The Zin Begins

Previously I have made, together with another grad student, both strawberry and cherry wine. The strawberry wine has come out at least passably well each time. The cherry wine, not so much–there was a “mis-under-estimation” having to do with the amount of acidity, and it came out quite sour. We managed to salvage the wine by turning it into jelly. Now, however, much bolder plans are afoot: real, honest-to-goodness, made-from-grapes wine. One of the benefits of living right next to wine country (full disclosure: all of California considers itself “wine country”) is that you can get fresh, local, cruelty-free, fair-trade grapes. In my case, through the CCHVA grape-buying coop. So, without a clue as to what I was doing, I placed an order for one hundred pounds of zinfandel grapes and one hundred pounds of syrah grapes. (I should add that my father and I are going into this as partners. He’s the angel investor and I’m the boots on the ground. Yes, yes, it’s soooo cute, I know, and it’s father and son, just make the damn Judd Apatow movie and get over it.)

I’m about 1/3 following a recipe and 2/3 making it up as I go along. The closest thing to a recipe I’m using is the Zinfandel focus article from Winemaker Magazine (the red one). The hard copy issue that my in-laws gave me for my birthday also has been very helpful (thanks, Mary and Taylor!).

I got a call on Monday that we’d be getting the grapes on Thursday, 1pm. (Good thing I don’t have a real job.) The grapes are from Margarita Vineyards, the crush was in Orcutt, CA (i.e. small-town California) and the crusher-destemmer machine was awesome. After removing the stems, I got 90 lbs of must (grapes + juice), or about 8 to 10 gallons. The sugar measurement came to 25 brix at the crush (that’s about 1.106 specific gravity for you beer brewers out there), and I did a little home-titration that measured the acidity at 0.615%. (The coop took some to a lab and got a pH of 3.52 and 0.638% acidity–it appears my home-TA-kit is not that bad.)

Thursday afternoon (once I got home), I added 1/2 tsp potassium metabisulfite (shooting for 50 ppm) to kill any wild yeasts or bacteria (hopefully), and 4 tsp pectic enzyme for a poor-man’s maceration. (Maceration is the process of extracting goodies from the grape skins, i.e. what makes red wine red wine.)

The Primary Fermentation Vessel, aka 20 gallon trash can from Home Depot

After waiting 24 hours for maceration / settling, I pitched the yeast (Friday evening, now). The yeast I got was Wyeast 4946 Zinfandel–it’s got zinfandel in the name, so it’s got to be the right one, right? I measured almost 27 brix (1.114 gravity) right before pitching. So there could be a good amount of alcohol in this wine.

The sugar reading. We are about two ticks past the "10" line. Each tick is 2, so we're at 1,100 + 10 + 4 = 1.114 specific gravity. This is equivalent to 26.8 brix.

Currently I’m at the stage where I have to punch down the cap twice a day with a sanitized cap-punching instrument. I’m going to start taking readings to see how fermentation is going. Wish me luck!

There it is, in all its sickly sweet, sticky glory.

I must finally add a word of thanks to my ever-suffering wife, for being wonderfully accommodating as I bring a trash can full purple sugar-water into our tiny apartment. She’s the best.


Finally a Summer 2013 Garden Tour

There are quite a few activities that have distracted me from my garden as of late.  There was the trip to Ohio for astronomy-awesomeness, a trip to my parents’ house where it rained for almost a week straight (but not on the Fourth of July when we watched fireworks from a motor boat on the lake!), and a slight sorbetto addiction that brings my count of me-made shirts up to eight (four of which can be found here and here).  Unfortunately, this time of great distraction coincided with the adoption of a new garden plot that is still, even more unfortunately, almost half weeds.  I’m trying not to be too hard on myself, after all it did take a full month to get the main garden weeded and prepared  and that was with the added bonus of my parents’ help in the crucial beginning stages when one is tempted to just give up.  In lieu of physical gardening backup, I’ve been relying on psychological gardening backup by planting some of my favorite plants in the new unfinished garden: melons, a large bush bean patch, tomatillos, and sunflowers.

Now, on to the tour!  We will start with the main human-proof garden where I planted all the things that humans might be tempted to snatch (unfortunately this is an actual problem):

  • Cherry tomatoes (8 plants)
  • Sweet red pimiento peppers (9 plants)
  • Green poblano peppers (7 plants)
  • Tomatillos (five one plant that consistently looks like it’s on the brink of death)
  • Yellow, green, and purple bush beans
  • Green pole beans
  • Corn
  • Delicata winter squash (2 plants)
  • Small cooking pumpkin (2 plants)
  • Summer squash (only 1 plant now)
  • Pickling cucumber (3 plants)
  • Mixed color carrots (I grew one in the spring that was a foot long!)
  • Parsley (suffering from yellowed leaves)
  • Basil

Next is the lemon tree area, which is undergoing major renovations to become an herb and flower garden after I had a buttercup squash stolen one day.  There are no pictures of this area because it mostly just looks like dirt with the occasional volunteer nasturtium.

Finally we have the new garden that is still half weeds (shield your eyes!  Just kidding, I won’t show you any depressing pictures of this area).  It is only marginally safe from animals of any kind.  The main difficulty will be planting things in it that don’t attract too much human interest, so I’m thinking kale, swiss chard, arugula, other green leafy things, fava beans (because no one ever seems to know what they are), flowers, herbs, and potatoes.  Currently I’m going out on a limb with more delicious and tempting varieties:

  • Musk melon (3 plants)
  • Yellow bush beans
  • Tomatillos
  • Swiss chard
  • Dill
  • Mini-leaf basil
  • Sunflowers with edible seeds