Wine Making

Wine Making 

Grapes are the world’s leading fruit crop and the eighth most important food crop in the world, exceeded only by the principal cereals and starchytubers. Though substantial quantities are used for fresh fruit, raisins, juice and preserves, most of the world’s annual production of about 60 million metric tons is used for dry (nonsweet) wine.

Wine is of great antiquity, as every Bible reader knows, and a traditional and important element in the daily fare of millions.  Used in moderation, it is wholesome and nourishing, and gives zest to the simplest diet.  It is a source of a broad range of essential minerals, some vitamins, and easily assimilated calories provided by its moderate alcoholic content.

In its beginnings, winemaking was as much a domestic art as bread making and cheese making.  It still is, wherever grapes are grown in substantial quantity. Though much wine is now produced industrially, many of the world’s most famous wines are still made on what amounts to a family scale, the grape grower being the winemaker as well.

Production of good dry table wine for family use is not difficult, provided certain essential rules are observed.

The right grapes.

Quality of a wine depends first of all on the grapes it is made from.  As is true of other fruits, there are hundreds of grape varieties.  They fall in three main groups.

  • First, there are the classic vinifera wine grapes of Europe. These also dominate the vineyards of California, with its essentially Mediterranean climate.  But several centuries of trial have shown that they are not at home in most other parts of the United States.
  • Second, there are the traditional American sorts such as Concord, Catawba, Delaware, and Niagara, which are descendants of our wild grapes and much grown where the vinifera fail.  They have pronounced aromas and flavors, often called foxy, which, though relished in the fresh state by many, reduce their value for wine.
  • Third, there are the French or French-American hybrids, introduced in recent years and now superseding the traditional American sorts for winemaking.  The object in breeding these was to combine fruit resembling the European wine grapes with vines having the winter hardiness and disease resistance of the American parent.  They may be grown for winemaking where the pure European wine grapes will not succeed.

What wine is.

Simply described, wine is the product of the fermentation of sound, ripe grapes.  If a quantity of grapes is crushed into an open half-barrel or other suitable vessel, and covered, the phenomenon of fermentation will be noticeable within a day or two, depending on the ambient temperature.  It is initiated by the yeasts naturally present on the grapes, which begin to multiply prodigiously once the grapes are crushed.

Fermentation continues for three to ten days, throwing off gas and a vinous odor. In the process, the sugar of the grapes is reduced to approximately half alcohol and half carbon dioxide gas, which escapes.  Fermentation subsides when all the sugar has been used up. The murky liquid is then drained and pressed from the solid matter and allowed to settle and clear in a closed container.  The resulting liquid is wine-not very good wine if the constituents of the grapes were not in balance, and readily spoiled, but wine nevertheless.

Beneath the apparent simplicity, the evolution of grapes into wine is a series of complex biochemical reactions. Thus winemaking can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it.  The more you understand and control the process, the better the wine.

The following instructions cover only the essentials of sound home winemaking.  Under Federal law the head of a household may make up to 200 gallons of wine a year for family use, but is first required to notify the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Form 1541.

Making Red Wine

The grape constituents which matter most to the winemaker are (a) sugar content of the juice, and (b) tartness or “total acidity” of the juice.  Sugar content is important because the amount of sugar determines alcoholic content of the finished wine.

A sound table wine contains between 10% and 12% alcohol.  The working rule is that 2% sugar yields 1% of alcohol.   Example: a sugar content of 22% yields a wine of approximately 11 % alcohol.

California grapes normally contain sufficient sugar.  Grapes grown elsewhere are often somewhat deficient, and the difference must be made up by adding the appropriate amount of ordinary granulated sugar which promptly converts to grape sugar on contact with the juice.

Sugar Correction Table

What the  saccharometer shows For wine of 10% by volume. add For wine of 12% by volume, add
Ounces of sugar per gallon
10 11.8    16.2
11 10.1    14.8
12 8.9    13.3
13 7.4    11.9
14 5.9    10.4
15 4.6     8.9
16 3.0     7.5
17 1.5     6.0
18     4.3
19     2.9
20     1.4


     Note: The result is not precise. yield of alcohol varying under the conditions of fermentation. Adapted from Grapes Into Wine by Philip M. Wagner.


Saccharometer and hydrometer jar. Instrument floats at zero in plain water.  It floats higher according to sugar content of grape juice.


Note: The result is not precise. yield of alcohol varying under the conditions of fermentation.

-Adapted from Grapes Into Wine by Philip M. Wagner.

In using non-California grapes, you need to test the sugar content in advance.  That is done by a simple little instrument called a saccharometer, obtainable at any winemakers’ shop.  This is floated in a sample of the juice, and a direct reading of sugar content is taken from the scale.  The correct amount of sugar to add, in ounces per gallon of juice, is then determined by reference to the sugar table.

If total acidity, or tartness, is too high and not corrected, the resulting wine will be too tart to be agreeable.  Again, California grapes are usually within a satisfactory range of total acidity.  Grapes grown elsewhere are often too tart, and acidity of the juice should be reduced.

