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Forrest Cook's
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Going Wild: Wild Yeast in Wine Making

UC Davis'
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All About Apple Cider

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Who is Jack Keller?
Jack Keller lives with his wife Donna in Pleasanton, Texas, just south of San Antone. Winemaking is his passion and for years he has been making wine from just about anything both fermentable and nontoxic.

Jack has developed scores of recipes and tends to gravitate to the exotic or unusual, having once won first place with jalapeno wine, second place with sandburr wine, and third with Bermuda grass clippings wine.

Jack was twice the President of the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild, is a certified home wine judge, frequent contributor to WineMaker Magazine, creator and author of The Winemaking Home Page and of Jack Keller's WineBlog, the first wine blog on the internet, ever. He grows a few grapes, still works for a living, and is slowly writing a book on -- what else? -- winemaking.



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Some Other Wine Blogs

There are hundreds of wine blogs. According to Alder Yarrow (see below), none have been around as long as Jack Keller's WineBlog, but 99% of these newcomers are for wine consumers, not winemakers. They have anointed themselves the official "wine blogosphere." You can count on both hands those of us bloggers dedicated to actually making the stuff they write about, and yet our blogs are largely ignored by this elite. Still, they exist and are important. There are some who write for the buyer / consumer but still occasionally talk about the making of wine, even if they usually are talking about making it in 125,000-liter stainless steel tanks. Or they might talk about grape varieties, harvests in general, the cork-screwcap debate, stemware, or other subjects I think you might find interesting. They're worth reading even if you aren't interested in their tasting notes. Then again, that just might be your cup of tea. Here are a few of them I like, listed in a loose alphabetical order (by blogger):

Alder Yarrow's
Vinography: A Wine Blog

Ben Evert's
Making Homemade Wine and Beer, about home winemaking

Ben Hardy's
Ben's Adventures in Wine Making, a very fun read from across the Atlantic

Charlie Short's
Clueless About Wine

Chef Neil's
A Wine Making Fool's Blog, a lot of fun to read

Chris Nuber's
Texas Wine Blog, a good, unbiased read

Darcy O'Neil's
The Art of Drink

Eric Asimov's
The Pour

Erroll's
Washington Winemaker

Frugalwinemaker's
Frugal Wine Making

Ian Scott's
The Home Winery, about home winemaking

James Jory's
Second Leaf, about home winemaking

Jamie Goode's
Jamie Goode's Wine Blog

Jeff Lefevere's
The Good Grape: A Wine Manifesto

Jennifer's
My Wines Direct

Jorray's
Chez Ray Winemaking

Karien O'Kennedy's
New World Winemakeer Blog

Ken Payton's
Reign of Terrior, lots of good interviews

Ken W.'s
AlaWine.com

Mal's
Wine Amateur

Marisa D'Vari's
A Wine Story

Mary Baker's
Dover Canyon Winery

Michelle's
My Wine Education

Mike Carter's
Serious About Wine

Mike McQueen's
Life on the Vine

Noel Powell's
Massachusetts Winemaker

Noel Powell's
Random Wine Trails

[no name]'s
Budget Vino...for the $10 and Under Crowd

[no name]'s
Two Bees Wine, about home winemaking

Russ Kane's
Vintage Texas, searching for Texas terroir

Sondra Barrett's
Wine, Sex and Beauty in the Bottle

Steve Bachmann's
The Wine Collector: Practical Wine Collecting Advice

Thomas'
Vines & Wines

Thomas Pellechia's
VinoFictions, interesting variety

Tim Patterson's
Blind Muscat's Cellarbook

Tim Vandergrift's
Tim's Blog, a humorous and enjoyable flow from Wine Expert's Tim V.

Tom Wark's
Fermentation: the Daily Wine Blog

Tyler Colman's
Dr. Vino's Wine Blog







Who is Jack Keller?
Jack Keller lives with his wife Donna in Pleasanton, Texas just south of San Antone. Winemaking is his passion and for years he has been making wine from just about anything both fermentable and nontoxic.

Jack has developed scores of recipes and tends to gravitate to the exotic or unusual, having once won first place with jalapeno wine, second place with sandburr wine, and third with Bermuda grass clippings wine.

Jack was twice the President of the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild, is a certified home wine judge, frequent contributor to WineMaker Magazine, and creator and author of The Winemaking Home Page. He grows a few grapes, still works for a living, and is slowly writing a book on -- what else? -- winemaking.

WineBlog Archives

Blog entries are generally presented in reverse chronological order, with earlier entries at the bottom and recent ones at the top so the newer can be read first. An archive is more useful if the entries are presented chronologically. I have thus rearranged them as such.




July 22nd, 2006

I am often asked to identify grapevines -- wild or cultivated -- or asked how one might go about doing it themselves. This is an interesting problem, so I thought I'd give it a little attention here.

First of all, let me say that with few exceptions grapevine identification is not easy. Rarely (twice, I think) have I been able to do it without several good photographs of the leaves (both top and under-sides), the tendrils, the growing tips, the older canes, the trunk with the bark, and the fruit. And with the leaves and the fruit, some sense of scale is desirable. What makes the job difficult are several really important variables.

Photos of the fruit in, say, April are only helpful in determining if the grape is a cluster or a bunch grape. They offer no clues as to whether the mature grapes will be large or small, the bunches tight or loose, the color at ripeness bronze, pink, red, purple, or black.

Leaf size and shape is also extremely important, but there are two problems associated with this. The first is that leaf shape is not uniform among a species, a variety or even to a single vine. Most vines have both an adolescent and mature form of leaf, with variations in between. The photo below illustrates this, as all eight leaves were picked on the same day from the same vine. Further, all are whitish-grey- green underneath, an important clue lost in the photograph.

