By the time you’re ready to start making your own wine, you should have done plenty of homework on the process, but don’t be afraid to chat with winemakers along the way for advice and suggestions. “Winemakers are a passionate group and love to talk shop with enthusiasts,” says Sharp. “And, of course, books, magazines and web forums are great places to gain industry insight.” If you’re really gung-ho, sign up for a fermentation course at your local community college. “You’ll be surprised by the knowledge and connections you’ll come away with,” says Sharp.
Whether you’re planning to work with whole grapes or just the juice, quality is key. “At the end of the day, your wine will taste like the fruit it came from,” says Sharp, “so you want to work with the best possible ingredients from the get-go.” If you live in an agricultural area, check with local vineyards to see which ones will sell you just enough fruit for a single batch—you might find getting grapes directly from the source is easier than you think. Even outside of the AVAs, some growers will ship frozen grape juice directly to your (garage) door. But “for most folks, finding fruit/juice is really about finding their local homebrew shop since some will even work out a special deal with a local vineyard to sell their grapes,” says Sharp. “And there's always a glut of stuff coming out of California.”
You don’t need to shell out a lot of dough to get started—in fact, a few giant Rubbermaid garbage cans for fermenting the fruit is all you need to get started, says Sharp. An added bonus of using the plastic bins? They’re shallow enough that you can push down the cap of grape skins with your fist instead of needing to use a special tool. “Your skin will physically feel the fermentation happening—from the shifts in temperature to the final changes in viscosity—it’s a pretty sensory experience.” Aside from the plastic bins, Sharp says if you’re working from juice, you’ll also need something to age the finished wine in (like a glass carboy/demijohn, wood barrel or food-grade poly tank of some sort), racking cane and hose to transfer the wine, and proper yeasts/bacteria/etc, all of which can be found at your local homebrew shop, or with online retailers like F.H. Steinbart. “If you plan on starting with whole grapes, you should count on renting a destemmer as well as a press,” he says.
As with brewing beer, sterilization is key to producing a clean final product. “If you don’t keep things clean, it can result in really muddy-tasting wine,” says Sharp. So sterilize, sterilize, sterilize to maintain the integrity of your wine.
Temperature control is key in winemaking, so make sure your DIY setup isn’t too hot or too cold. “For fermentation, you want the room to be at a temperature that a human is comfortable at,” says Sharp. “Think low 70s.” Does that mean making wine in the extreme climates is out of the question? “You can always move the fermentation to your basement if it hovers around that ideal temperature,” says Sharp, “or use heating/cooling blankets if you plan on sticking to the garage.” As for post-fermentation, Sharp says a cool 50-60 degrees F is ideal.
Happy yeast makes for tasty wine. Stress your yeasts and you run the risk of your wine taking on unpleasant aromas and flavors. “Yeast nutrients are key to creating balanced wines,” says Sharp. Yeast and yeast nutrient manufacturer Lallemand has a helpful website that helps you identify which yeast strain best pairs with which grape varietals, and retailer Scott Laboratories makes it easy to order exactly what you need.
New oak barrels can cost more than some people spend on their first car, but you don’t need to splurge on expensive wood to help the flavors fully meld and mingle after fermentation. “Stainless steel is a great option,” says Sharp. He suggests buying an empty keg from your local brewery to help further cut down on costs. Or, if you have your heart set on wood, check with area winemakers for used barrels, which cost significantly less than their new counterparts—just note these “neutral” barrels impart significantly less oak notes into the finished wine, so if you’re set on imparting oaky tones without breaking the bank, considering using oak chips or powders.
Once you transfer the finished wine into bottles, the easiest way seal them is to “buy some corks and rent a floor corker,” says Sharp. “Trust me, the floor corker is way better than a desktop corker.” But what about screwcaps? “They’re cool,” says Sharp, “but they generally require specialized applicators and bottles.”
You’ve worked so hard on your first batch of wine and it’s killing you to not pop the cork on a bottle for a quick taste. But remember—just because the wine ferments in a matter of weeks doesn’t mean that it’s ready to drink right away. “Give it at least a few months to rest both before and after it goes into bottle and you’ll be happy you did,” says Sharp. Store the bottled wine on its side, away from direct light and in a cool, temperature-stable location.