Making Wine - A Romantic Notion

Have you ever visited Napa Valley or some other region dedicated to wine making and come away thinking about selling everything and buying a winery? I have to admit the thought has crossed my mind more than once. There’s a saying, hopefully not as true today as it once was, that the way to make a million dollars in the wine business is to start with ten million. The business side of the wine business is much like other businesses. It’s the making of wine that we or at least I find such a romantic notion. So let’s make some wine and see just how romantic it really is.

First we need some grapes. Nothing effects the quality of the resulting wine more than the quality of the grapes you begin with. If we were land owners perhaps we would have our own vines and grow all of the grapes we need for our wines. But we are like many wineries and have to buy our fruit from a grower. Viticulture , growing grapes, is an enormous industry in all wine producing regions (check out Cellar Notes for more information on viticulture in Texas.)

So we got our money together and bought a few tons of grapes. The next step is crushing. We crush the grapes and allow them to ferment. Yeast is naturally present on our grapes and the fermentation could be done with just the natural yeast. However the results of natural yeast fermentation are unpredictable so we will add cultured yeast developed specifically for fermenting grapes. If we were making red wine we would leave the juice and skins together while fermentation takes place. The grape juice starts out white, but left in contact with the skins, the juice will become red. Beyond color, this extended contact with the skins would impart tannins and other important elements to our red wine. If we were making white wine, we would have separated the juice form the skins and only the juice would be fermented, leaving ours wine clear or white.

Our primary fermentation can take between one and two weeks, during which time the yeast will convert most of the sugars in the grape juice to alcohol. After the primary fermentation is complete, we transfer the juice to stainless steel tanks or oak barrels for a secondary fermentation. Here, with little or no oxygen present, the remaining sugars are slowly converted into alcohol, completing the alcohol fermentation. During or after alcohol fermentation, malolactic fermentation may also occur. Malolactic fermentation is done by bacteria rather than yeast, and converts malic acid in the juice to lactic acid. The result is a softer more complex wine. Many red wines and a few white wines undergo this malolactic fermentation. Now, depending on the type and style of wine we’re making, we might allow our wine to age in oak barrels which would add extra aromas, flavors and complexity to the wine; we might allow the wine to age in stainless steel tanks or we might not age it at all. However, there are still several steps before bottling.

At this point we must decide whether we need to blend our wine to correct for some problem in flavor, body, color or aroma. We can mix in as much as 20% of other grape varieties and still label our wine as a single variety wine. So our bottle labeled Cabernet Sauvignon might contain up to 20% Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot. No one will know but us.

Now we need to fine our wine. Fining is the process of removing microscopic particles that can cause our wine to be cloudy. Fining is done by adding a fining agent, like gelatin or casein, that causes these tiny particles to clump together so they can be removed. Next we probably also want to filter our wine. This will remove all of the debris from the wine making process and leave our wine pristine in appearance. Some wine makers might skip the fining or filtering process, believing that they also remove beneficial elements from the wine. If we chose to skip these processes we would want to label our wine as unfined or unfiltered so that consumers would not be surprised if it was a bit cloudy in the glass.

OK, almost done. But before we bottle our wine we will probably want to add a preservative, usually sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide acts to protect the wine from oxidation and from bacterial spoilage. Without sulfur dioxide our wines could suffer bacterial spoilage no matter how hygienic our winemaking process has been. If we add sulfur dioxide beyond certain levels we will also need to add “Contains Sulfites” to our label.

Finally we can put our wine in the bottle. If we’re lucky enough to have our own bottling and labeling equipment we won’t have to truck our wine to a bottling plant. Now we just need to decide what kind of closure we’re going to use to protect it. We can choose the traditional cork or alternative closures such as synthetic corks and screw caps which are less subject to cork taint.

All we need to do now is sell it, in a market crowded with hundreds, if not thousands, of wines from all over the world. And then there’s next year, when we get to start the process all over again. Somehow I think I’ll stick to enjoying wine and let someone else, braver and more romantic than me, make it.