Mustang grape leaf diversity
Eight different leaf shapes from
the same vine of Vitis mustangensis

The second problem with leaf shape is that wild vines have been cross-pollinating with cultivars for centuries, many of which are wholly or partially Vitis vinifera (European grape). Their leaf shapes can be darned near anything. Lon Rombough, author of The Grape Grower -- A Guide to Organic Viticulture , estimates there are few "pure" Vitis californica growing in the wild today, and to find one of the few would require a sojourn in isolated wilderness, something becoming more difficult to find every year. Even native vines of different species interbreed, although this is far less common than one would think. When two or more native species inhabit the same area, they usually bloom at different times. Dr. Barry Comeaux showed this conclusively in his Taxonomic Studies on Certain Native Grapes of Eastern North America (1984). In three different North Carolina localities where Vitis labrusca, Vitis vulpina, Vitis aestivalis, and Vitis cinerea coexist, the various species flowered successively with little or no overlap; when an overlap occurred, the species involved inhabited different soil moisture zones or preferred different altitudes, In other words, both phenological differences and ecological preferences of native grapes promote the reproductive isolation of the various species. "Natural hybrids," while not rare, are still not common.

Useful References

The first place to look when you want to identify a vine is the phone book. Your county extension agent is your first echelon of information for all things agricultural. I know many of you go to Google.com first, and I guess this is natural in this day and age, but in this case it is not the right thing to do. For one thing, native grapes may have a wide distribution, but within any state the distributions can be quite selective. In Texas, for example, various sources list between 11 and 14 species as native, yet there are dozens of counties in the state where no native grapes occur naturally today, and other counties where only one, two, or three species may be found. The extensions agent usually knows which ones might be there and which ones have never been there. This in itself is extremely helpful.

The second place to look should be your lending library. A number of books can be consulted with a great deal of reliability, but you may have to use a botanical dictionary to get the most from them. The language of botany is quite precise and detailed. If the author says the petiole of a species is grooved underneath, this is a huge clue to identification if the grape you are questioning has this feature. Don't be afraid of such terms. Just look them up and learn them.

Listed below are my favorite books for native grape identification. Since several are quite old, you may have to request them through inter-library loan. Most (but not all) libraries can obtain books for you this way.

Munson, T.V. Foundations of American Grape Culture, Denison, TX: T.V. Munson & Son, 1909
Hedrick, U.P. The Grapes of New York, Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon, 1908
Galet, Pierre and Lucie Morton (translator). A Practical Ampelography: Grapevine Identification, Cornell University, 1979
Vines, Robert A. Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southwest, Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1960




August 19th, 2006

Last week I attended WineFest 2006 in Baltimore. WineFest is the brainchild of Joel Sommer, founder and administrator of WinePress.us, an on-line resource and discussion site for amateur winemakers. I was pleased to be part of the Baltimore gathering and humbled to be asked to speak to the attendees and stand in when they needed another judge for their competition.

I gave three presentations at WineFest 2006. One was on the extending the instructions for making wines from kits. These are the same instructions posted on my website and here in this WineBlog (see the entry for December 18th, 2003). Because representatives from three kit manufacturers were present at WineFest, I must confess I was just a little nervous giving a presentation on how to make kit wines better. But I must say that the representatives were gentlemen and did not beat me up.

Another presentation was on making wines from fruit. In this I simply presented considerations one must attend to when making fruit wines -- fitting them into the five basic steps of winemaking. There were perhaps a dozen people at the presentation who could have spoken well on the same subject, so it was quite pleasing to me to have so many good winemakers express their appreciation for my talk.

My third presentation was "Making Exotic Wines." This subject was a lot of fun for me to organize into a seminar piece. I make a lot of wines my peers consider "exotic," so this forced me to think about what I do, why I do it and the sorts of problems I often encounter when dealing with a base (fruit or berry) I have only tasted 37-38 years ago () or not at all. In the first instance I am talking about longan, rakum (snakefruit), mangosteen, jaboticaba, rambutan, and jackfruit. In the second instance I am referring to dragon fruit, ciruela, granadilla, santol, langsat, sala, black sapote, and several others I have managed to obtain due to the convenience of canning or express shipping. And I still have hopes of making wine from sapodilla, canistel, Surinam cherry, lucuma, atemoya, naranjilla, pulasan, barbadine, takhob, pepino, and the awesome but intimidating durian. This arena of winemaking is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge.

WineFest attendees
WineFest 2006 attendees at Boordy Vineyard, Joel Sommers kneeling

The first day of seminars was at the historic Boordy Vineyards, known to thousands in the past as home of Philip and Jocelyn Wagner. This couple did more to bring French and French-American hybrid grapes to America than any other, and Philip Wagner's classic books, American Wines and Wine-Making and Grapes into Wine, served as instruction manuals and inspirations for generations of grape growers and winemakers. The Wagners operated Boordy Nursery in the 1930’s and introduced many new varieties of hybrid grapevines throughout the United States. They established Maryland’s first commercial winery in 1945, and their success at producing classically-styled table wines inspired many pioneers around the country to follow their example. The location was perfect for WineFest.

The second day of seminars, the competition and the post-competition tasting and awards was at the Baltimore Best Western Convention Center. It was a nice venue and management ignored our late-night tributes to Bacchus. In all, a good time was had by all.

The only trials and tribulations I suffered were at the airports. I had a very early flight out of San Antonio and so I got up at 4:00 AM and headed out, unaware that overnight the British were breaking up a plot to blow up more than several airplanes with liquid explosives as they crossed the Atlantic. I arrived at San Antonio International Airport to find new rules in effect. I was hand-carrying wine to Baltimore. My luggage was soft-bodied, so placing the wine inside it was an invitation to disaster. I surrendered my hoard to an apologetic but firm TSA agent and am sure she enjoyed it.

On the return flight, I was quite disgusted with the American Airlines check-in procedures and personnel at Baltimore. There were too few counters manned and all domestic fliers had to use an automated system that required a credit card to establish your identity. We were not told of this during the entire 1 hour and 35 minutes I stood in line. While this did not affect me, the woman in front of me had no credit cards and she was trying to make the same flight as me. They told her she had to get in the other line, the one for international passengers that was every inch as long as the line we had just endured. I felt sorry for her protests as I checked my luggage and headed for security.

