Buying Wine Online

First the good news: you can buy wine on the internet from a variety of retailers and have it delivered to your door. This can mean access to wines that just aren’t available in local stores, and because these internet retailers post their prices, it means that comparison shopping is easier than before. Even if you end up buying at a local store, you can still get a better idea of the going rate for your favorite wine.

What’s the catch?

Shipping has got to be the biggest negative. Any liquid in a glass bottle is going to be heavy and breakable, so that will add to the cost. And in the US, each of the fifty states are doing their level best to make it as much of a hassle as possible – many different rules about who can ship what where. An adult signature is generally required, so someone of legal age must be home when the wine is delivered.

Do a lot of people buy wine online?

Not in the US. Online wine sales are only about 2% of the total here. But wine on the web is catching on in Europe where 8% to 10% of sales are over the internet – 15% in the UK.

But where can I buy wine online?

I don’t have direct experience with any particular retailer. But if (when) I buy wine online, these are the names I would start with:

These web retailers have a good selection, a track record, and they made about.com’s Online Wine Buying Guide. Except for my top pick. Amazon is new to selling wine and about.com doesn’t mention them, but I’ve been a satisfied customer for a long time – if they’re selling wine, I’ll probably buy!

Notes and Further Reading

These two articles go over the lay of the land in online wine sales.
Buying Wine on the Web is a New York Times piece that discusses the promise and limitations of the web as a marketplace for wine. Wine-Searcher’s Internet Wine Sales Top $5 Billion article is similar, but more analytical.

So here’s to bringing wine retailing in the 20th century – at least by the end of the 21st …



Plastic Carboys: A good alternative to glass

 I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Yes, sir.
Are you listening?
Yes, I am.
Plastics.

~ The Graduate, 1967

For a long time, glass carboys were the best choice – maybe the only good choice – to ferment and age our wine. Today we can buy PET carboys made for winemaking that are a good barrier to oxygen, don’t leech dangerous substances into our wine, or change the flavor. Should we? I think so. Here are the trade-offs, as I see them (and remember, I’m talking about Better Bottle and similar products specifically made for wine/beer making out of PET plastic – not water bottles or any other kind of plastic container).

Plastic carboys are lighter – glass is more rigid

One of the first things you’ll notice about them is that plastic carboys are lighter than glass. The next thing you’ll notice is that this is a bigger deal than you thought! You’ll notice later that they flex when you move them full, and this means they’ll pull air through the airlock (plus some of the water, sanitizer, or whatever you’ve filled your airlock with). They might also push some of your wine, beer, mead, or cider into the airlock. That’s when you’ll be missing the rigidity of glass. Or changing your mind about the special fitting and custom air lock being too expensive.

 Plastic carboys are cheaper

In comparing prices of 3-gallon carboys, I found I could get plastic ones for about $10 less than glass. You may need to buy new accessories, though, and that could narrow the price gap. I already had bungs that fit glass carboys, but I had to buy #10 stoppers for my new glass carboy. Also, these are available online at good prices, but the shipping costs are very high. So this is one of those items where you’ll be much better off buying from a local store.

Plastic carboys don’t shatter – Glass doesn’t scratch

The reason I bought a plastic carboy – and came to write this article – is that one of my old glass 3-gallon carboys broke. I was lucky, no injury or spilled wine, but these types of accidents can be messy and dangerous. The short drop onto a concrete floor that did in my glass carboy wouldn’t have hurt my new plastic one. Glass carboys, on the other hand, can withstand more aggressive cleaning. Like a scrubbing with a carboy brush that would scratch plastic ones or a long soak in a caustic cleaning soluiton. This is what I’m most worried about. I clean carboys by soaking in oxiclean, and I’m going to use lower concentrations for shorter periods of time on the plastic ones.

Neither is perfect, but plastic is better

I’d love some new material that combined the best of glass and plastic. A glasstic carboy would be rigid and easy to clean, but also lightweight and shatter-proof. Oh, it would cost less too! That’s not one of our choices, though, so I’ll go with plastic. Solving the “flexing and airlock breathing” problem and adjusting my cleaning methods seem like a small price to pay for a lighter, cheaper carboy that resists breakage.

