Waxing Dionysus: A Story about Making Homemade Wine

Grape Expectations:

It is a well known fact to my regular readers that I am annually bombarded with bumper crops of my Niagara grapes. A variety that I was told was actually a concord and didn’t find out otherwise until years later when I finally got it in the ground and it began bearing fruit. Fruit of lies and deception.

And to be completely honest, these grapes taste awful. Not a fan at all. But of the three varieties I have, this one of course is the healthiest and most robust. It has been a burden of mine for years now. Why not remove it you ask? Well, it serves another purpose as well. That of a cheap shaded patio nook to beat the heat of summer as illustrated below…

Repurposing an unused clothesline: The $50 instant patio!

And it definitely does the job it was intended to do. The only thing is it does so while bearing the most yawn-inducing harvest ever. However, I do enjoy sitting underneath it during those hot days of drought and strife.

The Grapes of Wrath…and Cool Shade.

This years’ crop is no different.  Once again the vines are loaded with juicy berries ripe for the picking.

The hens might be the biggest fans of these grapes. And who am I to deprive them of such ample vittles?

My friend Matt (who I’ll be talking about later) and I connected via a Facebook page called San Diego Backyard Fruit Exchange around the time of last years harvest. When researching my Niagara grape vine, he came across the following info: “Vitis labrusca ‘Niagara’ is a cross of the V. labrusca Concord and Cassady cultivars, which are themselves hybrids. Concord is a hybrid of an unknown experimental interspecific V. vinifera and V. labrusca pairing, and Cassady is an unintentional hybrid that has V. labrusca in its genetic makeup”

Over the years I tried making homemade raisins, fresh grape juice as well as popsicles . But nothing would take away the lack-luster flavor of the Niagara. The raisins were the best results I’ve had from this vine and were actually quite tasty. However, the time it takes to process all the grapes to make raisins leaves much to be desired. I most likely will not do that again on account of my general laziness when it comes to repetitive and dull tasks.

The juice was way too tart for my liking and this may be because the skins of the grapes were included in the processing. The popsicles also sat in my freezer just hoping that I would eventually love them. But I abandoned them quickly and refused to make eye contact until I was cleaning the freezer out a year later. I apologized in my own way as I slowly lowered them into a stream of hot water in the kitchen sink while doing my best James Bond villain impersonation.

Grape popsicle: “Do you expect me to talk?”

Evil James: “No grape popsicle, I expect you to die” [screams of melty horror]

Try the Wine:

After talking with Matt about my grape wants and woes, he suggested I try to produce wine from my annual bumper crop. Admittedly, it blew my mind quite a bit. I thought, “Hey! You like to drink and be merry. Why not cut out the middle man and make your own booze in the backyard like a moonshiner of old!?”

It seemed too perfect of an idea to pass up. Matt was also set up for the project with equipment and, more importantly, the know-how. I was a noob when it came to the process and couldn’t get past the mental image of barefoot grape squishing giddiness. Still can’t actually. Thankfully Matt offered his services in exchange for a split of the booze bounty. A perfect accord was reached in short order and I set to work harvesting the entire batch one warm June day with the aid of my lovely assistant/part-time migrant worker.

Nury realizing how much there is left to pick.

This was no small task as there were way more grapes than we originally thought. Most were accessible from below the trellis (as I planned and hoped) but there were many that needed to be picked from above.

A lovely bird in the bush is worth more than I was led to believe.

We also made a discovery while perched up above on ladders.

Hidden treasure.
House finch eggs!

It looks like Nury wasn’t the only lovely bird nestled in the vine! We had to take care not to disturb this area too much for fear of the finches abandoning their brood. I could see them up in the pepper tree watching intently and worriedly as two giant hairless apes stomped all about their lovely little home. Stupid humans.

After a couple hours, the job was finally completed. A massive harvest of mildly gross Niagara grapes. I know, I’m really selling these grapes aren’t I? Truth in advertising my good reader. When life gives you shitty grapes, make shitty wine with it. I digress.

A bountiful harvest!

And this was not a light bushel either. Well over 60 lbs. in fact!

A hefty load! Also, the grapes were heavy. See what I did there? A poopy pants reference.
Luckily I am super mighty and can easily carry this…ah fuck! My back!! Authors note: By the way, I should mention that the shirt I’m wearing is simply a joke and doesn’t reflect my true feelings. Please take it with a grain of salt and as lightly as it was intended.

After the harvest it was time for some classical poses and pretty pretty snapshots. When you’re this much of a jackass, they call you Mr. Jackass!

A solo Nero. Or Western mustachioed spotted jackass.
Sasha says, “Hey! I want some of that sweet Nero action!”
“Fine, Babycakes Fuzzy Britches Widdle Wumpkins, your wish is my command.”

With dreams of future liver damage and slurred words mixed gracefully with poor decision making, I set off to Matt’s house. A trunk-load of these damned grapes weighing down my Tbird as I clung to the skirts of the two lane.

