The first time mom gave her neighbor a bottle of our wine, the neighbor said, “Wow, that even looks like real wine!”
“That’s because it IS real wine,” Mom replied.
It had been some weeks before mom ever heard anything else about the wine. Like so many other people that had tasted “homemade wine” from their grandparent’s era… complete with thick floaters of goo that would get you drunk from one glass so long as you could choke it down… we wouldn’t have been surprised had we never heard anything more from the neighbor.
It had been our experience that if you asked anyone if they tried our wine yet, their automatic response was either, “I’m saving it for a special occasion,” or, “Isn’t it better if I age it awhile?”
After that, we started telling people, “Just drink it! Don’t age it, don’t save it, and for heaven’s sake, if it’s red wine don’t chill it!”
After about a month of giving her neighbor that bottle of wine, Mom finally heard back, “Thank you for the wine. We had it with dinner last night, and it was very good. It even tasted like real wine!”
We started making wine in 2009.
It was one of those mother-daughter activities we took up not only because we both enjoyed wine, but also because Mom needed a hobby to keep her busy after Dad died the first of that year.
Being there was a long history of wine making in both sides of the family, and my cousin and her Mom were having fun making wine kits, we decided it would be a great pastime for us both to enjoy, and maybe we would save a little money too.
The Cost of Making Wine…
Making your own wine is fairly simple, and if you buy wine often it ends up being a lot cheaper than the store bought stuff after the initial purchase of supplies.
After paying for all of the supplies, we figure a bottle of our wine costs us anywhere between $2.00-$7.00 per bottle depending on the grade of wine kit we buy. And it tastes so much better than that old, dusty stuff on the store's shelves!
The 100-point wine-scoring scale made popular by Wine Spectator magazine (below) is the simplest way for wine critics to offer their opinions on the quality of wines so consumers can decide which to purchase.
95–100 Classic: a great wine
90–94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
85–89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
80–84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
75–79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
50–74 Not recommended
Wine Spectator 100-Point Scale
Just like wine that is already bottled, wine kits are also graded so one could potentially pay a lot more money for a kit that is considered better than others. Unlike purchasing a bottle of finished wine, when you buy a wine kit you are paying for the juice from a winery's vineyard. Sometimes the kits include extra juice or grape skins to make a good wine even more delicious. The more juice and extras there are in a kit, the higher the cost.
Wine kits are available for purchase through many online wine supply stores, and you can even find kits on Amazon.
Midwest Supply is one place we like to order our wine kits from. Currently (2020), their wine kits start at $49.99 for one that yields 6 gallons of wine. Midwest also has frequent sales, and sometimes offers free shipping. Once on their site, you can also purchase a Master Vintner Wine Making Starter Kit for $145.99, which contains all one needs to make a batch of wine except for the juice, corks, fermenting bucket, and empty wine bottles.
The cheaper wine juice kits are good, but if you like a better bottle of wine, then I recommend you spend a little more money on the premium kits by buying the Selection grade, or a Limited Edition kit. Both kits contain more juice than the cheaper kits. Knowing you will have to fill the remaining space in a 6-gallon fermenting bucket with water, you can easily understand how kits with less juice taste a little watered down compared to the higher priced ones.
When you’re shopping for kits, don’t disregard the LE kits you can preorder, either, because they are usually excellent! In fact, they are so good you’ll never want to buy another bottle of grocery store wine again. I wouldn’t lie…
And the flavors available are endless!
It seems most people think homemade wine only comes in the Concord grape variety, or a fruity flavor like blueberry or raspberry… but they’d be wrong.
If you like white wines, such as Pies porter, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, or Riesling you will surely find the perfect kit for your white wine taste buds. If you’re into the reds like me, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the selection of wines available including Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Shiraz just to name a few.
A 6-gallon wine kit yields 28-32 bottles of wine, so the two of us usually split the cost of the kit and any extra supplies we might need to purchase - such as corks, and we will each have LOTS of wine to enjoy for months ahead.
Making Wine during the COVID-19 Shutdown...
In this next section, I will go over the directions from a White Zinfandel ‘Selection’ kit that we are currently making.
Please note that all kits are not the same. This particular kit is pretty simple with very few steps required for finishing. Other kits may have other add-ins such as a secondary juice pack, grape skins, oak chips, oak cubes, etcetera that may require a few more steps, but they are still well worth the effort in making.
If this is the first time using your bucket, you will want to fill it with exactly 6-gallons of water and mark the level on the inside of your bucket using a sharpie marker. This way, you will always have a fill line for easy reference.
Note: DO NOT use any old bucket you have laying around. You MUST use a food grade container, so just pry your wallet open and buy the fermenting bucket for $14.99. It does not come with the starter kit from Midwest Supply, but you will use this thing over and over again, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of it.