In commercial winemaking this is done with precision.  The home winemaker rarely makes the chemical test for total acidity but uses a rule of thumb.  He corrects the assumed excess of acidity with a sugar solution consisting of 2 pounds of sugar to 1 gallon of water- adding 1 gallon of the sugar solution for every estimated 4 gallons of juice.  This sugar solution is in addition to the sugar required to adjust sugar content of the juice itself.

In estimating the quantity of juice, another practical rule is that 1 full bushel of grapes will yield approximately 4 gallons. The winemaker therefore corrects with 1 gallon of sugar solution for each full bushel of crushed grapes.

The pigment of grapes is lodged almost entirely in the skins. It is during fermentation “on the skins” that the pigment is extracted and gives red wine its color.

How to proceed. Crush the grapes directly into your fermenter (a clean open barrel, plastic tub or large crock, never metal).  Small hand crushers are available, but the grapes may be crushed as effectively by foot – wearing a clean rubber boot.  Then remove a portion of the stems, which may otherwise give too much astringency to the wine.

Low-acid California grapes are quite vulnerable to bacterial spoilage during fermentation.  To prevent spoilage and assure clean fermentation, dissolve a bit of potassium metabisulfite (known as “meta” and available at all winemakers’ shops) and mix it into the crushed mass. Use ¼ ounce (⅓ of a teaspoonful) per 100 pounds of grapes.

Also use a yeast “starter”.   This comes as a 5 gram envelope of dehydrated wine yeast, also obtainable at winemakers’ shops. To prepare the starter, empty the granules of yeast into a shallow cup and add a few ounces of warm water.  When all the water is taken up, bring it to the consistency of cream by adding a bit more water.  Let stand for an hour, then mix it into the crushed grapes.

After the meta and yeast are added, cover the fermenter with cloth or plastic sheeting to keep out dust and fruit flies, and wait for fermentation.  If non-California grapes are used, test and make the proper correction for sugar content.  Then correct the total acidity by adding sugar solution as described earlier. In using non California grapes, it is desirable, but not necessary at this point, to add a dose of meta.  A yeast starter is advisable.

As fermentation begins, the solid matter of the grapes will rise to form a “cap”.  Push this down and mix with the juice twice a day during fermentation, always replacing the cover.  When fermentation begins to subside and the juice has lost most of its sweetness, it is time to separate the turbid, yeasty and rough-tasting new wine from the solid matter.  For this purpose a press is necessary, preferably a small basket press though substitutes can be devised.

Be ready with clean storage containers for the new wine, several plastic buckets, and a plastic funnel.  The best storage containers for home winemaking are 5-gallon glass bottles or small fiberglass tanks.

Beware of small casks and barrels for several reasons.  They are usually leaky. They are sources of infection and off-odors that spoil more homemade wine than any other one thing.  And there is frequently not enough new wine to fill and keep them full.  Wine containers must be kept full; otherwise the wine quickly spoils.  Using glass containers, you can see what you are doing.

With the equipment assembled, simply bail the mixture of juice and solid matter into the press basket.  The press basket serves as a drain, most of the new wine gushing into the waiting buckets and being poured from them into the containers.  When the mass has yielded all its “free run”, press the remainder for what it still contains.

Fill the containers full, right into the neck.  Since fermentation will continue for awhile longer, use a stopper with a fermentation “bubbler” which lets the gas out but does not let air in.  When the bubbler stops bubbling and there are no further signs of fermentation, replace it with a rubber stopper or a cork wrapped in waxed paper.

Store the wine for several weeks at a temperature of around 60° F.  Suspended matter in the wine will begin to settle, and at this temperature certain desirable reactions continue to take place in the wine itself.

At the end of this period, siphon the wine from its sediment, with a plastic or rubber tube into clean containers.

At the same time dissolve and add a bit of the meta already referred to at the rate of ¼ level teaspoon per 5 gallons of wine.  This will protect against off odors and spoilage but does not otherwise affect the wine.


Next, transfer the containers to a place where the wine will be thoroughly chilled, even down to freezing.  This precipitates more suspended matter and unwanted ingredients, and encourages clarification.

Assuming that the wine was made in early fall, hold it in cool storage until after the first of the year.  By then it should have “fallen bright” and be stable.  To test its clarity, hold a lighted match behind the bottle.  The wine is then siphoned once again from its sediment, and dose of meta added at the same rate of ¼ teaspoon per 5 gallons.

If the wine is brilliantly clear, one container of it may then be siphoned into wine bottles, corked or capped, and is ready for immediate use.  Despite the common impression, most wine does not gain greatly by aging once it is stable. It continues to evolve, but not necessarily for the better.

The rest of the wine is held until after the return of warm weather to make sure there will be no resumption of fermentation, which would blow corks if the wine was bottled.  By mid-May that hazard will have passed, and the wine is ready for its final siphoning, its final dose of the same quantity of meta, and bottling.


If in January the wine is not brilliantly clear, it should be “fined”. This consists of dissolving in a small amount of hot water and mixing in, at the time of siphoning, ordinary household gelatin at the rate of ¼ ounce (2 teaspoonsful) per 5 gallons.  This will turn the wine milky when mixed in and will slowly settle, dragging all impurities and suspended matter with it.  In two weeks to a month the process of “fining” will be complete.  The wine is then ready to be siphoned from the fining sediment and treated as above.

