Grapes Of Mirth
Making your own wine is sure to leave you in high spirits.
Ah, the waning days of summer. The days grow shorter, the nights cooler. Finally, the grapes ripen. Local winemaking enthusiasts prepare for yet another season of home brewing. One of those oenologists (experts in the science of wine) is Zev (Victor) Wrotslavsky, a certified public accountant in private practice in Southfield.
Wrotslavsky’s winemaking hobby started with a memory. His grandfather made wine at home in Chicago during the Great Depression. When his grandfather died, Wrotslavsky’s mother inherited the equipment. It sat unused, but not forgotten, for years. When Wrotslavsky moved into his home in Southfield 25 years ago, he found grapes growing on the fence. His next-door neighbor, a dentist, was retiring from making wine and offered Wrotslavsky both the grapes and his equipment as well. So started an adventure in home brewing.
Now, each year Wrotslavsky brews dozens of gallons of wine. One year he makes a sweet Concord, the favorite of his “customers” (lucky friends and family who get most of the wine as gifts). The next year, he makes his own favorites, varietal wines from the classical European wine grapes grown in California. In “his” year, he experiments with copying the finest commercial wines available, such as a rich, ruby-red Cabernet Sauvignon, or developing a new variation, such as a dry Muscato, unlike the sweet Muscato you can buy in stores.
Rabbi Chaim Cohen of Oak Park also makes dozens of gallons of wine each year to give to friends and family. In his professional life, Cohen directs the David Hermelin ORT Resource Center of JVS, teaching computer skills to underemployed or unemployed people.
Cohen started many years ago with a raisin wine. His first sample came out reasonably well, and he was hooked. When he told his friends about his new hobby, he quickly inherited old winemaking tools that belonged to Rabbi Shalom Goldstein, the late principal of the Beth Jacob School for Girls in Oak Park.
In the years since, Cohen has tinkered, modified and replaced some of this antique equipment as he has increased his production. Actually, he says, you hardly need any equipment to get started in winemaking. “Wine making is very accessible. It is all about basic chemistry and biology. If you follow a few basic rules, something good will come out,” he says.
“Human beings do not make wine,” he explains. We just set up conditions for the yeast to make wine out of grape juice, or, in Cohen’s words: “God makes wine. We just facilitate.”
Cohen used to teach winemaking out of his home. In the course of the class, each student took part in every step of basic winemaking and went home with a big bottle of fermenting grape juice called “must,” ready to become that year’s vintage. The course materials always included enough equipment for the students to make another batch the next year — and Cohen’s telephone number for backup advice.
Rabbi Leiby Burnham, director of Partners in Torah in Detroit, learned winemaking a couple of years ago in Cohen’s class. He went at it with unrestrained enthusiasm, putting up nearly 15 gallons of “must” in three large glass containers called carboys, and described the process in an essay on the Detroit Partners website.
Then he neglected the project entirely.
Burnham explains, “I guess I am just lazy” — a claim that would surprise anyone who knows his work with Partners in Torah. Eventually, he decided that the next time he cleaned up his basement, he would just clear out the carboys and throw out the contents because, after years of sitting on its lees, or sediment, in bottles that might not have been airtight, the “wine” probably was not drinkable.
Samples from two carboys failed the taste test, and the rest of the liquid went right down the drain.
The third had a pleasant, but thoroughly unfamiliar taste, he says. People categorize commercial Concord wine into roughly three varieties: somewhat syrupy, even sweeter than that and way too sweet. None of those descriptions came close to this bone-dry Concord wine. When Burnham added a teaspoon of sugar to the glass, he had a lovely, mildly sweet Concord wine.
Feeling curious about winemaking?
“Do it!” Cohen says. “It is rewarding. Jews drink wine all the time.
It is hard to match the pleasure of serving wine that you yourself have made. It is fun to say to a guest: ‘You’ve had homemade challah before, but have you had homemade wine to go with the homemade challah?’”
Comparing the taste of homemade wine to commercial wine, Cohen says, is “like comparing a homegrown tomato to one you bought at the supermarket.” He backs up that extravagant claim with a sweet Pinot Grigio from his own cellar.
Each year, when he sets up the equipment in his home driveway to process the grapes, he gets help from a swarm of kids — his own children and their friends.
“I wish I would have had such an experience when I was a kid,” Cohen says.
An educator once enlisted Cohen’s help in having his fifth-grade class make wine as a school project. The students gained firsthand experience in the craft, starting with fresh grapes in the fall. By spring, the students had experienced the full range of activities except for drinking. On Purim, the finished product went to the parents, rather than the students, for obvious legal reasons.
For millennia, this is how our ancestors made wine: They left grape juice alone to ferment. They put the grape juice in airtight containers, keeping it at about room temperature, and the yeast that settles on grapes wherever they grow turned the grape juice into wine. A few weeks after fermentation starts, it slows down and stops. The grape juice has become an alcoholic beverage, just not one that you want to drink yet. It looks cloudy and tastes harsh.
