Category Archives: maintenance & cleaning

What’s Wrong With My Portuguese Floor Corker?

I don’t remember when I bought my Portuguese floor corker, or even what it was like to cork bottles with my old double lever corker. Except that it was like air travel going from propellers to jet engines. Now my jet engine is making funny noises and doesn’t run as smoothly as it did when it was new. I used to (not) notice the smooth quiet action of the lever as I pulled it down, but now I the creaking sounds are unmistakable. How do you maintain a floor corker anyway?

Maybe I should read the instructions. It did come with instructions, sort of. There was a sticker on the side labeled “Instructions” that read:

Pour le bon fonctionement de cette machine nous recommandons de:
– ne pas tramper les bouchons
– bouchage a sec
– lubrifier le piston et les articulations
– nettoyer la machine apres usage
Made in Portugal

Here’s what Google Translate has to say about it:

For the smooth operation of this machine we recommend:
– Do not tramp caps
– Capping a sec
– Lubricated the piston and the joints
– Cleaning the machine after use
Made in Portugal

That’s a translation from French; the Portuguese translation came back almost the same as the original, so I think the instructions are in French. Any idea why they tell us, in English, that the machine was made in Portugal and then go to the trouble of translating the – very terse – instructions into French? So from the creaking sound and from, ahem, carefully reading the instructions, I’ve decided I need to lubricate my Portuguese floor corker.

Far more helpful was this forum thread on WinePress. They may not be addressing the same problem I’m having (or even the same corker, but the Italian and Portuguese models are very similar) because they focus on the pivot pin. I notice the noise almost goes away when I take out the removable jaws, so I think that’s where my problem is. At least I hope so, I don’t see how to get at the pivot pin to lubricate it. If I am to lubricate the jaws, I’ll want to do it with a food grade lubricant. This is something I don’t know a lot about, so I’ll be off giving myself a crash course in lubricants. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any suggestions you might have.

My Dad’s Big Red Wine

My dad has been keeping this big old bottle of wine that none of us knows much about. According to the label it’s a 1978 red table wine from Piedmont, Italy. It also says, “Ribezzo Barbera D’Asti.” It’s a 12-liter bottle, and I was afraid the wine was past its prime. If so, it wasn’t getting any better and the thing to do was re-bottle it. Then we’d know what shape the wine was in and we’d have it in normal bottles to drink as we liked. The first thing I had to do was uncork it.

So how do you uncork a 12-liter wine bottle? A lever action corkscrew is no good because it’s too small for the cork to pass through. I tried a waiters corkscrew. It looked a little small in comparison, but I got it in as far as I could and started pulling. I thought it was working at first, as the cork seemed like it was coming out easily. I soon discovered that the 30-year old cork had split horizontally, so I pulled out the top half of the cork but the bottom half remained stubbornly in place.

Broken Cork

I was hoping to get the cork out whole and clean, but prepared to deal with cork or pieces of cork in the wine. I put plan B into action by gently pushing the cork down until it fell into the wine. So far, so good, but now we’re at the embarrassing part of the story. I began to siphon the wine into a bottling bucket, and all was going well. I made sure to keep the end of my racking cane off the bottom so as not to pick up sediment. As the wine level in the bottle went down, I lowered the racking cane until … it wouldn’t go down any more. That’s when I realized that this bottle was taller than my carboys and the racking cane wasn’t big enough to reach all the way to the bottom.

Too Small!

Lesson learned. Next time I have to deal with an unusual size, I’ll double check my equipment and make sure it fits the container. There I was with most of the wine in the bottling bucket, but no way to siphon the rest. I gritted my teeth and poured the remaining wine. From here on, it was pretty familiar. I moved the bottling bucket onto a counter, and filled 14 bottles while the Lady of the House corked them. Now we’ve got some tasting to do!

Update I took a photo of Big Red before re-bottling.

How To Remove Lables From Wine Bottles

Method #1: Soak and scrape

I know I’m not the only home winemaker who cleans and reuses commercial wine bottles, but the labels on these bottles are getting more stubborn every year. I like to use the “soak and scrape” method. The first step, immersing the bottles in water and Oxiclean, is part of my normal cleaning process. Sometimes the label comes right off, saving me the trouble, but if not it’s easier to scrape off after a good soak. In the second step, I get a good grip on the bottle so that it cant move, then I use a scraper (and ice scraper would work, but I actually use a plastic ruler) to remove the label.

