Sunday, January 22, 2012

carrot wine? why not?

a nice golden-yellow carrot wine must, fermenting
I made my first batch of wine in my dorm room at the U of M.  I used a gallon of apple cider I bought at the corner market, bread yeast, and fashioned an air lock out of a cork, which I drilled a hole through vertically, and a  foot of surgical tubing, tied in a pigtail, and secured to the cork with some wax.

I guess it was innovative, and at the time my only goal was procuring some alcohol, as is the case for most if not all college freshmen.  I got alcohol, all right, but not very good tasting alcohol.  In retrospect, it was badly oxidized, with the added benefit of the off-flavors that come with using bread yeast rather than wine yeast.  It worked well enough for me to try it again, though.

It was at the time, and still is, legal.  As I continued in my fermenting adventures, I purchased some more advanced equipment and found that the wine and beer supply stores can legally sell equipment and ingredients legally to anyone 18 and older.  Of course, in the early 90's, home wine and beermaking hadn't become mainstream yet, and I had to ride my bicycle through a sketchy part of North Minneapolis to get to the only supplier that I could find in the Twin Cities.  It was a basic shop, bordering on dumpy, but they had everything I needed to get started.

And all I really needed was a carboy, an air lock and some decent wine yeast.  I don't remember how I got the carboy home on my bike, but I did.  I tried using some of the other ingredients that they recommend at the wine and beer supply shop- sulfur dioxide for cleaning equipment and stabilizing wine, potassium sorbate for a preservative, yeast nutrient.  Somehow it never felt quite right, and I stopped using the stuff after a few batches.  Hot water is all I've used to sterilize equipment for many years now, and I make sure to add something with citric acid for a yeast nutrient.  Yes, I've had some failures, particularly stuck fermentations due to the lack of nutrient- but that's what keeps it interesting.  

Like gardening, making wine organically (or at least without adding chemicals) has its own rewards.  For starters, it's cheaper.  There's less need to buy a lot of chemical crap and keep it on hand.  The final product is purer, even if the difference isn't tangible.  And like gardening, organic winemaking takes more skill and attention to detail.  Yes, you could just blow all of your winemaking problems away by adding another powder or pill to the batch, but that takes away from the art and craft of winemaking.  It separates it from the long history that making wine has, and the beauty within that history.  After all, nobody had potassium sorbate in 18th century France, but they made damn good wine anyway.

Really- how many of the problems in 21st century America stem from the desire to blow away all of your problems with a powder or a pill?  Is that how I want to make a batch of something that should be full of subtlety and genuine pleasure? 

carrots and concord grapes, cooking on low heat
This particular batch of wine is being made from concord grapes and carrots (it's yet to be seen how much genuine pleasure the final product really  brings.)

The concord grapes came from my dad's garden- from a vine that I gave him for father's day almost a decade ago.  It's producing like crazy now, and he has trouble using up all the fruit.  He gave me three gallon freezer bags of frozen grapes this fall, which I forgot about until I had a surplus of carrots from my own garden and started looking for a way to use them up...

Which touches on another principle of winemaking that I evolved, or stumbled into,or more correctly--re-learned what others have already learned.  Which is that you can make wine from almost anything, so use what you have on hand.

What we have on hand each fall is a lot of tasty carrots.  Our sandy backyard soil grows carrots like weeds.  I plant some 'Danvers' and/or some 'Nantes' every spring, usually just scattering them between rows or in a patch, and by the fall, I have most of a 5-gallon pail of delicious carrots. 

In years past, I've dealt with the surplus by giving them away at work, to neighbors, or, last year, by shredding gallons and gallons of them, then freezing the shredded carrots.  Unfortunately, nobody wants to eat shredded carrots, and I'm even at a loss with what to do with them.  Getting kids to eat carrot cake isn't easy.

So this year, wine.  I found some recipes online, and improvised based on what they had said.  So far so good.
checking the must with a hydrometer

I apologize for the poor quality of the photos here, bt the way.  I do what I can, but the fact is that I'm usually photographing in low light, and the rechargeable batteries don't allow me to take many flash photos.  Use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

In the past I've used apples, mulberries, raspberries and blackcaps,  dandelions, peaches (no, not local) kiwis (ditto) and various bottled or frozen juice concentrates as they went on sale or became available.  Never the pricey California-grown concentrates at the wine and beer supply store- no- usually Welches or Aldi's finest.  So long as it's 100% juice it usually works well.

