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james laube's wine flights

Up for Some Do-It-Yourself Wine?

Not because you want it done right, but because your mistakes will teach you a newfound appreciation (and your successes will be unforgettable)
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 8, 2013 12:30pm ET

If you're still looking for a big wine idea for 2013—something that will change the way you look at and appreciate wine—try making your own.

Harvest 2013 (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) is still eight months away, leaving you plenty of time to map your strategy, create a budget, assemble a winemaking team and source your grapes.

Of the many ways to study and understand wine, none can top the experience of making your own. While there's no guarantee your wine will be anything special (although some of mine were), choosing which grapes to use (I've tried Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) and at what level of ripeness to pick them, examining your fermentation technique options, selecting a barrel, deciding how long to leave your wine in that barrel, and so on will give you a far greater understanding of what's involved in making good, or even great, wine.

A few of the lessons I learned when making my own wine: A carboy of Sauvignon Blanc was destroyed when a forklift backed into it (lesson: Storage location is key); a vintage of Merlot turned to vinegar (lesson: Pay close attention when topping off a barrel).

Sonoma's Crushpad used to make it easy for wine lovers to make their own wine, as my colleague James Molesworth did (unfortunately, that business model proved to be unsustainable). Crushpad's Bordeaux operation, however, is still going strong, though you won't get much hands-on experience with your wine if you're based here in the States. If you live near New York or Chicago, City Winery offers make-your-own wine programs.

But you can learn much more by managing the entire process yourself. For less than $5,000, you can buy a half-ton or so of grapes, a barrel, about 300 bottles and corks and some lab-testing equipment, which cover the basics—a half-ton of grapes will yield enough juice to fill a 60-gallon barrel, which will yield about 25 cases of wine; if you spend a total of 5 grand, that comes out to a little over $16 per bottle. But the price becomes incidental when compared to the satisfaction you'll get from your sweat equity, even if your wine is a bust.

Steve Order
Mass —  February 8, 2013 3:14pm ET
My first experience, and subsequent life long passion for wine, came in 1971 on a trip to Europe when I was only 16 years old. Alas, under age when I returned to the states, my buddy and I started by making wine. Started with fruit, believe it or not our first wine was made with oranges, and then, moved on to grapes. Riesling, Spanish grapes, Zinfandel. We didn't purchase the actual grapes but, concentrates from a local shop called Wine Arts. Anyway, my buddy turned 18 in April 1972 and we became completely immersed in Bordeaux and German Spatlese & Auslese and we were on our way!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  February 9, 2013 9:42am ET
AGreed! I've been making wine since 2005. What started as a 30 gallon barrel of Lodi Zin with my next door neighbor has turned into 4-5 barrel per year 50 person wine making co-op with a 10-12K yearly budget and even a mobile bottling truck! We are bottling our 2011 wines this weekend as a matter of fact -- 3 different blends containing Westside Paso Robles Grenache, a Lodi Tempranillo and an Amador Syrah. A few lessions I've learned: 1. If possible, join your local home winemaking club...a great source of info, support and critical palates; 2. Although this seems obvious, do not be fooled by what you read on the internet about "balance" -- make wines that you like to drink (as you will be drinking a lot of it); 3. Buy a pallet jack off of Craigs list or Ebay..it will save your back; 4. Share your knowledge and experience with other "homies" and ask questions of the pros--just remember that if you ask 1 question to 12 winemakers, you will get 36 answers; 5. Make at least 30 to 60 gallons per year so you can use barrels...glass bottles and oak chips are not the way to make great wine; 6. befriend a pro who makes wine that you like and use winebusiness.com -- both can help you find professional level grape sources and lastly 7. Do not forget that winemaking is 10% fun, 10% enology, 10% beer drinking, 30% moving stuff around and 40% cleaning
David Rossi
Napa, CA —  February 10, 2013 8:16am ET
Great suggestion Jim. I started as a homewinemaker 17 years ago. Then I became involved in planting vineyards. All the time learning and learning. Bought every enology and viticulture book in the UC Davis bookstore. It really took over my life. Built a full lab in my kitchen and every bathroom had carboys keeping warm for MLs.

Started making wine professionally in 2005 and now we have our own winery making about 1200 cases of Pinot annually.

I never intended to make it into a business, just to have a fun hobby where I could learn more. I encourage anyone interested in making wine to visit their local winemaking shop(they are all over the country).

David Rossi
Fulcrum Wines
Karl Mark
Illinois —  February 10, 2013 9:46pm ET
Fascinated with growing grapes, and finding that a significant amount of knowledge can be learned from this as well. These days there are varietals that can grow just about anywhere.
Ronald A Fazio Jr
Richmond va —  February 11, 2013 4:31pm ET
Hey Guys

So interested in making wine. Do you need a basement?
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  February 12, 2013 9:15am ET
Ronald -- to do it right, you need a room with temperature control. I built an 8x8 insulated room in my garage (much to my wifes chagrin) cooled by a small room air conditioner in the summer and heated by a portable floor heater in the winter. You can also insulate a Tuff Shed for the same purpose. Good luck!
Erik Taylor
Littleton, CO USA —  February 22, 2013 11:40am ET
I was wondering if anyone could suggest a good reference book (or books) that would help someone looking to make wine for the first time. I know for home brewing everyone refers to "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing". Is there a similar text for the winemaker? Thanks
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  March 7, 2013 4:04pm ET
4th year of making wine and learned soooooo much about wine that you just can't learn from reading or drinking wine. I have so much more appreciation for the winemakers as it's easy to critique wine but not so easy to make.

I actually remodeled the garage and now have "Chateau Bow Wow" where I make my wine. Temperature controlled and room for barrel, etc.

Key to making wine: Get Mr. Walter to give you pointers and bribe him with wine.

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