Better living through chemistry!

I get it…wine writers desperately need their jobs (until at least that unfinished novel gets, uh, finished) so, of course, they’ll tell you that wine is too complicated and mysterious and magical to be left to the unwashed masses. Good doctors don’t tell you to log onto WebMD for a diagnosis, right? Good lawyers don’t send you to LegalZoom to do your estate planning. So fine…but really, the difference is that I don’t feel like my doctor or lawyer is just making shit up. I mean, I really think that wine writers and radio hosts say that wine is complicated and mysterious because they really don’t have any idea what they’re talking about so it really is complicated and mysterious. To them.


Today, I want to talk about making wine. And although, I’m not really going to provide a recipe, I hope to provide a ridiculously overly simplified blueprint so to provide some basic understanding of the task. Perhaps one of those wine writers or radio talking heads will read this and get a clue. Probably not.

The number of ingredients necessary for making wine is surprisingly small.

You need grapes.

There are a number of optional ingredients, of course. Maybe you want a different strain of yeast than the one found on the skin of the grape. Maybe you want a different variety of grapes. Fine. But, clearly optional.

You’ll need some kind of vessel to make the wine in. It should be waterproof. But beyond that, it’s pretty much up to you. It can be metal or clay or wood. Stone works as well. Now, the material the vessel is made from will likely affect the flavor (and texture) of the wine, but, let’s not put the proverbial cart before the horse. Any vessel will work.

(By the way, this is an important disclaimer…I’m not really telling you how to make good wine, just wine. And if you use the words written down herein and use them to make wine and succeed and then drink the stuff and get sick, it’s on you. Are we clear?)

So, back to winemaking.

Step #1…crush the grapes (or not). You can step on them (like in ‘I Love Lucy’) or mash them in your hands and use some sort of press. Now, your choice of methodology regarding crushing the grapes will impact the quality of the resulting wine, but, again, we’re really not into the whole quality issue here today. Or you can not crush them at all and use a method called ‘whole cluster fermentation’ which, frankly, pretty much describes the process. Then, there’s also carbonic maceration, which is another method of turning grape juice into wine…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

(By the way, I’m assuming that the grapes have been picked. From the vine. This is important. Do this first)

Step #2…Either add your favorite strain of yeast or let the yeast on the grape go to work. (You didn’t wash the grapes did you? You did? Ok, add some yeast. Whatever you have handy. Fine. Good.) Walk away. Or stay. What will happen next is the yeast will eat the sugar in the grape and excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide and heat. This is called fermentation. This will continue to happen until all the sugar is consumed, or the temperature drops and the cold causes the yeast to slow or stop, or it get too hot and the yeast dies, or so much alcohol is produced that it kills the yeast. Regardless, unless you have taken some other steps (clearly not outlined above), all this will happen whether you hang around or not.

Step #2(a)…you can just let the grapes ferment in the container that you started with. Or you can put them in a different container. Up to you. Now, your choice of container might impact the quality of the resulting wine, but, again…not today

Step #2(b)…you can slow down the fermentation by chilling the must (the juice of the grape). Or not. Up to you. Now, your decision regarding temperature will impact the quality of the resulting wine, but, again…see above.

Step #3….let’s assume that you didn’t do much (or anything) to slow fermentation. Which is fine. But now (since it’s autumn, in this telling) the outdoor temperature drops and fermentation ceases (because you’re working in the shed or barn or garage rather than the living room). Do nothing. Or something. You can put your wine-to-be in a different container if you’d like to. Or not. When spring comes, fermentation will start again. This is called malolactic fermentation. The tart malic acids are converted to creamier lactic acids. This is generally considered to be a good thing although not always. But, hey, remember…see above.

Step #4…age your wine. Or don’t. It’s generally believed that some period of time between the end of fermentation and putting the stuff in a bottle is a positive thing. You might want to let it rest on the skins and yeast and other detremis left over from fermentation. Or not. Maybe you pour your wine into a different container and leave all that other stuff behind. Your call. Maybe you let the wine hang out for a few weeks or a few months or a few years. Whatever you decide is fine (since we’re not… blah, blah, blah), but whatever you decide will affect the flavor and quality of the wine.

And that’s pretty much it. The big step is fermentation, which, by the way, is chemistry, not magic. Of course, there is a myriad of other decisions to be made in the winery that might change the style or flavor of your wine. We also have not discussed the factors in the vineyard that might determine the style or flavor of your wine. But, although the average Joe might not understand these choices or factors, the person responsible for growing the grapes does and the person responsible for making the wine does as well. Because they have learned and understand the science of grape growing and winemaking.

Now, armed with the above information, you can set off to learn more about the science and craft of making wine. Maybe you’ll even choose to make your own wine (if that’s the case, I’d advise you not to use the above as a template). Or, you’ll continue on your current path of selecting wines based upon your personal likes and budget rather than delving into the scientific aspects of wine. That’s fine. But, here’s the point…if the wine talking head (or writing head?) can’t even explain the above precepts, then he or she shouldn’t have a soapbox. At least not until the doctor who prescribes leeches gets featured in the New England Journal of Medicine.