Thursday, October 28, 2010

Haven't We Been Here Before?

October 7, 2010

Again, same punching and measurement times.  The stats:

Temp 75
pH 3.59
Brix 2

Again, temp and pH are fine, and Brix is still moving right along.  I kicked around adding more tartaric, but having added so much already, I decided just to let it be.  After all, 3.59 is still less than 3.60 (I knew all that schooling would finally pay off for me)!  I added another round of Fermaid K (as the Brix had gone down by a third again) and gave it a little taste.  It was pretty much the same as on 10/6, but I noticed a pronounced alcohol taste that hadn't been there before.  Good thing too, as that's what I wanted the sugar converted into!

By this time I've realized that I am going to be pressing over the weekend.  I'm a little apprehensive, but also very excited to use my new wine press.  On the downside, this stuff is going to be done tomorrow (Friday), and I really can't press until Saturday.  Add to that I haven't yet picked out (or up!) a malolactic bacteria for the secondary fermentation.  I really have to get my tush in gear here!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Punching, But Not Drunk

October 6, 2010

Kept the same punching schedule as before, with the same measurement time.  The stats:

Temp 76
pH 3.57
Brix 5.5

I was really worried about the temperature rising too high if we kept the must in the garage (hence the short-lived must-in-the-bathroom experiment), but the volume of liquid really seems to hold the temperature fairly well.  The garage faces west, so it gets the full afternoon sun and warms up quite a bit, but so far so good.

pH was creeping upward again, so I added 3 more tsps of tartaric to get it back down.  By the way, the reason you add the tartaric so early on to keep the pH low is that you give it more time to mix and blend with the rest of the ingredients and wash out that tart taste a little bit.  Chris, in his first attempt, added tartaric very late in the process and his wine this year is really very tart.  It's not bad, but it's certainly not a characteristic that's supposed to be in the wine.  A fault, to put it in wine terms.

Brix again is dropping like a brick (hee hee--I made a funny), but I'm much less worried about that.  Though at this rate, it looks like I'm pressing this weekend.

The color is kind of maroon, and it's very cloudy from all the skins and other sediment that's still floating around.  It smells sweet, but the taste has shifted from sweet or tart to what can only be described as bitter.  This is to be expected, since the sugars are being eaten up and the sediment itself is quite bitter, but it's a huge change from where things were yesterday (just 24 short hours prior).  It's pretty cool how this is progressing.

I did also let Brian punch the cap for the first time.  His look of glee disturbed me a bit.  I should watch the kitties.

Next up:  how much more tartaric will I add to this stuff??

Whoa, My Pretties!

October 5, 2010

Punched the cap (oh the punching!) 3 times--once in the morning, once after work (when I made the measurements below), and once before bed.  The stats:

Temp 75
pH 3.61
Brix 12.5

Temp is no big deal--it's warmer in the garage, and we've still got exothermicity (it's a real word, I promise) so as long as it's not 100 we're OK.

pH was a bit high, so I added 5 more tsps of tartaric to get it back down.  The increase in pH during fermentation is normal, by the way, due to the increase in carbon dioxide (which acts as a base).

Brix was the shocker.  For those of you who can do math (I can't, but I have a very nice calculator), that's an almost 9 point drop in 24 hours.  Holy cow!!  That pep talk I gave my little yeast really worked!!  This did, however, strike me as being a bit fast.  So, naturally, I did what I do in these situations and panicked a bit.  OK, I panicked a lot.  I sent Chris what I'm sure he thought was a casual e-mail asking in a very nonchalant manner what the heck was going on.  He assured me that his was going just as quickly.  I calmed down a bit (thanks, Chris!), and added the Fermaid K that the yeast page indicated I should add when fermentation was a third of the way done.  The Fermaid K is added to ensure that the yeast keep expanding in the log phase (the point when they're multiplying the most) and helps to ensure that the yeast stay happy and healthy enough to eat through all the sugars in the must. 