Method #2: Buy wine with easily removed labels:

If you do this often enough, you’ll begin to notice that some labels always come off easily. On the other hand, some wineries act as if the fate of the planet depends on their labels not coming off for the next 10,000 years. I don’t want to single out Columbia Crest by name, but when I buy their wine, I do so knowing that I won’t get a reusable bottle out of the deal. There was a time when I would switch from ruler to ice scraper, from ice scraper to razor blade, and from razor blade to steel wool to get every last label off of every last bottle. These days, some wine bottles end up in the recycle bin again. I also buy Charles Shaw, yep that’s Trader Joe’s “Three Buck Chuck”, more often. Ok, nobody is going to gush about the complexity or refinement of the wine, but it’s not half bad and the labels come right off after a good soak!

The Other Kind Of Hangover

A few months ago, I described an easy way to clean a large fermenter, and concluded that, “It takes very little time and effort on your part, leaving you free to make more wine!” I wasn’t wrong about that, but there is a little snag lurking in that happy and optimistic statement: you have to actually take the time and make the effort or it won’t get done. It’s a problem I hinted at in my article on washing bottles, when I talked about setting bottles aside “until I can wash them.”

Sad but true: They won’t clean themselves

It turns out that a lot of things get set aside for a not-quite-as-brief-as-I’d-hoped interval. I know you bachelors out there are confused, “Just do that later, we’ve got wine to make!” you’re thinking. I know because that’s what I thought. But, stay with me for a minute, what happens when the things you need to make wine with need cleaning? What happens when other things, that you may not need right now, form a physical barrier in your wine making room? Right now there’s a 5-gallon bucket filled with water sitting in my utility sink. The place I’d move it to, next to the sink, is occupied by more buckets that need cleaning. The other side of the sink? One-gallon jugs that need to be cleaned. Some of you may have realized where I’m going with this. Sometimes you’ve got to do the cleaning today so you can make wine later.

Calibrating A pH Meter: Maybe The New Buffer Solution Will Do

I racked and measured four batches the other day, and it gave me the opportunity to size up my new buffer solution. I recorded TA values for three of those batches while I was still using my old buffer solution to calibrate my pH meter, and they shouldn’t have changed much. Here are the data:

Name Old Buffer New Buffer
Rhubarb Wine 4/22/07: 6 g/L 11/10/07: 7 g/L
Oregano Wine 8/12/07: 6 g/L 11/10/07: 5.5 g/L
Grocery Store Chablis 8/23/07: 7 g/L 11/10/07: 6 g/L

The old and new measurements are all within 1 g/L. Since I’m measuring my liquid volumes with the plastic syringe that came with my cheap acid test kit, not pipettes or burettes, I don’t think I can claim accuracy better than 1 g/L. So I’m not going to say the new buffer is great, but any error its causing is pretty small.

Calibrating A pH Meter: Buffer Solution

What is a buffer solution?

You need to calibrate your pH meter for it to work properly, but to do that, you need to immerse it in a solution of known pH. Buffer solutions are the way out of that little chicken and egg problem. These are made of precisely measured ingredients that combine to form a solution of known, and highly stable, pH. It would be pretty tough for most home winemakers to make their own buffer solution, so it’s a good thing that they’re widely available at homebrew shops.

Not all buffers are created equal

I was out of pH 4 buffer, and bought some more from a local shop. The first difference I noticed, between the new and old solutions, was the color – the new one was pink and the old one was colorless. There were two other differences, though, that were more significant. Each solution came with a temperature table that indicated the precise pH, to two decimal places, at a given temperature. The old solution listed the pH from 0C to 95C in 5 degree increments, and over that wide range the pH varied from 4.00 to 4.22. The new solution listed the pH at 20C (pH = 4.02) and 30C (pH = 4.99). The detail and temperature stability of the old solution gave me a lot of confidence. The new one is … pink.

