How to make Wine at Home

Disclaimer The last time I checked it is perfectly legal for an individual in the USA to make up to 40 gallons of wine each year for personal use, or up to 200 gallons per year per family. As of 1973, it was necessary to fill out an IRS form 1573 as a formality, but I don't know if it is still necessary.


It is widely believed that winemaking predates recorded history, and perhaps Homo Sapiens himself. There are documented examples where primates and other mammals will seek out fermenting fruit of all kinds in search of the same pleasant buzz I am enjoying as a result of sipping some wine I made over 10 years ago. While I do not advocate Alcoholism, a little wine every once in a while improves the flavor of a good meal, helps take the edge off a long hard day at the office, and can act as a lubricant in awkward social situations. Sadly, this is the next to last bottle I have of this excellent red wine I made with some grapes I purchased from a small vineyard back in 1991. Time to make some more!

In its crudest form, wine can be made by crushing just about any type of fruit, innoculating the crushed fruit with yeast, and keeping air away from the mixture while it undergoes fermentation. Grapes are the most popular choice for making wine, the fruit has a high sugar content, and there are naturally occuring yeasts on the skins of the grapes. However, unless the fermentation is at least reasonably carefully controlled, there is a good chance the wine will spoil and turn into vinegar.

Things you can make Wine from

Grapes, of course
Peaches, but peach wines tend to be cloudy
Apples (can you say hard cider)
Fruit Juice concentrates
Tubers and Roots
Other locally available sugary fruits

Whatever you make your wine out of the raw materials should be of good quality and picked at the peak of ripeness. Wine made from roots and tubers such as potatoes benefits from some aging in the root cellar but should show no signs of rot.

For the purposes of this writeup, let us assume that you are going to make wine out of fruit of some kind for your first few batches.

A Quick Overview of the Winemaking Process

Preparation of the Must

Regardless of whether the wine is made in a paper cup underneath a prisoner's bed, or made by the railcar load at the Gallo Winery, the principle is mostly the same. Yeast is added to a water-based solution of sugar-bearing fruits, juices, or cereals called a must. The yeast multiplies and converts the sugars to Ethanol, and Carbon Dioxide until either the sugar supply is exhausted, or the alcohol concentration rises so high that the yeast ceases to be active or dies off. This is usually around 14% alcohol by volume, but certain varieties of yeast can continue to work up to alcohol concentrations of 19%. Most raw musts of common winemaking materials don't contain enough sugar to reach this level, so extra sugar is added to reach the desired alcohol level. Adding additional sugar and water is one way to stretch how much wine can be made from a limited amount of fruit, but of course the wine will have less flavor when it is done.

While the prisoner making his clandestine hooch might be more interested in quick results with minimum fuss than exquisite character, a little more effort and care in preparation of the must will ensure a tasty end result.

Steps in Preparing the Must

Inspection of the fruit or other raw material

The grapes or other materials that the wine will be made from are inspected for defects, and rotten or unripened fruits removed. Excessive stems are removed as well, since the tannin they contain will make the wine bitter and take a long time to age. A little tannin is beneficial, but too much is a bad thing.

Processing the Must

After the raw materials are inspected, the must is processed. In traditional winemaking, the grapes are placed in a large tub, and then everyone takes off their shoes and stomps around until all of the skins are broken. If you are so inclined, be my guest and fill the bathtub with grapes and go to town! For smaller quantities, a polyethylene bucket and a potato masher will do just fine. For fist-sized fruits such as apples, peaches, pears, etc. it is probably best to cut the fruit up first. Next step is to correct the sugar content of the must. This is done by using a hydrometer, which measures specific gravity of the must, which is a good analogue of its sugar content, and the amount of alcohol that the final wine will have.

Table of Specific Gravity versus Alcohol Content

Specific Gravity ....... Alcohol %
1.00 ........................... 0%
1.04 ........................... 5%
1.08 ........................... 9.8%
1.11 ........................... 12%(dry wine)
1.12 ........................... 14%(medium wine)
1.14 ........................... 16%(sweet wine)
1.17 ........................... 19%(knock ya on your a**)

Hydrometers are not very expensive, prepare to spend 10 or 20 dollars on one

Innoculating the must with yeast

Once the must is corrected to the correct sugar content, it is time to innoculate the must with the desired strain of yeast. Many fruits have native strains of yeast on them already, and a must processed to this point may very well ferment spontaneously. However you take a chance that the native strains of yeasts will give the wine an undesirable character, or there is not enough yeast on the fruit skins to get the wine off to a good start. Granny (god rest her soul) used to just let the grapes do what came naturally, or she used brewers yeast, but on the other hand, sometimes her wine went bad.

