Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Home Wine Making, My Accidental Hobby

If you were to ask me a few years ago, I would not have thought of wine making as a hobby. I’m a pragmatist. Let the talented people do the hard work, and let me enjoy the fruit of their labor.

Then a couple of friends told me about a home wine making class organized by the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Making Club and taught by Steve Foisie, whose list of past students include Ben Smith of Cadence Winery and Tim Narby of :Nota Bene Cellars. The class itself consisted of a day of theory followed by hands-on practice on de-stemming and crushing, primary and secondary fermentation, testing, and finally bottling. The best part is that I got to order grapes from some of the most coveted vineyards in Washington state, thanks to the buying power of the club.

My first vintage with Alisa
That was two years ago, and now I am preparing for my third vintage. So what attracts me to hobby wine making?

It Engages My Senses

I can't think of many hobbies that engage my senses in such interesting ways. I get to smell and taste the sweet juice during crush and as it gets dryer and more alcoholic through the progression of primary fermentation. I see the color deepens as pigments are deposited from the grape skins. And if I am quiet enough, I can just hear the wine yeasts happily bubbling away as they consume the sugar in the must and spit out alcohol.

Then in secondary fermentation, which is also when I start using the barrel, I taste for the conversion of harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid by the malolactic bacteria. But for the most part, I am looking for the mouth feel. Are the tannins softening in the barrel? Is the wine getting more concentrated with the slight evaporation through the porous barrel surface? For the same reason, is the color and quality of the wine stabilizing with micro-oxygenation?

Throughout the process, I am constantly engaging my sight, my smell, my taste, my touch, and arguably my hearing as the grapes are made into wine. It is all too fascinating!

It Engages My Mind

Wine making is about guiding a transformation, and many microorganisms are involved. I coax the yeasts to convert sugar into alcohol during primary fermentation and then provide a conducive environment for the malolactic bacteria to soften the acids during secondary fermentation. At the same time, I am actively protecting the wine from being exposed to acetic acid bacteria. No one wants to drink vinegary wine!

Yeast hydrated with warm water and must
Then there is oxygen, which is great in alcoholic fermentation but bad for malolactic fermentation and maturation. There is carbon dioxide, a by-product of primary fermentation, that comes in handy to protect the wine from oxidation. Finally, there is the much misunderstood sulfur dioxide, that has been wrongfully blamed for causing headache despite its antioxidant properties. I learn how to manipulate each to my advantage.

After my second vintage, I have barely scratched the surface of the biochemistry and microbiology behind wine making. What about the polymerization of phenolic compounds? What about the enzymes? With every vintage, there is an opportunity to go deeper and learn the art and science behind wine making.

It's a Party!

Last but not least, it is all about having fun! For both my vintages, I made wine with good friends. Wine making can be very physical and messy. We learned together and worked together. In the last vintage, we started each get-together with a snack or a feast and a healthy serving of wine. Then we went on with the actual wine making activity of that day. The nourishment kept us in good spirits although the wine clouded our judgement on a few occasions.

Celebrating our final product
Still all is not lost. At the end of each vintage are those beautiful bottles of wine, that we can call our own. Every bottle contains the memory of that crush that was interrupted by power outage, that batch of yeasts that was accidentally starved, or that racking that spilled half a gallon of sticky wine. Yet when we open that bottle, our heart is filled with pride. The wine tastes better than we thought it could ever taste because it is the fruit of our labor.

My Verdict: Even pragmatists need a hobby. I am glad that living in close proximity to vineyards and great resources allows me to pursue wine making as a hobby. Steve Foisie once said a good winemaker has to be a good student first. I look forward to many more lessons.