For this particular batch, I used the 3 gallon freezer bags of concord grapes I mentioned above, mixed with about two to three gallons of carrots, sliced and boiled all together in a 5-gallon pot.  And it all worked because the air spaces between all  the ingredients allow 6 gallons (nominally) of a solid to fit into a 5 gallon pot, with some water added as well.

 Because carrots apparently have a lot of pectin, one extra ingredient I sprung for this time was pectic enzyme.  As an enzyme, it doesn't violate my own arbitrary organic standards.  I want the wine to be clear at the end of the process, and the enzyme should help a lot in that respect.  The guy at the store tried to sell me on yeast nutrient, but I didn't take the bait.  It has fermented just fine so far.  I added juice of 3 or 4 lemons, so that may have helped.

yeast, ready to pitch
The yeast nutrient he tried to sell me was diammonium phosphate.  When you think about it, that's really the same thing that chemical agriculture tells you is necessary to grow a garden.  Ammonia (in the anhydrous form, produced from natural gas) and phosphorous.  N and P in the NPK seen on the front of every fertilizer package.  Chemical fertilizer for the yeast colony in my wine.  I'll pass on that, thanks.

One suggestion I did take was doubling the amount of yeast added, from one packet to two.  Apparently it results in a more robust initial yeast colony (go figure) and less likelihood of an initially stuck wine.  So far it seems to be working.

It's fermenting happily right now in my basement tool room.  It's a few feet from the furnace and water heater, and the temp in the room is a pretty steady 62-64F.  That's just about perfect for fermenting wine.  Not to cold and not too hot.

fermenting wine, filling my man cave with its fragrance
Of course, why bother with all of this, when I can buy a bottle of two-buck-chuck at the chain place that opened not so far from where I live not so long ago?  Leaving any questions of quality or subtlety of flavor aside (especially since I've been sipping on a glass of two-buck cabernet while writing this, and it's not bad), and leaving aside the fact that I enjoy the process, it's about learning habits of resilience.  You may notice that I changed the header after the 'eighth acre farm' title this week.  Given the state of our economy, our planet, and our food system, I think its important not to be too coy about the fact that we are living in a time of peak resource extraction.  Meaning, that the upward progression of everything will not continue indefinitely.

I am no armageddonist.  On the contrary, I think there may  be some real benefits that come from peak resource extraction.  As a culture, we will relearn living within our means, creating and maintaining social networks, and learning to make or do things on our own.  A future not of George Jetson flying cars, but of bicycles and leaner, hopefully not too much meaner humans.

I'm encouraged by the stories I've read just this week of other bloggers beginning CSA's in their city yards, of another leaving his job to live with a relative and cultivate some land that an older farmer would otherwise let go fallow.  I'm not moving or starting a CSA or leaving my job, though there are days I'd like to.  What I am doing, and plan to continue to do, is to learn how to make more of the things I use and do more of the services I need.  For now, it's for fun.  Someday soon, it may be more than that.


  1. Great post Jeff! Fermentation is one of my favorite hobbies. I tend to stick to beer, but I have made some pretty kick-ass meads also! I like the fact that you are using ingredients other than grapes for fermenting wine. Carrots are sweet and flavorful, I bet it will be great! A friend of mine is fermenting wine made out of Sun-Chokes right now. I hope it is good because I have a hard time eating them and I have a ton of them in the back garden (I would like to find another use for them). I hope everyone in the family is hanging in there and doing well! Peace and Cheers!

  2. Thanks for this post Jeff. I woke up early this morning (couldn't sleep) and read it. Now you've given me an idea with what to do with all the excess fruit that gets thrown out at work. I bring it home whenever I can but there are only so many pears and apples you can eat.

    Now I know what to do with it all!

    Cheers, Jason.

  3. Andy- I've never made a batch from sunchokes- I'm not even 100% sure what sunchokes are. Are they the same as Jerusalem artichokes? If so, I know how vigorous those are- planted them once at a rented place years ago, and they took the corner over. They'd probably make better beer than wine, but I've been proven wrong many times before.

    Jason- Pears and apples make great wine- or mead if you have access to some inexpensive honey. I like the idea of taking excess fruit from work- it puts urban foraging in a whole new light.

  4. I too like to make wines. I don't use grapes. I am into Strawberry,Blackberry, Cherry and Apple Cider wines. My last batch of Cider wine went one step further albeit the legality is in question... I set my fermented cider outside in a pail overnight in January and in the morning skimmed off the ice crystals. Then did it again 2 more nights. To keep oxidation down, I kept the lid sealed and the hole on top used for the airlock was removed and CO2 from my mig welder to push out the air. Then the airlock back on. After all that skimming my 5 gallons became 1.25, but it was absolutely potent and delicious!