homebrew wine kit: week 1

I finally got down to business with the small batch of Chardonnay from the Master Vintner kit! Here are the steps required to kick off the first part of fermentation.

Not pictured: sterilizing the sink and counter, then doing an oxygen wash of all equipment.

To start, I filled the secondary fermentation vessel with a gallon of water and poured it into the wonderfully-named “Big Mouth Bubbler”.

Marking the one-gallon line. You’d think they could just have a notch there, but I guess this works too.

Next up, I filled the bubbler with the juice concentrate. It had an incredibly sweet smell and deep color.

Then I re-filled the juice pouch with filtered water and topped it up to the one-gallon line. The temperature of the juice is crucial, and I ended up tossing the bubbler into the fridge for a few minutes until it reached the ideal 72-77 range. Too cool, and the yeast will be sleepy. Too warm, and the yeast will be overly vigorous or worse still, dead.

Used the wine thief to fill the test jar and then lowered the hydrometer into the juice to get a reading of specific gravity. It actually was a tad too sweet, so I added a little more water and stirred like mad until the reading was appropriate for table wine.

This strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae is from Champagne, and is one of the most widely used yeasts in the world, because it’s easy to work with and fairly predictable.

In it goes! It was magical to watch the yeast spread out over the surface and then slowly begin to fall.

Finally, the lid and bung go in the top of the fermentation vessel. The airlock (filled halfway with water) allows gas to escape but keeps oxygen out.

So now the vessel sits on the kitchen counter, away from light and heat, loosely covered by a paper bag. I keep peeking at it, and the yeast seem like they’re having a good time munching on the sugar and creating a layer of foam on the top of the juice. This stage takes a week. Here’s hoping it goes as planned.

I had the pleasure of interviewing at Dodon last week, where the owner assured me that “The great thing is […] nothing that can kill a person can grow in wine.”

So even if this Chardonnay turns into Chard-o-hell no, at least it won’t be lethal. 🙂

Wine of the week, coming up next! Warm weather = time for the pink stuff.


bargain wine of the week: 2016 Emiliana Natura unoaked Chardonnay

Chile is a wine producer on the rise. This is short-term good news for thrifty shoppers, because it does not have the kind of highbrow prestige associated with the region the way, say, Bordeaux does. So right now, fairly inexpensive Chilean wine is flooding the market, most of it pretty delicious, some of it exceptional, and the odd example here or there that you’ll want to avoid.

I say “short-term” because I have it on good authority that Chile is making some outstanding stuff that is holding its own against many of the heavy hitters in California and Europe. It’s only a matter of time before a real division appears, and like so many other “new world” producers, the improbably wonderful bargains will be fewer and farther between.

Here: check out this clip of the inimitable Joe Fattorini talking a little about a visit to Chile he had for an episode of The Wine Show, aka the only reason I subscribe to Hulu.

This week’s selection is Emiliana Natura Chardonnay, made from organically raised grapes that are farmed sustainably. I’m not even going to wade into the insanity of the natural/organic/biodynamic controversy in this post. First off, I don’t know enough to have a position. Second, I know that each country has unique labeling laws, so one can make a wine seem like it’s made in some hippie commune with minimal intervention and then another country’s labeling laws will require the label to state that it contains sulfites and won’t get the “bio/organic” label at all on a technicality.

That said, I picked this up at Mom’s Organic (Rockville only…ain’t no hooch at the other locations) who has a pretty killer stable of wines for a place that is more about alfafa sprouts than alfredo sauce. If you’re local, the beer selection is on point, too. Lots of local brews, including nearly every DuClaw, Dogfish Head, DC Brau, and Flying Dog variety on offer, and even Charm City mead, which is a –potent– treat.

Anyway, back to the vino! It’s just what you expect from a steel-fermented and aged Chardonnay: some citrus tingle in the nose and on the palate, maybe a whiff of a sprig of herb, and a generous dose of tropical fruit with zero sweetness. This is definitely a crisp wine, but unlike other white varieties (Sauv Blanc, I’m looking at you) at this price, it’s not crass or so huge that it competes with food. It’s usually $12, but I picked up a few bottles for $9 a pop earlier this week. 

Thirsty Cellist score: 8/10

Pros: an easy, affordable, reliable Chardonnay that goes with food or a warm night on the patio. 

Cons: the structure might get a little disorganized as it comes to room temperature, so drink it on the colder side of cool.

Recommendation: buy multiples, excellent for bringing to parties or giving as gifts. 

