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Cherry Wine Recipe: Bottled!

Sweet Cherry WineTwo years ago I set out to make wine from cherries the way you would make red wine from grapes. I bought 43 lb (19.5 kg) of Bing Cherries from Safeway, put them in a large picnic cooler, and crushed them the old fashioned way. Adjusting the sugar was a little tedious, but I was off to a great start. It turns out that the acidity of cherry wine is tough to get right, though, and in the end I sweetened it to balance tart tasting wine.

About the label

LouGarou is a talented photographer, and he was kind enough to let me use his photo in my wine label. He’s taken many exceptional shots, but the warm tones in this one made it just the thing for my label – thanks Lou!

I labeled it “Sweet Cherry,” and included alcohol content, TA, pH, and final gravity. Instead of a vintage (not too many people are going to be raving about “Safeway’s 2007 Bing Cherries”) I put a date range. The first date is the day I started and the end date is the day I bottled. You’ll know how long it bulk aged, how long it’s had in the bottle, and yes, when the cherries were grown – that date range says a lot without saying a lot.

How does the cherry wine taste?

I think I managed to balance the wine. The acidity is noticable, but it’s lively and not too tart. Sweetness is there too, but people who “don’t like sweet wine” liked it and didn’t think it was too sweet. I don’t notice the astringency that comes from tannin. This makes it an enjoyable red table wine, but unlike the dry reds that I’m used to. The flavor and aroma are different as well. I wouldn’t say it “tastes like cherries,” but there is something familiar from tasting commercial cherry wine (yes, there is such a thing).

Thoughts on my next cherry wine

This was a learning experience, and I’ve got a to-do list for the next one.

  • Use a yeast like Lavlin’s 71-B that consumes malic acid: since most of the acid in cherries is malic and I had trouble with too much acid, having the yeast remove some for me should make things easier.
  • Learn more about dealing with high titratable acidity (TA) and high pH at the same time: I’ve been reluctant to use phosphoric acid to adjust the pH because it can be dangerous to handle. Maybe I need to get comfortable with that or find another way to manipulate the different facets of acidity.
  • Learn more about cherries:  This is my second batch of cherry wine, and both batches had the high TA – high pH problem. Is it something about the variety of cherry (I used Bing each time)? how it’s grown? or are all cherries like that? I sense another know your ingredients post coming up.

Until then I’ll be enjoying my newly bottled cherry wine – cheers!

Bonsai Vineyard: Drip Irrigation

With ten grape vines in pots, and another ten fruit trees, I’ve been doing a lot of hand watering. It’s become quite a chore, so I’ve decided to put in a drip irrigation system. This will have water coming from a garden hose, through a pressure reducing fitting, into a feeder bottle so that I can fertilize, through a half-inch hose, and out of quarter-inch drip lines that run to each pot. Instead of a seemingly endless cycle of fill the watering can – water the vines/trees, I would just be able to turn on the water and go read a book. With a timer, I might not even have to turn the water on and off.

I had an abstract idea of what a drip system was and how it worked. What I needed was some hands on knowledge – what were the various components of a drip system? what did they do? how did they fit together? For a crash course in Drip Irrigation 101, I went to three hardware stores. I struck gold at Lowes with a clerk who had been a plumber and installed many a drip system. Now I have most of the equipment I need and a much better idea of how to put that equipment to use.

    Basic equipment for a drip irrigation system

  • half-inch tubing – delivers low pressure water to the drip system
  • quarter-inch tubing – delivers water to an individual vine or tree
  • 25 PSI Pressure Regulator – keeps pressure from overwhelming the system
  • 3/4″ hose to 1/2″ tubing adapter – connects the system to a garden hose or tap
  • quarter-inch double barbed connectors – connects quarter inch tubing to the half inch tubing
  • 50 quarter-inch hole plugs – plugs holes in the half inch tubing

    Other equipment that might be needed

  • anti siphon device – prevents back flow from the drip system to the water supply
  • filter – keeps dirt from clogging the drip system

You can buy this equipment at a garden center as a kit or as separate pieces. I had planned to buy a kit, and use it as a learning tool, but the clerk at Lowes assembled everything I needed for the system I had in mind. If all goes well, I’ll be putting it all together into a working drip irrigation system for use this summer.

