29 June 2007

Jim Santo: winemaker

Jim Santo is lead guitarist in the NYC-based music ensemble The Sharp Things. They’ve been making a great fuss of complex and unapologetically glorious piano and strings driven pop songs for a decade or more. Their new CD, ‘A Moveable Feast’ has just been released on Bar/None Records. While Jim is known as a musician and self-described workaholic, he may be less well known as an astute winemaker. We talked about his hobby recently…

Shelly: Ok. Here's the starting point: How do you classify the wine you make... is it fruit wine?

Jim: Oh it's fruit wine, alright.

S: So, tell us about the process of making it.

J: Making wine is almost absurdly simple and the perfect hobby for someone who doesn't have a lot of time to devote to their hobby. Good results are easy provided you follow simple rules:
1 -- Keep your equipment spotlessly CLEAN.
2 -- Avoid exposing your wine to the air - AIR IS YOUR ENEMY!
3 -- Find a good recipe -- and follow it.

Just about any fruit or vegetable can be used to make wine, even carrots and turnips (I haven't the nerve to try those however). I have thus far made wine from peaches, apples, cherries and strawberries.

Each fruit requires a slightly different mix of ingredients and preparation but the basic approach is the same. Without going into too much detail, the process is:

1 - mash up the fruit and put the mash in a nylon mesh bag (for a 5-gallon batch, typically around 25 POUNDS of fruit)

2 - put the bag in a large CLEAN plastic bucket with a tight lid that has a little hole in it, into which is placed a fermentation lock that lets air out but not in -- this is your primary fermentor

3 - add hot water (for a 5-gallon batch, start with 6 gallons)

4 - add sugar (lots of it -- only grapes have enough natural sugar to make wine without adding sugar... for a 5-gallon batch, that means 5-6 POUNDS of sugar)… ordinary table sugar is fine.

5 - add other stuff. typically this would include:
- sulfites (a disinfectant, kills wild yeast among other nasties)
- pectic enzyme (breaks down the fruit mash)
- ascorbic acid
- tannin
- yeast food (kick starts the fermentation process)

6 - check your mixture to make sure you have the correct sugar content (use a measuring device called a hydrometer) and acidity for your recipe.

7 - seal the bucket and then, after 24 hours, add your yeast

The correct yeast is VERY important!

Basically, what happens in fermentation, is the yeast eats the sugar and pisses out carbon dioxide and alcohol. The C02 escapes into the air (via a one-way fermentation lock) but eventually the alcohol will kill the yeast, thus stopping fermentation.

It is therefore ESSENTIAL that your yeast have a high tolerance for alcohol (also an essential quality of the winemaker). Ordinary baker's yeast will die too soon, resulting in a too-sweet wine. There are many kinds of specialty yeast for winemaking. I prefer to use Champagne yeast, that gives me a nice dry wine.

8 - within a few days of adding the yeast, the fun really starts as the mixture (called "must") will start to roil and churn and sizzle with rapid fermentation, exuding an incredible yeasty, boozy odor that will fill your home.

It's important to keep your must as cool as possible during this process, preferably below 75 degrees F. Fermentation generates a lot of heat, and that heat can kill your yeast prematurely. Measure the temperature frequently. Keep your bucket in a cool place. I fill big ziploc bags with ice and place them in the must.

9 - after about a week, fermentation will slow down to a low sizzle. Remove the bag of mostly digested fruit pulp from the bucket and discard it. Then siphon the must from the bucket into a CLEAN, 6-gallon glass container called a jarboy. Cork the jarboy with a fermentation lock, place it out of direct sunlight -- and forget about it for 2 months!

10 - after 2 months, a lot of sediment will have settled to the bottom of the jarboy. Siphon the wine off the sediment into a second, 5-gallon jarboy. Cork the jarboy with a fermentation lock, place it out of direct sunlight -- and forget about it for 2 months!

11 - after 2 more months, repeat step #10

12 - after 2 more months, repeat step #11

Keep doing this until the wine is clear. Be patient! Many winemaking books will recommend clearing additives or filtering. Fuck that. What's your hurry? Go to the liquor store if you need a quick drink.

13 - when the wine is clear, bottle it. You can actually drink it now, but it will be better in a couple more months. Don't keep it too long, though: fruit wine does not improve over years.

A 5-gallon batch makes 2 cases of delicious homemade fruit wine!

S: I once tried to make potato vodka. This was in the days before the Internet, so I sort of pieced together the info I could from Tolstoy stories and bootlegger commentaries I'd found in the library. Wound up three months later with a case of food poisoning and a plant growing out of an old bottle of Smirnov that kinda looked like the monster from the trash compactor in Star Wars. So in no uncertain terms, tell us: What has worked and what hasn't. Remember: you are our wine-making guru; the fortunes of our own fruit wines lie in your hands.

J: It's important to have a good recipe. My only real failure was an apple wine, and that was because the recipe called for chopping the apples. Not only could I not fit 25 pounds of floating apple chunks in my fermentator, but the chunks did not release all their juice, resulting in a thin, unsatisfying wine. I later found out the apples should have been ground up to an oatmeal like consistency. The apple wine was doubly disastrous because it became contaminated (I had failed to top off sufficiently, allowing too much air in the jarboy). I managed to save it by filtering, but in the end, the wine sucked. BE CLEAN! AIR IS YOUR ENEMY! So again -- keep everything you use CLEAN CLEAN CLEAN! Wash everything with a sulfite solution. Be totally OCD about it. If microbes get into your wine, well, you'd better like salad 'cause you'll have a lot of vinegar.

S: What is it that makes Queens such a perfect place to make your own wine?

J: Nothing. You can make wine anywhere. Although, had it not been for my neighbor's peach tree (now dead) dumping 25 pounds of peaches over my back fence, I would not have been faced with the problem of figuring out what to do with all that fruit -- and so would not have discovered the joys of winemaking.

While you are prepping your ingredients, take a listen to the new tracks from ‘A Moveable Feast’ and pick up a copy of the CD. You won’t be disappointed.

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