PS: Unless you’re local to the DC market, I understand that many of the recommendations here are sort of academic. Technically useful information, but perhaps your vendor in Florida or Mpls doesn’t carry the same bottles. I hope that each wine of the week can serve as a loose guide. So maybe you can’t find this particular bottle, but maybe seeking out other Chilean Chardonnays below $15 is a place to start.

shine bright like a diamond

Have you ever found shards in your wine? My first experience with crystals aka “wine diamonds” (of course there’s a bougie name for them) came a few years ago, when I saw something unexpected at the bottom of my glass.

This was before I knew much of anything about enology, and as I fished the flecks out of the wine, I figured that I had chosen a bad bottle, or maybe some fault had occurred during production or storage to cause the strange see-through corn flakes to appear.  Earlier this week, I found the little buggers (circled lovingly in red) in my not-so-cheap Gewürztraminer, and before running back to the merchant to complain, I decided to figure out what was what.

As it turns out, there is some debate about what crystals indicate in terms of quality— but there is no debate about what they are: KC4H5O6: potassium bitartrate. It’s basically cream of tartar, and cold temperatures (like those found in a refrigerator) cause potassium and tartaric acid (which both naturally occur in grapes) to link up and precipitate into these glass-like shards. 

Totally harmless, natural, no problem to find them in your wine. The debate revolves around whether the steps some vintners take to eliminate the risk of crystals forming— namely cold stabilizing— has a deleterious effect on the wine itself. There’s another camp that insists that crystals only form in really nice wines, because a certain combination of components is required for them to exist at all.

Cold stabilizing is done solely to prevent crystals, and usually involves taking the wine down to near freezing (most people agree that below 40ÂşF is the standard) and then keeping it there for a few weeks. You’ll hear arguments that doing this can stunt, mute, or otherwise freak out the flavors and aromas in the wine. I’ll let you know what happens when my teeny batch of Chardonnay is done fermenting: I’ll cold-stabilize one bottle FOR SCIENCE!

Sigh. Real Genius (source of the above gif) is one of the few movies that just brings me right back to the unbridled optimism of growing up in the 80s. Potent nostalgia. Killer soundtrack too.

So, you can avoid crystals by not storing your wine in the fridge- storing it in a chiller is more gentle and keeps it closer to the ideal drinking temperature. If you do find diamonds in your vino, it’s probably best to decant the bottle and leave them behind: although they are harmless, they can have a bitter taste and a downright bizarre texture that ruins the experience.

I’ll be back with the bargain wine of the week tomorrow! Cheers, friends.

chug this! bargain wine o’the week: 2014 Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico

If you’re anything like me, I lived most of my winey life without knowing there was a difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico. Before we even start, though: I feel like I need to defend the oft-maligned, sometimes wicker-basketed former before singing the praises of the latter.

Over the past 40 or so years, as the American market started asking for ever more variety, there was a flood of table wine from all over the globe, much of it of not the highest quality. Chianti in particular would frequently taste cheap, or single-note, or maybe the bottles destined for the heathen shores of the new world weren’t the best examples. This is a known phenomenon, by the way. Would you send your best product to a market that doesn’t even know what it wants? A market that was, until only recently, drinking fortified sweet wines or rot-gut jug white Zinfandel?

If you answered, “yes” you’re a more generous soul than I. I’m with the Italians here: make sure the exported fine wines ended up in the hands of people who might actually appreciate them, and then if it seemed appropriate, branch out to a larger audience from there.

And that’s what happened. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good Chianti on both sides of the Atlantic; you just had to be a bit of a sleuth to find it. Although this bargain of the week is a Chianti Classico (I’ll explain the difference in a minute, keep your hair on), I drink regular Chianti all the time- much of it below the $15 mark, and nearly always enjoy it. Continue reading “chug this! bargain wine o’the week: 2014 Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico”

bargain wine of the week: Château la Grange Clinet 2014 Grande Réserve

This week’s budget wine comes from Bordeaux, the region at France’s seven o’clock: mostly south, very west.  While this chateau is not technically coastal, the entire area has “maritime influence”, especially as la Gironde cleaves the continent where it meets the Atlantic.

Bordeaux is known for its blends. Unlike, say, Burgundy, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are likely to stand as single varietals in a bottle, les Bordelais are alchemists, painstakingly curating recipes to maximize signature styles and take advantage of whatever each vintage offers.

This sweetheart of a wine retails around $15, and it’s like a mini tour of what to expect from a Bordeaux. It’s balanced, elegant, with nothing standing out to make it a single note experience. This is not a particularly fruity wine, if you’re used to jammy or “fruit forward” stuff, but it is really satisfying to drink. It is also not a giant wine, and it stays interesting and enjoyable over the course of an evening. Or morning. 🙂

The exact proportions are a closely held secret, but le Clinet is a Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend. 