Other Travels

Prior to WineFest 2006, my wife and I spent several days in eastern Louisiana with friends Luke and Lynette Clark, who are always gracious and generous hosts. We had hoped to help Luke with his grape harvest, but we were a bit late for some, a week early for others, while some remain more than a month away from harvest. Luke's grapes are beautiful and bountiful.

Favorite Grapes
Luke's variety Favorite, a few weeks away from harvest

I also spent three days with Dr. Barry Comeaux at his central Louisiana home where we continued our research on the distribution of the native grapes of Texas. Our latest inquiry concerns an intermediate variety between Vitis aestivalis var. aestivalis and Vitis aestivalis var. lincecumii. We are not the first to see this distinction, but it is as yet an unrecognized variety. Our aim is to obtain recognition of this grape as a separate and distinct variety. To do this we recorded measurements of hundreds of leaves, berries and seeds. I will say more of this at the appropriate time.

These activities have taken a toll on my ability to "keep up" with all the things I do. My household chores have backed up, my WineBlog has been neglected, my book is ignored, and my email is backed up six weeks. And, at my day job, I am playing "catch up."

Would I trade it all for a little more stability? Not likely.




August 22nd, 2006

I don't usually post things here that are circulating via email, but the one I am about to post is just too incredible to ignore. If it is to be believed, it involves some little known American military history (but it is wine related).

The USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) as a combat vessel carried 48,600 gallons of fresh water for her crew of 475 officers and men This was sufficient to last six months of sustained operations at sea. She carried no evaporators.

However, let it be noted that according to her log, "On July 27, 1798, the USS Constitution sailed from Boston with a full complement of 475 officers and men, 48,600 gallons of fresh water, 7,400 cannon shot, 11,600 pounds of black powder and 79,400 gallons of rum." Her mission: "To destroy and harass English shipping."

Making Jamaica on October 6, 1798, she took on 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum. Then she headed for the Azores, arriving there November 12, 1798. She provisioned with 550 pounds of beef and 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine.

On November 18, 1798, she set sail for England. In the ensuing days she defeated five British men-of-war and captured and scuttled 12 English merchantmen, salvaging only the rum aboard each.

By January 26, 1799, her powder and shot were exhausted. Nevertheless, although unarmed she made a night raid up the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. Her landing party captured a whisky distillery and transferred 40,000 gallons of single malt Scotch aboard by dawn. Then she headed home.

The USS Constitution arrived in Boston on February 20, 1799, with no cannon shot, no food, no powder, no rum, no wine, no whisky and 38,600 gallons of stagnant water.

I put my pencil to paper and came up with the following startling facts, assuming of course that the above is true. This works out to 252,000 total gallons of booze, or 530.5 gallons per man. On the 203 days at sea, each man averaged 2.6 gallons of booze per day, while consuming only 12 ounces of water.

Between July 27, 1798 (the day they set sail) and November 12, 1798 (the day they took on the wine), they consumed 147,700 gallons of rum, or 2.96 gallons per day per man.

Between November 12, 1798 and January 26 1799 (the day they took on the Scotch), they went through 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine in 74 days, or 1.9 gallons per day per man, plus whatever rum they salvaged from the 17 ships they bested. Obviously, they were fighting for the rum.

Between January 26 1799 and February 20, 1799 (they day they arrived at Boston), they consumed 40,000 gallons of single malt Scotch in 24 days, or 3.5 gallons per man per day. All in all, I would say they were lucky to have even found Boston Harbor.

I find these statistics difficult at best to believe, and yet I cannot find evidence to the contrary. I once drank a gallon of Red Mountain Vin Rosé in two hours and had to be carried into my house, so I simply can't fathom drinking 3.5 gallons of single malt Scotch in one day and living to drink another day. So, if anyone out there has an authoritative rejoinder to this account, other than common sense, please send it to me. I am most curious, but nonetheless respectful of the United States Navy's taste in drink.

Diagnosing Wine by Taste

I recently participated in a forum discussion about diagnosing wine imbalance through taste and how to make educated adjustment decisions based on that diagnosis. If I thought I could sum up the discussion succinctly I would at least try, but I have reviewed the material several times and realize the whole thread was rather complex. However, some tidbits flowed from it which are worth sharing.

One contributor suggested using the Wine Aroma Wheel. To that, I said the Wine Aroma Wheel is an insightful and wholly validated methodology for wine appreciation. It deals with finished wines, well aged and developed in their complexity. But being able to detect notes of asparagus, tobacco or black cherry in an aged wine will not help you turn a so-so young wine into one that will develop those notes.

I have always maintained the aroma wheel concept could be simplified immensely and combined with a tasting kit to serve the needs of winemakers in overcoming the very thing we are discussing. I even worked on developing tasting samples for such a kit, but gave up when I realized the samples evolve over time, just like wine, and the tastes and aromas I established initially evolved after six to twelve months into something quite different and unpredictable -- just like wine does. So, for the entrepreneurs out there, here is the challenge: (1) develop 25-30 liquid samples that portray in taste the most common developmental deficiencies in winemaking (with corresponding instructions on correcting them), and (2) reduce the liquids to dry form (powder, crystal) that can be flawlessly reconstituted by adding distilled water to recapture the exact taste of the original deficiency.

While I was sincere in my reply, it sounds as though I was rather dismissive of the Wine Aroma Wheel as a diagnostic tool, and I suppose I was. I've now had a couple of days to think about this and my thinking has evolved somewhat. The Wine Aroma Wheel was developed by Ann C. Noble in 1990. It identifies categories of aroma that might be associated with wines -- some are bouquetish and delightful some bad and represent minor to serious defects. The wheel is made of three tiers. It has very general terms located in the center (such as fruity, vegetative or chemical) and successively more specific terms in the middle and outer tiers (such as citrus to grapefruit, canned/cooked to asparagus, or sulfur to burnt match). Some of these categories and specifics are not really useful in diagnosing wine imbalance or problems, but others might be. Indeed, some of them most assuredly can be useful to the winemaker if he knows what causes those particular aromas. Here a combination of experience and an elementary knowledge of chemistry will serve you well. This warrants further thought, so I will let it maturate a little longer in the mind.

