Raise a glass to Nosh’s Wine Week, five days celebrating local makers, venues, and everything plonk. Check back all week for new stories on the East Bay’s unique vino scene.
So you’ve successfully tackled sourdough and burned through the backlog of binge-worthy shows to watch. You might be looking for a new challenge, a new hobby, or a way to create something worth sharing with friends. Have you considered making wine at home? If it’s been on your bucket list, now may be the time to get some buckets and get started.
As Homer Smith and Stacy Stevenson of Berkeley’s Oak Barrel Winecraft suggest, doing a bit of reading in preparation is always a good idea. A pair of books to start with are Tim Patterson’s Home Winemaking for Dummies (we profiled Patterson in Nosh’s earliest days), or The Way to Make Wine: How to Craft Superb Table Wine at Home by Sheridan F. Warrick. Another shop with East Bay outposts, More Beer! & More Wine!, also offers an extremely detailed step-by-step guide to making red wine for those who want an overview of the process before they begin.
But, as we learned from conversations with Smith and Stevenson and also with Al Turner, secretary of the Contra Costa Wine Group, the best way to get started is to ask questions.
Smith and Stevenson insist there are no dumb questions, and that if you pay attention to detail — and sanitation! — and “do what the grapes want you to do,” you can easily make good wine. One thing all the folks we spoke with agree on is that if you ask ten winemakers the best way to make wine, you will get eleven answers. Something to consider when asking those questions.
From Tim Patterson’s Home Winemaking for Dummies
Winemaking is too much of an art to have real laws, like the laws of physics, but home winemakers are well advised to keep these four principles in mind at all times:
- Useful obsessions: You cannot worry too much about sanitation, temperature, and oxygen.
- Buckets: You cannot possibly have too many buckets available in your winery
- Blending: This technique is the home winemaker’s best friend
- Quantity: You cannot make great wines in quantities small enough to drink by yourself.
In terms of equipment, East Bay winemakers would be wise to check out Oak Barrel and More Beer! & More Wine!’s locations in Concord or San Leandro. These businesses have all the things a new (or experienced winemaker) would need to make wine, from buckets and bottles to corks and additives, most of which are also sold online. They also offer the bigger and more expensive pieces of equipment (crusher/stemmers, presses and corker machines) for rent.
The shops also sell a variety of yeasts, which are an important part of the winemaking process. More Beer! has a yeast and grape pairing guide that’s very helpful for the new winemaker.
The equipment for making wine at home is readily available, but what about the grapes? Some winemakers (about half, according to Turner) grow at least some of the grapes themselves. As we learned, some folks find grapes on Craigslist or other person-to-person shopping platforms, while others buy them by the pound from growers who will sell to home winemakers. There’s a small catch, though, as many have a minimum of 250 pounds per order.
Oak Barrel sources grapes from growers all over, and the folks at More Beer! recommend joining a wine club to find an ideal source. Another option is Brehm Vineyards, through which you can order fresh or frozen grapes.
Using frozen grapes or the kind of wine kits available at Oak Barrel or More Beer! is another way to approach making wine at home. A complete kit at Oak Barrel includes a fermenter and lid, a 5 gallon carboy, a gallon jug, tubes and siphons and all the other things you’d need to turn 100 pounds of red grapes into wine. Box wine making kits contain additives, juices and concentrates and promise wine “ready to bottle in just 6-8 weeks.” Wine kits come in many types, both red and white.
And if you have an over-productive plum tree, or too many blackberries? Fruit wine is a great way to start out. (Maybe you and your neighbors can combine harvests and enjoy the fruits of your labors together?) Unlike grape harvest, when you have one shot in order to get it right, fruit might be more forgiving. It does take time to make, however, so keep an eye on peak production. Oak Barrel has an easy to follow, step-by-step guide to making 3-4 gallons of fruit wine.
Oak Barrel Winecraft
1443 San Pablo Ave. (near Gilman Street), Berkeley
2315 Verna Court (near Marina Boulevard), San Leandro
995 Detroit Ave. Unit G (near Whitman Road), Concord
Smith suggests keeping an open mind and urges novice winemakers to experiment, but, he cautions, never forget that when making wine, “oxygen is your worst enemy.” Too much space during the fermentation process can cause a disaster, he said.
For more tips and hints, building relationships with fellow winemakers is a must. The Contra Costa Wine Group has been around since 1976, with members from all over the Bay Area. It costs $65 to join and membership includes a subscription to WineMaker Magazine, which is full of informative articles on many topics of interest to both newbies and more experienced winemakers. (The best way to find out more about this group is to call them at 925-837-9384 and speak to Turner.)
Oak Barrel hosts a variety of winemaking events and club nights, and has recently resumed its class program. These are hands-on experiences during which winemakers can learn how to use equipment for crushing, pressing and fermentation; they also offer beverage-specific classes for beer and mead.