Further Reading

BetterBottle has some great information about cleaning their carboys. I think it applies to other brands of PET carboys that are made for wine/beer making too. I wasn’t able to link directly, so first navigate to their technical information page, then choose “Wash/Sanitize” from the navbar on the left. Check out the whole site – lots of good info their.

Peter Kennedy is a homebrewer who tried plastic carboys after a glass one broke, but in the end he went back to glass. I think plastic is the way to go, but not everyone will. There are very few perfect options, just different sets of trade-offs. Read about his experience, then make up your own mind.



Making Ice Cream At Home

Hey! Isn’t this a winemaking blog?

I don’t know about you, but in my little corner of the world it’s been hot. And while all this heat has Western Washington grape growers looking forward to their best year in a long time, it has me forgetting all about making wine and trying to remember where my old ice cream maker is.

A little like winemaking

You can still buy the old style ice cream makers, even hand cranked ones, but the newer counter-top appliances are a better choice for most people. With those it really can be as simple as mixing four or five ingredients together, pouring it into the machine and turning it on. As with winemaking, there are more advanced recipes that require more work but promise richer ice cream. And for really great ice cream, you need to use really great ingredients like fresh cream, good fruit picked at peak ripeness and used right away. That sounds a bit like winemaking too, but as long as we’re talking about ice cream and winemaking, what about incorporating alcohol into our ice cream?

Not available at any price

It’s not just a tasty combination that makes this so tempting, it’s that you won’t find it on store shelves at all. So can we just add brandy to an ice cream recipe and pour it into our ice cream maker? Not quite. Alcohol freezes at a much lower temperature than water, so adding to ice cream is a bit like adding anti freeze. You’ll just end up with cold, slushy not-ice cream.

The trick is to stabilize the alcohol with gelatin. It’ll still be softer than ordinary ice cream, but it will be ice cream! You might try adding 1 packet of gelatin and 1-1.5 cups of beer/wine/spirits. But modifying ice cream recipes can be a double edged sword: you might make something much better than the original, but you might not. Problems can be as simple as the new larger volume might not fit in your ice cream maker. Or maybe the ice cream will not be sweet enough (because the amount of sugar is proportionally lower). Or not creamy enough (reduced proportion of milk fat). Or … that’s why it might be best to start with proven recipes. Jenise Addison and Valerie Lum have done the work for you in their Ice Cream Happy Hour: 50 Boozy Treats That You Spike and Freeze at Home. It includes 50 recipes, and is definitely worth a look. Chocolate Guinness ice cream, anyone?

Raspberry Wine: A look at existing recipes

I’ve written about commercial raspberry wine before. It’s usually made with 100% raspberries – not diluted with water at all, and that means big bold flavor and aroma. Residual sugar is very high, but balanced against very high acidity. These wines are Texas-sized in every respect. Home winemakers do it differently.

Made well, this wine is fragrant, subtle, dry, and goes with anything except heavy tomato and meat dishes. ~ Terry Garey

So how exactly do homemade raspberry wine recipes differ? Let’s find out. Here’s a look at some popular recipes that have stood the test of time.

Terry Garey’s “Furst Raspberry Wine”

Recipe for 1 gallon (3.785 liters) of Raspberry Wine
Ingredient US Measure Metric Measure
Water 3.75 quarts 3.6 liters
Sugar 2.25 lb 1 kg
Rasberries 3 – 4 lb 1.4 – 1.8 kg
Acid Blend 0.5 tsp 2.5 ml
Tannin 0.125 tsp 0.5 ml
Yeast Nutrient 1 tsp 5 ml
Campden Tablet 1 1
Pectic Enzyme 0.5 tsp 2.5 ml
Wine Yeast 1 packet 1 packet

Procedure

The raspberries can be fresh or frozen, the campden tablet is optional, and she recommends Montrachet or Champagne wine yeast.

  • Dissolve sugar in water, then boil
  • Put raspberries in a straining bag, then crush
  • Pour hot water over the berries, then add acid, tannin, & nutrient
  • Wait for the temperature to come down, then add the campden tablet
  • Wait 12 hours (if not using a campden tablet, just wait for the must to cool), then add the pectic enzyme
  • Take a hydrometer reading (SG), wait 12 hours, then add yeast
  • After fermentation begins, stir daily
  • After fermentation subsides (about a week), remove the straining bag with the fruit
  • Rack to a secondary fermenter when the SG drops below 1.030
  • Rack again when you notice sediment
  • Wait six months, sweeten if desired, then bottle

Thoughts

I’ve got a soft spot for Terry Garey. Her’s was my first winemaking book, and I still think it’s a great way to start. I’ve made her raspberry wine, and liked it. It’s great in the summer with shrimp & pasta salad!