Leaving the Wine Aroma Wheel aside, the problems that deficient but otherwise sound wines are likely to encounter center around the concept of balance. I have spoken about that on this blog and on my website in detail, but will do so briefly again and try to outline some of the aspects of wine wholesomeness. (BTW, by "otherwise sound" wines I mean those free of inappropriate constituents, microbial or clearing problems.)

Balance means the proper interplay of the sweet and sour tastes often associated with wines, whether made from grapes, fruit, berries, or flowers. Wines made from roots, bark, seeds (including seedpods and nuts), leaves and stalks might have abnormal balance problems, so I'll ignore them here for the time being.

The sweet taste involves primarily sugar and alcohol, but to a lesser extent glycerin too. The sour taste is primarily concerned with acids and tannins, although certain other phenols and amino acids can come into play under certain circumstances. Since the former are far more common, I'll ignore the latter for the time being.

If the wine is dry but balanced in sweetness, the sweet side of the equation is represented by alcohol, glycerin and probably some residual (perhaps unfermentable) sugars.. If a dry wine tastes "tart" or "sour," the problem most likely is too much acid. This is corrected by (1) adding compensatory sweetness, (2) diluting the acid with water or blending with a low-acid wine, (3) malo-lactic fermentation, (4) chilling the wine to drop potassium tartrate or malate, or (5) neutralizing acidity by adding a alkaline base such as potassium bicarbonate.

If the wine tastes "astringent" or "overly tart" the problem is undoubtedly too much tannin, but if "bitter" (or "tingy on the tongue") then it is too much green tannin, the type you get from stems, leaves, unripe fruit, and occasionally cracked seeds or pits. These are corrected by (1) adding compensatory sweetness and/or (2) reducing the tannins by fining appropriately to drop them, a topic I have discussed before on this blog. It is possible to remove too much tannin and end up with a wine that is balanced in sweetness and acidity, but still lacks the "sharpness" or "bite" of wine. In this case you add tannin back in trial samples, but you add only grape tannin.

If the wine is sweet or dry but without any "tartness" or "sharpness," it will taste "flat" and "lifeless." The problem here is acid deficiency, but tannin deficiency might be an accompanying problem. Correct for acid first, tannin second (but only if it needs the tannin after the acid has been corrected).




August 30th, 2006

A reader asked me for the procedure to use to add body to fruit wines using bananas. There are really two ways to do this, although I only told him about one. The reason for my omission was that the wording of his question led me to believe he didn't have the resources to do one of the two, but you might, so I'll mention both here.

Improving Body with Bananas

I replied to him that the best way to do this is not to add bananas to the primary, but to slice 2 1/2 lbs of ripe (soft but not brown) bananas into thin discs for each gallon of fruit wine you intend to make, leaving skins on fruit. Put the slices into a nylon straining bag, tie the top closed, and place the bag in as much water as you need for your fruit wine in as large a pan or pot as required. For example, if you were making three gallons of wine that required 3 quarts of water per gallon, you would need a total of 9 quarts of water and 7 ½ lbs of bananas. You'll need a large pot, but could get away with using only half the amount her and adding the other half later. Just keep track of what you are doing.

Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the bananas for 30 minutes. A grayish scum or foam will probably form on top and should be spooned away and discarded. Remove the bag to a bowl to catch the drippings.

While the bananas are simmering, chop or crush the fruit for your wine and place it in your primary with the required amount of sugar, acid blend, tannin, and yeast nutrient. Combine the drippings with the boiled banana water and pour the water over the fruit, sugar and additives. Stir this well to dissolve the sugar. If you only boiled half the required amount of water, add the other half now, cover the primary and allow the must to cool to room temperature before adding the required amount of potassium metabisulfite (or crushed and dissolved Campden tablets) to prevent the must from browning slightly during fermentation. Wait 10-12 hours and add the required amount of pectic enzyme. Wait an additional 10-12 hours and pitch an activated yeast starter.

The second way of adding banana to a fruit wine to improve its body is to blend a heavy bodied, finished banana wine with the finished fruit wine. The amount of banana wine to blend is up to you, but I would run trials to see what works best. I would do this by pouring four 80-mL of the fruit wine into one glass, 70-mL into a second, 60-mL into a third, and 50-mL into a fourth. I would then add banana wine to each to bring the total volume of each to 100-mL. I would then taste each one, starting with the 80-20 blend first and progressing through the70-30, 60-40 and 50-50 blends.

Suppose the 70-30 tastes too thin but the 60-40 tastes too heavy. You could try another blend of 65-35 to see if that isn't better. If not, you might try blends of 68-32, 66-34, 64-36, and 62-38. Taste them in that order. Somewhere in there you should find the one best to your liking.

Watermelon Wine Doesn't Taste Like Watermelon

Another reader complained his watermelon wine didn't taste like watermelon. He made it with a seedless watermelon and grapes, from one of my recipes.

Watermelon wine will almost never taste like watermelon, but it will nonetheless have a taste that reminds one of watermelon. The more flavorful the melon, the more flavor will come through.

Seedless melons have the weakest flavor of all watermelons. One needs to select better-flavored melons. One year I cut 5 melons before I found one with the fantastic flavor I was seeking. We ate the unacceptable ones (and that was a chore), but because watermelon wine is difficult to make anyway due to the high spoilage rate of the juice before it becomes wine, I won't waste my time making weak watermelon wine.

During my presentation at WineFest 2006 on making fruit wines, I told the folks a secret for getting better flavor in watermelon wine. After the wine has finished fermenting and clearing and has been racked at least twice, stabilize it. Then go out and find yourself another watermelon with fantastic flavor. Cut out some of the flesh and press it to extract about 3 cups of juice. Pour this through a double layer of finely-woven muslin into a bottle with a lid and store it standing up in the refrigerator to allow the very fine particles to settle (should do so in 2-3 days).