I also tasted the must for the first time since fermentation began.  It still smelled  sweet (and like grape juice), but it's starting to taste more tart than sweet (probably because of the boatload of tartaric acid--the taste is in the name *tart*aric acid) and you can really taste the carbon dioxide that's bubbling through it.  Kind of like a very carbonated soda.  It was interesting and disgusting all at the same time.

Next time:  more punching!

Eat; Eat, My Pretties!

October 4, 2010

After fermenting for an entire evening (and forming an even more lovely cap than it had the day before), it was time to punch said cap.  Punching the cap means using my awesome potato masher to push the cap down and mix the skins back into the fermenting wine.  This serves to enhance the color of the wine, and also relieves some of the pressure of the carbon dioxide build-up under the cap.  It's a very satisfying feeling, and is by far the best part of wine making so far.  Here I am punching the crap out of the cap:

All this punching came in handy later, as when I tried to start my car, my battery was dead.  I probably should have seen it coming--my windshield wipers had been acting oddly for the past couple of weeks.  I ended up having to stay home that day until Brian could come home with a new battery for me.  The upside of this is, of course, that working from home rocks.  The downside is that I was trapped in the house with fermenting wine.  This is when I began to understand why people ferment wine in their garages--fermenting wine stinks.  It smells exactly how you would expect it to:  like rotting grapes.  I managed during the day (as smell perception fades with time), but when Brian got home, he said what I was thinking--we needed to move my precious fermenting must to the garage.  There it finished its fermentation (and was none the worse for wear, but that's a future post).

I ended up punching the cap 3 times that day, as I was home at lunch anyway, and it certainly needed it.  I measured the temperature, pH, and Brix that afternoon (with the last punch), a pattern I repeated until fermentation was complete.  The results: 

Temp 71
pH 3.50
Brix 21 

The temperature was fine--a little above room T, but fermentation is exothermic (heat-producing for those not in the know) so a rise was expected.  The pH was still fine, and the Brix levels indicates that I am, indeed, fermenting.

The next few posts are going to be quite short, as they will basically be repeats of this one (hopefully without the car trouble!), but read them anyway :)

Come in My Little Yeasties

October 3, 2010

The next morning I woke up seriously early (especially for a Sunday)--7:30 am (and I don't want any crap from people with kids; I realize you get up at 5:00 am every day, and I pity you).  All I could think about was my must, just sitting in the bathroom, potentially being acted on by malicious bacteria.  I managed to hold off until 8:00, but then I had to get up and check on the Brix and pH.  The verdict:  Brix at 25, pH at 3.66.  Both of them still too high.  So after muttering some curse words and pushing some very needy (and nosy) cats out of the way, I decided to add another 7 tsps of tartaric in another gallon of distilled water.  I then tried to go back to sleep, but how could I with this on my mind:
Oh yeah, look at that sweet, sweet must.  And I mean that literally--this stuff was super sweet!!

I somehow managed to forget about the must for a couple of hours, with the help of some yummy waffles made by my loving husband, but then 11:00 rolled around and I decided it was time to measure again.

Brix 23, pH 3.30

Hallelujah!!  The pH was a bit low, but I decided (with the help of the not-very-helpful wine book) that too low now would actually work out better for me in the future, so I decided 3.30 was good enough for me.

Now it was finally time to start the yeast culture--a task at which I have some practice, having done a 6 week lab rotation in a yeast lab in grad school (before the prostate caught my fancy; and really, can you blame me?).  As far as strain goes, Chris informed me that Oakstone uses the Lavlin ICV-D254, which according to the yeast website to which he linked me, gives Mediterranean-style red wines a good mouthfeel.  Uh, OK?  Let me just say right here that, even though I am going through all this hassle to make my own wine, I do not buy into all of the "wino" talk.  I very rarely can tell the difference between "smoky" and "earthy" on my own without having been prepped, or had someone tell me afterwards.  I can usually tell if the wine is fruit-forward (basically it tastes like grape juice when you first taste it) or if it has a lot of tannins (those give you that dry-mouth feel after you swallow--the more tannins, the more you feel like drinking a ton of water afterwards), but beyond that, you'll never hear me describe in loving detail how the nose is full-bodied and the bouquet is of grapes and pencil lead.  I think those people are absolutely insane.  I know what I like, that's what I drink.  Who the heck cares if it's full-bodied or has a good mouthfeel?

