I’m wicked pleased to announce my 2016 Limited Edition wine kits, by Master Vintner. They’re the only Limited Edition kits with my name on them–if you know me, you know that’s a big deal. After more than two decades helping people make their own wine I’m only interested in the best.
What’s the Deal with Limited Edition?
Limited Edition is to home winemakers what vintages are to commercial wineries: once a year we assemble four different wines (two reds and two whites) and offer them for a short period of time. Winemakers have to pre-order, or they don’t get any. The kits are delivered over four months, January through April, staggered so they can get them all made in a decent amount of time as wines get racked and carboys get freed up.
The pre-order is crucial. These wines are from cool, exciting vineyards that make excellent grapes. One of the things about making excellent grapes is that it drives yields down, so there is always a limited amount of them available. We cut off the pre-orders when they reach the point where we can’t make any more kits, and those ones go to the people who got in first.
This Year’s Wines: France
All of the wines from this year come from France, with three Bordeaux grapes and one from Burgundy. While France is the world-champion maker of fine wine (other countries make more wine, but it’s not classified as ‘fine’) it’s very hard to get grapes from there.
First off, they can turn them into fine wine and sell them for a handsome profit. Second, explaining to a French grape grower that you want their grapes to make into juice for home winemakers . . . let’s just say that it can be a surreal conversation. Third, since the French are used to using all of their grapes to make fine wine, facilities to process the grapes are hard to come by. It requires the resources and expertise of a full winery operation to turn top quality grapes into top-quality wine juice. Fortunately, Master Vintner has those, and put them to good use, getting grapes at peak physical and organoleptic (flavor) ripeness and turning them into perfect juice in only hours.
Luckily, that’s what have brokers and logistics people for–doing the impossible. We manged to come away with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay grapes, and we’re turning them into spectacular wine kits, right this minute.
The Tasting Event
The best way to teach people about wine is to hand them a glass and let them taste it. Even better is to give a bit of background first, and to hand them a glass and a food to pair with the wine.
So that’s what we did: this September at Northern Brewer World Headquarters, Master Vintner held a wine tasting and food pairing, featuring versions of the grapes we’re using for the Limited Edition kits, and it was awesome.
I’ve been doing wine tastings for nearly thirty years now, and it’s always a thrill to share great wine with people who appreciate it. Getting to present wines as good as these to people who make their own wine is a special treat: home winemakers are so engaged, so committed to enjoying the experience and the wine, that it’s not like work at all to do a tasting like this–it’s a lot more like a really great party with friends.
I had a blast talking to my winemaking friends, answering questions and trying out the food pairings (Sauvignon Blanc paired first with goat cheese and second with honey will change the way you think about how food and wine work together) and enjoying a truly fun evening.
If you wish you could have been there for the tasting, you’re in luck: while we can’t deliver any wine for you to try, we recorded the presentation so you can see what it’s all about.
I’ll be talking more about the Limited Edition wines in upcoming blogs, but if you want to make these wines for yourself, make sure you get in early: when they’re gone, they won’t be back, and there aren’t any extras. And if you have any questions, pop in a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer them all.
Good taste doesn’t exist. It is our taste. We have to be proud of it.
If you read my blog, you know by now that I’m the Technical Winemaking Advisor for Master Vintner, the first new line of wine kits in years, and the first one sold exclusively by an All-American company. Aside from the usual sorts of things I do as an advisor (which grapes and juices, what varietals, how to package, instructions, launches, instructions, etc, etc) which fall under the heading of ‘Curation’–a designation I love because it really says what it is I do–I also make and drink the wines.
After all, how else am I going to ultimately know how they taste? The human palate is the single most sensitive analytical tool that a winemaker possesses. Not that mine is necessarily the most sensitive in the world, but it does have three decades of training going for it, and that’s what I put to use this week when I went into my cellar and pulled out samples of my very first Master Vintner wines. They’ve been in the bottle long enough to develop their full slate of flavours and aromas, which I go through on the videos below.
