Natural Wine

The Los Angeles Times food section today featured a story about the wine area of the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County. This is an amazing appellation where some of the most interesting and delicious wines are being grown and made.

I have had the good fortune to spend some time in this area while making a documentary on the passions of these winemakers. More on that later. The craftsmen (and women) in this area are the last of the cowboy winemakers. The desire to make something from the land that could be as good or better than any wine in the world is their driving force. There aren’t nearly as many retired dentists and dot com millionaires inhabiting the Santa Barbara wine country as there are in the tony Napa Valley, several hours to their north. These are not rich man’s hobby farms. The terrain is rough, the yields are low and the tourists are steady, but not overflowing like the well worn paths to Napa and Sonoma.

The magic that these winemakers create starts in the dirt. The attention to detail is key. The planting patterns, the types of root stock, the spraying programs are all well considered, studied and applied in a judicious manner. The number of organic and biodynamic vineyards is staggering. I don’t know the exact number. That’s because that many winemakers and vineyard managers choose to practice organic growing without going for the distinction on their label. As one winemaker told me: “This is a family run vineyard and the workers are like family so the owner wouldn’t want to do anything that was going to harm his family.”

One question that comes up in our interviews over and over again is: “Can I make wine at home?” And the answer is always the same: “Of course you can. You can make wine in a trash can.” This got us thinking that we should try it. So we did, and we are now on our second year, with Roussanne, Grenache Rosé and Grenache/Syrah aging in our garage.

Today’s recipe is more of an explanation than a real recipe. I have found that many, many people do not know how wine is made. They get to the “Lucy Stomping” scene and that ends their “knowledge” of winemaking. I am not saying that winemaking is easy, but the process itself is easy to understand. There are myriad of details, tests, and little decisions all along the way that make two wines from the same vineyard different.

There is another aspect to winemaking called blending that I will not cover here. This is a recipe for a single “varietal” or single kind of grape. There are two variations in the overall way to make wine, one is for white and rosé and the other is for red. We will make red wine today.

There are a number of home winemaking guidebooks on the market and if you are seriously interested you should invest in a few. There are also winemaking courses and shops in most major markets. Below is for educational purposes only.

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs. Really Good Syrah or other Red Wine Grapes, grown organically

Tools

  • Fermenting Tank
  • Hydrometer
  • Grape Press
  • Storage Vessel
  • Clean Wine Bottle
  • Cork
  1. Pick, buy or beg some really great grapes. It takes about 3 pounds of grapes to make one bottle of wine.
  2. Smash a few of the grapes. You can use your (clean) feet.
  3. Let the grapes sit in a covered fermentation tank. We use a food grade trash can. The ones we use hold about 150 pounds of grapes.
  4. A few times a day push the top down with your (clean) hands, mixing it up.
  5. Once a day, measure the brix (the sugar content). It should fall by 1 or 2 brix a day as the natural yeast on the skins of the grapes converts the sugar to alcohol. Write it down to keep track of the progress.
  6. When the hydrometer reads “0” brix it’s time to press.
  7. Gently press the juice off of the skins. The juice that runs off before pressing is called the free run and is considered the best. Some winemakers reserve the free run and mix the pressed and free run to have some control over the more tannic pressed wine.
  8. Store your new wine in a clean vessel or barrel. We use glass jars called carboys.
  9. Put a cork with an airlock in the opening. Oxogen is the enemy of wine. The airlock lets any carbon dioxide out while not letting oxogen in.
  10. After a few months the wine will settle. Gently transfer it to another barrel or carboy. This is called Racking.
  11. In the spring, the wine will automatically go through a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation. That is the natural process of converting the tart tasting malic acid into the mellower lactic acid.
  12. As the temperature rises, keep your wine consistently cool.
  13. In the fall, or as long as you can stand it, pour your wine into (clean) bottles and cork.
  14. Wait as long as you can and drink.

There are two things that you should have noticed in this explanation. The first is that I used the word clean over and over again. Probably the biggest activity in making wine is cleaning. I came to understand that winemaking is 90% cleaning, 5% winemaking and 5% worrying.

The other thing that you might have noticed that there were no additives of any kind. In professional and most home winemaking there are usually some sulfur based additives to keep the wine from spoiling. Most home winemakers and some pros also use cultured yeast, and therefore have to kill off the natural yeast with the same sort of sulfur. It’s risky to make completely natural wine but there are only two negative outcomes: your wine won’t ferment all the way to dryness (zero brix) or it will be stinky and not too pleasant to drink. Neither one will make you sick, but you also won’t have a nice bottle of wine.

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