Home made

Home made

For only a dollar, how could anyone pass up a used book with such an attractive title? For a cash-strapped graduate student, How wine is made was a road map to a continuous flow of cheap nectar of the gods.

How hard can it be? After all, Neolithic man made wine without the help of a recipe from a second-hand book. With a little research and preparation, I might be able to achieve the same results as an illiterate, ancient cave dweller.

I read the book twice. A “C” in high school chemistry reinforced the need for a careful understanding of the process. By the end of the second reading, I was convinced that this winemaking stuff paled in comparison to understanding Avogadro’s number, a method of measuring the number of molecules in gases. Why does this Avogadro guy even care to know this? He lived in Turin, Italy, one of the greatest wine regions in the world. His time would be better spent drinking Barolo or Asti instead of messing with the heads of high school chemistry students. As they say, taste doesn’t matter.

The first part of my plan focuses on estimating the cost of the project. Although I suffered from eternal optimism, I was not naive. The book lists a variety of fruits and vegetables that can be made into wine. Grapes were one of many choices. That was a red flag. Better check the price of grapes.

A trip to Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles proved to be a sobering experience. Book in hand, I looked over the grape wine recipe and checked the price of the grapes. The quantity I needed pushed the cost beyond my meager budget.

I made my way through the market, flipping through the recipes and making notes on the price of various fruits. The humble lemon, a final choice far short of my hopeful expectations, had one overriding, winning quality—a nickel-per-pound price.

Water, sugar and yeast come from my kitchen cupboard. I invested in a new plastic bucket and a piece of cheesecloth. I was ready to launch.

The initial stage requires squeezing the lemons, mixing the juice with water and sugar, and simmering on the stove. When the liquid reached the optimum temperature for yeast growth, I added the granules, stirred and poured the mixture into the plastic bucket, covering it with cheesecloth.

The bubbling, frothy drink takes a few weeks to settle down. The apartment smelled of yeast and alcohol.

The next step, secondary fermentation, required a one-gallon glass vessel with a narrow neck, similar to an empty water jug. No problem. I had one.

A picture in the book shows a device called a fermentation sluice. It looked like it could have been taken from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. The accompanying explanation describes how the curved plastic tube allows carbon dioxide to escape from the container while blocking the entry of unwanted microbes that would destroy the wine. One end of the tube passes through a rubber stopper placed at the top of the jug. At the other end was a small water tank. Gas bubbles made their way through a water barrier on the way out, but the microbes couldn’t get in. Ingenious!

I poured the yellow liquid into the jug, leaving the sediment behind, and then attached the fermentation lock.

Now the hardest part began – the six month wait. Although he was tempted to taste the wine beforehand, delayed gratification overcame impatience.

When the day came for the tasting, I called my brother-in-law, Bob, who lived a few blocks away. A fun-loving person ready for almost anything, he happily agreed to evaluate the product.

I placed two glasses on the coffee table in the living room. When he arrived, I removed the fermentation lock from the gallon jug. The strong smell of alcohol assaulted our noses. This wine may be high octane. Since the size of the container made it unwieldy, I poured the pint into a smaller bottle before filling the glasses.


Bob already had his hand around the glass, raising it to his lips. “Wow! It tastes like lemon.”

“Do you think it’s too strong?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll try another time.” He finished the glass.

I drank half a glass. My body immediately felt the effects of the alcohol.

“I think we should stop, Bob.” I’ll put the rest back in the jug and let it develop for another six months.

“I’ll take another shot.”

“That might not be a good idea.”

He picked up the empty glass.

“Good. I’m glad you’re walking home.”

He finished his second round and left.

Fifteen minutes later my sister called. “What did you do to my husband?”

“He only drank two glasses of my new lemon wine.”

The explanation failed to calm her irritation.

I replaced the fermentation lock and let the brew sit for another six months. The wine mellowed and acquired the character of cordial with a rich aroma of lemon. At the end of a year the spirits were fit for polite society.

The result of the great experiment with lemon wine did not dampen my enthusiasm for home-brewing. I have found pleasure in using anything but grapes.

For my second effort, I used grapefruit, which releases a generous amount of juice when squeezed. However, I found that the unusual taste was not well received when served to guests. “You must develop a taste for it,” I said. “Appeals to the sophisticated palate.”

For my third batch, I used carrots. You have to juice a lot of carrots to make a modest amount of wine. What intrigued me about the recipe was the addition of wheat mid-fermentation. The grain strengthened the wine, creating a wonderful drink.

When I served the wine to the guests, I asked them to taste it and tell me what they thought. They said it was sherry, very good sherry.

I happily said, “It’s a carrot!”

“You’re kidding,” was the universal response.

“I’m not. It’s a wheat-enhanced carrot.”

Oh, what a feeling. I had produced a wine equal in taste to a fine sherry from the fields of Jerez, Spain, a wine with a three-thousand-year tradition. I was at the height of my winemaking glory, worthy of being mentioned on a par with Ernest and Julio Gallo.

The lesson was clear: even a high school senior who could only afford cheap produce, a plastic bucket, and a water jug, someone who got a “C” in high school chemistry could rise above his station to compete with the giants of winemaking world. Hallelujah! Life can be so wonderful.


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