I’m as proud of these wines as I could possibly be. The process for making a new wine kit is long and sometimes it seems overwhelmingly complex, as you have to ensure that the wine is going to turn out right from the first time and every time. Working with the talented and dedicated folks at Master Vintner has been a joy. It’s not a matter of just making a kit, but of getting the kit painstakingly right, and good enough to put my name on it.
And it’s that good. I’m putting on a dozen new kits right away so I can fine-tune a whole bunch of winemaking parameters–oak, yeast modifications, sur lie and battonage, temperature control, barrel ageing, all of the good stuff that winemakers get to do to make every batch of wine their very own.
One final thing: when you’re watching these keep in mind that I’m a long time video presenter, but a first-time video shooter . . . I bought a brand-new camera and put it to use for the first time, and during the filming my new studio lights caught fire and nearly burned my house down, construction on the street out front got loud and then a lot louder (a pneumatic hammer on an excavator shut me down for almost two days!) and a crow stole my lens cap. It’s really a testament to how tasty the wines were that I got anything on video at all, and I’m looking forward to learning to shoot more (and better quality) in the future.
I’ve been busy! The Master Vintner website has launched and we’re busy filling it up with great wine kits, great deals and lots of cool info about making your own wine–and having lots of fun with it. One of the things I’m pursuing is making a bunch of new videos, right here in Chaos Manor.
Before I started making new videos, I went back and reviewed the stuff I’d done before, some of which is on my YouTube channel, with more on Northern Brewer’s channel. Some of it has even been bootlegged by other people, and much to my surprise some of my videos have gotten hundreds of thousands of views–how does that even work?
I thought I’d curate a bunch of them so you could pick and choose right here if you wanted to have a look at what’s going on with home winemaking right now. If you like ’em, go ahead and subscribed to my channel and you’ll get updates when new stuff is uploaded.
Note that some of these videos are of me from previous employers: don’t worry, the information is still good and you can learn just as much.
It’s been over a month since I posted to this blog. In social media terms, I might as well have left on a voyage for the new world and been captured by Barbary pirates and written off for lost, mourned only by creditors and a disgruntled cat, forgotten by time and tide.
I was originally taking a two-week break to go to Mexico, in order to soak up some Vitamin D (aka, ‘lay in the sun’) and local culture (aka ‘Tequila’). I did that and had some fun, but felt a little off the second week of the trip and by the time I got home, I had a cold.
Only no, it was a case of the H3N2 influenza. In popular culture a lot of folks equate a bad cold with ‘the flu’–I’ve probably been guilty of that myself. But the truth is this: if you can get out of bed, you don’t have the flu. Between a fever that ran over 102F for the better part of a week and the constant feeling that I needed a good solid night of sleep every time I woke up, I was off my feet for a week, recovering for two more and (oh the horror!) I completely lost my sense of smell and taste for nearly a month!
Happily, that’s all behind me now, so I can get back in the saddle. I’m going to be tasting my Master Vintner series wines! They’re still very young but will have calmed down from bottle shock and be showing their true character.
I’m also hard at work on new projects with my friends at Northern Brewer, so I better get crackin’, and let the disgruntled cat and the Barbary Pirates know that I’m back amongst the living.
My first step was to clean and sanitise all of the equipment I’d be using, including my autosiphon, bottle filler, jugs and such–as always, cleanliness is next to goodliness in winemaking.
Next, I set up my racking station by the simple expedient of lifting my Little Big Mouth Bubbler on top of a convenient box on my counter. If you haven’t used one of the Master Vintner Small Batch kits yet, it’s hard to convey just what a joy this is. I’m old-school in many ways, having started off making wine in lots anywhere between 23 litres (6 US gallons) and 650 litres (three 60-US gallon barrels) at a time. With truly huge amounts you need a pump to move the wine around. A standard kit wine batch of 23 litres isn’t nearly as demanding, but lifting full carboys from one shelf to another, or putting them up on a high place so you can rack the wine down into a clean carboy on the floor (which then needs to be lifted back into the winemaking area!) starts to wear on the lower back after a few thousand batches. At only a single gallon, you can easily lift the Small Batch kits onto a convenient box or shelf above your kitchen counter, just as easy as getting a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator!