If you kept track of your starting and finishing s.g. you can calculate your alcohol. Suppose it is 14% and you have 1 U.S. gallon of wine. Adding the juice to the wine will result in an 11.8% wine with better flavor, but in reality the alcohol will be a little higher because you don't simply add all the juice.

Instead, you carefully remove it from the refrigerator and siphon the clarified juice off the thin layer of sediment. It is best to do this using a very small-diameter tubing, like they use in aquariums. Otherwise it is impossible to not suck up the sediment. If you leave 2-3 ounces of juice behind with the sediment, your wine's alcohol will be 12% (and you get an extra bottle of wine in the process.

As long as the alcohol by volume is at least 9.5%, the wine will preserve itself, even with the juice in it. You refrigerate it initially to keep it from spoiling, but you want to get it into the wine in not more than 3 days. Indeed, as soon as it starts to clarify, rack it into the wine.

You may have to move the wine back into a primary to add the juice, as a U.S. gallon jug won't accept the extra liquid (unless you have an Imperial gallon jug handy to use, which will hold the wine and juice combined). If you do have to go to a primary for sufficient room, make sure the wine is sulfited (it should be from stabilizing it).




September 16th, 2006

The topic of yeast starter comes up more often than I'd like. I get emails asking why this, why that, and I write back asking, "Did you make a yeast starter?" The reply is usually, "No I didn't because the yeast always just takes off by itself when I sprinkle it on top." Except this time it didn't. So I'll go over this one more time and hope that the lesson gets learned.

Starting Yeast

When using active dry yeast (ADY), you can sprinkle it directly onto the must, rehydrate it in warm (100-105 degrees F.) water and add that to the must, or make a yeast starter and add that to the must. Let me give the pros and cons of each method.

Sprinkle Directly onto Must:

Purpose - to get the yeast in the must quickly.

Pros - fast, easy, uncomplicated.

Cons - the yeast will rehydrate in the must, which may not be at the optimum temperature for activation; if the yeast is old and not 100% viable, it may be 3-4 days before it reproduces enough to assure you it is alive; if the yeast is dead, you will not know it for many days, during which time your must could spoil; you will be adding to the must the exact number of yeast cells (dead or alive) that were initially in the sachet you opened.

Rehydrate the Yeast:

Purpose -- to get water back into an ADY and activate it before adding to a must.

Pros -- it's fast, it's what the manufacturers recommend, and it requires little attention.

Cons -- you will rehydrate the yeast, but will not know if it is actually alive; if it is dead, it will be several days before you realize it; you will be adding to the must the exact number of yeast cells (dead or alive) that were initially in the sachet you opened.

Add an Activated Yeast Starter:

Purpose -- to ensure you have live yeast; to culture the colony exponentially so that when you pitch it you add many times the number of yeast cells to the must and get a much faster initial fermentation.

Pros -- you will know fairly quickly if the colony is alive or dead; the size of the colony will double on average every two hours; initial fermentation will begin soon after pitching the yeast; for easily spoiled musts (like watermelon, cantaloupe, peach, kiwi) you will achieve a self-preserving alcohol level before the must has a chance to spoil.

Cons -- slower than simple rehydration; requires planning (making the starter several hours or even the day before you prepare the must); requires some attention over several hours.

Making a Yeast Starter:

You can initiate a starter with almost any quantity of water, but here I will specify 1 cup of warm (100-105 degrees F.) water in a sanitized quart jar. To that, stir to dissolve 1 teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of yeast nutrient. Sprinkle the ADY evenly onto the surface of the water, cover the jar with a paper towel or napkin and fasten it with a rubber band. Set a timer for 30 minutes.

When the timer goes off, look at the yeast. If the colony is still floating (most of mine are), look at it. If it is alive, it will have flattened out and formed a thin layer over the top of the water. It will also have thickened a bit and changed color (usually becoming slightly yellowish or darker). If it has collapsed into the water, there will be many small globs of it, but the water will start becoming murky (cloudy). If it is dead and on the surface, it will be a thin layer, ashen or gray or beige in color. If it is dead and collapsed, there will be many small beads and maybe a few clusters of little beads of yeast on the bottom, but the water will still be fairly clear.

If the colony looks alive, set the timer for 3-1/2 hours and go do something else. If it looks dead, remove the paper cover and sprinkle another sachet into the jar. Recover it, set the timer for 30 minutes and repeat the step above.

After the additional 3-1/2 hours, remove the paper cover and add 1/4 cup of room-temperature must, grape juice, orange juice or apple juice to the jar. Recover the jar. The jar will contain approximately 4 times the amount of yeast cells that were in the sachet. Set the timer for 4 hours.

After the additional 4 hours, remove the paper cover and add 1/4 cup of room-temperature must, grape juice, orange juice or apple juice to the jar. Recover the jar. The jar will contain approximately 16 times the amount of yeast cells that were in the sachet. Pitch the yeast or set the timer for 4 hours.

If you pitch the yeast, take a large serving spoon (I use a gravy ladle) and hold it inside the primary and right on top of the must. Pour the starter gently into the spoon so it overflows onto the surface of the must. Move the spoon around to distribute the starter all around the surface. Do not stir. The idea is for the starter to rest on top of the must as much as possible. Cover the primary and set your timer to 2 hours. At the end of the 2 hours, stir the must shallowly. Wait 6-8 hours and stir it deeply.

If you did not pitch the yeast then, wait an additional 4 hours, remove the paper cover and add 1/2 cup of room-temperature must, grape juice, orange juice or apple juice to the jar. Recover the jar. The jar will contain approximately 64 times the amount of yeast cells that were in the sachet. Pitch the yeast as above.

The sheer weight of the numbers should convince any reasonable person that making a starter will give your fermentation a faster start, your must will become wine more quickly, and you can eliminate 1-3 days of uncertainty while waiting for your yeast to prove its viability. If, in the face of these advantages, you still want to sprinkle your dry yeast on top of the must and take your chances, then by all means do so. But please, don't write to me about any problems that might develop.