Kirkland 2007 Sonoma County Chardonnay

Kirkland 2007 Sonoma County ChardonnayI had high hopes for this wine ($9 at Costco), because the Kirkland brand is usually pretty good and I liked the Kirkland Sauvignon Blanc. So how did it stack up?

Running the numbers

When I make wine at home, I measure the specific gravity, titratable acidity, and pH. I thought I’d start doing that for some of the commercial wine I buy to see how how the pros are balancing acid, alcohol, and sugar. Since some wineries publish an analysis of their wines, it’ll also give me a chance to see how my measurments compare to those of a commercial lab.

The alcohol content is 13.9%, according to the label, and here are my measurements:

SG: 0.990, pH: 3.34, TA: 4.4 g/L

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an analysis for this wine, and my e-mail to Kirkland Signature Wine Connection went unanswered. So I’ll just have to go on what I have, and what I have is a low TA – I would have expected 6 g/L or so. Ok, but how does it taste?


“Not unpleasant,” said the Lady of the House. We both hoped for more. There is promise, as you begin to sip, a hint of something lively. It’s gone the moment you swallow, however, and that short finish makes it a plain, disappointing wine. Next time I’ll pass on this one and pick up the Sauv Blanc or head over to Trader Joe’s for some Panilonco 2008 Reserve Chardonnay/Voignier.

A Simple Mead Recipe: Bottled!

Wildflower MeadIt’s been nearly two years since I started this batch. I added acid and oak chips to my simple mead recipe in making this still, dry, lightly oaked mead.

It fermented out to a specific gravity (SG) of 0.996, and I didn’t sweeten. Since the original gravity was about 1.082, I’m calling it 11% alcohol by volume. The pH was 3.0, and titratable acidity (TA) was 4 g/L, as tartaric. I should mention two things about the TA. First, I’m getting some inconsistent results using my new apparatus that determines TA by measuring the amount of CO2 given off by a base neutralizing an acid. I’ll have more to say about this in another post. The other thing is that TA measurements of mead are tricky, and are best thought of as upper limits rather than precise values.

So how does it taste? That Lady of the House and I really enjoyed it. Oak is discernible and pleasant, but it plays a supporting role not the lead. Aroma is muted, and I think that’s a characteristic of the honey. I don’t have any on hand for a direct comparison, but I remember meads from heather and clover honey having stronger aromas.

Would boiling have improved this mead?

That gives me an idea. If wildflower from Miller’s Honey has a weak aroma, then it may be a candidate for boiling. This is just one batch, and each year’s wildflower honey probably differs from those of previous years, so I’m not ready to make such a blanket statement. It’s something to keep in mind, though.

I experimented with boiling and found that it weakens a mead’s aroma, but may give it more body and a smoother taste. Is it worth it? That depends on a lot of things, including personal taste, but if the aroma is going to be unremarkable anyway, this might be a good trade off.

About the Label

For me, making a label starts with nice artwork. Sometimes I use my own photos, but more often I use the work of another artist. Gary Cooper (no, not that Gary Cooper) was kind enough to allow me the use of his photo for this label. Gary’s collections of classic Hollywood photos is terrific, and my only problem was deciding which one I wanted to use – thanks Gary!

There’s only room for so much text, so I try to be informative and to the point. I include a name, “bin number” (there must have been one of those Aussie wines in the house when I started that) that identifies the batch, starting and bottling dates, and relevant measurements.

And now, the easy part

The most relevant measure is, of course, how it tastes and I’ll be doing a lot of research on that in the months (and years?) to come – cheers!

A White Wine Bargain

Panilonco 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ViognierA lot of cheap wine is overpriced, so it’s a real treat to find a $4 bottle that I want to buy more of. A friend recommended Panilonco 2008 Reserve Chardonnay/Voignier and I bought a bottle at Trader Joe’s – a great place to hunt for bargains.

I like my white wines to have a little bite, while the Lady of the House prefers them sweet and smooth. So I often get excited about a wine only to see her make a face. Other times  her eyes light up after tasting one that I think was made boring by too much sugar.

