Thursday, May 5, 2011

how to make homemade wine

Gita and I squeezing the mashed fruit pulp to extract the juice
First I have to ask you to forgive me for posting photos from 2006, but I recently promised to post photos of home winemaking, and I haven't bothered to take pictures of the process for years, so here they are.  We are a bit younger and better looking in these photos, so I guess that doesn't hurt either.  It's amazing what a few years of having young children can do to a person.

But that's not the point- what I'd like to talk about is one of the best skills to have as an urban homesteader- the ability to make your own high-quality booze.  The latest article in the Archdruid Report (a great blog if you haven't read it) made reference to an analogy that compared humans' occupation of planet Earth to yeast cells' occupation of a vat.  In both cases, the occupants of the finite space end up consuming all of the resources and producing pollution that eventually results in their own extinction.

While our treatment of the earth may or may not eventually lead to our extinction, we may as well enjoy the process with some homemade wine.

If you are not familiar with the organic chemistry of the process- it works more or less like this: 
You fill a jar/vat/carboy with sugary juice of some type or other and add yeast to it, preferably a decent quality wine yeast.  You then allow it to sit at room temperature, allowing the C02 produced to escape while not allowing oxygen in.  After a few months, you have wine!  The part of it that is analogous to human behavior is the fact that the yeast cells doing the work for us are actually consuming the sugar in the juice as food, then peeing it out as alchohol, and farting it out as carbon dioxide.  Both, but particularly alcohol are poisonous to yeast.  When the alcohol level in the vat reaches 12 or 14 percent, the yeast die en masse, leaving the wine virtually yeast-free.  The yeast never learn to live in balance with their environment, and leave us with a tasty wine.

That may be a depressing analogy, but at least at the end of it you have something to drink!

my friend Josh mashing the mulberries to make the pulp
I've made wine out a number of fruits in the almost 20 years I have been doing this.  Grapes are the most obvious, but I've also used mulberries a number of times, dandelions a few, peaches, kiwis and raspberries.  I've also tried a mulberry/blackberry/raspberry/elderberry combo that won a ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.

The wine in the photos was a mulberry wine.  This is one I've made a lot.  Not so much because it is so good, but because mulberries are plentiful, and most people consider them to be trash- therefore they are very happy if someone like myself and my friend Josh show up and offer to pick them all.  Or if we were to just show up and pick them all at the edge of a public park, as we did the berries that we made this batch of wine from.

We went to the edge of Como Park, if I remember right, laid out a few old blankets and sheets, and took turns shaking the trees.  This was enough to be able to collect half of a 5-gallon bucket of berries in about 2 hours.

My criteria for making wine are simple- make it inexpensively and make it organically.  Both are easier than they sound.  You can find a ton of information online about winemaking, and find some pretty good books about it, but unfortunately, most make it sound much more complicated than it really is.

What you really need to know is that almost any fruit juice, mixed with wine yeast and kept in a sanitary condition will produce a type of wine.  It could also produce vinegar if you don't follow the part about keeping it sanitary.  Many books and websites will tell you that you need to use sulfur or potassium tablets many times throughout the process, but I've been able to make wine without them- and in my opinion, it tastes better.

Heat is a great sterilizer in making wine, as it in the process of canning.  I have heat pasteurized wines, and I have also left them unpasteurized, with the occassional suprise de-corking as a result.  But I have never produced anything dangerous or completely unpalatable (but close to unpalatable at times).

So try at your own risk.  If you haven't made wine before and don't know anyone else who has, go to a wine and beer supply shop in your area.  My favorite is Northern Brewer on Grand Ave. in St. Paul, but really any shop that sells brewing supplies should be able to give you good advice on how to do this.

And you'll have to stop there anyway to get the basic equipment you'll need. The basic equipment setup to make 5 gallons of wine will set you back about $50.  They include:   a carboy- essentially a 5-gallon jar, a fermentation lock, a siphon, and a corker.  A hydrometer is also really nice to have, but not essential.

For ingredients, you will need fruit juice, some white sugar (optional but usually necessary) and wine yeast.  Don't think that you can use bread yeast for wine.  You'll get a weak and horrible tasting wine. Trust me- when I started making wine in my dorm room a long time ago, this is what I used and it was awful.  Real wine yeast costs around $1 and makes all the difference.  Don't skimp on yeast.

You can skimp on the fruit however.  When you go to the wine and beer supply store you will see $200 kits with juice concentrate from California or France.  Walk right by.  Use what is local and plentiful and you will discover the flavor of your own terroir.  Mulberries and dandelions make surprisingly good wines, considering most people are willing to pay money to exterminate both, at least near where I live.

If, for example, you were to make a mulberry wine, here is what you'd do:

Collect the mulberries- you'll need at least two gallons, preferably 3 or 4.  Put them in the biggest pot you have, add water and boil.  This helps get the sticks and leaves and bugs out, and sterilizes the must, the term for the juice that will become wine.

When the berries are boiling, mash them with a potato masher or large spoon.  Crush them as well as you can to extract the juice.

Then strain.  You can see how Gita and I did it in the top photo.  Putting it in a clean cloth and hanging it up to drip is another method.   Just don't let it drip for too long (more than an hour), or bacteria may find it. 

