Don’t wear your fancy clothes to a wine bottling party. Common sense, right? We probably should have inferred it through the name “wine bottling party”, but obviously don’t get invited to enough of these kinds of things to know. “6:30pm. Bring munchies, I’ll supply the wine,” the email cryptically said. I put on the only dress I own.
We arrived at the stately suburban home of my mother’s coworker to find the basement bustling. Seven women hunched over glass carboys and bottles, gabbing cheerfully as they went about transferring white wine from one to the other. A couple of kids ran around and one husband, the coworker, helped out in the background. They had all gathered for the evening to bottle up four wines: an American Riesling, a German Riesling, and two sangria mixes.
“It’s pretty messy work,” our hostess Karen said as she walked us around, explaining the process. And indeed there was wine everywhere; on the tables, on the floor, in bottles, and in glasses that got emptied into mouths and refilled from even more bottles as the women worked. There were bags of new corks strewn on a table next to a wall plastered with old ones, and the ladies laboured beneath a chandelier made discarded wine bottles of different shapes and colours. Empty carboys sat tucked under a table next to even more wine fermenting in plastic buckets. The atmosphere was festive and the celebration was the wine. We could totally get into it.
Karen led us into her wine cellar. “If you see something that looks interesting, feel free to open it.”
It was an impressive collection for any home, and we were like kids in a candy shop.
It was clear these ladies like wine. They like it so much, in fact, that they produce over 500 bottles of it per year using commercially-available prepackaged kits. Karen has been making her own wine at home for about 12 years, and her team of friends gathers once every few months at wine parties such as these to bottle up the most recent batches and split up the booty.
These are America’s DIY wine makers. While wine-making kits have been around since the 1970s, improvements in technology as well as the craft beer revolution have helped birth a resurgence in the hobby. Wine-making kits have become readily available alongside beer kits at home brew supply stores, at specialty websites like FineVineWines.com, and even at online retail giants like Amazon. Kits start around $60 and can cost upward of $100, and come in an astounding variety of both traditional and unconventional—from Spanish Rojo Tinto to geographically anonymous blends like pomegranate Zinfandel. There’s even kits for ice wines and port.
Wine kits use almost the same equipment as home-brewed beer, making it an attractive alternative for those who have craft beer-enthusiast friends or family, but don’t like beer much themselves. Karen started making her own wine after digging her husband’s old beer-making supplies out of the closet. The wine kits also contain similar components as beer kits but, says Karen, the process is easier because there’s no boiling or heating involved.
So how the heck do you make wine from a kit? Wine kits contain grape juice—either pure juice (more expensive, produce the best wine), juice concentrate (cheaper, of variable quality), or a combination of both—sourced from vineyards around the world. All kits also contain packets of yeast, for fermenting, and a few packets of chemicals used during the brewing process—to do things like inhibit or kill yeast, or reduce oxidation after bottling. Some kits include grape pulp and stems, oak chips, tannin, or other flavour additives to enhance the taste of the final product.
Together with all the plastic buckets, hoses and glass carboys, the kit set-ups look more like a science experiment or a scene from Breaking Bad. But after four to six weeks, the magical result is wine, glorious wine!!
At the bottling party, Karen and her crew were hard at work completing the final step of the process. Each kit produces up to 30 bottles, and the group pays for them together then divvys up the end result. The traditional wines need to age further in the bottles, but some of the fruity wine mixers can be enjoyed after just a few days.
Although we weren’t taking home any of the new batches, we were excited to give the bottling process a go. The work was pretty messy, but how awesome is it to be able to fill your own bottle, cork it, and even put a label and wrapper on the top??
The kits are well designed, it’s true. And making your own booze at home is really fun, for sure. But how did the wine taste??
Pretty good. We sampled a variety of what was out; the fruity wines and wine cooler-style blends were sweet without being sugary or overpowering like similar commercially-produced drinks are. The Portuguese Douro Tinto was very drinkable; a bit too light-bodied but clean and without a chemically taste. We took home a white Merlot (yes, white Merlot) that was crisp and dry—better than your average rosé.
Some wine snobs may turn up their noses as the idea of commercial “home brew” wine such as this, but in countries such as Canada and the USA—with their relatively young wine culture and industry that is primarily the domain of elitist, wealthy families—this kind of DIY experimentation is both fun and a way to snag large volumes of booze at a relatively reasonable price.
If you think about it, passable homemade wine from a kit isn’t really much different from the passable homemade wine being imbibed throughout Eastern Europe and beyond—places with wine cultures that are debatably even older than France’s or Italy’s. And with proper sanitisation techniques, North American kit wine is probably even safer than what you can scrounge up from some basements and backyard sheds around the world. We should know… 😉