Making White Wine

As we have seen, red wine is fermented “on the skins” in order to extract the coloring matter and other ingredients lodged in the skins.  In making white wine, the grapes are crushed and the fresh juice immediately separated by pressing so that it may ferment apart from the skins.

This fresh juice is checked for its sugar content and acidity, as in preparing to ferment red wine, and the proper corrections are made immediately after pressing.  Likewise, a yeast “starter” is added.

The fermentation takes place in the same 5-gallon glass containers that are later used for storage.  But as fermenters they are filled only two thirds full as a precaution against any overflow or unmanageable formation of bubbles.  When the primary fermentation has run its course, the several partly filled bottles are simply consolidated—filled full and equipped with bubblers.

Subsequent siphoning from sediment, chilling, and dosing with meta are carried out as with red wine.  If fining is necessary, it differs in one respect: before mixing in the gelatin, mix in an equal amount of dissolved tannic acid to remove the impurities. Tannic acid is obtainable at drug stores or winemakers’ shops as a powder. This provides better settling out of suspended matter.

Dry table wine is a food beverage, to be used with meals.  Sweet wines are more like cordials.  The making of sweet wines takes advantage of a characteristic of the yeast organism, namely, that its activity dies down and it usually ceases to ferment sugar into alcohol after a fermenting liquid reaches an alcoholic content of around 13%.

The secret, then, is to add an excess of sugar when correcting the juice of crushed grapes before fermentation. When fermentation ceases, there is still some residual sugar in the juice.

From then on the still-sweet new wine is treated much as other wine.

The three important differences are:

  • the wine is siphoned from its sediment immediately after fermentation, without the waiting period at 60° F;
  • the chilling begins as soon as possible; and
  • the dose of meta added then and at each subsequent siphoning is doubled (½ teaspoon per 5 gallons instead of ¼ teaspoon) to guard against spoilage and against any accidental resumption of fermentation.

Sweet Wine Making

Fruit Average sugar level Sugar needed per gallon to make a sweet wine Average Acid Gallons of sugar water to add per gallon
Grapes [eastern] 12-20 1 ¼-2 med. To high 0-1
Grapes [Calif.] 16-20 1-1 ½ low² to high 0
Apples 13 2-2 ½ low² to high 0-1/2
Apricots 12 2-2 ½ med. to high 0-1/4
Blackberries 6 2-3 high to very high 1 or more
Blueberries 8 2 ¼-3 low to med. 0
Cherries[sour] 14 2-2 ¼ high to very high 1 or more
Cherries[sweet] 18 1 ½-2 medium 0
Pear 12 2 ¼-2/½ med. to high 0-1/4
Plum [Damson] 14 2-2 ¼ med. to high 0-1/4
Plum [Prune] 17 1 ½-2 med. to high 0-1/4
Peach 10 2-2 ½ med. to high 0-1/4
Raspberries 8 2 ½-3 high to very high 1 or more
Strawberries 5 2-3 ¼ med. To high 0-1/2
1.) To maintain proper sugar level when the acidity is reduced by adding water, it is easier to make up a sugar solution by dissolving three pounds of sugar in enough water to fill 1-gallon jug.

2.) Addition of some acid[citric or tartaric] may help. This can be done “to taste” after the active fermentation is over.

Dry table wines made from other fruits are rarely successful, but agreeable sweet wines may be made from them. The point to remember is that most fruits are lower in sugar than grapes and higher in acid.  Corrections for both are almost always necessary, plus sufficient excess “Sugar to leave residual sweetness after fermentation.  These fruits, with the exception of apple juice, are fermented in a crushed mass in order to obtain a maximum extraction of characteristic odors and flavors.  Once fermentation is concluded, they are treated like sweet grape wine. The table will serve as a rough guide to their relative sugar content and total acidity.


If a cork happens to pop out unnoticed and air reaches the wine for several weeks, there is a good chance that bacterial action will begin to convert the alcohol in the wine into acetic acid. Once the presence of acetic acid can be detected (a vinegarlike odor) the wine will lose its appeal as wine.  A usable vinegar can be retrieved by encouraging the process to go to completion.

Vinegar produced from an undiluted wine will be overly strong, so an equal volume of water should be added.   The container should be less than three-quarters full and closed with a loose cotton plug or covered with a piece of light cloth to keep out fruit flies.

If wine vinegar is your desired goal and no wine has started to sour, use a vinegar starter.  A selected strain of vinegar starter can be purchased from some winemakers’ shops, or a wild starter may be used.  Frequently the water in an air-bubbler will have a vinegar-like smell.  This can be used to start a batch of vinegar.  The wine is diluted with an equal volume of water and the container partly filled and covered as above.

A warm, but not hot, location will speed the process.  In a month or two the vinegar should be ready.  The clear portion of the vinegar can be poured or siphoned off for use. If another batch is wanted, more of the wine-water mixture can be added to the old culture.

by Philip Wagner and J. R. McGrew

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