I’ve been making wine kits for about a year now, and I have been very pleased with the result… and yet, I find them creatively unfulfilling as a hobbyist.
The only kits I have used so far are the Reserve du Chateau 17.5 lbs. kits, which, as far as I can tell, are an Amazon.com proprietary or exclusive brand. Thus far, I have tried the Sangiovese, the Cabernet Merlot and the Cabernet Shiraz. The great thing about these kits is the price. At roughly $45 to $55 a kit (like all Amazon items, the price mysteriously fluctuates day-to-day), these kits give me real wine grape concentrate for about the same price per gallon (i.e. $8-$9) as making the 4 Canister Concord Red, the only truly red wine I’ve been able to make without a kit. To be honest, I didn’t really like the Concord Red I made (one recently-opened bottle that didn’t clear well has become dedicated to cooking), and so I’d be crazy to continue making it when these kits are the same cost AND include additives and corks (in fact, I may never have to buy corks again!).
One downside of these kits, however, is that they are apparently so popular, they keep going out of stock. I jumped on three kits last month when they came briefly back into stock, and I’m glad I did, because there’s nothing to be found in that price range right now. There are other wine kits, of course, but the price of those kits are $70+, and at that point, the benefits start to wane. Sure, they may be higher quality juice or whatnot, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not looking to recreate Napa in my apartment here. One major motivating factor in making my own wine is to end up with a product that represents significant savings over what I could purchase at the local state store. I can get a nice Carlo Rossi Cabernet in the 5L box for $17. At that point, the cost/benefit of expensive kits that provide only a few dollars savings per gallon… doesn’t seem worth it.
As a cost-conscious wine consumer these Reserve du Chateau kits provide a good-tasting wine at an advantageous price point. As a wine-making hobbyist, however, I find them ridiculously easy. What’s wrong with easy? Well, nothing fundamentally. Certainly, there is enough labor in the over-arching wine-making process (especially at the end with siphoning, cleaning, bottling, etc.) that I wouldn’t beg for the process to be more complex. It’s just that whenever I hear accolades from people about my kit wine, I sort of feel like I can’t really take credit. One of my students, for instance, has followed my wine-making progress over the years, and upon trying my kit Sangiovese, he effused praise over the vast improvement since the last wine of mine he had tried… but I didn’t feel like I could truly take the compliment, as I hadn’t done much of anything to affect the wine quality during my end of production.
Perhaps if I had done a wine kit as my inaugural project, before I had attempted any other homemade recipes, I would feel greater satisfaction with the end product, having learned the craft of wine-making along the way. But I’m actually quite glad I did not. The directions for the wine kit are full of a lot of unnecessary hullabaloo that I can confidently wave off, having honed my process on other batches. Perhaps for people who make as big a production out of the process as the directions indicate, using a kit fills them with a glow of creative satisfaction, but I know better.
The grape juice concentrate comes in a bag (think like the inner bladder/bag of a boxed wine); all the necessary sugar water is already in the bag, too. The Reserve du Chateau kits have some manner of yellow spigot/opener on this bag; I have yet to figure out how to open it. On my first kit, I gave up after several tries and simply cut a small corner off the bag with my kitchen scissors to create a small hole from which to pour the sugar and concentrate into my carboy (I use a large funnel to ease the process of adding all ingredients to my carboy). Since then, I never bother with the opener, I just cut the hole and pour it in. I hydrate my yeast (as described in my Getting Started entry), which the directions, oddly enough, do not suggest. Sometimes I use the yeast that comes with the kit, sometimes I use Red Star’s Pasteur Red; haven’t noticed much difference in using one or the other. I add the packet of bentonite that comes with the kit. I also add a tablespoon of yeast energizer to speed the process. I DON’T include any other of my standard additives like pectic enzyme or acid blend. Just the included concentrate, hydrated yeast, bentonite, water to fill. Balloon airlock on top (also described in Getting Started). Haul it over the the hall closet and wait for it to ferment completely.
I honestly don’t know what would be the advantage in making this process more complex. Using a fermenter bucket is unnecessary because it’s just juice and not fruit. Thus, there is no need to start the wine in a primary fermenter, siphon to a secondary fermenter a few weeks later, etc. The directions also make a big ordeal about degassing the wine, but I’ve never had an issue with leftover carbon dioxide in my red wine, perhaps because agitating the carboy in order to “read” the stage of fermentation with the balloon airlock is such an important part of my process, that perhaps degassing happens automatically? Just another reason to use balloons and not airlocks, as far as I’m concerned. Some people seem to like using a hydrometer, and the directions call for one. It seems unnecessarily fussy to me because using a balloon tells me all the information I need to know about where I am in the fermentation process (also described in Getting Started). If you use an airlock it may be helpful, but I don’t soooo… Shrug? Why make the process more involved? It’s still just four basic ingredients, no matter how much you fuss over it.