A winemaking shop will have several varieties, with slightly different characteristics, but a common one is Montrachet, which is a good general purpose yeast. Before adding the prepared yeast to the mix, any native yeasts in the must need to be killed off. The most common way to do this is with potassium metabisulfate tablets, commonly known to winemakers as campden tablets. These tablets create sulfur dioxide gas when dissolved in water, which kills off yeast. It does have the side effect of adding sulphates to the wine, which some people are allergic to. If you or any of your family and friends have an allergy to sulphates and will want to be drinking the wine, or for another reason you do not wish to have sulphates in your wine you have two choices: First is to simply add a large, well established yeast culture to the must, let nature take its course, and hope for the best, to pasteurize the must by pouring boiling water over the uncrushed grapes, or heating the must to a temperature high enough (70oC) to kill any native strains of yeast. Heating the must should be considered a last resort, since it has a tendency to change the flavor. Before adding the desired strain of yeast to the wine, the must should not be more than about 25oC.

Primary Fermentation

White Wines Versus Red Wines

Red wines usually go to primary fermentation with all parts of the crushed grapes,including the skins, pulp and seeds kept together throughout primary fermentation. White wines, on the other hand are made by crushing the grapes, sterilizing the must, then pressing the juice out before starting fermentation. The idea is to avoid imparting the color provided by the skins to a white wine. The juice can be pressed immediately after crushing, but it is usually better to wait about a day before pressing the juice out of the white must.

Handling the Must

Once the yeast is added to the must, primary fermentation commences in earnest within a couple of hours. For home winemakers producing a few gallons of wine, a covered polyethylene bucket, plastic trash can, or one of those polyethylene storage containers you can get at Wal-Mart or Home Depot for a few bucks serve as ideal primary fermentation vessels. Avoid containers that have a plasticky odor to them. Clear polyethylene or polypropylene is probably pretty safe, food-grade plastic containers or stainless steel are your best bets. Set aside a quiet, out of the way part of the house, garage, or basement where the fermenting must can bubble away without getting knocked over by kids or pets, or be subject to temperature extremes. During the temperate days of late summer or early fall, even an open carport or porch will suffice, but winemaking activities will attract yellow jackets and fruit flies to the party. Later on, they will return with their friends and relatives, and spoil some of the fun. The disruption can be kept to a minimum by making sure the initial mess is cleaned up well, and primary fermentation containers have lids that fit tightly enough to keep the bees out of the must. Allow plenty of room for expansion of the frothy cap of the must, which consists of carbon dioxide trapped in the skins of the fruit. Red wines will inflate the cap of skins and expand, but white wines will produce a frothy caps as well, even though you are essentially fermenting just the juice. A good rule of thumb is to only fill the container about 2/3 full. Primary fermentation takes about a week, and you should check on it a couple of times a day to check on its progress. Keep the container covered, but not so tightly sealed that pressure builds up inside the container. The top you get with one of the storage containers, trash cans, or buckets should work fine. You should knock down the foamy cap and stir the must a couple of times a day as well to mix things up.

Racking and Secondary Fermentation

After a week or so, the virgorous fermentation of the first few days will have slowed to a more leisurely pace, and it is time to do the first racking of the wine. Simply put, racking is separating the liquid part of the fermenting must into a more appropriate container for secondary fermentation. Obtain a suitable container for secondary fermentation. For 5 gallon (20 liter) quantities of wine, the best container available is one of those 5 gallon carboys used for bottled water coolers. The old-fashioned glass carboys are the best, their smooth sides allow sediments to fall to the bottom of the jug. The plastic carboys inexpensively available today work as well, but the ribbing on their sides tends to trap sediments, which work their way back into the wine when the carboy is drained or disturbed. These can be brought from a water company or at Wal-Mart for a few dollars each. Another excellent aging and settling container is a stainless steel beer keg. Beer kegs come in 7.5 and 15 gallon sizes in the USA, but finding them can be a challenge. I brought a dirty and dented, but usable pony keg at a junkyard for a few bucks, and saw a couple of full-sized kegs there as well. An alternative is to save up your gallon milk jugs, but they are a little thin for long term storage during aging. Unless you are on a really tight budget either spring for the carboys, or find some of those gallon glass bottles that apple juice used to come in. The empties from the 4 liter jugs of such fine wines as Gallo Paisano also work well, from both a functional and aesthetic perspective. Wine should fill the secondary fermetation container to the bottom of the neck of the carboy or jug. If you have excess to fill a carboy, use the smaller containers to contain the excess. If you come up a little short on filling a carboy, either add some sugar solution or juice concentrate to make up the difference. Too much airspace in a secondary fermentation or aging container is a bad thing. Obtain some 1/4 inch polyethylene tubing, a rigid plastic J shaped tube that will fit on your tubing, and a pinch clamp for the tubing. Siphon the liquid portion of the must into your carboys or jugs. It will probably clog due to sediment unless you rig some type of a "J" shaped pickup tube to keep the intake off of the very bottom of the container.