Once you have strained, you can add sugar or other types of juice to acidify the must.  I like to add the pure unsweetened cranberry juice that you can buy at most co-ops or natural food stores.  One bottle of it will acidify even a very bland wine to a high degree.  Mulberries are not very acidic, so you will need some cranberry or grape juice to help it ferment well and taste good.

checking the sugar level with a hydrometer
When it is time to add sugar, you will want the hydrometer.  You can do it by taste, but your first few times it's difficult to know how much to add.  The guide on the side of the hydrometer will tell you the amount of potential alcohol in the wine to be made.  The goal is at least 12%, but probably not more than 14%, since that would leave a lot of unfermented sugar in the wine. 

When the must is ready, and around room temperature or slightly warm, it's time to add the yeast.  Mix it first with a little warm water, then add it to the must in the carboy.  After that, put the fermentation lock on top, and leave it in a warm place.   It will take a few months, and you can siphon off the yeast a few times if you want the wine to be clear, but the hard work is done.

You can bottle the wine or leave it in the carboy as you like.  I don't have the energy or time to describe the bottling process.  It's not as hard as it sounds- but that may be a topic for another day.

a 'must' ready to ferment


  1. Thank you! I decided just this week to try using the dandelions in my yard for wine (and greens and pickled buds and fake coffee, too - doggone it, if I can't get rid of 'em, might as well use 'em!) And in my utter ignorance, I almost used bread yeast and an ordinary gallon jar for the process - see what disaster your post has saved me from? Now must see if I can find a wine supply shop around here - but your post makes the process seem possible, if a bit more exacting than I had thought. Thanks again.

  2. Hi Jodancingtree!

    I've made dandelion wine a few times, and the key to making a good wine is using only the yellow part of the flower. The green parts secrete a bitter sap that will make your wine bitter. Use the yellow parts only, and pick all in one day if possible.

    If you plan to make 5 gallons of wine, pick 2 gallons of flowers if possible. Get some friends to help if you can.

    The best yeast for dandelion wine is champagne yeast, and make sure to add some grape products too- either a pound of golden raisins or a couple of cans of frozen white grape juice concentrate.

    It sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn't that much. It's actually pretty fun. Just be sure to be careful about sanitation when you are preparing the must- as careful as you would be if you were canning- and the results will be delicious.

    Jeff Z

  3. I never knew some one can make wine so easily; at least to me seems manageable process if i got some extra hands. Thanks for sharing your expertise. After reading your blog i am hoping i will try to make wine some time this year.

  4. Nice photos Jeff! You've provided a detailed process of your home made wine. Wanna try and taste it! :)

  5. Interesting, I make "country" or fruit wines, and the labels I make are from the Eighth Acre Winery, based upon the lot size I own!~

  6. Thanks for the handy hints for my next crop!

  7. I have made Dandelion wine several times from a recipe my mom and grandmother used. Funny, I and my ancestors never used any type of equipment described by you and we always used bread yeast, because it was what was always available. The wine needed 12 months after bottling to be quite tasty. Also we have opened bottles that were over 20 years old (special celebrations) and the wine had become more like a liqueur, which we were expecting. I guess my recipe works become it was time-tested over the past 130 years.

    1. You can use bread yeast. I have used it myself and the wine is just fine. There are some sites online and that's what yeast they recommend also old timers use bread yeast also. Some good wine yeast tho can make 18-20% alcohol. The best thing to do with it is after its done run it through a stove top steal and you'll get a great brandy.

    2. I agree, bread yeast has worked well for me, and I do not want a high-alcohol wine. To me the main point is to find the healthiest ways to enhance healthy gut bacteria, not to get tipsy. I have never had a bad taste from the yeast yet to my knowledge. I think any off taste has been if too much oxygen was introduced or other contaminants by covering loosely or by testing the flavor too soon!

    3. what is your recipe and how do you do it? I am curious for I am a newby at this.

  8. Try the juice from 4 lemons and 3 oranges per gal for the dandylion wine. Its exquisite! Im going to try this with the mullberry wine. Its nice my dandylion wine takes only 6 weeks. Perfect timing to clean my vat and start some mullberry wine.

    1. what else do you add to the mulberry wine besides the 4 lemons and 3 oranges? I am going to try making mulberry wine also.

  9. Huh, I had no idea it was so easy. I am curious how it turns out compared to professionally produced wine. I might have to keep this in mind for when I have a free weekend.

  10. I have a huge Mulberry tree and my neighbor is obsessed with harvesting them. Wine is a great idea. Thanks for the tips.

  11. I have a huge mulberry tree the neighbor tried to poison a few years ago. I love my mulberries and told him I would get him for illegal entry..that stopped him. The mulberries on the huge tree take awhile to ripen. Across the yard (far from my neighbor) is a young mulberry tree that is bursting with dark purple berries. The birds and I share them and a new mulberry tree nearby will have them next year! Thanks birds for helping me transplant new mulberry trees. And thanks for the wine recipe Jeff.

  12. when you mash the berries once boiled, is that in the water you used to boil? or did you take the berries out then mash?

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. If you boil the mash, doesn't that also kill off any bacteria that is beneficial to our guts though? I'm thinking just wash the berries thoroughly, with unchlorinated water, then add a small amount of sugar for a dry wine, a tiny but of yeast, and immediately seal them from oxygen in the primary fermentation vessel. To be very simple, I'm just using balloons over the juice bottle as an airlock. Soon I will get fancy and use mason jars with an airlock more like your pics show. Thanks for putting together one of the most informative pieces I have seen about homemade wine made simple!!!