Better Wine Through Hard Choices

Jack Keller’s 2/13/2010 entry called, “When to pull the plug” caught my eye. No, I haven’t developed a moribund fascination with euthanasia but I recently evaluated and discarded five batches of wine and mead. That was over eight gallons that I had high hopes for at one time, and it wasn’t easy to pour it down the drain. Why did I do it? It’s possible to give up too quickly or hang on too long, so it’s an important decision. Let’s look at what Mr Keller has to say about it:

I only pull the plug when a batch has undeniably gone south for eternity. That means a spoilage bacteria has crossed the Rubicon before I knew it existed

I can’t link to this particular post, so you’ll have to click through and search by date and/or title. Like most of his writing, it’s well worth reading the whole thing. Jack is an exceptional winemaker, and this rule might work really well for him. I came to a different conclusion, however, and I think most home winemakers should approach it as a cost-benefit trade off.

Benefit of saving wine

Some problems can be fixed for less time, trouble, and money than starting a new batch. That’s the strongest, most straightforward argument for trying to save a troubled batch. Moving a carboy from the cold basement to a warmer spot upstairs might be all it takes to get a stuck fermentation going again. Some infections can be nipped in the bud by gently floating off a telltale film from the surface, then immediately racking with a higher-than-normal dose of sulfite. If a batch can be saved by simple steps like these, why wouldn’t you? But there’s a gray area in between these easy fixes and the total losses that Jack talks about. The right choice there isn’t obvious, and depends on the specific problem and you own knowledge and resources.

Cost of trying too hard

Some wine and mead will not turn out well enough to justify the work of trying to save them. Every carboy, jug or bottle takes up space. I don’t know about you, but I’m not suffering from too much room for my hobby. Is your back getting stronger and better with age? How about cleaning – is that starting to grow on you? Me neither. We’ll drink better wine with less effort if we can identify and discard the batches that aren’t going to be worth it.

How to balance benefit and cost when evaluating your own wine? Here’s how I did it:

Hard choices and good decisions

I had been keeping an eye on those five batches because I had reasons to think each one might succumb to infection, oxidation, or some other fault. But when I decided to pour them down the drain, it wasn’t for any of the reasons I had been worrying about – I succeeded in saving all five batches. The problem was the taste. None of them tasted bad, or off, or unbalanced. They just didn’t excite me. I forced myself to think about how they stacked up against good budget wine that I’m familiar with. Given the choice, would I rather have a glass of the apple mead or Welch’s wine? The blueberry wine or Fetzer Cabernet? I make my own wine because I enjoy doing it and because I want something different (in a good way) from, or better than, what’s available commercially. I reluctantly decided that these five just didn’t make the cut.

What makes this decision so hard is that you have to make it with incomplete information. Keep good notes so that you know as much about the wine as possible, evaluate the wine as thoroughly as you can (including taste, smell, and visual inspection), then make the call. Take more notes on what you decided and why – like every other aspect of making your own wine, you’ll get better at it.



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One thought on “Better Wine Through Hard Choices

  1. John H.

    Erroll,
    You and Jack Keller are the two most important influences on my own love for wine making. I’m sure you already know that. I practically hang on every word you both have to say about the subject. This article is no exception. I find it excruciating to throw away a batch of wine I’ve spent months pampering. When my watermelon wine got some kind of bacterial spoilage last year I turned to Jack, asking him his (expert) opinion about what I should do and what my options were. He told me something I won’t forget for a long time: When he starts a batch of watermelon wine – or a wine with watermelon in it – he does so with the EXPECTATION that it will spoil and he’ll have to throw it out! My shock at that revelation was intense. I’d never want to start a batch with the THOUGHT of perhaps throwing it out let alone the expectation that I will have to, but his attitude was that this approach makes it all the more rewarding when a batch makes it all the way to bottling without any problems. I completely get that, the necessity to cut one’s losses in spite of the effort already put into a batch.

    If I had difficulty throwing out one gallon of wine, I can only imagine your dilemma with eight. I drank all of my vanilla mead last year despite it not being in my top 50 best-tasting commercial wines, so a wine would have to taste just terrible for me to come to the place where I’d toss it solely on that criteria, but I don’t discount the possibility.

    Kudos, Erroll! Keep your highly useful and very interesting perspective on home wine making coming as you have been.

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