Hydrogen Sulfide

One fairly common problem that aften rears its smelly head at the end of primary fermentation is hydrogen sulfide, which is a gas produced as a byproduct of fermentation. Hydrogen Sulfide smells like rotten eggs, and will stay dissolved in the wine and combine with other chemicals present to form mercaptans, disulfides, and other nasty tasting stuff. Some combinations of wine yeasts and grapes or other fruit are prone to producing excessive quantities of H2S. If the problem is dealt with early, you can still save the wine, but you need to act quickly. Just aereating the wine when you rack it helps, allowing the H2S to dissapate. If a couple aereating rackings does not help, allowing the wine to come into pure copper metal will cause the dissolved Hydrogen Sulfide to form Copper Sulfide, a solid which will sink to the bottom of the container, and left behind when the wine is racked. Adding very small quantities of copper Sulfate accomplishes the same thing, but adding the appropriate amount is tricky. Detailed instructions on dealing with this problem are beyond the scope of this node, but there are plenty of resources on the web that can help as well.

What to do with the Pulp

Once all of the free running juice is siphoned out of the must, you will still have a substantial amount of juice in the pulpy part of the must that remains. You can do two things with it. First is to add a few more gallons of sugar water to the pulp and make more wine, which is called a second run. Simply add the appropriate quantity of sugar water to the must, adjusting the specific gravity of the second run wine for the desired result the same way you did above by adding water or sugar to the must to correct any deviations. Of course this wine won't be as flavorful as the first, but heck, it is wine for nearly free, and will be fine for cooking or everyday use, while you serve the "good stuff" on special occasions. The second thing you can do with the pulp is to squeeze the pulp and force the juice out with a press similar to a cider press, or lacking that, take a pair of old pantyhose (laundered of course), shovel in the pulp and start squeezing. Be forwarned, this is the messiest part of winemaking, so do it outside, in the garage or whatever and wear old clothes. Wine stains can be hard to remove without bleach. Add the squeezed juice to the free-run juice, if there is room left in your containers.


Once the carboys or jugs are filled it is necessary to prevent air from entering the jug, while letting pressure from the fermenting wine escape. Like most things, there is an elegant way to do this, or a cheap way to do this, but both methods work about equally well. The elegant way to keep air out of your secondary fermentation vessel is to buy an airlock, which is a device usually employing a water lock which allows pressure to escape while keeping air from filtering into the container. Plastic airlocks are only a couple of bucks each, the blown glass ones are elegant, but pricey. The cheapest way to keep the air out is to cut a piece of plastic wrap about 2 inches larger than the opening on your container, and secure it in place with a rubber band. The rubber band will allow pressure to escape by expanding under pressure. My grandmother used to stick a corncob in the top of her gallon jugs to keep the air out. After the airlock is in place, set the containers in a cool (but not cold) place away from bright light and let it set for about a month. Visit it every couple of days to see how it is doing.

Second Racking and Aging

After the wine has had a chance for secondary fermentation to finish up and no more bubbles can be seen rising to the top of the juice or bubbling through the airlock, which will be after a month or so, it is time to rack the wine a second time, to separate it from the sediments that fall to the bottom, mostly dead yeast. Use your polyethylene tubing with the J shaped pickup to siphon the newly made wine into its aging container, which can be another carboy. If you are making ten gallons or more, you can get by with one extra carboy, just clean out the carboy you used for secondary fermentation and use it for aging the wine. Plan ahead, and make sure the secondary fermentation containers are high enough off the ground to start a siphon into the transfer container at least a few days before starting the second rack. Starting the siphon with your mouth is a good excuse to sample your new wine. Expect it to still be somewhat cloudy, and have a brash but yeasty character to it. Nonetheless, it will taste like wine, give you a buzz and you should get at least an idea about its character. Traditionally, many wineries age their wine in oak barrels, which are a bit expensive for the home winemaker. An alternative to the oak barrel is to add some oak chips to the aging container to impart some of the same flavor. After the wine is racked and the airlocks are in place, put the containers of aging wine back into a cool dark place, and try to avoid the temptation to drink the wine for at least another six months. Patience, my friend!