Once the fermenter was in place I racked the wine off of the sediment. Doing this is really helpful, since there’s a decent chance that the siphon will disturb sediment from the bottom of the carboy while your moving the hose from bottle to bottle. Rather than risk getting cloudy wine, it’s better to move all of the clear wine into a new vessel in one go, and then you can relax from there.
When the wine gets down to the bottom, the level of sediment needs to be carefully monitored. Remember, the point of racking is to get 100% of the clear wine and leave the muck behind, so don’t leave any of that delicious grape nectar behind.
To get and keep that tilt hands-free I usually improvise some kind of prop or wedge. Because I was making wine in my kitchen (another thing Small Batch Kits makes easy!) my carboy wedge wasn’t around. No matter: I just popped a bung under the front of the carboy and watched the levels as they dropped.
Just to make sure I was being completely efficient in my racking, I measured the amount of sediment left in the bottom of the Little Big Mouth Bubbler after it racked over. It came to just over couple of tablespoons all in all–which meant I was going to get a total of about 3.75 litres out of my US gallon (3.78 litre) batch, meaning I could fill five bottles, which is exactly what I wanted.
The wine was exceptionally clear on racking.
I could have bottled it right there, but since this was an actual test batch for quality assurance and proof of concept purposes, I pulled out my Buon Vino Minjet filter. Filtering doesn’t actually clear a wine: that’s what fining agents are for. Clearing polishes a wine so that it sparkles with a brilliance like diamonds. A former colleague had the best analogy for wine filtering: it’s the difference between a freshly washed car and a freshly waxed car. Both look great, but your eyes can instantly tell which car was waxed and polished because it glows. Same with wine.
It’s easy to see this in white wines: you could read the fine print of an EULA through that Chardonnay!
I got all four batches of wine through a single set of Buon Vino #3 pads in about 20 minutes, including sanitising and prep, going from the Chardonnay to the Pinot Noir, then the Merlot and finishing with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet another bonus feature of the Small Batch kits: you can make four of them and only need the tiny, convenient BV mini, rather than a much larger filter.
While larger filter systems need a washtub or a laundry sink for cleanup, the Minijet is kitchen sink-friendly for cleanup. Note that the colour you see on those filter pads isn’t anthcyanins (grape pigment) stripped from the wine. It’s suspended material from the wine itself, stained by those pigments. That suspended material, principally yeast cells and colloids, would eventually settle out of the wine on its own. Even though the unfiltered wine was perfectly clear to the eye, after a year or two in the bottle a bit of colour would deposit out on the side or bottom of the bottle. Hurrah for filtering!
Next up, time to fill my wine bottles. I had a mixture of standard wine bottles in Flint (clear) and some swing-tops, also in clear. I like using swing tops for wine that’s going to be analysed and/or destroyed in testing–not because of any technical superiority of swing tops, but because I can never seem to find a dang corkscrew when I’m in the wine lab.
Also shown in the picture above is the Handy corker. It uses a plunger and a compression sleeve to press-fit the corks into the bottles.
Because of the forces involved, it’s a good idea to use the (included) #8-sized corks and soak them in a bit of warm water before use. While I’ve used the Handy and it’s a fine unit, I had another plan in mind for my bottles. But first, I had to fill them.
Getting the bottles filed without splashing, spilling or endlessly fiddling to get the right fill level (very bottom of the neck, to leave the width of two fingers below the bottom of the cork) used to be a drag, but a siphon filler (included in your equipment kit!) makes it a snap.
The one-way needle valve on the tip of the rod stops the flow of wine as soon as you pull it up, while the volume of the rod displaces exactly the right amount of wine–when you fill the bottle to the top and then pull the rod out, the level of wine is perfect to accommodate a cork!