Blueberry wine. Photo by Matthew Gates

I arrived to a very welcoming host and a bottle of his homemade blueberry wine. I had to have two glasses of this amazing brew, it was simply divine! It is my sincere hope that Matthew is reading these words right now and giving thought to perhaps supplying me with another sample of this years’ batch of blueberry wine. Not that I would ask of course, just thinking out loud. *clears throat*

The blueberry wine also got me very excited about the prospects of a foxy Mind Your Dirt variety so we cut through the pleasantries and got down to business. The first step was to begin the arduous task of juicing the grapes.

Divide and conquer. Photo by Matthew Gates https://www.youtube.com/user/Zenthanol
The juice is loose. Photo by Matthew Gates https://www.youtube.com/user/Zenthanol

Once the juicing was done, we had a nice bucket of must.  About 4.22 gallons worth to be precise. That’s a lot of potential booze right there!

Musty must must be good. Photo by Matthew Gates https://www.youtube.com/user/Zenthanol

Matthew then added 5 campden (Potassium Metabisulphite) tablets to kill any unintentional microbes that might have started boozing up the mixture. We can’t have any fermenting anarchy going on now can we?

After 24 hours, he added 2.5 lbs. of brown sugar as well as brewer’s yeast (the specific isolate or strain was called Elixir). The large plastic fermenter was then stored for about two weeks to allow the sugars and yeast to work their magic. This process is called “racking“. Seeing as this wine was only racked once, it wouldn’t have as much of a shelf life as other wines. I was told I have about a year before the “lees” began altering the flavor.

“Because I juiced the grapes into must, instead of mashing them, the solids are blended into fine particulates which can have an effect on the taste and the way the lees develop. Lees that stay in the wine too long impart off flavors. That, and the bottling process, is why I said the wine may have a shelf life of about a year.”

After the two weeks was over, Matthew filtered out the must and bottled the brew immediately after.

moon-shining at its finest. Photo by Matthew Gates https://www.youtube.com/user/Zenthanol

Then, viola! The first official Mind Your Dirt wine from the Gielow Estate Vineyards of Mountain View!

Thar be booze!! Photo by Matthew Gates https://www.youtube.com/user/Zenthanol

And more booze!

Lets get wasted! Photo by Matthew Gates https://www.youtube.com/user/Zenthanol

The total was 24 bottles of wine. No small amount from my humble urban farm. All that remained at this point was to design the signature label for the branding of this new venture. With a little help from a certain graphic designer I know.

After we split the profits there was little more to do other than sample the wine and think about how rich and fancy my life will now become as a world-renowned vintner. So many checks to deposit, so little time!

The moment of truth! The cork removed, the glass awaiting the pour, and the mouth and liver drooling in anticipation!


“Oh my god! It’s…it’s…

…disgusting!” was my first reaction. All I could taste was the less than favorable Niagara grape sneaking back in with all its foxy sourness. Egads! I cannot escape this damnable grapey nightmare!

And now I feel as disturbed as Frank Alexander in A Clockwork Orange after receiving a bit of the ultraviolence. Pushing this shitty, yet potent, brew on any and all vistors. Here is a dramatization of what it’s like to pay me a visit…”TRY…THE WINE!”…

I’ve officially tried everything in the book of grape products that I can imagine regarding this vine. The only creatures that seem to enjoy it are the chickens, so the chickens shall have it all. Until I can finally cut back this vine to next to nothing and allow my true concord to take its place.

I retried the wine about three weeks ago as its shelf life is beginning to wane. While the underlying flavor is still lackluster, I must admit that the potency of the brew is impressive! I ended up drinking most of the bottle as a result. I also pawned some of it off to some friends in hopes that none of it goes to waste. I think I’ll re-brand it as a nice bottle of “Hobo White: A ‘palatable’ stinky brew that’ll get you really fucked up while sleeping under the railroad car.”

Not the worst legacy to leave I guess.

Any of you homesteaders have any wine making experience you’d like to share? I’m also curious if anyone has any experience with Niagara grapes that can offer a stay of execution for my vine. Let me know in the comments below please!

29 Replies to “Waxing Dionysus: A Story about Making Homemade Wine”

    1. Hard cider or regular? I’m a complete novice when it comes to brewing anything. With this year’s harvest, I’ve been making pupcicles and frozen chicken treats out of the harvest. To beat the summer heat. That’s as involved as I wish to be with these lackluster grapes.

      1. Can’t you graft decent grapes onto the existing healthy and vigorous vines? Hard cider. I’m looking for something light and dry–perhaps with an edge. I tried some Blake’s, El Chavo, a mango habanero cider, and I’m smitten.

    1. Agreed. Slash and burn! I just loaded the freezer with pupcicles and frozen chicken treats all loaded with grapes. I’m at a loss as to any other use this year. It’s always such a massive crop too. Such a pity.

  1. Welcome back to the internet! We brew all the time! I’ve made wine, meads, ciders and soooo much beer! I do a dang good cherry wine with burgundy grapes.

    I would recommend adding something else to the grapes to lift it. Elderflower might work well or the fragrant coconut scented gorse if you can get it here in the US. There’s lots of fruit wines like strawberry or rhubarb which might fair well with your grapes.

