The Birds and the Bees

Robert – October 11th, 2012
The Orioles are in the postseason! One of the few things that can compete with our love of wine is our love of baseball, and our hometown birds, the Orioles, in particular. Monday night was the 2nd game of the ALDS at Camden Yards, and we had awesome seats. Suffering through three years of the worst baseball seasons in Baltimore sports history was finally paying off.

There was just one minor problem: a 400-pound ticking time bomb. The game fell on the same evening as a critical window of activity for our grapes.

As Caitlin mentioned in her description of our crush, we’re working with 300 pounds of red wine grapes, which we were expecting, and an extra 100 pounds of white wine grapes, for which we were completely unprepared. Surprise! It’s twins. That’s what it felt like. I don’t know from experience, but I imagine.

We were able to press the white grapes on Sunday, at the vineyard, on schedule, but that’s just the first step in a series of early activities that have a significant impact on the quality of the final product. This is true for the white in particular, because it starts fermentation earlier than the red. Except, thanks to Dr. Bob’s Roller Coaster of Emotion (don’t even think about it, Six Flags, I’m trademarking), we didn’t have any of the things we needed to start working on our white.

I sped out of work on Monday to get down to the homebrew store before it closed (I have my priorities) and sped back so we could get our tools cleaned for the work we would have to do later in the night. It was a close call (Ha! Get it? Baseball humor!), but I was able to get white wine yeast (Lalvin-K1V116) along with our other supplies.

Timing is important when you are making a white wine. We would have ideally started the fermentation process as soon as I got home with the yeast, because the juice is at risk. Spoilage microbes or wild yeast can introduce off-flavors into the wine. The fermentation process eliminates the risk. But, by the time I got back from the store, we had to leave immediately to get to the game on time. Did I mention that the Orioles haven’t been in the postseason in 15 years? We wouldn’t abandon our juice for nothing. It was the modern day Sophie’s Choice*.

After a 45-minute rain delay, the game finally started and the Orioles won an amazing game 3-2 against the Yankees. Because the Yankees play incredibly slow baseball (get back in the batter’s box A-Rod, you don’t need to re-velcro your batting gloves for the 53rd time), the game didn’t end until midnight. We stayed exactly long enough to see the fireworks and watch the team run onto the field in celebration before we literally ran all the way home, which Caitlin really enjoyed, and that’s why you see so many pictures of her in this post**.

By the time we got home and walked our retired racing greyhound, Sprocket, it was about 1:00AM. Still in our Orioles gear and running off adrenaline, we got to work.

The white grape juice had been transferred on Sunday to a 5-gallon glass jug, called a carboy, and most of the large sediment had settled to the bottom (you’ll see darkness at the bottom of the jug in the photos). Our first step was to siphon off the clear top juice to a new carboy, leaving the sediment behind. The process of siphoning off the clear juice from the sediment is called racking. We’ll be doing a lot of it over the next weeks and months. Once the clear grape juice was in its new home, we pulled a sample to get a reading of its sugar levels before fermentation. By monitoring the sugar level, we’ll know
how the wine is progressing in its fermentation. It also gives us a rough guess at what the final alcohol percentage will be.

We measure the sugar level on a scale called Brix. Our white grape juice was at 22 Brix before we started fermentation, which means it’s about 22 percent sugar by weight. If you tasted the grape juice right now, you would find it to be nauseatingly sweet. It will rot your teeth out of your head. If your dentist found out you were drinking it, he would hold his head in his hands, sobbing. Which sort of makes grape growing and winemaking an incongruous second career choice for Dr. Bob, being a former dentist.

With our measurements made and the wine transferred to a clean carboy, it was time to add the yeast. We rehydrated the yeast in some warm water, let it sit for 30 minutes or so, and then poured it into the carboy with the juice. We added a dose of yeast nutrient (5 grams).

At that point, it was 2:00AM. When we started calling this process feeding the yeasties, looking at each other, and giggling, we knew we were really too tired to be doing science stuff. Because that’s not funny at all. We sealed the carboy with a device called a ferm lock, which allows the carbon dioxide from the fermenting wine to escape without letting oxygen back into the container.

The Red Headed Step Child
I’m pretty far into this blog post and I haven’t said much about the 300 pounds of red. It also needs love and attention. The white wine is just so new and exciting. It also requires more upfront work,
as I’ve described. The red doesn’t need much at this point in the process. We currently have the red grape must divided among six fermenting buckets (three for the Cabernet Sauvignon and three for the
Cabernet Franc).

For the first few days after the crush of the red grapes, the juice sits with the skins to allow for color and flavor extraction before we start fermentation. This is referred to as the cold soak. We need to keep the juice cold during this time to ensure no wild yeast move in and start fermentation on their own before we’re ready.

Once we were back home from Dr. Bob’s on Sunday, with more storage at our disposal, our plan of rotating out frozen jugs of water worked very well. We’ve kept the temperature of the red grape must below 45 degrees (cold enough to prevent the wild yeast from…going wild). It has transitioned nicely from a slightly grey clear liquid just after crushing to a beautiful purple liquid.

Watching and Waiting
I’ve been very nervous about the white wine since we started fermentation on Monday. Fermentation has started more slowly than I’m used to, having only had experience with red up to this point. As of Thursday, it is finally kicking into gear, and producing some of the foam and bubbles associated with fermentation. I’ll take some measurements tonight and post tomorrow about our progress.

As is our typical response to nervousness, we did some research. We discovered that white doesn’t ferment quite as…enthusiastically as red does. As I mentioned, the red is still in contact with the skins and seeds when we ferment it. That’s a lot of “stuff” for the yeast to feed on. The white is just juice. For the time being, we have no reason to think we’re off target.

As far as the red is concerned, we’ll probably kick off fermentation tonight. Stay tuned.

*Possibly an exaggeration.
**There are no pictures of Caitlin in this post.


  1. More Caitlin photos, more Caitlin photos, more Caitlin photos. No, seriously, you guys are awesome, and I am so totally impressed with your dedication to this process year after year.

    • Thanks, Em! I do hope to be featured in future posts. I find myself behind the camera a lot! “Hey…I’m here! You just can’t…tell.”

  2. Trudy Hutton says:

    We are fascinated with your blog and you’ve got us hooked on following your progress. Hope it goes well!

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