With the bottles filled, it was time to put corks in. My alternate scheme was to use my Italian bronze-jawed floor corker. This mighty beast has been my faithful companion for 25 years and tens of thousands of bottles of wine.
The key to how well this thing works is in the amount of leverage it can bring to bear, and how cleverly it compresses and inserts the cork into the bottles. The heart of the matter is the set of bronze jaws. Not brass–brass is too soft, and corks would wear it away in a short time, and this bronze is the same stuff they make steamship propellers out of.
The jaws move as the corking arm is pulled, squeezing the cork down to just slightly larger than the size of a pencil. When it’s at is tiniest, the cork finger comes down. pokes it into the bottle and you’re done.
It’s as easy as that, every time.
After only a few minutes all of the bottles were filled, corked and swing-capped.
Astute observers will notice that there are 15 bottles, a gallon jug and one bottle of pink wine, which doesn’t match up that well with the whole four batches of five bottles each motif I started with. The gallon jug is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I blended it at a rate of 3:2, Cabernet to Merlot, after a few benchtop trials. I’m going to let it marry in the jug for a month or so and taste it before bottling.
The pink wine is slightly notional on my part–it’s my job to do the weird stuff so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, so I can explain it when you do it without my knowledge! It’s a blend of 4% Pinot Noir into the Chardonnay. That kind of blending is a standard technique in commercial winemaking, and I was curious to see how it would marry up with a little time in the bottle.
How does it taste? Even though it’s very young, it’s everything I’d hoped: good fruit, varietal character, smooth tannin, balanced acid and a long finish, especially for a wine just in the bottle. I’m going to do a more formal taste-test in another three weeks, and then once a month after that to see how it’s progressing.
I’ve already ordered another four kits–I’ve never made wine with so little effort or mess, and I’m going to keep production up. Heck, it’s no more work than keeping a vase of flowers on the counter, with the added bonus, it’s wine!
One of the cool things about the Master Vintner Small Batch kit is the size. Compared to lugging 6 US-gallon (23 litre) carboys around, the Little Big Mouth fermenter is a breeze. I’m a big, strong brute, but even I get twinges in my lower back when I have four or five full-sized carboys to lift up for racking.
First things first: I assembled my equipment and double-checked the instructions. Yes, I wrote them, but I’ve become slightly obsessive about double-checking them for accuracy. I’m the only guy I know who can argue with himself about following instructions that he wrote!
Not only are the Small Batch kits easy to lift, you can also place them just about anywhere. Rather than having to rack from a primary fermenter sitting on the counter to a carboy down to the floor, I popped the LBM onto a box on my countertop and put the jug beside it. I love working at counter height! Honestly, this has got to be one of the killer sell features of this kit: light weight, ease-of-use and dead simple, too.
If you’ve never seen an Autosyphon in action, the small version that came with the kit is a great piece of hardware. Plain syphons work fine, but you have to start them either by filling them with water, covering both ends and simultaneously plunging the pick-up rod into the wine and the hose into a bucket to catch the extra water, and then swap when the wine comes through, or by sticking them into the wine and sucking on the hose like you’re stealing gasoline from a car–which is a little unsettling, but sometimes an opportunity to ‘accidentally’ drink from the hose (wine, not gasoline).
Check out the Autosyphon action:
While the Autosyphon took care of racking the wine into the gallon jug, I did two more things. First, I deftly filled my hydrometer jar with wine so I could check the specific gravity, and second, I tilted the Little Big Mouth back towards the side of the jug that the syphon tip was in. Tilting it would allow me to get all of the liquid out of the jug, while the anti-sediment tip on the syphon prevented any yeast-goo from going into the jug.
Checking the hydrometer reading, I saw that it was good.
The reading was 0.992–my wine was finished fermenting. Time to look at the instructions, where I wrote down the gravity from day one.
We started at 1.090 and finished at 0.992. With a little math, we subtract the finishing gravity from the beginning, multiply by 131 and we get 1.090 – .992 = 0.98 and 0.98 x 131 = 12.838, or just shy of 13% alcohol, perfect for our Merlot.
