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Winemaking’s a ‘Must’ try

Ready-made kits, expert advice lets the good times, wines, flow

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2007

 

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  Alan Poynor adds water to a winemaking kit as Rod Matson of Matson Winery and Supply gives him advice on winemaking earlier this year. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Alan Poynor's batch of "No Baloney Amarone" awaits labels after being bottled last month. The wine then is recommended to age six months before consumption.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

A great thing about writing as a job is there is a chance that it may not simply drive you to drink, but also offer the opportunity to make the libation as research. This is the kind of article assignment one hopes for: make some wine, and report on the process. A grueling assignment to be sure, but one eagerly undertaken for the benefit of the Clarion’s readership.

 

Alan Poynor uses specialized equipment at Matson's, which makes the bottling process go smoothly. The machine stops on its own once the bottle is filled to the correct level.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Truth be told, I’m not exactly new to winemaking. My first experience was in the military while on temporary assignment processing Vietnamese refugees in 1975. Our recipe was simple: a gallon of Welch’s grape juice concentrate, a bag of sugar, baker’s yeast and enough water to top off a five-gallon carboy. A few weeks of yeast action and the product was primo and ready for consumption. Oh, I forgot to mention the aspirin. One of the key ingredients was lots of aspirin after the wine was consumed.

 

Different ingredients, including powdered oak, go into the wine mix.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Actually, most of our vintages were bartered away due to a mixup with our rations cards. We lost the right to eat in the mess halls, so had to swap wine for food behind the mess halls during the late evening hours.

“What have you got for a gallon of the freshest wine you’ll ever pour down your gullet?”

 

Alan Poynor adds water to a winemaking kit as Rod Matson of Matson Winery and Supply gives him advice on winemaking earlier this year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“I’ve got a ten-pound ham.”

“What’s a little mustard and bread to go with that gonna run me?”

 

Wine ferments in carboys in Matson's fermentation room. Sediment settles to the bottom and clarifiers are added to further enhance the clarity of the wine.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

“I’m thinking another quart, at least. By the way, I don’t want any of that cloudy stuff you gave me for the bacon and eggs last week.”

“No way! This is the really good stuff. It came right off the top of the carboy. The guy at mess hall number five has some lettuce and potatoes, so he’ll get the dregs.”

It’s amazing what some folks will drink.

After more than 20 years of learning to appreciate real wine with good food, my wife and I decided to try winemaking again. After a little research into the subject, we learned it was possible to buy kits that had all the necessary ingredients to produce some very palatable wine. Over the course of several years, we made a number of batches that included cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir, luna bianca and merlot. All were very tasty. And more importantly, none required massive amounts of aspirin as part of the experience.

While making wine from whole fruit involves complicated chemistry, we learned making wine from kits is comparatively simple. For most kits, there are five basic steps: primary fermentation, secondary fermentation, stabilizing, clarification and bottling. Depending on the type of kit, the process takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days.

There are just a few terms a hobbyist vintner needs to know. “Must” is what the wine is made from — the juice, skins or whatever else will be fermented. “Fermentation” is the act of the yeast converting sugar in the must to alcohol. “Lees” is the material that settles out of the must during fermentation. And finally, there is specific gravity.

The most important of the terms is specific gravity, and a basic understanding of it is important to ensure winemaking success. Specific gravity is the measurement of a liquid’s density expressed as a ratio when compared to water. Water, or juice, that contains sugar will have a higher specific gravity than water. So, as a must is started the specific gravity is greater than 1.000 due to the sugar in it. How much greater depends on the sugar content. On the other hand, grain alcohol has a specific gravity of approximately 0.790, considerably less than water. So, as the sugar in the juice is converted to alcohol during fermentation, the specific gravity decreases.

By watching the specific gravity, the progress of the fermentation process can be tracked. This is important because simply providing a length of time to let a wine ferment doesn’t guarantee success. Even identical wines can ferment at different rates. The instructions in the kits provide target ranges for specific gravity throughout each step to help the winemaker judge where the wine is at in the process.

With the kits providing everything needed, and detailed instructions to boot, we found the biggest drawback to making wine was the room required. Keeping the equipment clean and sterile, and maintaining a clean environment is an absolute necessity in order to prevent contaminating the wine with bacteria and ending up with very expensive vinegar. Additionally, the area where the wine is fermented, handled and stored should be as free of strong odors as possible to prevent introducing “off” tastes. Winemaking doesn’t always mix well with other hobbies.

“Now, this is delightful red wine. It has a full, fruity body, with a balance of blackberries and slight undercurrent of ... What is that?”

“I’m not sure. Hoppe’s Number Nine, maybe?”

It was a lack of space that forced us into retirement as vintners. There was no doubt about it, the ideal situation would be to have access to a space dedicated to making wine that we didn’t have to provide.

Rod Matson, the owner of Kenai Brewing Supplies, where we bought our wine kits, had mentioned several times over the years that he eventually wanted to expand to include a winery. So last fall when a slab was poured next to his store, curiosity demanded a visit. When Rod confirmed a winery was in the works, I knew there would be winemaking in our future.