How to shop for buffer solution

My pH meter had been pretty steady, often needing no adjustment at all between uses. When it had drifted, it was only by 0.02 or 0.03. So I was taken aback to see my pH meter read 3.74 when I first put it in the new solution. Maybe the meter drifted by that much since the last time I used it, but maybe the pH of these two “pH 4” buffers differed by 0.26. I was out of the old solution, so I couldn’t check this. The new solution is fresher, so it’s possible that the old one drifted over time, but I’ve got my doubts about the new one. Live and learn. The next time I buy buffer solution, and that’s going to be pretty soon, I’ll try to find out when it was made and how much detail is in the temperature table.

Update 5/13/2012 – Hanna buffers are my favorite

I’ve been calibrating my pH meter for five years now, and I’ve bought various brands of buffer solution. I keep going back to Hanna. I’m not a chemist, but the detailed temperature corrections and the small drift give me a sense that theirs is a cut above. They’re readily available at good prices too, so for whatever it’s worth this is what I buy.

How To Clean A Big Fermenter Without Scrubbing

What I hate about winemaking

Once I pressed the Merlot, it was time to watch airlocks bubble as the wine fermented out and then slowly cleared. It was also time to clean the fermenter. This is on the list, along with washing bottles, of my least favorite things about making wine. The best way to do this is to get someone else to do it, maybe a friend or loved one. This isn’t as easy as you might think, so sometimes we must take drastic action. Yes, there are times when we have to do it ourselves.

If you gotta do it, do it the easy way

So how do you clean a 24 gallon fermenter? It’s big enough that bending over, or tipping it on it’s side and crawling in, to scrub the inside and bottom will be hard on your back and knees. Besides, why scrub when you don’t have to? I like to rinse it with a garden hose right after I’m done with it, that way nothing has a chance to dry and harden on the surface. Next, I fill it with water and a detergent, I like to use Oxiclean. You’re not going to want to move it while it’s full, so make sure it’s in a good spot before you fill it. You’ll want it someplace where you can leave it for a long time, someplace where you can tip it on its side, to drain, without getting it dirty, and someplace near a garden hose. The garage, just inside the door to the driveway, works for me. I like to let it soak for several hours, often overnight. After soaking, I’ll drain it and rinse with the garden hose. After I’ve rinsed thoroughly and I think I’ve gotten every bit of detergent, I’ll fill it with clean water and let it sit for a while (again, several hours or even overnight). I want to make sure there isn’t a thin film of detergent on the bottom or on the sides. I drain it after that and turn it upside down to drip dry over my utility sink.

Not as bad as it seemed

As you can see, this process can take several days, but for most of that time, the fermenter is just soaking. It takes very little time and effort on your part, leaving you free to make more wine!

Calibrating A pH Meter

pH meter, in a champagne glass about a quarter full of 6.86 buffered solution, reads a pH of 6.17 at 31.4 Celsius.To work properly, a pH meter must be calibrated. You do this by preparing (or buying) buffered solutions of known pH and testing the meter against them. My meter uses a two point calibration. It works by immersing the meter in the first buffer solution (pH 6.86 in this case) then reading the pH and temperature values.

You turn a calibration screw until the meter shows the correct pH for the given temperature (the bottle of buffer solution has a table of temperature and pH values). The pH of the “6.86” buffer solution that I’m using is 6.85 at 30 Celsius, the closest temperature on the correction table to 31.4, so I turned the calibration screw to 6.85. That’s the first “point” of the two point calibration process. The second step is exactly the same but with a different buffer solution (ph 4).

I’ll use my new toy – um, important scientific instrument – along with my simple acid titration kit to analyze my oregano wine. Fermentation has been very slow and I’m afraid the pH of the wine has fallen so low that it’s inhibiting the yeast.

Bottle Washing Day

In an episode of MASH, Winchester complains that he’s the only one making an effort to keep the tent, that he shares with Hawkeye and Trapper-or-BJ (it’s been long enough that I get those two confused), tidy. The other two make messes, and he cleans them up. “It may not be a good system,” admits Trapper-or-BJ, “but at least it’s a system.” Marsha and I have grown into a similar system for bottle washing. I immediately rinse empty wine bottles and put them on the counter “until I can wash them.”

Empty bottles take up more and more counter space until Bottle Washing Day

Now, washing bottles isn’t my favorite part of winemaking, so that doesn’t happen right away. The bottles accumulate, Marsha eventually rebels at the loss of counter space (you bachelors out there might not be familiar with that term; I’m still trying to understand it myself), and I clean the bottles. Maybe not a good system …