Thursday, February 21, 2008

From Plant to Bottle: Harvest – What? You Don’t Have $1,000,000 Equipment?

This is part 6 of the From Plant to Bottle series.  If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.

Not everyone has access to the massive machinery of a commercial winery.  Certainly I spent many years making wine without it.  For an amateur winemaker, there are many options for processing grapes, from very simple to practically a miniature winery with lots of bells and whistles.  When I first made wine with actual grapes, I pulled the grapes off the stems by hand.  This is a very daunting task, as you can imagine.  It can become great fun, however, if you invite friends over to help and supply them with ample wine while they are doing it.  Many a beautiful summer or fall afternoon and evening was spent at my house doing just this.  Sometimes we even stopped to eat something.

I would then place the grapes into a nylon mesh bag (available at winemaking supply stores) and hand squeeze the juice out of them.  Once again, I am talking about white wine, for which you ferment only the juice.  Red wine explanations will come later.

Your other options would be to buy or rent more sophisticated equipment, once again, from a winemaking supply store.  My first crusher (which I still have) was advertised as “looking like a toy, but did a great job crushing”.  It measures only 10 inches by 10 inches and has two little crusher rollers and a hand crank, but it does indeed do a fine job of crushing those small batches.  You can actually buy miniature (although still larger than my crusher) crusher de-stemmers also.  You can get them with hand cranks or really splurge and get one that is motorized.  I always felt high-end ones were a bit much for the amount of wine an amateur can make.  By federal law, amateur winemakers can make 100 gallons per adult in a household, with a limit of 200 gallons per household, annually.  So, if there are 5 adults living in your house, you can still only make 200 gallons legally.  There are some winemaking shops that rent this equipment, which is quite nice, especially if several friends from different households get together to crush a larger volume of grapes.

As far as presses are concerned, the traditional basket press, consisting of a stand and a circular “basket” made traditionally from slats of wood standing straight up and a central screw, is what amateurs use. Basket presses are commonly seen on display in wine tasting rooms and as props where anything to do with wine is happening, such as wine festivals and wine shops.  They come in many different sizes and work well, although they are a little messy.  But remember, this is a messy business, so wearing old clothes that you don’t mind getting stained is a must (no pun intended).  This is a “crank down” operation, so to speak.  The grapes are placed in the press and two pieces of wood, cut in half circles to fit inside, are placed on the grapes.  Then some wood pieces are put on top, with the actual metal section that screws down on top of that.  The handle or crank is then turned round and round, pressing into the wood and squeezing the grapes.  There is also a type called a ratchet press, where instead of going round and round, you just move it back and forth.  This is much easier and I would highly recommend it.  Personally, the other one makes me very dizzy and if, in fact, you and your helpful friends have been sipping a little wine while working on this project, going around in circles is inadvisable.

Here are a couple tips that will make this process a little less messy, quicker, and give you better juice extraction.  You can buy nylon netting (some winemaking supply stores even have it) and line the inside of the press before you dump the grapes in.  This way you don’t have grape skins trying to escape through the slats, which you would have to clean up after each pressing.  Also, you can buy bags of rice hulls, once again from a winemaking supply store, to mix into the grapes.  This is called a pressing aid and adds no flavor to your juice.   Rice hulls will help to keep the grapes from sliding around and make them easier to press, yielding more juice.  You simply dump some in and mix it with your hands.

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