This well balanced wine made us both happy. It’s  simple, in a good way, with a nice flavor that’s crisp but smooth. Our only complaint was that Trader Joe’s was out of stock when we went back for more.

Bailout Blanc: White wine for hard times

Can you really make wine from Welch’s grape juice?

Turn Welch's grape juice and sugar into wine
Welch’s, or most any brand, of white grape juice is made from Niagra grapes. These aren’t considered wine grapes, and there’s a good reason for that. Still, with proper wine making technique, you can make a crisp dry white from concentrated frozen grape juice that is surprisingly good.

If you’re still feeling adventurous, why not make wine from seedless table grapes? I made a wine from store bought grapes when they were on sale, and I plan on comparing it to my Welch’s wine.


Here’s what you’ll need for a 1-gallon or 5-gallon batch. When I create a recipe for 1-gallon of wine, I aim for 1-gallon of finished wine without the need for additional wine to top up. That means my 1-gallon recipe will make up about 1.5 gallons of must. Similarly, my 5-gallon recipe will yield over 6-gallons of must. Other recipes yield the same volume of must as the expected volume of finished wine. They assume that you will top up the batch with similar wine that you have on hand – that approach drove me nuts when I was starting out! The catch is that you’ll need to have extra containers on hand when you rack. For a 1-gallon batch, plan on having two wine bottles and two beer bottles to hold what doesn’t fit in the 1-gallon jug. For a 5-gallon batch, a 1-gallon jug, a half-gallon jug, and a wine bottle should do it.

Ingredient 1-Gallon
12 oz can frozen grape juice 3 12
Sugar 1.3 lb (600 g) 6.25 lb (2.8 kg)
Water 1 Gallons + 1 Pint (4.25 L) 4.5 Gallons (17 L)
Pectic Enzyme 1.5 tsp 6 tsp
Diamonium Phosphate 1.5 tsp 6 tsp
Tartaric Acid 2 tsp (10 ml) 9 tsp (45 ml)
Tannin 0.25 tsp 1.5 tsp
Yeast 1 packet 1 packet

Sulfite to 50 ppm

Make sure the grape juice you buy is really 100% grape juice. There are a lot of fruit cocktails for sale with similar packaging that you should avoid.

Sugar and Acid

I have found the sugar content of concentrated frozen grape juice to be very consistent, so you’re very likely to get a starting specific gravity (SG) close to 1.090 by just following the recipe. It’s best to check with a hydrometer, though, and make necessary corrections up front. I’m less sure about the acid, so please check the titratable acidity (TA) of your must before you pitch the yeast.


  • Primary fermenter – at least 2-gallon capacity for a 1-gallon batch, and 10-gallon capacity for a 5-gallon batch
  • Long Stirring Spoon
  • Racking cane and 6 feet of tubing
  • Secondary – either a 1-gallon jug or a 5-gallon carboy
  • Smaller containers – a half-gallon jug, a wine bottle, a beer bottle to hold small amounts from one racking to the next
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Scale


Dissolve pectic enzyme, nutrient, tartaric acid, tannin, and sulfite in a quart (liter) of water.

Sanitize your primary fermenter.

Add frozen grape concentrate.

Bring 3 quarts (liters) water to a boil, take off heat and dissolve sugar, bring back to a boil for one minute, cool and add to fermenter.

Pour the additive solution into the fermenter.

Add 4 gallons (15 liters) water to the fermenter.

Take measurments (specific gravity, pH, and titratable acidity).

Pitch yeast.

Stir the fermenting wine every day, for the next week or two, until it ferments out. Rack to a secondary fermenter (1 gallon jug or 5-gallon carboy) and any other smaller containers that you might need. After that, rack as needed (when it throws sediment) and when it remains clear and dry (specific gravity less than 1.000), you can bottle. I often bottle about six months to a year after pitching the yeast.

How does Welch’s wine taste?

Its hard for me to describe this wine, but how can you not be curious enough to try it yourself? It’s not for special occasions, but sometimes your really do want a wine that goes well with a ham sandwich or chicken McNuggets – cheers!

