A few years ago, as my obsession with wine was picking up steam, I decided that I wanted to make my own wine. Some of my friends thought I was crazy, while others thought it was really cool and wanted to help out. I spent a few months reading winemaking books and home winemaker forums online, preparing myself for the 800 lbs. of Dry Creek Syrah grapes that were destined for my garage.
My first vintage was 2011, a notoriously difficult year for grape growers and winemakers in California. We had a long, cool summer, followed by rain at the end of the growing season. Anyone who picked their fruit before the rains were able to produce age-worthy, complex, structured, and focused wines, while those who waited until after the rain were running into issues such as the grape’s sugar content getting diluted by the rain water and mold. My grapes fell into the latter category, and we had to make a quick decision to harvest before the problems we were encountering in the vineyard progressed. We had to drop about 10% of the fruit before harvest, which had grown moldy from the moisture.
The wine that I produced that year was rife with issues, and my inexperience compounded by my generally worrisome demeanor was a recipe for disaster. I cried a lot that year in the corner of my garage, not knowing what to do when I ran into various problems. I did eventually get that wine out of the barrel and into the bottle, as a last-ditch effort to see if it would come around – it smelled like the inside of a brand new garden hose from the moment it was finished with malolactic fermentation. I now have about 10 cases of home-made Syrah that smells like nail polish remover and rubber “aging” in wine storage. What I’ll end up doing with that wine is still TBD.
Fast forward another year, and I decided to give winemaking another shot. 2012’s summer was shaping up to be a short and hot one, and I was able to source some Russian River Valley Zinfandel from a gentleman up in Santa Rosa for just $1/lb. This was also the year I got married, just about a month before harvest – I actually planned my wedding to be early enough where it wouldn’t interfere with my winemaking (I’m a girl with priorities, okay?). Four friends helped me pick those Zinfandel grapes at 24 degrees Brix on the foggy morning of October 6th, 2012.
My 2012 Zinfandel was a joy to make. I had all of the equipment I needed, better understood what to expect, and had my routine down a little bit better. I actually enjoyed the winemaking process, and didn’t shed a single tear the entire time! I had two 44-gallon fermenters bubbling away, along with a couple of carboys full of saignée that would make a lovely, early-drinking rosé.
My Zinfandel spent about 13 months in a neutral French oak barrel, and I was unsure how good it would be once bottled. I bottled it in May, and since then the wine has really come around. It’s absolutely delicious – floral, rich, balanced, fruity without being jammy, and spicy, with elegant structure for a Zinfandel. I still have a few carboys I need to bottle, which I swear I’ll get around to soon!
I am planning to make only rosé from that same vineyard this year, which means I’ll be picking my grapes a little earlier than I did in 2012. I just paid a visit to the vineyard a few weekends ago, to see how the fruit was coming along. They had just started verasion, and the farmer is planning to thin the fruit this week.
If you are interested in making your own wine, and you have the space/resources to make it happen, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s hard work, and akin to having a newborn baby for the first few months. Should you wish to take it up, I recommend the following books and resources:
The Way to Make Wine by Sherridan Warrick
From Vines to Wines by Jeff Cox
Winepress.us – an online home winemaking forum, moderated by small commercial producers and home winemaking veterans.
MoreWinemaking.com – a website selling affordable home winemaking gear.
Most importantly, make sure you have plenty of friends who will be supportive of your endeavor and eager to consume your finished product.