Next, add a half-gallon of hot, spring water, well water (only if it tastes good), or R/O water in the bucket. DO NOT use softened water. Then slowly sprinkle the Bentonite packet into the bottom of the bucket and stir until it dissolves.
“Bentonite is a type of super absorbent clay that is usually added prior to fermentation. This volcanic-ash clay can absorb many times its own weight in other compounds,” so is used as a fining agent to help clear the nasties out of your wine during fermentation. Aided by bentonite, the nasty gunk is absorbed and falls to the bottom of your fermentation bucket to be tossed out later.
The bentonite can be a little clumpy sometimes, so sprinkle it in slow to get good dissolution. If you have clumps left in the bottom of the bucket after stirring for a few minutes, that’s okay.
Next, add the large juice pack to the fermenting bucket and stir it up with the bentonite water using that gigantic stirring spoon that came with your starter kit. No, the big spoon is not a disciplinary tool, or a device required by your local witches union. It’s just a big plastic spoon to help you reach the bottom of your fermenting bucket without having to stick your feet in there!
DO NOT USE YOUR FEET… EVER!!! That’s just gross…
Sometimes wine kits will include a smaller juice pouch called an F-pack. This is not a child’s portion, or something to suck on while you are working on your wine. This juice is to be added later, so make sure you ONLY use the biggest juice pouch at this time and save the F-pack for a later step.
Now check the temperature of the juice. This particular kit requires a starting temperature range of 68-77°F for fermentation to begin.
Add enough water to fill the bucket to the 6-gallon line you marked using hot or cold water to get the temperature required for your kit to begin fermenting. After it’s topped up with water and stirred well, check the specific gravity using the hydrometer. The hydrometer is that cool looking glass measuring device you got in your starter kit. Being this particular kit is a quick, 4-week kit, these directions show a starting S.G. of 1.070 -1.097.
Specific gravity is the density of a liquid in relation to water which s.g. is 1.000. After you add soluble solids to your juice kit, the specific gravity will increase after the decimal point. As your wine ferments turning the juice into alcohol, the number on your hydrometer will decrease. "All dry wines and meads will finish at gravities lower than 1.000 (e.g. .995). Almost all beers and sweeter wines & meads will finish higher than 1.000."
If your specific gravity is not in the range listed yet, don’t worry. We have only had one kit that didn’t match its starting specific gravity, and it still made great wine. It just took a few extra days of fermenting to reach step 2.
Once you document the S.G. of your kit on the instructions page, get the fermenting bucket placed in the room where you are going to let it ferment. The room needs to be on the warmer side or it will take forever for the wine to finish. Usually anywhere around 68-86°F is sufficient.
Remember that wine can be a little smelly while it’s fermenting. We have also experienced a few occasions where the wine blew out through stopper because some wines ferment a little more vigorously than others. Keep these details in mind when choosing a place to ferment your wine… meaning a room with a white-carpeted floor would be a very bad choice for wine making!
After you get your fermenting bucket full of wine and situated in a place where it won’t be disturbed, cut open the yeast packet and sprinkle it across the top of the wine. Do not stir it into the wine.
Next, fill the bubbler up to the line with sanitizing water and attach it to the top of the lid by poking the stem down into the little hole that has the rubber gasket. Snap the lid securely onto the bucket and let it sit undisturbed for the time specified in your instructions.
For this particular wine kit, there is nothing else to do for 14 days. Other wine kits may have something to add like grape skins that require daily stirring over the next few days, so pay attention to the directions that came with your kit.
Step 2 (day14 - stabilizing/degassing)
Carefully pry the lid off the fermenting bucket, and sanitize the hydrometer before floating it in the wine to confirm the specific gravity is 0.996 or less. Floating the hydrometer right in the wine is another short-cut we took rather than siphoning off some wine into that hydrometer tube, but do as you wish.
If the S.G. is not in range, put the lid back on and let the wine set for another 48 hours before checking it again. Only after the specific gravity matches the limits in the kit’s instructions should you continue.
If your specific gravity is within range, sanitize the siphon, wine agitator and carboy with 1-step sanitizer.
If the fermenting bucket is on the floor, lift it up on a table for siphoning into the carboy. Be extremely careful when moving the bucket that you not disturb the wine too much in order to keep the sediment at the bottom of the bucket.
Siphon the juice off the sediment and into the glass (or plastic) carboy. I usually hold the bottom of the siphon an inch or so above the sediment and STOP siphoning when I start to see the thick gunk coming up the tube. This is the stuff that grandpa used to leave in his wine, and although you can drink it, it makes for a nasty sip of wine!