Update 7/6/2009 – Bottled in six months and surprisingly good!

It’s a crisp white wine that’s easy to drink, and you can make it for less that $1/bottle.

Small Batches

1/2 gallon ''backyard burgundy'', 1/2 gallon honey apple, and a 1-pint leon-pinotThere are some good reasons to make wine in 5-gallon (19 liter) or larger batches. Once you know what you’re doing, it takes about the same amount of effort to make five gallons of wine as it does to make one. The amount of headspace in a 5-gallon carboy isn’t much more than in a 1-gallon jug. So five gallons of wine. stored in 1-gallon jugs, is in contact with a lot more air than if it were in a 5-gallon carboy. That makes oxidation a bigger problem. So why am making the three small batches in the photo (and many more that aren’t shown)?

Each one has it’s own story. My “backyard burgundy,” a rose made from Leon Millot, Pinot Noir, Siegerrebe, and Price grapes that I grew in my bonsai vineyard, is on the left. On the right is my honey apple, made from Liberty, Ashmead Kernel, and Roxbury Russets that I grew in my bonsai orchard. Finally, my Leon-Pinot, a red wine made from Pinot Noir and Leon Millot grapes from my bonsai vineyard, is front and center.

I’m still not sure what to call my most recent wine, but Backyard Burgundy just might stick. It’s the product of two less-than-ideal harvests from my bonsai orchard. From pests, large and small, to wacky weather I wasn’t sure what I’d get from these grapes. The 2007 harvest sulked in my freezer until it was joined by the 2008 vintage. Growers all over the Puget Sound complained of low sugar and high acid, so I decided to toss all the grapes into a single batch of rose. So I crushed, pressed, and fermented the juice just like a white wine. All the red grapes gave the wine it’s color, and that’s why it’s a rose instead of a white wine. I love my bonsai vineyard, but volume isn’t it’s strong suit, so the harvest from a difficult year – even two difficult years – will be small. The 8.5 lb gave me about 3 quarts of juice, and I’m hoping for three 750 ml bottles of finished wine.

You’ve really got to want to make wine to make it in these quantities, and I do. That’s why I crushed, fermented, and pressed a red wine from my first harvest ever – 4 lb (about 1.8 kg) of Leon Millot and Pinot Noir grapes. It’s been aging in a 500 ml Grolsch bottle since 2006 and I’m getting ready to open it.

The honey apple came from my biggest harvest of apples. It was big enough that I decided not to supplement the apples with store bought juice, like I usually do, and that will make it my smallest batch of apple wine. How’s that for irony?

Making Mead: Testing the controversy over boiling

Six of us gathered for a great evening that began with a tasting. Not just any tasting, it concluded a three year experiment that tested the effect of boiling on making mead. Two meads went head to head that night. I made one with a ten minute boil, and the other was as identical as I could make it without boiling.

I was careful to arrange it so that none of us, not even me or the Lady of the House, knew which one we were tasting at the time. I decanted the meads into identical containers, labeling the boiled mead “Whidbey” and the no boil mead “Mercer.” I was alone when I did this, then I left the room and the Lady of the House removed the labels and color coded them (orange for Whidbey and blue for Mercer). Neither of us knew what the other had done, but we could compare notes afterward to find out which mead was blue and which was orange. Everyone got color coded index cards to write down our impressions of each mead.

The most detailed of the lot summed it up this way:

#1 [the no-boil mead] has a very light body, a nice rich bouquet, a strong dry beginning, and a very light finish. #2 [the boiled mead] has good body, a light feathery aroma, a slightly fruity beginning with a strong flowery finish.

In addition to reading the comments, we also talked about the meads after the tasting was over. So what did we find?

Boiling does weaken the aroma

We confirmed the common wisdom that boiling weakens the aroma. All of us agreed that the no-boil mead had a stronger aroma. There wasn’t anything unpleasant in the aroma of the boiled mead, it was just less pronounced. One of us even preferred it. We described the boiled mead’s aroma as “feathery” and “subtle” compared to “rich” and “brandy-like” for the no-boil mead.