So basically, this is my long-winded way of saying that when Chris said Oakstone uses D254, that was extent of the work I did in picking a yeast.  Hey, they grew the grapes--they should know what will eat them, right?  Fortunately for me, the Brewmeister in Folsom sells D254, and Chris was able to pick some up for me when he got his (he used the BM45 if you care).  Unfortunately, I forgot to grab it from him when he was driving me home with my must, so it necessitated another trip to Folsom (the second that day; generally not a big deal, but Brian works in Folsom, and kind of resented driving there twice on his day off--did I mention how wonderful he is?).  So anyway, at 11:00 am, I made the starter culture for the yeast.  I began by rehydrating in warm water for about 20 minutes, then adding a couple of cups of the must and GO-FERM (yeast food) and letting it sit on the hot water heater for an hour.  After that hour, the yeast was bubbling and frothing like mad, and ready to be added to the must.  So at noon, I dumped it on top of the must (after giving it a hearty pep-talk) and mixing with the potato masher (seen in the orange bucket below):
This picture also shows the door that became extremely splattered with juice, the toilet that became extremely spattered with juice, the cabinets...I think you get the idea.

So I'm sure you're wondering, how does one determine if the yeast have survived their little trip down re-hydration lane and actually appreciate their new home full of sugar?  Well, they form what's known as a cap.  The cap is the skins and stems that have been pushed to the surface of the must by the carbon dioxide formed as one of the by-products of yeast digestion (the other, of course, being alcohol).  Well, by 5:00 I peeked at the must and saw the most glorious site:
That, my friends, is a cap.  And as you can see, there is plenty of carbon dioxide (the bubbles towards the middle).  The yeast is on its way!!

Next up:  taking out my frustrations, the wine makers way!

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Not-So-Wrathful Grapes

October 2, 2010

With all the equipment bought and house mostly set up for wine making, it was finally time to pick up the grapes.  Thanks to the Sacramento Home Winemakers, I was able to get grapes (actually must, which is grapes that have been run through a crusher/stemmer to, well, crush and de-stem them) for ridiculously cheap--$0.55 per pound for Amador County grown zinfandel from Oakstone Winery.  I decided to start out with 250 lbs, since Chris said he did 125 lbs last year and it was kind of a waste of his time.  I was a bit apprehensive about getting so much the first time, but Chris convinced me to think big(ger).  Ultimately, I'm really glad I did.

To say I was nervous picking up the grapes would be an understatement.  Unfortunately for Chris, who graciously offered to drive his SUV out to Oakstone as there's no possible way 250 lbs of must would fit inside my Saturn (great gas mileage, but very little trunk space), I deal with stress by talking.  A lot.  About absolutely nothing at all.  And really really quickly.   It ended up working out well, though, as Chris apparently also deals with stress by talking.  We managed to fill the hour drive there and back with chatter about the various stages of wine making, with some politics and oohing and aahing over his little girl (who, to be fair, is one of the cutest toddlers I've ever seen) thrown in there for good measure.  We ended up having a very nice drive to the winery.  Unfortunately, as we were getting so little must, we were given a pickup time of 1:00 in the afternoon.  And the temperature that day happened to be about 90 degrees.  As any professional winemakers who happen to have stumbled onto this blog on a drunken evening to have a laugh knows, it's best to get grapes first thing in the morning, fresh from the vine and in much cooler temperatures.  The reason for this is that naturally occurring yeasts and even more naturally occurring bacteria live on grape skins and, given higher temperatures, yeast and bacteria will do what yeast and bacteria are born to do, which is convert the sugars in the grapes to nasty tasting by-products.  The grapes had been picked that morning, so they had been sitting around for hours in the hot sun.  Less than ideal, but hey, they were really cheap, and I didn't have to do the legwork to find them!