    1. That’s some good advice. If I wanted to try this at home this time, how much stuff would I need to get? My friend Matt did all the chemistry with this batch. I liked the harvest and deliver level of involvement though. I mean, I juiced a little of the grapes with him, but then left it to the expert to do the rest. If the investment isn’t too steep, maybe I’ll get my own supplies and try again. But this time add something else to help the grape.

      Also, thanks for the welcome back! I’ve hated being away for so long. I had so many freelance museum jobs one after the other for months. One was a massive conservation project and I had a giant sculpture on my garage for four months. Huge project for the city of San Diego. This was the first weekend I had nothing to do but write a blog post.

      I thought about starting this one with a lengthy apology and explanation, but then figured if someone reads this down the road, it wouldn’t matter and only serve as annoying groveling for those simply interested in the story. Regardless, it’s good to be back! Thanks again Emma.

      Oh, I have been posting on my social media all the while though. So if you don’t see me here, you can always drop me a line on Facebook etc. All under Mind Your Dirt of course. I’m never completely off the radar when it comes to gardening with danger.

  2. “Hobo White: A ‘palatable’ stinky brew that’ll get you really fucked up while sleeping under the railroad car.”

    I almost fell off my couch laughing. As a recovering addict, I just found this so entertaining, as it accurately describes my reaction to some of the weird concoctions I tried before I got sober 🙂

    1. Perhaps I have a potential career as a wine salesman. Truth in advertising being my strong suit.

      Hobo white bathtub wine; it beats drinking a bottle of Windex behind the dumpster of the Seven Eleven. But not by much. Buy three, get one free.

  3. Sweet I’ll stalk I mean follow you…wait that’s not much better either.

    You should have a look in the local classifieds for some home brew kits you can usually pick them up really cheap or at least they seem to be where I live!

    1. All stalkers are welcome and encouraged. There should be a lovely brunch just for MYD stalkers. All two of you. My treat.

      Yeah, the more I talk to people about this, the more I want to try again but at home. One guy on Reddit said I should try some single bottle beer or single bottle mead to just get used to the fermentation process. He talked me down from the ledge of failure and disenfranchisement. For now at least.

      1. Ah seriously give me a shout I’ve been at this for years and we’ve recently started teaching classes here in Utah.

        I’ll message you so you at least have the option to probe more.

  4. OK I’m not nearly as good at being funny, but here is my attempt at brewing. https://marydellavalle.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/apricot-vinegar-anyone/. I presently have 10 gallons of very strong apricot vinegar with a heavy overtone of home made bread. The stuff is so strong I couldn’t get the vinegar taste out of my mouth for at least a week. I am thinking I might use it to clean windows and etch my cement floors prior to staining.

    Thanks for the description of some of the steps that I didn’t know to do: use of Potassium Metabisulphite, use of real brewer’s yeast instead of bread making yeast, and “racking” for only two weeks rather than 1 year.

    Some of my classmates learned brewing from a rather infamous training program aka California’s penitentiary system. They suggested breaking a metal electrical face plate in half, connecting the 1/2 faceplate “electrodes” to a battery, immersing the electrodes into opposite sides of the “pruno”, containing it with plastic bags and using electrolysis to distill off the alcohol (which I did not get). All can be done with materials that are readily available without making any specialized purchases. Next time I get more fruit than I can use or distribute in a year, I’ll give it a whirl.

    As it is, chickens and backyard finches are very happy campers.

    1. It sounds like we have some learning to do. But that’s why we experiment. I’ve been getting some comments on Reddit that two weeks wasn’t enough time to properly rack the brew. One guy recommended I start off with a beer or mead in a single bottle with a balloon over it just to get used to the fermentation process. I like that baby step mentality and I think I’ll give it a go.

      Prison booze sounds like a fascinating venture! I thought so while watching last seasons Orange is the New Black. I said, “hey now. That’s some industrious shit right there!”

      this year my hens will be getting grape treats galore!

  5. I can’t believe what a haul you get of that vine! My jaw literally dropped open! We grow little white Interlaken grapes which taste like Concords–so good! I’ve heard they’re not good for wine, but I’d rather eat them anyway. Of course, up here in Washington, they’re not ready until September. The vines grow like monsters, though, threatening to engulf the deck umbrella and the ginkgo tree. If only they produced so many grapes! Love your arbor … nothing looks as cool and refreshing as sunlight filtered through grape leaves.

    1. Thanks D’Arcy! I do enjoy sitting under the canopy with hundreds of grapes dangling above me. The concords here are already starting to ripen. Throws of my rhythms with such an early harvest. Concords are always a fall crop in NY. Here, I have to fight the Fig beetles for just a nibble. I think this knee Niagara vine has caused the fruit surplus that has fueled an entire massive civilization of fig beetle in my yard. Any of them I catch go right to the chickens. Handfuls a day during the peak of their season. It’s nuts.

        1. Ermagerd! She is healthy and driving me nuts! I’ve been posting tons of annoying videos and photos on the Mind Your Dirt Instagram and Facebook pages. All of which you should be following (*clears throat). She’s ridiculous. Her and Sasha are becoming friends as well. No group cuddles yet, but we’re getting close! Now she just teases poor Sasha with sneak attacks and a millisecond of love.

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