November 4th, 2006

Time is passing too quickly. Chronic connectivity problems have prevented me from updating the website or this blog. Hopefully, the last service visit solved the problem for some time. Two cables were bad, allowing only partial signal throughput.

Many of you are still waiting for replies to emails you sent me several weeks ago. I am sorry I cannot spend more time answering you, but an hour a day is really all I dare allot to this task. I am slowing catching up as the volume decreases seasonally, but am still five weeks behind. A real disappointment is that about half of the emails ask questions that are already answered on the website if the writer would just read the material already posted, or at least use the search engine built into the site. The search engine is listed in the contents listing on the home page and in the navigation bar on most pages, but also at the end of this blog entry.

Muscadine Wine from Cultivars

On a subject not already answered on the site, a reader wrote:

Your recipes seem to be for use with wild muscadine grapes. I just picked a bunch of Ison's Black Beauty and one of their golden muscadines... and another of their black muscadines. These are large and thick skinned, but I do not know if they have the acid content that wild muscadine vines have.
Is there a different recipe for commercial muscadine vines? Do ALL muscadine grape recipes call for water & sugar? Someone here told me that you aren't supposed to EVER add sugar to wine when you make wine. I thought maybe grape wines were made without water and/or sugar added. When you have time, I'd appreciate some feedback.

Thanks to a friend who grows many muscadines and is generous, I make wine every year from muscadine cultivars -- varieties bred from wild grapes and other crosses. I do indeed add water, but not as much as for wild muscadines. The amount I add varies and is dependent on the measured acid in the grape juice. You need an acid test kit to determine this. When I know the amount of acid in the juice, I use a Pearson Square calculator to determine the amount of water to add to bring the acidity down where I want it.

If you go to the "Blending Wines" page on my site and scroll down to "Blending to Adjust Acidity," you can do what I do. That particular calculator is for blending a low acid and high acid wine, but it will also work for blending wine and water. In the first box (Desired) you enter the desired acidity. Suppose you chose 0.055 (5.5 grams acid per 100 grams [1 liter] of wine, or 5.5% of any amount of wine) as the desired acidity; just enter that amount (0.055). In the second box (Wine1) enter 0.000 (the acidity of water). In the third box (Wine2) enter the acidity of the muscadine juice (as an example, suppose it is 0.110 -- enter that number). Clicking on "Submit" will give the number of units of each wine to blend to achieve the desired acidity. In this example, the answer would say to make a blend of 0.055 units of each. You have to move the decimal point two places to the right to make sense of it, but that will show a blend of 5.5 units of each (water and juice), or 1 to 1, or a 50-50 (%) blend of each. But suppose you entered 0.55, 0.000, and 0.095 as the Desired, Wine1 and Wine2 numbers. The result would be 0.040 and 0.055. By moving the decimal point two places to the right this equates to 4 units of water blended with 5.5 units of juice. The units can be quarts, liters or gallons. The ratio is the same no matter the unit.

If this explanation sounds confusing, just go to the page (see the link, below) enter the numbers and follow the logic.

As for adding sugar, the writer's friend is wrong. While it is illegal in certain jurisdictions to add sugar to grape juice to make a commercial wine, there is no restriction on that for homemade wine. Also, in the same jurisdictions where it is illegal to add sugar to grape juice, it is perfectly legal (and absolutely necessary) to add sugar to non-grape juices to make wine. The federal regulations of the United States allow you to add sugar to grape juice, but the State of California, for example, prohibits it. But then, they do not make commercial muscadine wine in California or they would change their rules to allow it because most muscadine juice is insufficient for making 12-13% alcohol wine -- especially after diluting it with water to reduce acidity. Almost all other states allow chaptalization (adding sugar) in commercial winemaking.

Direct Shipping of Wine

A reader wrote to me complaining about the shipping laws in her state that prohibit the shipping of wine from a winery to a customer.

Wine, beer and spirits are distributed today in the United States largely through what is called the "three-tier system." The three tiers in the system are producers, wholesalers and retailers. This system was formed by states following the repeal of Prohibition to prevent marketing abuses that characterized supplier-retailer relationships before Prohibition. States established wine and spirits wholesalers as a middle tier separating producers from retailers.

Since the the formation of the three-tier system, some states have recognized wine as a special commodity and allowed the shipping of wine from producers to consumers. This evolved because visitors to wineries often wanted to make bulk purchases (several bottles to several cases), but were often on vacation when visiting the winery and it was not convenient to haul bulk purchases around with them or check them on airplanes for the trip home. Distributors (the middlemen in the three-tier system) have fought against any relaxation of the laws that empower them to profits. Battles to allow direct shipping are often clouded with arguments that the wine could be shipped to minors. There are several ways to prevent this, the most obvious of which is requiring that the deliveryman check the identification of the recipient, but the distributors' lobby (the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of America) has opposed all solutions. After all, their profits are at stake.

Since the laws governing the sale and distribution of alcohol are largely state laws, it is incumbent upon consumer to act in their own interest by exercising citizenship responsibilities if they want the laws of their state relaxed or changed. In Texas, it was a long fight over several years, and the result was a compromise. But the battle is not over.

Exercising citizenship means becoming informed as to how your local state legislator feels about direct shipping and then attempting to influence him or her through email, letters and phone calls. It also means voting in elections. If you don't vote against the person who opposes what you want, then you really have no right to complain about what you are stuck with.

If you are not sure about the direct shipping laws in your state, one place to start inquiring is a website called "Free the Grapes." The link below takes you to a page that shows which states allow or prohibit direct shipping of wine. It also serves as a good starting point if you want to influence your state's laws. A second source -- perhaps it should have been listed first -- is "The Wine Institute." This organization's mission is to initiate and advocate state, federal and international public policy to enhance the environment for the responsible consumption and enjoyment of wine. This includes direct shipping of wine to the consumer. See their link below. Study the issues. Decide what you want. Then exercise responsible citizenship.