She emphasizes quality fruit, “perfect, flavorful, fresh berries” and starting the wine as soon as possible after picking (hours or less). Her book is worth buying just for the recipes, but it’s more than that. It’s a terrific source for ideas on blending – she recommends cherry, blueberry, or blackberry to blend with raspberry, for example.

Jack Keller’s Raspberry Wine Recipes

Red raspberries make a fragrant, subtle wine. It should be made dry so that a subtle hint of tartness carries its distinctive flavor to the sides of the tongue as it is sipped, chilled. ~ Jack Keller

You really can’t look at raspberry wine recipes, or any wine making recipes, without looking at Jack Keller’s website. He presents two dry raspberry wine recipes here. These are made in the style of traditional country wines, in fact the first recipe was adapted from Terry Garey’s (great minds think alike!). No need to repeat that one, so let’s look at his second recipe:

Red Raspberry Wine #2
Ingredient US Measure Metric Measure
Water 7 2/3 pints 3.6 liters
Sugar 2.5 lb 1.1 kg
Rasberries 2.5 lb 1.1 kg
Acid Blend 1 tsp 5 ml
Tannin 0.25 tsp 1.25 ml
Yeast Nutrient 1 tsp 5 ml
Campden Tablet 1 1
Pectic Enzyme 0.5 tsp 2.5 ml
Wine Yeast 1 packet 1 packet
If there’s one thing I would do differently, it would be to defer the acid addition. Once the finished wine has aged for a bit, a few months maybe, measure the acidity and taste the wine. Then add acid as necessary.

More alike than different

A little less fruit. A little more sugar, acid, & tannin. The procedure is slightly different too (click through to see that details, plus some info on making a “second wine”). Garey’s recipe calls for a straining bag and warns against pressing the pulp, for example, while this one does not mention a straining bag and instructs you to press. Compared to commercial raspberry wine, though, these two recipes are nearly identical.

In fact there’s quite a consensus on how to make raspberry wine at home. I did an internet search and found quite a few recipes. I selected five of the highest ranked (I’m not sure what Google knows about making or drinking wine, but you work with what you have) and made a spreadsheet of the ingredients. Four of the five clustered together, with one outlier. I could probably make that spreadsheet into a composite recipe: “Meta Raspberry Wine” or “Internet Raspberry Wine”. It would look a lot like these two recipes, but what I’m interested in is why the divide between commercial and home winemakers? Each style is good and has it’s place – make both!

Blueberry Wine: High maintenance but worth it

Blueberry Wine: High maintenance but worth it

Ah blueberry wine! One minute its fermenting up a storm, then next it’s a lifeless half-finished must that wont get going again. What’s really frustrating isn’t just that the old tricks don’t work – move it to a warmer room, make a fresh starter, apologizing (even if you don’t know what for) and so on – but that there was nothing wrong. It’s not an uncommon story on winemaking forums, and it happened to me recently. So what is it about blueberry wine that causes so many stuck fermentations?

It’s not Kryptonite

Or sorbate. Or any other substance in blueberries that are toxic to yeast. If there were something in blueberries that inhibited yeast, then it would become harder to ferment as you increased the concentration of fruit. 6 lb/gallon would be more difficult to ferment than 3 lb/gallon, for example, and 100% blueberries would be the toughest of all. But my own experience, and that of the only commercial blueberry winemaker I’ve talked to, is that 100% blueberry wines are the easiest to ferment.

Another thing: if it were some toxin or inhibitor in the blueberries, then it would be hardest on the yeast early on – when it’s struggling to come out of dormancy and grow. But when my blueberry wines have stuck, it’s been after a vigorous start. The large established colony of yeast then sputters at around SG 1.020 – 1.040. The question is, what changes between the promising start and the all too common fizzling out?

I’m trying to create an easy blueberry wine recipe, like my Apple Wine From Store-Bought Juice, and ran into this problem. My hope is to solve this problem and create a reliable and easy way to make blueberry wine.