The single caveat I maintain is that the taste changes after a few days open, even if you use a wine preserving system, which I do. Perhaps this is my own fault, after storing it cool, then taking it out to come to room temp, then cooling again, then bringing it back to room temp. Wines don’t like large or repeated swings in temperature, and maybe I tested la Grange Clinet too much.

Thirsty Cellist score: 8/10

Pros: Complexity, balance, subtlety. A little bit of everything in a very easy to access package. 

Cons: Gets a little weird after the third day open

Recommendation: buy it, try it, finish the bottle in one sitting (share with friends!), or save the remainder for deglazing a pan.  

intro to bargain wine of the week: Planeta La Segreta 2013 DOC Sicilia

Wine on a budget! Let’s do it.

The more I learn about viticulture and enology, the more I understand what drives prices. There are justifiable causes for exorbitant pricing: rarity, certain labor-intensive practices (some Grand Cru vintners select individual grapes during harvest, for instance), the vagaries of weather and climate. Other times, the justification is harder to come by: some chateaux are riding on name and legacy, Robert Parker Jr. (whose thoughts are enjoyable, but I won’t rely on his taste buds to be surrogates for mine) gives a high score and creates industry buzz, or worst of all, one of the Real Housewives orders something by name.

We’ve all been burned by a bottle of inexpensive wine that over promised and under delivered. So where does that leave the wine lover who can’t routinely shell out $30 and up? Continue reading “intro to bargain wine of the week: Planeta La Segreta 2013 DOC Sicilia”

The wine kit arrives!

I thought it might be fun to try and get a sense of the winemaking process by doing a batch of Chardonnay at home. After a little research, it seemed like most of the products from distributors in the US came from the Master Vintner company, so I ordered from them directly.

The box came and I was so excited! So many mysterious objects. Bummed that the bubble wrap didn’t pop, though. Whomever made the decision to change to un-poppable bubbles hates fun and probably doesn’t use turn signals or wave after someone lets them change lanes.

The kit comes with all kinds of bits and bobs! Before I read what they actually are, I shall make wildly inaccurate guesses as to the purpose of each. I promise I’ll do a serious post when I do step 1 and actually be informative. For now:

On top, we have a small box of wine. I assume this is to drink while you’re figuring out how to make wine with all of the other stuff in the kit. Below is the “big mouth bubbler”, which is some kind of artisanal fish tank to look at while you wait for the wine to undergo malolactic fermentation. There’s a beaker on the far right so you don’t have to drink the wine straight from the box on top. Continue reading “The wine kit arrives!”

Every day drinking

I drink wine every day, or nearly every day. Oh, I see you, Loki.

Saying that in many places (North America, much of northern Europe) seems like an admission of a serious problem. Yet, cultural attitudes and the science of drinking behavior and its ramifications tell a different story.

In places like France and Italy,  cultural tendencies mostly go like this: you can drink wine every day, but consumption to the point of inebriation is considered a huge no-no. Don’t be the guy/gal who is drunk at a wedding. Keep it together, chief. Wine is usually an adjunct to food.


In places like the US, drinking wine with lunch or every night with dinner raises eyebrows, but getting hammered from time to time is socially acceptable. Haha! He’s that guy who got drunk at the wedding! Many Americans slink home from work and self-medicate in semi-secret. We even joke about it because hey, you’re either laughing or you’re crying, right? There is a certain degree of shame associated with drinking, and a pronounced backlash against it, with the normalization of heavy consumption a sort of cultural trope. Continue reading “Every day drinking”

lil’ bit about reds and PS Wine Folly is everything

Since part of the purpose of this blog is to help my friends pick out wine, I wanted to offer a visual for how reds move from light to dark. So I came up with this:

And though it is accurate, a quick search revealed that Wine Folly had done a much more informative and easy on the eye version:

Before going any further, I should make clear that I owe Wine Folly founder Madeline Puckette so much, even at this early stage of the game. Her text (written with Justin Hammack) The Essential Guide to Wine is an incredibly useful and thoughtful resource. Well organized and with enough information to educate— but not so much as to overwhelm— this book offers insight for the novice but ambitious wine drinker. I’ve actually gone so far as to print out pages for reference when I have folks over to do tastings.

Okay, back to the info.  Continue reading “lil’ bit about reds and PS Wine Folly is everything”


The next real post is all about red wines, but I’m pretty excited to share what will be next after that. HOME WINEMAKING KIT IS IN THE MAIL WOOOOO



what could go wrong?