Of course there was also the necessity for a quality control test.
Smelled young, but very good, with nice dark cherry notes. As for the taste . . .
The taste was impressive for such a young sample–it’s going to be pretty good!
The last thing to do was to put the cap an airlock onto the jug and clean up all the equipment I used–well, after I finished racking the other three wines!
I’m sold. It’s one thing to develop a kit in the laboratory and taste bench samples, but it’s another (and completely necessary) thing to do it right in your own kitchen, among the cats and cabbage rolls to see how it’s going to work in the real world. I’m happier with this kit than with anything I’ve done in a long time, and in 12 days I’m going to get it stabilising and cleared and then it’s off to bottling. Hurrah!
How happy am I? I’m ecstatic! How proud am I of the Master Vintner project? So proud that I put my name right on the box!
I’ve been working with my friends at Northern Brewer for the last year to make this happen. It’s been an amazing time, and a lot of fun working with the crew there. Designing a new wine kit might seem easy at first blush. After all it’s just a matter of putting some stuff in a box and a bag of grape juice and away you go.
Only not really: there’s a lot of logistical and technical issues that need to be solved. Ordering grape materials has to precede the harvest by months in order to ensure you get the best of the vineyard. Then you need to formulate, get the juices cold stabilised and ready to blend, make and test blends (like all wineries, kit manufacturers blend for character and consistency) and then test your packaging protocols to make sure they will arrive to customers in good condition.
Beyond that, it’s a whole new world of equipment, specific to the 1 US-gallon size, that needs to be integrated to make sure it works well together and makes the best wine possible. Lucky for me there’s a great team doing the sourcing and manufacturing, making me look good!
My Master Vintner equipment and supplies arrived this week and I got cracking right away. Step one, unbox and check the contents.
The equipment kit contains almost everything you need to make a one US-gallon (5-bottle) batch of wine. You’ll have to supply the wine bottles, which can be saved from the recycling (hurrah environment!) and labels, which are fun to make for yourself.
The first step is to read the equipment list, make sure everything is there–pretty much a sure thing from Northern Brewer. Next, we need to pull out our wine kit and check out that puppy. The first one I laid hands on was a Merlot.
California Merlot is going to be rich and soft, with warm berry and dark cherry fruit and supple tannins. Mmm!
Next, let’s take a look at the ingredients, and most especially the instructions.
The wine kit has yeast, finings, stabilisers and a fabulous set of well-written and lucid instructions (yes, I wrote them).
I dove into making the kit immediately, but that’s only because I wrote (and re-wrote, and edited and re-wrote) the instructions myself. Everyone else should immediately put everything back in the box, seal it up and sit down and carefully and slowly read the instructions from beginning to end–if you’re not sure of anything, don’t start until you get it straight!
But don’t worry about that too much: ultimately, if you can make a cup of coffee or a bowl of cereal, you’re qualified to make your first batch of wine without any problem–I promise.
After reading the instructions, the first step is to mark off Little Big Mouth at the one-gallon line. LBM’s aren’t pre-marked because it’s a tricky process, and some folk’s jugs might not be completely standard, or the markings might get altered in shipping and handling. Better to do it in your own winemaking area so you’re confident you’ve got it right.
The best way to do it is to fill your gallon jug right up to the neck, about two fingers below the tippy-top.
You then pour the jug into your LBM.
Because the next step is to get things clean and sanitised (cleanliness is next to goodliness for winemaking), I put my winemaking cleaner right into the LBM, to save a step. The Oxygen Cleanser included in the equipment kit a great product–you can’t use home cleaners because they have too much perfume and other weird chemicals, which can leach into the wine and leave strange flavours.
Next step is to mark off the 1-gallon level. I used some white Duct Tape and a permanent marker.
And then it’s into the sink with the other items needed for day one: hydrometer and test jar, wine thief, lid, spoon, bung and airlock.
While the equipment comes brand-new, so it’s not stained or dirty, it’s still a good idea to give it a very good cleaning before you use it–just like you would any new plates, glasses or cups you brought into your kitchen.
