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Monday, April 27, 2009

Artfully crafting wine -- in 28 days? (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago I took my first tentative step into the realm of home brewing. Not because I wanted to become a master craftswoman, wowing my friends with my own homemade beer like my coworker, Chef magazine's managing editor Lacey. No, I began this kitchen chemistry experiment because I was told that I could craft my very own wine in 28 days. Now do I have your attention?

The story begins at the International Home & Housewares Show, which took place last month. Anyone who has ever exhibited at a food show will know that twilight time toward the end of the show day when exhibitors begin to circulate through the booths with their samples, meeting and greeting other exhibitors and trying to get rid of extra samples. There had been a press kit from Artful Winemaker waiting at the booth earlier for me that day, so when their representative came around with samples of their wine, I began to chat with her about the Artful Winemaker Personal Winemaking System, which turns grape concentrate into wine in four weeks. Intrigued, I followed her back to her booth to check it out. I have to be honest, I was skeptical of the whole thing. I've had the privilege of attending industry wine tastings and have experienced the difference of two, three and four years of oak aging, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect from a wine that you can make in your kitchen in 28 days!

As Laura walked me through the steps and showed me the system, I sipped from a sample of the Cabernet/Shiraz blend. Wow! This was nothing like the Boone's Farm-esque, overly sweet, unsophisticated taste I was half-expecting. The wine I sampled was a wine I would be happy to serve to my friends at a dinner party or to give as a gift. Not to mention that being able to craft one's own wine was a cool concept to begin with. I was totally hooked and when they asked me if I'd like to try a kit for myself, how could I refuse? I wanted to see for myself how "easy" it was to craft my own wine.

A couple weeks after the show, a large box showed up at my door. Inside I found everything I would need for my first batch (12 bottles) of Chardonnay, from bottles and stoppers to labels, wine concentrate and the Personal Winemaking System (or PWS) itself. I pulled out the instructional DVD, featuring James Beard award-winner David Michael Cane of A Matter of Taste, and popped it in. He made it seem simple enough; I was ready to get started.

The first (and definitely least fun) thing I had to do was clean and sanitize. Before I did anything else, I washed all of my pieces in warm soapy water (though now that I look back, I don't see that step in the instructions, but then, why would you not?). Unfortunately this was rather difficult -- big pieces that hold lots of water and a small sink are a bad combination for someone who is as uncoordinated as I am. By the time I was done, not only did I have twin lakes in the kitchen (one on the counter top and one on the floor) but I was also soaked from head to foot. I think it will be easier next time; maneuvering the pieces requires a bit of finesse.

After attaching the thermometer (wine must stay between 65-80 degrees during the process) and the spigot, it was time to sterilize my PWS with the mix provided. This was marginally more successful than trying to hand-wash the whole system, but making sure the cleaning liquid hit every surface inside the PWS required something a bit more vigorous than the "swishing" called for in the instructions. (Keep in mind, the PWS is huge -- large enough to provide 12 bottles of wine -- so this process was also a bit awkward for someone who is 5'2.) Once I'd finished my dance with the PWS and drained it, it was finally time to make some wine!

My Chardonnay juice/concentrate looked thick and syrupy and smelled sweet and fruity and very little like the wine I was hoping to end up with. I added the juice, water and my oak sachet (which got its own little warm steep-bath before I dropped it in) to the PWS. The only thing left to do after that was mix in the primary clarifier and sprinkle the yeast gently on surface of the liquid. I closed the whole thing up with its airtight lid, checked the water level in my air lock and stepped back to admire my handiwork.

Then I stepped back up close because the yeast was already doing some pretty cool things on the surface of my concoction! Small bubbles were skimming across the surface and a lovely yeasty smell was escaping as bubbles through the air lock -- success! For the next 14 days all there was to do was watch and wait (and occasionally put water back into the air lock).
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