After you get all the wine out of the bucket, I usually dump the goo down the toilet so it doesn’t clog my sink. Please note that some wines also have oak chips or cubes that had been soaking in the wine from the start, and you may not want to send this down the toilet if you have a septic tank.
Next, add the sulphate/sorbate packet to the mix. Potassium sorbate/sulphate is added to wines, “that have completed fermentation to prevent spoilage but also to prevent further fermentation of sugars added after fermentation such as when you back sweeten a wine.”
After adding the sulphate/sorbate packet, agitate the wine vigorously for 10 minutes manually. If you have purchased a drill attachment for stirring, agitate the wine for 2-4 min reversing the direction every 30 seconds.
Like the fermentation bucket, the drill attachment does not come with the Master Vintner Wine Making Starter Kit. If you have a drill you could use the attachment with, I highly recommend it because it sure beats siphoning the wine back into the fermentation bucket to stir it for 10 minutes with that long-handled spoon just so you can siphon it back into the carboy!
Next step, stir in 1 packet of Kieselsol to aide in clearing your wine. Attach the bung and air lock stopper and let your wine rest for another 24 hours.
Step 3- day 15 clearing
If your kit came with an F-pack (the smaller, juice reserve packet), add it now. Then stir in the Chitosan packet.
Both Kieselsol and Chitosan are used for clearing your wine. “They work by removing haze causing elements in wine and then settle to the bottom of the fermenter.”
If your kit came with a 2nd Kieselsol packet, stir this in 1 hour after the Chitosan. Take it from someone who has experienced adding it too soon… If you don’t wait to add the 2nd Kieselsol packet, it will not dissolve, EVER! Instead, you’ll have a bunch of white floaters in your wine, and a bad attitude.
Next, if your wine kit came with oak cubes, stir them in now. Then replace the airlock and let the wine set for another 5 days.
At this point, things are getting exciting because your wine is nearly done and ready for bottling. Oftentimes, you can drink the wine on the same day of bottling, but it is best if you can hold your horses a month or two and let it mellow.
Step 4 day 26-54 - polishing rack/aging
Your wine should be crystal clear at this point. If it’s not clear, leave it another 7-14 days until it is because if you bottle cloudy wine, it will look like oozing swill when you pour a glass for your guests. Just don’t…
After your wine has passed the clarity checkpoint, rack the wine again, leaving any sediment behind, and leave it set for another 2 days, minimum. This will guarantee a beautifully clear glass of wine… one you will be proud to say, “I made this myself!”
The night before bottling…
Get your 1-Step sanitizer and bottlebrush out and scrub those bottles! It doesn’t matter if the bottles are new, or being re-used. They will need to be thoroughly scrubbed and sanitized so they are free of any germs or bacteria that could potentially ruin your wine.
At this point in the process, I’m sure you are seeing a main theme… Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize, but DO NOT use soap and water to clean your bottles or any other equipment. “Soapy residue can be difficult to completely rinse away from the interior and if residue remains it could ruin taste of the next wine in that bottle.”
To help with bottle cleaning time, we invested in a bottle washer that sprays the sanitized water up into the bottle for a thorough cleaning.
We also bought a drying rack so the bottles could drip dry overnight so cleaning wasn’t a full day of drudgery on bottling day. Click on the links to see more about these products.
The day of bottling...
Again… never, EVER bottle cloudy wine! This is an absolute rule that should be followed no matter how much of a hurry you’re in to bottle your wine.
We broke this rule one time… bottled cloudy wine. It was a white Riesling that tasted fabulous, but every glass poured out of those 30 bottles looked like dirty dishwater. Even though the wine tasted great, it was hard getting past the look of it. Not to mention, it was downright embarrassing to share with guests.
I suppose a guest could claim, “Oh yeah… this is definitely homemade wine!” But I have higher standards to withhold, so just don’t do it.
Once you’re sure that your wine is gorgeous and crystal clear, it’s time to bottle!
Wear old, comfy clothes that you don’t care about getting wine stains on. I know… it’s complete alcohol abuse to spill a drop of the stuff, but it has been known to happen on occasion.
Next, soak your corks in 1-Step sanitizer dissolved in warm water. Make sure you throw in a few extra corks in case you lose one.
If you are using corks made of real cork, they will need to soak for at least 20 minutes before bottling so they will be soft enough to squeeze into the bottles. Synthetic corks just need to be well sanitized, so soaking them now will ensure they are nice and clean by the time you start corking your wine.
While you have the 1-Step out, make enough cleaning solution to sanitize the rest of your equipment. Then rack the wine one last time from the carboy to make sure that any leftover sediment is not going to end up in your wine bottles.
When we first started making wine, we used the fermenting bucket to bottle from for many years. Since then, we invested in a bottling bucket that comes with a spigot at the bottom for quick and easy bottling, and it has become quite the time saver!