After a 20 minute soak and a scrub to remove all surface debris, I rinsed everything thoroughly and then sanitised with a metabisulphite solution.
Metabisulphite solutions are the second part of cleaning and sanitising. While Oxygen Cleanser leaves your equipment clean enough to eat off of, it’s not ready to use for winemaking. For that you need to treat the surfaces with a solution that will suppress bacterial activity, and in winemaking the easiest stuff to use is a solution of three tablespoons (50 grams) of crystalline sulphite powder in 4 litres (one gallon) of water. Note that absolute accuracy isn’t crucial here, because you’re shooting for a solution that will yield 1250 Parts Per Million of free sulphite and the difference between one gallon and 4 litres or three tablespoons and 50 grams won’t move it more than a few dozen PPM.
I didn’t take any pictures of sulphiting the equipment because a) I didn’t know how to make that look exciting, and b) I always have a spray bottle of the stuff under the counter and I just grabbed it and sluiced everything down, waited 5 minutes and rinsed. By the time I remembered I was photoblogging I had already started the wine. Whoopsie. In any case, I went on to the next step, grabbing the bag of winemaking concentrate.
The caps on these bags fit extremely tight–they have to to exclude oxygen and spoilage organisms. If you’ve got long fingernails, or issues with grip strength (which is to say, if you’re not built like an ogre like me) you can pry them up with the edge of a butter knife (nothing sharp, please!) or use a bottle opener on the edge (works like a charm) or invest in a bag decapper. This doohickey fits exactly over the standard cap and levers it off in a jiffy.
Fortunately for me, I am built like an economy-version ogre, so I just pull it straight off. I am also good with opening pickle jars and other applications of brute-force and ignorance.
Careful, though: the juice is very high in sugar and red varietals can really stain fabrics–easy does it.
Next, pour the bag contents into the LBM.
Rinse the bag out with two cups of lukewarm water and add it to the LBM as well.
An important word on temperature: the kit has to be between 72°F and 77°F (22°C and 25°C for non-Americans). This is crucial for the success of the kit, because the yeast need to get fermenting quickly so your wine can stay on schedule. That means a bit of management: if the kit is coming in from a cold garage you’ll need a bit warmer water to make it up. If you’re in a heat wave in Florida, you’ll need to cool that water down a bit.
But it’s not terribly tricky. To hit my target temperature I ran the water in my sink for a minute until it hit 77°F and topped up the fermenter to the 1 gallon mark with that. When it was at the right level, it was time to stir.
You have to stir hard. Pouring the water into the juice makes it look like everything is well mixed, but that’s an illusion: concentrate and water have very different coefficients of viscosity and left to themselves, they’ll settle out. I gave it a darn good whipping with the shiny stainless steel spoon that came with the kit.
Next up, some measurements. First, the temperature check. I pasted on the Fermometer on the LMB and had a look.
With the temperature well in hand, it was time to check the specific gravity. I assembled the three piece wine thief and used it to fill the test jar.
With the level of the wine relatively low, it takes about three trips with the thief to fill the test jar. When it was full enough to float the hydrometer I popped it in and checked it.
If you’ve never read a hydrometer before, there’s a trick to it: don’t look at the wine where it meets the hydrometer. Surface tension will pull it up the glass tube and give a false reading. Instead, look across the surface of the juice and draw an imaginary line from that surface across the hydrometer markings. In this case it was a solid reading at 1.090–perfect.
Next up, time to pitch the yeast. There’s a lot of information out there about rehydrating yeast and stirring it in and suchlike. For the Master Vintner wine kit, follow the instructions and just rip the package open and pour the yeast onto the surface of the juice.
And that’s it for day one. The only thing left to do is to wait 8 days for the next step.
Well, not quite. I had three more kits to make up!
I’ll update when it’s time to rack the wine from the LBM’s to the jugs. In the meantime they’re bubbling away merrily, making alcohol and smelling better every day. Yum!