After a long and harrowing trip back down from the foothills, in which we only splashed a little bit of juice in the back of the car (t'was a flesh wound), I finally had the must in my house.  Brian and I started it out in our bathroom, in order to cool it down from the 90 degrees it was when it got there.  I then measured the Brix and pH, 2 numbers you'll be seeing a lot in the next couple of posts.  As a bit of background, Brix is a measure of the amount of dissolved solids in a liquid.  Since the vast majority of the solids dissolved in grape juice are sugars, the Brix number gives you the amount of sugar contained in the grape juice.  You measure this using a device known as a hydrometer, shown below: 
The hydrometer is dropped into a cylinder containing the liquid of interest, and the bulb on bottom weighs the hydrometer down until the density of the sugar causes it to float.  The level of the liquid at the top is measured on the scale on the neck, giving you the Brix, as shown below:
The other measurement is the pH, which is the amount of acid (specifically hydrogen ions) in a given substance.  The lower the pH, the more acid.  The scale runs from 1 (basically any lab-grade concentrated acid) to 14 (lye), and is a logarithmic scale, kind of like the Richter scale for earthquakes.  There are several ways to measure pH, but I chose to use this pH meter:

Basically, you just insert the electrode into your liquid of interest and wait for the reading to appear.  It cost about $250, but was so worth it, as I'll be measuring the pH all the freaking time.

Anyway, once I had the must in the bathroom, I measured the Brix and the pH.  Before I give you the numbers, I should tell you that, ideally, before adding the yeast (or "pitching," since apparently wine nerds like to at least pretend they can play sports) you want the Brix at 20-24 and the pH at or below 3.50.  This is basically the optimal range that the yeast works at, and the low pH has the added bonus of killing off all those other microorganims that are living on the grapes fresh from the field.

Now that the science is out of the way, I'll tell you that my Brix was 27.6 and pH was 4.35.  If your jaw isn't on the floor, then you knew as much about wine making as I did at the time.  The pH especially is insanely high, and really really bad (again, microorganisms, they love the sugars!).  Chris about had an aneurysm when he measured his.  To be fair, my pH meter was about 0.22 off, so the pH was only 4.13, but still seriously high.  The high Brix also meant that I needed to add a ton of distilled water to bring it down to a level that the yeast could handle.  This actually worked out for the best, as it allowed me to dilute the acid first instead of just adding it directly to the must.  I looked on the internet, and the gurus there said that I should add 1 gallon of water to lower the must by 1 degree of Brix.  By this logic, I determined that I should add about 3 gallons of water to optimize the Brix levels.  I started out by adding 2.5 gallons of water into which 9.5 tsps of tartaric acid (the acid of choice to lower pH in wine) had been dissolved to the must.  I did this at about 4:30 that afternoon, after allowing the must to cool for a bit.   I waited about 6 hours and measured the Brix at 24 (about right), but the pH at 3.74 (still a bit too high).  Therefore, I decided to add another 9 tsps of tartaric acid in half a gallon of water.  I then let it sit overnight to measure it in the morning.

And that, dear readers, is where we will stop this entry.  In the next exciting entry:  what is the Brix after adding all that water?  What's the pH?  Will I ever be able to pitch yeast, or will everyone be getting bottles of rancid grape juice in the spring?  Find out next time!!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Wine Making: The Prelude

I got into wine making due mainly to my friend Chris.  He made 2 batches of wine last year (a merlot and a cabernet) and talked it up so much that I decided to get in on the action.  It helps that not only am I a biochemist, but I also live very close to Napa and Sonoma and the lesser known but still delicious Amador County, both of which have literally tons of the best wine grapes available growing there.  Chris got me hooked up with the Sacramento Home Winemakers club here in Sac, which is a loose collection of wine makers who meet once a month to taste and talk about wine.  The club always does what they call a project wine, in which they purchase a huge amount of grapes from a local vineyard (this year was Oakstone in Amador County) and sell them to the club members at a discount price. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit here.  As I stated, Chris was really the impetus I needed to get moving and start with the wine making, but I've been a wine fan for about 5 years now, ever since Brian and I started dating.  Brian is into wine.  Really into wine.  Like has-a-subscription-to-Wine-Spectator, bought-one-wine-fridge-then-upgraded-to-a-bigger-one-over-the-course-of-us-dating, does-the-whole-swirl-smell-taste-(but not spit, thank goodness)-thing wine snob.  He's also into buying things.  I don't mean useless, frivolous things, but more "I need a tool to do this job, so I'm just going to buy it, even if it's kind of expensive and I'll just use it once and then never again"-type things.  So combining these two qualities, it wasn't so much surprising that I started wine making, but more that he hasn't started it.  Fortunately for me, he has a ton of hobbies to keep himself occupied, so he's content to let me handle the wine making while he tends his garden, installs trim in the house, works on the cars, and cooks and bakes.  For now.