While the wine is siphoning from the carboy into the bottling bucket, take this time to:
1. Taste the wine. Make sure you use a real wine glass so you can look for clarity, as well as swirl & smell the wine before tasting. I believe the first taste is just a mouthful to coat your palette in preparation for the tasting sip. The 2nd sip is the most telling in how far along the flavor has developed in your wine.
2. While the wine is being siphoned into the bottling bucket, it’s the perfect time to degas your wine by stirring it. The more gas you get out of the wine now will help the corks from popping out later. In my experience, it has been the red wines – like cabernet and merlot – that tended to push the corks out of the bottles. So rather than lose any precious goods on the floor of your wine cabinet later, get that big spoon back out and stir the stuff up while it’s still in the bucket.
Your next step will be filling your bottles. Make sure the bucket of wine is placed high enough to allow the siphon to work properly. Next, situate yourself so you can reach all the clean bottles for filling, and have a place to set the filled ones after.
Have lots of old towels and/or paper towels handy on bottling day. Also, work in a room with a linoleum or tile floor for easy cleanup if a bottle overflows. Believe me, there is only so much wine you can catch in your mouth while bottling!
After you have filled your bottles, it’s time to flex your muscles with the manual corker. This thing is a little hard to get the hang of at first. Hopefully, you have soaked a few extra corks just in case you have to reset some.
Again, we replaced the original corker a few years after our initial investment with a larger, floor model that allows for some leverage when corking your bottles. We like it a lot more than the hand corker, but if you’re on a limited budget, the other one works just fine.
After you get the bottles corked, wipe them down with a clean, wet cloth and let them dry before applying the labels.
Leave the filled bottles standing upright for 2-7 days if you used real corks, and 4-7 days if you used synthetic corks, before storing them on their sides. Wine is best stored in a cooler room with very little temperature fluctuations.
Most kits come with labels these days, but if your kit did not, get creative and label them however you wish. Just remember that you will probably be using the same wine bottles for future wine kits, so the easier it is to get the labels off the better!
We used to make these crappy looking labels using Avery mail stickers, and in my opinion, they totally sucked because most people judged whether our wine was good by its label. Our homemade labels stood out like a sore thumb making would-be taste testers shy away from even a sip!
I love the fact that most wine kits come with fancy, easy-peel-off labels these days.
After a few years of wine-making under our belts, and mom’s neighbor getting more and more used to enjoying our homemade stuff, the wine kits started coming out with these really pretty labels.
One day, the neighbor came for a visit telling mom that she had been looking for this really great wine for months, but couldn’t find it anywhere. She had taken the empty bottle to every wine seller she could think of, but still… nobody could get more for her.
“This wine is so good,” she told my mom, “and I can’t find it anywhere!” she complained.
“Is it one of mine,” mom asked.
“No… I’m sure it’s not,” she said. “It has a really nice label on it, so I know it’s not yours.”
“Why don’t you show me just in case,” mom urged.
Still not buying into the idea we had made the wine, she went back to her house and retrieved the empty bottle.
“That’s one of ours,” mom said.
“No… it can’t be,” she said. “How can you be so sure?”
Mom pointed out the hand written date, barely legible along the bottom of the label. “That’s the month and year it was bottled,” she told her.
“Really? Do you have any more?” she begged.
“Sorry,” mom said. “I only have 2 bottles of that one left, and they are so good I’m keeping them.”
Indeed, your homemade wine will be so delicious you will never want to buy another bottle from the store. And your friends, family, and neighbors will be amazed you with the stuff, stating, “You could sell this, it’s so good!”
Although it is unlawful to sell our homemade wine, it sure is nice to hear that people would rather buy yours than the stuff at the store.
So what kit will you start with first?
Let me know!
Thanks so much for reading!
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Genesis Wine, 2018, “… clean and re-use recycled wine bottles,” https://www.genesiswinemaking.com/clean--re-use-recycled-wine-bottles.html
Home Brew-It, 2017, "Hydrometer Basics for Home Brewing and Wine Making," https://www.homebrewit.com/hydrometer-basics-for-home-brewing-and-wine-making
Willow Point Wines, "Frequently Asked Questions,"http://willowpointwines.ca/frequently-asked-questions/
Texas Brewing Inc., 2015, "Fining Agents for Wine: Bentonite, Chitosan, And Kieselsol," https://www.txbrewing.com/storeblog/fining-agents-for-wine-bentonite-chitosand-and-kieselsol.html
Wine Scores, 2020, https://www.wine-searcher.com/wine-scores
Winemaker’s Academy, 2013, “Using Potassium Sorbate When Making Wine,”http://winemakersacademy.com/potassium-sorbate-wine-making/