Matson Winery — the name changed from Kenai Brewing Supplies due to the difference in licensing — is a 1,100-square-foot building. Besides the sales counter and supply area, the building contains a full kitchen, an equipment washing area with a three basin commercial sink and a fermentation room. Slightly more than a third of the space is the fermentation room, which has in-floor heat to provide the even temperatures necessary for reliable fermentation.

The winery has a state of Alaska license, which allows Matson to provide the supplies, the equipment and the place to make the wine. It also allows for limited physical involvement on his part, such as cleaning and setting up the equipment, giving advice and training, and monitoring the progress of the wine.

“The state license is for ‘homemade wines.’ In order to fit the designation of homemade wine, I can’t add the yeast, or actually bottle the wine,” Matson said. “The customer has to do that. If I wanted to make the wine for the customer, and there are wineries in Anchorage doing that, I would have to get a federal license.”

Rod was quick in answering the question as to why he made the commitment to opening the winery. “I saw a need here. Winemaking is getting more popular, and winemaking symposiums I’ve gone to indicated it is a growing market.”

His sales experience with Kenai Brewing Supplies bears out just how much winemaking is growing in popularity. “When I first started out I sold an occasional wine kit. But now, winemaking is the majority of my sales,” he said.

By offering a place to make the wine and performing the clean up, Matson hopes to encourage more people to give winemaking a try. That idea seems to be working out. At the time we started our wine, there were three other batches going in the fermentation room. By the time we bottled our wine, there were almost a dozen. I had a chance to chat with a couple of fellow winemakers.

Bill Coghill had two batches of California Sonoma chardonnay clarifying while ours was fermenting. He told me he had made cranberry wine before at home. His results were split; the first attempt was good, but the second batch was bad. Coghill agreed that it takes up more room than he wanted to give up. Ultimately, however, the decision to give winemaking with a kit a try came down to, “I decided to try it where someone else cleans up.”

Starting two batches of the same wine at the same time gave Coghill a surprise. Although the two batches sat next to each other in the fermentation room, one batch was slower to ferment to the correct specific gravity by several days.

Mike Colton didn’t have any previous experience making wine, but he had 21 years of experience as a distributor of wine, beer and liquor. He’s been to numerous commercial wineries and is familiar with commercial wines. Having friends that had made wine is what prompted Colton and his wife to give it a try. When we talked, he had already bottled a French chardonnay and a luna rossa, and had two special premium kits on order.

“It offers a slow time in a busy day,” Colton said. “It gives us a chance to connect. And it’s fun. Rod’s a nice guy, and a lot of fun. If you don’t have fun there, you don’t know how to have fun.”

For Coghill, winemaking was a chance for him to do something unique to commemorate the birth of his first grandchild.

“I made special labels, naming the wine after my granddaughter. It’s called ‘Gabriella French Chardonnay.’ I plan on handing it out in celebration.”

Coghill and Colton reported everything had gone perfectly in their experiences. That was my record going into the wine I made for this piece, but Mr. Murphy was hiding out in the fermentation room, and things went awry.

A great deal of it had to do with the choice of wine. My wife and I agreed we wanted to try a chianti, or some other Italian red. Rod was out of chianti at the time, but had another Italian red called amarone.

As noted earlier, most wine kits involve the same five steps and contain pretty much the same basic items. The amarone kit included something none of the other kits ever had: a 2-pound bag of corn sugar and extra yeast. Visions of my military days of wine and aspirin started flashing through my mind. The instructions also detailed an extra step for the addition of the sugar between the primary and secondary fermentations, adding another week to the fermentation process.

Curious about the extra step and sugar, we researched amarone wine. It is traditionally made with grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars so the must is of a higher initial specific gravity and the resultant wine contains a higher alcohol content. When the wine was first developed by the Romans, they were looking for a wine that would store well for long periods of time. In Italy, amarone is aged for up to 30 years, with the average time in the bottle being 10.

The directions stated the sugar was to be added after the primary fermentation had completed, indicated by a specific gravity of 1.015, which would take five to seven days. Due to work demands, I let the primary fermentation go for 10 days without monitoring the specific gravity. When it came time to add the sugar, the specific gravity had dropped to 1.004, or very near completed fermentation. When the sugar was added, it was too much of a shock. The yeast belched, rolled over and went to sleep, a condition known as “stuck fermentation.”

Often, a stuck fermentation can be restarted by simply stirring up the lees. We tried that, and after two days it was obvious the yeast was comatose. Rod contacted customer service at Winexpert, the makers of the kit, for advice. They provided the steps necessary to recover. The cure was simple, make a “starter” from a small amount of fresh must combined with a little of our stuck must. Once the starter showed signs of healthy fermentation, it was added back to the main fermentation vat. The process took a week before we were on track.

In 10 kits, this was the first problem we had ever experienced. It was a valuable lesson: counting days is okay, but watching specific gravity is critical. The remainder of the process went perfectly — due to a newly found obsession with specific gravity — and Villa del Yeast’s “No Baloney Amarone” was bottled on May 5.

Our wine will not be aged for 10 years before it is tasted. We aren’t as patient as the Italians. Winexpert recommends a minimum of six months, so we’re looking at a debut around Thanksgiving.

Turkey Day presents a problem. Conventional thought says red wine is not appropriate for serving with fowl. Darn.

Hey Rod, we need to crank up a white wine.

A.E. Poynor is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.



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