Win her heart with constant attention. And pH management.

The first time I had a blueberry wine stick on me, I got it going again by adding nutrient. So I began to think that blueberries were low in nutrients. You know, if adding X fixed the problem, then there must not have been enough X to begin with, right? Not so fast. I wasn’t measuring pH back then, but I’ve since noticed that pH drops to dangerous levels as blueberry wine ferments. I now believe that my nutrient addition raised the wine’s pH  and that – not the availability of nutrient per se – got the yeast going again. That means you can’t just adjust the pH and other parameters at the beginning and think you’re done. You need to ensure that the pH stays optimal all the way through your fermentation.

Trouble-free blueberry wine: two ideas

I haven’t got this licked yet, but I have two things I want to try. Since there’s something about blueberry wine that’s causing stuck fermentation, blending with something else ought to help. And if I’m right about it being a problem of too-low pH, then blending with something else that tends toward high pH would help even more. Cherry wine is the obvious choice here because it settles at a high pH even when the titratable acidity is high. Like blueberry juice, cherry juice is readily available in grocery stores – it would fit right in with the easy recipe from juice that I’m trying to create.

The other idea is to keep this a 100% blueberry wine, but to attack the pH problem directly. What I want here is something I can add to buffer the fermenting wine at a higher pH. Sodium citrate or potassium citrate might do the trick. They are salts of citric acid, which is the dominant acid in blueberries, and are used as flavorings and buffering agents in the food industry.

Maybe one of these will do the trick. Maybe something else, but I feel like I’m getting close.

About the photo

It wasn’t just the color cast that made me think of blueberry wine. There’s something about the photo, from the exposure to the model’s pose and expression, that’s enticing but just out of reach. Blueberry wine can be like that. Herman Layos did a great job with this photo, and I really appreciate him making it available under a Creative Commons license – thanks Herman!

Notes

^BackNitrogen Fertilizers ~ Penn State Extension: this is an in depth look at using nitrogen in agriculture. What got my winemaking antenna quivering was this quote:

Anhydrous ammonia, urea, diammonium phosphate, and nitrogen solutions, when first applied, greatly but temporarily increase soil pH

I think the same thing can happen when we add DAP, or other nutrients, to our wine musts.

A New Look

Washington Winemaker has a new look! This is the biggest design change since going mobile, and it’s aimed at easy reading on the many flavors of tablet plus modern large desktops.

Mobile support is better too, with a custom search box to help you find exactly what you’re looking for on this site.

I hope I smoothed out all the rough edges, but if something broke during the upgrade please let me know. And if you like it as much as I, I’d love to hear that too!

Sweetening Wine With Splenda

Every time I’m asked about sweetening wine, I always say the same thing:

  • Ferment to dryness
  • stabilize with sulfite and sorbate
  • add a boiled-then-cooled sugar syrup to your desired level of sweetness

and I keep saying it because it works great: you have a lot of control and the risks (of infection or renewed fermentation) are low. But sometimes this approach doesn’t work well, like when you want a sweet bottle conditioned cider. In that case a sweetener that yeast can’t ferment, like Splenda, is just the thing. You can also use it to sweeten an ordinary still wine without having to stabilize it. To use a non-fermentable sweetener like Splenda, you first have think about how sweet to make your wine in terms of ordinary sugar.

Decide how sweet you want it

There are two approaches to deciding how much to sweeten your wine: you can “sweeten to taste” or you can use your knowledge and experience to set a specific goal (eg with this style of wine and so much acidity, I want that much residual sugar).

The “to taste” approach might be the way to go if you’re on unfamiliar ground. Maybe you’ve never made a mead before and you’re having trouble getting specific guidance on how much sugar (or honey, or something else) to add. You might take several samples and sweeten them by different amounts, let them rest for a month or so, then compare them. Or you might start sweetening the entire batch by some amount (10 g/L, say) letting it rest then tasting it. Up the amount by a little more (5 g/L maybe) and repeat until you get it just the way you like it.

If, on the other hand, you’re making a style of wine that has been thoroughly researched, you might have a concrete goal in mind.

