Making Mistakes And Learning The Right Lessons

As a wine (and mead, maybe cider, sometimes beer) maker, I’m always learning. It can be exciting to uncover the details of an unfamiliar yeast strain or the chemical composition of fruit, but as one of my wine making friends reminded me, sometimes the most important lessons – the ones that can have the biggest impact on your wine – are the mundane ones. Like pay attention, get organized, and plan ahead.

I’ll never forget my first mistake

I don’t know how he’d feel about me relaying his story of how he lost 5 gallons of promising wine, but fortunately (?) I’ve made plenty of my own mistakes. My very first wine got off to an exciting start, and I checked in on it hourly. I worried and doted over every step. Did I add just the right amount of tannin? The right kind? How about acid? Should I have used a different yeast? It’s been hours since I pitched the yeast – how come it’s not fermenting yet?!?! I needn’t have worried about any of that and not just because it was destined to come crashing down – literally – and spread out over the floor as it flowed over and around the shards of broken glass.

I was laser-focused on some important details

Nope. None of the those things mattered one bit. And I now know they wouldn’t have mattered even if I had been paying attention to my entire setup during the First Racking. It wasn’t just the first time that particular wine would be racked (siphoned from one container into another) it was the first time I had ever siphoned anything. So it was a big deal and I was determined to Do It Right. That meant no splashing. The whole point of siphoning is to transfer the wine without incorporating oxygen into it, so I was very intent on the end of the siphon hose – getting it into the receiving vessel quickly and smoothly, getting (and keeping) it submerged as quickly as possible, and keeping the vessel stable to it didn’t agitate the wine. I wasn’t wrong about any of that, and I did them all pretty well. I just left out a thing or two that proved to be important.

But overlooked one or two others

Like making sure the siphon hose was long enough for the height of my counter and the size of the 1-gallon jugs I was using. And keeping in mind that tugging on the (slightly too short) hose to get it and keep it submerged didn’t just reduce splashing but also pulled on the jug of fermenting wine sitting on the edge of the counter just above me. And that just because it didn’t fall right away didn’t mean that, as the racking progressed, the constant tug of the siphon hose wouldn’t overcome the (steadily falling) weight of fermenting wine holding the jug in place.

Everyone makes mistakes

It would have been helpful to learn all of those things a litter earlier than I did – yeah, that would have been great. Instead the 1-gallon jug with about half a gallon of fermenting wine came down with a … well I don’t remember exactly what it sounded like. I just remember being snapped out of whatever I was thinking about, which was probably how great the siphoning was going (no splashing here!), to find myself barefoot, wearing shorts, and sitting cross legged on my kitchen floor surrounded by shards of glass (from really big to really small and everything in between) and about half a gallon of fermenting wine spreading out over the floor.

The trick is to learn the right lessons

That was, um, discouraging. But I survived (I don’t know how, but literally without a scratch) to make wine another day. The remarkable thing is that I’m still learning from that all these years later. Yes, I make sure about the length of my siphon hose and that jugs and carboys are secure as I siphon from them. But today I realized the most important lesson is to develop an efficient and reliable procedure for each step in your wine making. Things like racking, bottling, testing, making up a must should all have a tried and true checklist – literally a written list of every item you will need and every step you will take. No more discovering at the last minute that the racking cane’s foot didn’t get sanitized or that you don’t have enough containers of the right size for all the wine your’re going to rack, or … anything. Each of these processes are simple enough that we ought to be able to do them the same way each time. No surprises, no mistakes, so the excitement in homemade wine can come from how it tastes.

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