Let it settle for a few months, and you have a relatively clear beverage floating above a precipitated mass of lees, the sediment that settles at the bottom. Moving the wine “off the lees” into another container, a process called racking, lets your wine age without picking up bad flavors from the lees. Rack the wine every few months, and pretty soon you should have a crystal clear, delicious wine, ready to go into bottles and ready for your table. Or not. Sometimes our ancestors came up with a bad-tasting batch.
Start with improving the grape juice; yeast needs sugar to make alcohol, but many grapes do not produce enough sugar to guarantee a highly alcoholic and stable finished product. Use an inexpensive little float called a hydrometer to measure the sugar concentration in the juice so you can know how much sugar to add; or you can ask an experienced winemaker for an estimate of how much sugar to add, based on the kind of grape juice you have. European grapes from California sometimes do not need any added sugar.
Next, improve the yeast: Wild yeasts add unpredictable flavors to the wine. A foil packet of wine yeast, for less than $2, produces a predictably good wine.
Then add a valve to the airtight container; a little airlock valve, for less than $2, lets carbon dioxide escape. Yeast turns the sugar in grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide so if you do not let the carbon dioxide out, the gas pressure will break your container. (Decades ago, a firmly-corked antique crock held my first wine-making experiment — until the crock flew apart. It made a mess, but the basement smelled wonderful for weeks.)
You do not need the traditional oak barrel or giant glass bottle called a carboy; soda bottles or airtight covered plastic pails will do. Put on the airlock valve and, after a while, you see a bubble of carbon dioxide escape, making a characteristic gurgle as it goes. Home winemakers have been known to sit beside their fermentation container for extended periods, entranced by intermittent gurgles.
That’s Wrotslavsky’s advice. Try visiting home winemaking sites on the Internet to collect information. A physical trip to Adventures in Homebrewing in Taylor or Ann Arbor, to the California Wine-Grape Co. near Eastern Market or to Honeyflow Farm in Dryden will put you face-to-face with experienced mentors for the home-wine market.
As with any hobby, if you get too enthusiastic, you can spend a fortune on specialized equipment. The good news: A prudent neophyte winemaker can get started with almost no expenditures for equipment.
You do have to get the juice. If you really want the full experience, go up to Honeyflow Farm and pick your own grapes. You can probably pick 70 pounds of grapes, enough for five or more gallons of wine, in an hour or two of not-very-demanding labor. If you have children to entertain, pick-your-own grapes will keep them busy and happy while teaching them where grapes come from.
When you have the grapes, you can get rid of the stems by hand and then crush the grapes with any number of ad hoc instruments, like potato mashers. A grape crusher saves time. If you feel old- fashioned, you can put the grapes in a big enough container and stomp them with your feet. That works.
When you have crushed the grapes, you can put them in a specialized winepress to separate the juice that you need from the grapes. If you do not have a winepress, put the grapes in an old pillowcase, put the pillowcase in a plastic tub and pile weights on top.
For a red wine, leave the grape skins and pits in with the juice for a week or 10 days, and then transfer only the juice to a fermenting container. For a white wine, discard the skins and pits right away, and put the juice into your fermenting container at the start.
Or, you can just buy the juice.
Both the California Wine-Grape Co. and Adventures in Homebrewing sell buckets of grape juice suitable for making wine. That doesn’t help if you want to make strictly kosher wine. For kosher wine, no one but observant Jews may handle the grape juice from the moment it comes out of the grape.
The California Wine-Grape Co. has been importing wine grapes to Michigan since the 1950s. The company imports 16 types of red grapes and 13 types of white in season, along with several varieties of grape juice from Italy. You can meet expert winemakers there and also pick up advice and equipment. A few years back when I bought grapes there, someone advised me not to wash my feet before processing them; I think he was joking.
Honeyflow Farm has operated a vineyard in Dryden for close to 30 years, with several different varieties of table, jelly, juice and wine grapes available for picking Friday through Sunday, usually from early September through early October. Visit its website for details about when the grapes will be ripe this year. In 2011, Honeyflow Farm made their destemmer/grape crusher available as a free additional service to customers.
When local Concord and White Niagara grapes get ripe, Coleman’s Farm Market in Ypsilanti sells those in bulk at bargain prices. And, Adventures in Home Brewing has provided materials and equipment for hobbyists since 1999.
So, as the nights get longer, and summer draws to an end, you have the chance to try the craft that Cohen, Wrotslavsky and I enjoy, the craft of our ancient ancestors: making your own wine at home, in your spare time, for fun and savings. Then, some months later, you can casually say to your guests, “Oh, do you like that wine? I made it right here.”
Louis Finkelman is a Southfield-based freelance writer, who also teaches literature at Lawrence Technological University and adult classes for the Jewish Welfare Federation. He loves to brew wine at home.
California Wine-Grape Co.
Adventures in Homebrewing
Honeyflow Farm in Dryden
Coleman’s Farm Market