November 11th, 2006

This is Veterans Day in the United States. Originally established to celebrate the armistice that ended the slaughter of the first world war and honor the veterans who served, the holiday was later expanded to honor the veterans of all wars. As I contemplated the blessings delivered to me by so many earlier today, I had to reflect on the current war against terrorism (which I separate from the war in Iraq).

Some of you know, but many do not, that in my day job I am a civilian intelligence analyst within the United States Army. Within the duties of my job description is the phrase, "advise the command of potential threats...." It is not my job to maintain a database on known terrorist organizations, but I feel the phrase just mentioned requires that I at least consult similar databases. While doing so several years ago I came across the following:

Action Committee of Winegrowers

Also known as the Comite d'Action Viticole (CAV), this French group claims to act on behalf of discontented winegrowers in the Midi region of France. Midi winegrowers blame the state for failing to deal with problems of over-production and foreign competition in wine. The CAV's first attack was the 1999 bombing of a gas pipe in the Herault region. Two other attacks took place in the area on the same night, but CAV only claimed responsibility for the aforementioned bombing. In addition, in February 2002, the group bombed a train signal box on the Beziers-Narbonne high-speed line in the south of France, disrupting train traffic for 48 hours. This attack immediately followed a January riot at which thousands of protesters set palm trees and trash cans on fire. Little else is known of the group, which probably has disbanded.

I find it fairly amazing that anyone would decide to form a terrorist organization to protest their country's failure to deal with over-production and foreign competition in wine. In my mind, wine and terror do not go together. A romantic once said that where there is wine, there also is love, but apparently not. I do hope the CAV has long disbanded and occupies a place in the databases of terrorist organizations as an historic footnote only.

Chocolate Covered Cherry Wine

A reader wrote to me: " I was on your site looking for a chocolate covered cherry wine recipe that someone told me you had a recipe for but I did not see it. Is there one?."

Most assuredly there is. I received the basic instructions for this wine from Tommy Wilson of Tyler, Texas several years ago at Robert Cowie's big wine competition in Paris, Arkansas. Tommy had entered the wine and won a medal with it, and when I tasted it I went straight to heaven. I didn't really expect him to tell me every thing about making it, but I think he did. From distant memory, the recipe goes something like this:

  • 8 1-lb boxes of chocolate covered cherries
  • 7 pts water
  • 4 teaspoons acid blend
  • 1 crushed Campden tablet
  • 1/16 tsp tannin
  • 1-1.4 tsp yeast nutrient
  • 1 pkt Champaign wine yeast

Bring the water to a rolling boil. While it is getting there, dump the chocolate covered cherries into the primary. Pour the boiling water over the chocolate covered cherries. The heat will melt the chocolate and expose the creamy filling and cherries. Stir well to get everything dissolved that will dissolve. Cover the primary and let it cool to room temperature. Add the acid blend, crushed Campden tablet, tannin, and yeast nutrient. Stir well and recover the primary. Wait 10-12 hours and add the activated yeast. After a vigorous fermentation builds and subsides, transfer the liquid to a 1-gallon glass jug, top up if necessary, and attach an airlock. Toss out the residue in the primary. Ferment to completion, rack, wait a month and rack again, and stabilize. Sweeten to taste (this wine should be moderately sweet, but don't overdo it), wait another month, and bottle it. Set aside 3 months before tasting, then thank Tommy Wilson for sharing his recipe.




December 10th, 2006

I like a good graphic, and I like a good slogan -- especially if they are about making wine.

A couple of months ago my wife found a metallic sign at the Atascosa County Fair that tickled us both, so she bought it for me. See below. The fellow who sold it to us would not ship his signs (we were trying to buy more than he had at the Fair). But I sure do like the sign.

Sign: Make Me Wine
The metal sign my wife bought me....

A bumper sticker with a similar saying can be purchased online (see the link at the end of this entry). It's not exactly the sign, but the sentiment is the same.

Bumper Sticker: Make Me Wine
The bumper sticker available online.

Fermentation Troubles

A reader reported he had tried the Chocolate Covered Cherry Wine recipe I posted in my last entry and his must did not start fermenting. Only then did he read the label on the Chocolate Covered Cherries he used and discover they contained both sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. It is essential you check the label of any potential base ingredient before you buy it, for there are may ways to process or produce similar products.

I normally wouldn't hold out much hope for him getting it going. Both of the preservatives accomplish the same thing -- render the yeast incapable of reproducing. Of course, if he makes a very large batch of starter solution, the yeast will reproduce in the starter solution prior to adding to the must. Although they will not subsequently reproduce after being added to the must, the yeast cells that already exist will complete their life making wine. The key, then, is a large colony in the starter solution. As explained in a previous entry (September 16th, 2006), the key to a huge starter colony is the length of time you nurse the colony before adding it to the must. Through normal reproductive division, a sachet of healthy yeast will increase 64-fold in 12 hours, 512-fold in 18 hours, and over 4,000-fold in 24 hours. A colony that large has a viable chance of surviving long enough to turn your must into wine, but if fermentation slows prematurely (before a 12% wine is achieved), make a second starter and at the appropriate time (24 hours) add it to the must to continue the task of winemaking. See the entry below for September 16th for directions on making the yeast starter.

Another reader reported that his batch of pear wine fermented fine, but would not clear -- it remained cloudy. This is not a rare occurrence with pear wine. The wine will usually clear after adding an additional 3/4 teaspoon per gallon of pectic enzyme (I assume you added 1 teaspoon per gallon at the outset) and 1/2 teaspoon of amylase per gallon. Peach, jujube, apple, crab-apple, and quince may also exhibit prolonged cloudiness after fermentation -- especially if their juice was steam-extracted -- and can be cleared using the same enzymatic additions as for clearing pear.

A lady in Ohio reported her concern that her black cherry (Prunus serotina) wine would be toxic. This fear was based on several internet references she found to toxicity in black cherry, but I assured her these refer to the foliage, not the fruit. If the fruit of the black cherry tree is ripe, it is edible.