Either way, you’ll come to some specific sugar concentration – for a series of bench trials, for the starting point in a longer iterative process, or because you have determined the final residual sugar that you want. Once you have that sugar concentration, that amount of sugar for whatever volume of wine you’re dealing with, you can use it to determine how much Splenda you need.

Granulated Splenda, 1.2 lb Bag, Sweetens like 10 lb of sugar

Convert to an equivalent amount of Splenda

It’s not as straightforward as it should be to convert an amount of sugar to an amount of Splenda. First of all, the company does not provide weight to weight conversions (you know, so many grams of sugar to one gram of Splenda for the same sweetness). They do provide volume conversions. More than one, in fact. The “granulated Splenda” that comes in boxes and is meant for cooking is volume-equivalent to table sugar. So one cup of sugar would be about as sweet as one cup of granulated Splenda, but one cup of the Splenda that comes in packets, that you might use for coffee, would be much sweeter.

Since granulated Splenda is meant to be measured and converted from sugar, that’s what I’ll talk about in this article. If you’d rather use the packets, you’ll need to contact McNeil Nutritionals, which sells Splenda in the USA, and ask them how (it’s not on the package).

Since it’s meant to be substituted for an equal volume of sugar, that’s what we’ll do. You can refer to this page of sugar info to convert sugar amounts from weight to volume. Then measure out the same volume of granulated Splenda. Ok the tricky part is over, now we can take our measured amount of Splenda and sweeten our wine just as we would with sugar.

Make a syrup and add to the wine

The best way to add most things to your wine is by dissolving them and adding them as a solution. With sugar, or Splenda, that means making a syrup in exactly the same way you’d make a sugar syrup.

It makes sense to use sugar in ordinary situations because it’s cheaper and doesn’t require conversions. Sometimes you need a non-fermentable sweetener, though, and this is the right tool for the job.

Washington State Liberalizes Liquor Sales

Supermarkets and other retailers start selling liquor in Washington State today! The final legal obstacle was overcome yesterday when those who benefited from the old patronage system lost their appeal to the Washington Supreme Court.

Washington has been a “control state” for almost eighty years. So people could only buy liquor like vodka and whiskey at state-owned stores. And even though we could buy beer and wine at grocery stores, archaic rules prevented them from using modern retailing practices. Retailers weren’t allowed to manage their inventory in warehouses, for example, and producers weren’t allowed to offer quantity discounts. Both were forced to go through privileged distributors.

Most of that is gone now that voters approved, and the court upheld, Initiative 1183 – I’ll drink to that!

Barefoot Zin vs Ravenswood Vintners Reserve

The Zinfandel is my favorite of the Barefoot offerings, and The Lady of the house and I tasted it blind against Ravens Wood Vintners Blend 2008 Zinfandel.

Running the numbers

I measured the pH, titratable acidity, and specific gravity of these two wines and combined them with the reported alcohol content in the table below. As you can see, they’re very similar:

Measurement Barefoot Ravens Wood
Alcohol: 13.5% 13.5%
Specific Gravity: 0.994 0.994
pH: 3.4 3.5
Titratable Acidity: 5.5 6



I strongly encourage you to measure and record as much as you can about the commercial wines you drink. Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not a trained lab technician and getting more practice will improve our technique. Some wineries publish their own analysis, and you can compare your own results against theirs – that’s valuable feedback that you can’t get on your rhubarb wine!

Knowing how a wine analyzes out can help you when you’re tasting that wine. That’s because you can learn why a wine tastes the way it does (or two similar wines taste different). Write down your measurements and your tasting notes often enough and you’ll begin to see patterns. Were those full bodied reds you like finished sweet or dry? How about those bracing whites that were so good in the summer? How come one acidic white was an easy drinker but the other one was so harsh? You’ll accumulate a lot of data, it will be tailored to you own tastes, and you can use that in your own winemaking. So instead of adding the juice of half a lemon because someone in an online forum said so, you’ll learn how to consistently make wine the way you like it – start measuring and take notes!

Barefoot a better value

We both thought the Ravens Wood was more complex. I thought that made it lively and a slight favorite over the Barefoot. The Lady of the House thought barefoot had a bold taste without being harsh and was like, “one solid note.” The Ravens Wood was like an orchestra with potential that hadn’t practiced together. Even though I liked the Ravens Wood a little better, it costs about 80% more (using the best prices I’ve seen) and it’s not that much better.