The only revision I have made to my process of making wine with kits is investing in a 6.5 gallon carboy. Making it concentrated to a 5 gallon carboy (all the kits are 6 gallon), I could never get it as dry as I wanted. When I reconstituted it into six one-gallon jugs, it always had a lingering sweetness. My wine-making mentor at the studio described my first batch of kit wine as “semi-dry.” Semi didn’t cut it for me; I wanted it truly dry. I bought a 6.5 gallon carboy just for making the kits because I only intend to make red kits (my fruit wine pursuits satisfy my taste for whites), and red tend to foam up more vigorously at first fermentation, so having an extra .5 gallon of airspace keeps the yeast from foaming up into the balloon.
As I mentioned above, even with the kits, I use a balloon airlock. The balloon will stretch to fit the carboy opening. It also helps me immensely in determining when fermentation is actually complete, which is vitally important for getting the wine kits truly dry. Whenever a balloon flops on any batch, I always stir up the jug or carboy by grabbing the neck and swirling it around to agitate the contents. Most of the time the balloon will inflate again. One of my daily to-do items around the house is checking on my in-progress batches and agitating all the ones with floppy or wrinkly balloons. Sometimes, if I’ve been agitating the same batch for a couple weeks and the balloon still fills up, I might make the call to finish the batch despite its having a little life left in it. When I’m making a sparkling wine, for example, it can even be advantageous to siphon the batch while the original yeast is still active because it will help the process of in-bottle carbonation. Sometimes, I’ll just siphon the batch out of impatience, in part because I know it won’t make that big of a difference. If a batch of apple wine, for instance, isn’t completely and utterly dry, it’s not so noticeable. The kits, however, have a higher quality and higher flavor complexity juice (not trying to oversell them, just saying so in contrast to apple juice from the freezer aisle). They also have a built-in flavor association with store-bought dry red wines we’ve known and loved. A little bit of sweetness makes a big difference when our palates are expecting a classic dry red.
When I make a kit, I push the fermentation as far as it will go. First off, let me make a public service announcement — anyone attempting these kits should be well aware that the promise of a 4- or 6- week wine kit is completely and utterly false. Fermentation takes as long as it takes. Lots of factors are at play, and if you wait a certain number of weeks, rather than using some other measure (e.g. balloon airlock, hydrometer, etc.), you are probably going to get an incomplete wine. Not so terrible for lovers of sweet wine, I suppose… but really, why are you buying a Cabernet kit if you want sweet wine? They have plenty of “Arbor Mist” style fruit wine kits, Sangria kits, Moscato kits, etc.
I’ve had a kit of Cabernet Shiraz going since January 31, 2015. When the balloon began to flop, I agitated the carboy every day, and every day it filled back up. It wasn’t until last night (April 22nd) that, even after vigorous agitation, the balloon would not fill. This morning, I discovered that the carboy had even formed a vacuum, pulling the balloon inversely into the carboy, which is always a good sign that fermentation is probably done. Still, I did a good 30 seconds of vigorous agitation just to be sure, and the balloon did not fill or even change. See the included photo of what my balloon looked like even after those 30 seconds of agitation.
Next in the process, after letting the sediment in the carboy settle for a few days, I will clean and sanitize six one (1) gallon jugs. Some people would siphon into a second carboy at this point, but I have tons of gallon jugs from a compatriot who is a generous drinker. Using gallon jugs for the next stage has other advantages, too. After cleaning, I put a single campden tablet into each jug and fill them from the carboy with my siphon one by one. It is worth noting that I do NOT use the clearing additives included in every kit, chitosan and kieselsol, because I’ve never found that one of the kit wines needed them; all the kits I’ve done have come out quite clear in the end. I save the additives for unrelated batches that have trouble clearing.
A few of the six jugs will be allocated for longer term bulk aging, while the remainder will be bottled as needed. Whenever I bottle a gallon batch (which produces five standard 750ml bottles), I always do a mix of corks and caps. One or two will be a screw-top bottle or a T-cork (i.e. tasting cork, which is synthetic and reusable) for sooner consumption, and the rest will have regular corks with the intention of aging the wine in bottle a while. I usually try to age all of my corked bottles at least a year (post-it notes on each bottle with the month/year of production help me keep track). I’m pleased to report that the kit wines are actually pretty good even just after fermentation is done. I’ve only been making them for about a year now, so I haven’t tried the longer-term bottlings yet, but my hope is that the inherent character of the grapes will come out more the longer they age.
Despite feeling I can’t take much credit for the production of the kit wines, I have no plan to stop using the kits anytime soon. They have, however, inspired me to pursue a more challenging path to creating red wines — my Cabernet and Zinfandel vines went in the ground last week. When they start fruiting, new wine-making adventures will surely follow.