After the wine has been sitting for at least six months, it is time to think about bottling it. The wine can sit happliy in the carboys for years, so don't be in a big hurry to bottle it. Buy some new wine bottles, or start collecting old wine bottles, and obtain a supply of corks from your winemaking shop. You will also need a corker, which is a device that compresses the cork's diameter while pushing it into the bottle. As bottling day approaches, clean the old wine bottles using a weak solution of bleach or campden solution. . If there are deposits inside the bottle, use a chain or a slurry or coarse sand or fine gravel and your cleaning solution, shaking it around to remove the deposits. Rinse the bottles thoroughly, and let them make sure they can dry out inside. About a week before you bottle, make sure all preparations are in place. Make sure the jugs or carboys are positioned so you can start the siphon. Make sure you have enough bottles and corks, and make sure you have your corker and siphoning paraphenalia available. If you need to move your wine jugs, try not to disturb them too much as you move them. You don't want to stir up any more sediment than you have to! Now is a good time to withdraw about a glass or two of the wine to savor its flavor, and evaluate its clarity

What to do if your wine is still cloudy

If the wine is still cloudy, you can either live with its cloudiness, knowing that over time most of the remaining sediments will find their way to the bottom of the bottle, or use a fining agent to remove the sediments from suspension. How this works has to do with electrostatic charge and other aspects of colloid chemistry, but in practical terms it means adding an agent to the wine which binds to the particles and lets them fall to the bottom. There are several common materials used as fining agents. The most common ones are bentonite, which is a type of clay, egg whites, and unflavored gelatin, often used in combination with tannin. Dry Bentonite should be mixed into a cup of warm water before being added to the wine. One tablespoon of Bentonite should suffice for a 5 gallon batch, or use about 2-4 grams per gallon. A half of a beaten egg white should be mixed into 5 gallons of wine, after being mixed with a small quantity of the wine prior to beating.

Bottling Day

For each 5 gallons of wine you wish to bottle, you will need 20 standard wine bottles (750ml size), or 10 Magnum (1.5 liter size), or whatever combination makes up 5 gallons (19 liters). You will also need an appropriate number of corks of the right size for the bottles. Have a few extra corks in case of problems. Make sure all of your other paraphenalia is ready, and place your corks in a pan of boiling water. This sterilizes the corks, and softens them up so the are more easily inserted into the bottles. Get your siphon started and start filling the bottles. A pinch clamp is handy to have on your siphon tube to prevent spillage. If you have help, you can set up an assembly line with one person handling the empties, one person filling, and another person doing the corking. When the level gets very low in the jug, you may start to see sediment in the wine flowing. The remaining wine in the jug is not really drinkable, so siphon it into a separate bottle, and it can be used for cooking. After a few days, you can seal the corked bottles by dipping the ends in parrafin wax.


Once the bottles are corked and sealed, they should be stored on their sides, to keep the corks moist and expanded.

September 19, 2004:

With my recent move a memory now, I have taken the plunge back into winemaking. I have plans to plant a small vineyard, but in the meantime I have found a local shop around Baltimore which sells wine grapes this time of year. I have purchased about 70-75 pounds (33-35 kg) or 2 boxes of grapes. One of the boxes is Zinfandel, and the other is Barbera. My Hydrometer came up MIA after the move, but I decided to take a look over at the old house, and there it was, along with some covers I needed for my must containers. I need to get some more sugar for the wine though.

Update 9/22/2006
Over the last couple of years I have gotten a bit more experience making wine. In 2005 I made a very good Chardonnay, and also various blends of Ruby Cabernet and Cabernet Sauvignon. I have also started this year's batches of Barbera and Seyval, which is a French Hybrid Grape I purchased locally. I will have to wait another year before my own grapes are ready, but the vines are growing well. I am also been sampling some of the local wines and talking to other local winemakers to decide what I should plant when I expand my vineyard next year. Cheers!


Most of the specific information I presented in this writeup, and my guide in my own winemaking efforts was presented in the book "The Illustrated Winemaking Book" by Ralph Auf der Heide. Copyright 1973. Another excellent reference on grape growing and winemaking is the book "From Vines to Wines" by Jeff Cox. More information can be found on the internet from a number of other sources.