, making camden tablets unnecessary.

Why Make Wine? If you're going to drink wine, its best to make it at home, both for cost reasons and for health reasons, as wines sold in the store nearly always contain sulfites (those dang camden tablets), which are not healthy to consume. But why not just avoid wine? Well, if you don't enjoy it, or have religious issues with it, that's one thing, but consuming red wine on a regular basis (though not to excess) actually has been shown to have many health benefits, from lowering your risk of heart disease to lowering the risk of getting various cancers, to promoting brain health, and in general increasing longevity. (See here for a more extensive list.) Drinking red wine regularly is actually a good idea, provided it doesn't break the bank, and if you make it yourself from grapes you picked for free, this is a free and pretty easy way to increase your health.

Sugar. Yeast eats sugar. The more sugar you have in the wine, the more food there is for the yeast, and the more alcoholic the wine becomes. By the time the fermentation stops, you won't have any sugar remaining, so if you're concerned about the sugar content, this isn't an issue unless you add certain things to the wine to get the yeast to stop fermenting before all the sugar gets eaten by the yeast.

Yeast. You can use wine yeast for this, but its harder to find and doesn't make that much of a difference. I just used bread yeast, which is what my dad usually does.

Legality. In the US, making alcohol at home does not require a license, so long as you make no more than 100 gallons of alcohol a year (or 200 gallons if there are two or more people in the house), and so long as you don't sell it ever.

Do you drink wine often? Cook with it? What type of wine would you prefer?
Is there any way you'd ever make wine from scratch? If you had an over abundant free source of grapes, would you consider giving it a try, or is it too much work in your opinion?
Have you ever made any alcohol at home? If so, what type did you make? If you haven't made any, do you know any home brewers?
If you're an experienced wine maker, do you have anything you'd like to add about the process of home brewing?

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