Finally, I received an inquiry into why a fermentation would continue for 8 months. It took several email exchanges to discover that the specific gravity of this wine had dropped from 1.085 to 0.996 in 23 days, and an additional 7 months of fermentation had only resulted in a reduction to 0.994. Fermentation was defined by the winemaker as "airlock activity," and this told me all I needed to know.

"Airlock activity" can be variously described. In order to be considered proof of "fermentation," bubbles must be passing through the airlock from the secondary to the atmosphere. The mere pushing of the liquid in the airlock toward the outside, without actual bubble passage, is more likely evidence of a wine in need of degassing.

When fermentation subsides drastically, there comes a time when CO2 is produced so slowly that it does not accumulate fast enough to get pushed out as bubbles. When this point is reached, the molecules of CO2 are pushed into the spaces between the molecules of wine. There they tend to stay until dislodged en mass, but individual molecules can escape slowly, maintaining a positive internal pressure that looks very much like active fermentation, only isn't. This positive pressure can last for many months -- under the right circumstances even a few years. But if properly degassed, the wine will look like it is finished, which it is. (For a detailed discussion of this subject, look at my entry for April 15th, 2006.) The wine in question simply needs to be degassed.




December 30th, 2006

The year is rapidly winding down and I am looking forward to 2007. I'm not saying 2006 was a disappointment, but I have experienced better years. Oh, I made some good wines in 2006, but I also opened my first bottle of vinegar in over two decades. My wines won plenty of awards this year, but Grand Champion or Best of Show eluded me for once. Am I disappointed? Not at all. It was a genuine pleasure to taste every wine that beat my own. People are making some great wines these days, and that should please everyone who drinks wine.

A Bit of Vinegar

My wine that went to vinegar was made from a neighbor's organic blackberries. This was a wine made without sulfites. This is something I never do, but did this once at the request of the neighbor. A single Campden tablet would have saved this wine from acetobacter. This speaks to a worry I have voiced for years about the desire by many to make "natural" or "chemical-free" wines. Unless you make your wine in a "clean room" using irradiated or prepared fruit, it simply isn't a good idea. It only takes one bacterium to contaminate a batch.

Acetobacter converts ethyl alcohol into acetic acid (vinegar) in the presence of oxygen. The bacteria can live dormant in a batch for a long time, becoming active only after oxygen is introduced when the wine is racked, tasted, tested, or bottled. The greater the ullage (the air trapped between the wine and the bung or cork), the more oxygen will be available for acetobacter to flourish. As the bacteria increase in numbers, they tend to form a thin white film on the surface of the wine. If not checked, this film thickens into a crust as the contamination increases and by then the wine itself is beyond saving. While still in the film stage, the wine can possibly be rescued.

To pull a wine from the clutches of acetobacter, it is necessary to do several things. First of all, taste the wine to ensure too much acetic acid was not created. If the wine tastes vinegary, it probably cannot be saved. If the wine has vinegar in the nose but not on the tongue, it might be saved. Start by removing the bacteria colony from the wine. I have tried removing the film using Q-Tips, siphon and pipettes, but none of these work well. It is far better to simply insert the tip of a small funnel into the wine and add a similar finished wine to the secondary in sufficient quantity to float the film out. Next, you need to kill any bacteria remaining in the wine. You do this with an aseptic dose of sulfite (potassium metabisulfite or Campden tablet) -- 75 or more ppm for a pH of 3.4 or less. Without advanced laboratory instrumentation, it is impossible to tell how much alcohol was converted into acetic acid. If the wine tastes okay and possesses sufficient body, it is probably okay. If the body is weak and you really can't taste the alcohol, you may want to add 1 or 2% alcohol to the wine. If it needs any more than that, the acetic acid will undoubtedly ruin the taste. At 190-proof, Everclear is probably the best bet for adding alcohol. And finally, the wine may need prolonged aging to recover. Even then, there is no guarantee it can be saved. The best bet is prevention in the first place -- sulfite early and sufficiently and minimize air contact after fermentation takes off.

Volatile Acids and Esters

There are somewhere around 1,000 compounds in wine, give or take a couple of hundred. Of these, several hundred account for the odors of wines; those that are volatile contribute to bouquet.

Acetic acid is a volatile acid (VA) rather than a fixed (nonvolatile) one. This means it evaporates rapidly at ordinary temperatures if exposed to air. While it is by far the most common volatile acid (about two-thirds of all VA is acetic acid), it is not the only one found in wines. At least 30 other volatile acids may be found in wines. Some of these are acetic, propionic, butyric, isobutyric, valeric, isovaleric, caproic, isocaproic, caprylic, pelargonic, and capric.

Volatile acids are largely produced by fermentation and/or spoilage and are usually accompanied by esters. For example, it has been known since 1936 that ethyl acetate -- an ester -- is formed by acetic acid bacteria and, when so formed, is largely responsible for the sharp, vinegary odor associated with acetic acid itself.

Esters are organic compounds formed by the reaction of an acid with an alcohol, coupled with the elimination of water. Dozens of esters are found in wines, although some are transitory and short-lived. Esters are often volatile, but not necessarily so. They are important contributors to a wine's bouquet.

The most well-known and often encountered ester in wines is ethyl acetate, which in high concentrations contributes to acetic spoilage but in low concentrations may be a pleasant part of bouquet, but it is only one of many esters found in wines. Others include ethyl formate, ethyl laurate, ethyl propionate, diethyl malate, diethyl succinate, dimethyl phthalate, amyl acetate, pentyl acetate, hexyl acetate, isoamyl acetate, isobutyl acetate, etc.

Some esters are found in the original, unfermented grape must. Concord grapes contain methyl anthranilate, while the essential oils of muscat contain 12 esters and Grenache contains four esters. Other esters are formed by enzymatic action during all forms of fermentation -- alcohol, lactic and acetic. During aging of wines, nonbiological changes in ethyl acid tartrate, ethyl acid malate and ethyl acid succinate result in increased esters.

As you can see, wine is a complex product. We'll study it more next year.




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