But might improve the body and flavor

Four of us (all the women) preferred the the boiled mead, overall, because of its better flavor. The word “smooth” came up five times and each time it was to describe the boiled mead. Two of us explicitly talked about the body, and both described the boiled mead as more full bodied than the no-boil mead.

I specifically asked about the aroma and overall preference, so all six of us commented on that. But some talked about the body and how “smooth” the mead tasted. I’ve compiled the comments on those four categories into a table.

Category Boil No-Boil # Responses
Stronger Aroma 0 6 6
Best Overall 4 2 6
Smoother 5 0 5
More Body 2 0 2

Surprised? I was!

I went into this with preconceptions, that’s why it’s so important that the tasting be double-blind. I didn’t expect much difference between the two, but boiling clearly makes a noticeable difference. The other surprise is that there might be some benefit to boiling. Most people, who have an opinion on the subject, seem to think that boiling can only harm the mead – specifically by weakening the aroma. And so it does, but as with many things in real life there’s a trade off. Giving up some intensity in the aroma can get you a mead that is fuller bodied and smoother – four out of six of us thought it was worth the trade off for this particular mead.

Making better mead with what we’ve learned

It might make sense to be dogmatic about some things, but boiling isn’t one of them. I think I understand better how it affects mead, and I can use that knowledge when I make one. How might this affect my future batches? I’ll probably want to boil meads made with strong-tasting honey (the one we tested was made from heather honey, it has a strong flavor and makes a great mead) because I think they’ll benefit most from the smoother more rounded flavor that results. It also makes me wonder how this experiment would have turned out if I had used a milder honey. Anyone want to give it a try?

A 9-Liter Measuring Cup

9-Liter Measuring Cup

Maybe you’re trying to add just the right amount of sugar to your must, or measure out crystallized honey for mead. If you make wine or mead long enough, you’ll want to measure large quantities of liquid. I have a 2-cup (500 ml) measuring cup, but that didn’t cut it when I needed to measure 1 liter of honey and 4 liters of water. So I made this “9-liter measuring cup” from a 2-gallon bucket. I filled the smaller measuring cup to the 500 ml line, made a hash mark with a permanent marker, and repeated until I got to the 9-liter mark.

Quick, easy, and costs almost nothing – if only I could say that about all my equipment!

Making Wine: What I Learned From An Economist

Greg Mankiw teaches economics at Harvard University, and I read his blog regularly. He recently spotlighted part of a Boston Globe Article on the lighter side of science. He zeroed in on the work of another economist – ok, I know what you’re thinking, “as exciting as one economist talking about another sounds, what the heck has it got to do with winemaking?” I’m getting to that. The other economist is named Dan Ariely, and he experimented on volunteers to find out how marketing impacts a drug’s effectiveness. He administered an electric shock to the volunteers then gave them the same placebo. Some of them were told it was an expensive new painkiller, and others that it was cheap.

Those who got the pricey fake medicine reported a bigger reduction in pain than those whith the cheaper fake.

What’s going on here? The same thing that was going on when California Institute of Technology scientists looked into the effect of price on a wine’s perceived quality. It all reminds me of a Candid Camera piece that had grocery store customers sample a new wine, and they showed a guy raving about the wine and how much he’d be willing to pay for a bottle. Then they cut to tape of another fellow who said, “it tastes like prune juice.” There was a good reason for that – it was prune juice.

Confidence is sexy

There’s more to this than having a good chuckle and nervously reassuring ourselves that it could never happen to us. The thing to take away from this is that if you make a good wine (or mead or beer or liqueur), treat it like a good wine. Dress it up in a proper wine bottle and a nice looking label. Pour it into wine glasses and serve it as though it were something special – because it is! You don’t have to be dishonest, just be proud of what you have done and let it show.

Update 4/19/2010 – How to tell if an expensive wine is worth it

Clearly, our tasting experience can strongly influenced by our expectations and preconceived ideas. Tasting blind gets us around that problem by removing the mental baggage we bring to each tasting. We can’t prejudge a wine if we don’t know which wine it is, can we? Learn how to run an easy blind tasting at home so you can sniff out bargains that are worth more than they cost and to tell which pricey wines are worth the money.