Anyway, once I decided, with the combined pressure of Brian and Chris, to make wine and had a reliable source lined up for really good grapes, it was time to do some research.  I bought a book on wine making, and had numerous discussions with Chris as to what equipment I would need to procure.  When he made his batches last year, he borrowed equipment from his former neighbors, which was great for him, but not so good for me.  I started talking over dinner about how I was going to need to find a press and a corker and some carboys and a fermenter and a pH meter and on and on until Brian finally told me to just go and buy what I needed.  I looked at him like he had lost his mind--some of this stuff is really pricey--but he assured me that if he can go and buy a miter saw that he's going to use to install trim one time, I could certainly buy wine making equipment that I could use for years to come.  So I did.  

I ended up finding 3 really good sources for equipment:  for the press, the carboys, the carboy caps (a whole blog entry on its own!), the corker and various other wine-specific supplies, I used Midwest Supplies: Homebrewing and Winemaking; for the general use, non-food-safe items I used Home Depot; and for the food-safe fermenter and other items that would come into contact with the wine but weren't necessarily wine-specific I used CRESCO Restaurant Equipment and Supply.  Lastly, and in its own separate category, I purchased my yeast, malolactic bacteria and corks from The Brewmeister in Folsom.  Not to sound too much like a commercial here, but Midwest Supplies was fantastic.  They have a wide selection of wine making equipment (as well as beer making supplies), and they are very quick in getting the products to you (shipping from Minnesota to California took on average a week).  Their customer service is great too--I had a package not make it to me, and they sent another out the same day at no cost to me.  Plus they have those great Minnesota accents!  And not one thing they sent me was incorrect or broken.  Which brings me to a place I do not recommend:  The Lab Supply Depot.  I ordered my hydrometers from them, thinking that they specialize in laboratory instrumentation so they would certainly be able to get delicate glassware to me with no problems.  Wrong!  All 3 of the packages they tried to send the hydrometer to me in were completely bent and twisted.  Part of that can be blamed on UPS--they should have been more careful--but mostly it was the shipper's fault for not wrapping the delicate glassware carefully enough and for not using sturdier boxes.  And, incidentally, after the second package came containing a broken hydrometer I ended up ordering one from Midwest Supplies and it got there quickly and in one piece. I really can't recommend Midwest enough. 

I think I'll stop this entry here, and save the early stages of wine making for the next one (which will include pretty pictures--I'll try not to make future posts such a wall of text).  I should note that, for now anyway, this is a look back at the early stages of wine making that have already occurred--I was so busy with the must (crushed grapes) when I first got it that I didn't have a chance to write everything down.  I'll catch up to myself soon enough, though, and then we'll go through this together!

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Hi everyone!  I'm Angela, and this is my blog.  As the heading indicates, I'm pretty much just going to be blogging about life in general and all the mundane goings-on that make up what I call my day.  However, I will have some pretty specific ones thrown in there about the newest passion in my life, wine making (or as I'm insisting on typing "whine making"--but I'll likely make those posts separate from anything alcohol-related).  You'll also have to sit through some posts about how cute my cats are (my husband Brian and I have 3 of them--Addy, Beau and Snowball), how much I want a new job, how much married life rocks or sucks depending on the day, and any other random thoughts that drift through my head when I'm at the computer with nothing else to do.  I hope you all enjoy!