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Many wine enthusiasts know that making good wine is really hard to do but fight a desire in them to make their own wine. It seems that the more you know about wine and critique it, the more you wonder if you could make it better.

We have members of our club that have made wine for a while so I asked one of our members some questions about making wine and he was nice enough to give us thoughtful responses. Ernesto (a Napa Wine Club member) has made a few varietals (both red and white) and each are incredible. Too bad they are not for sale. [We will also have a similar Q&A with a commercial wine maker on Diamond Mountain.]

Interview with Ernesto Tong:

For someone who wants to make their own wine, what is the first thing they should do to get started?

As with anything else you really need to dedicate a lot time to learn the craft. Read a lot of books on the subject matter. Talk to a lot of people in the wine industry. Ask a lot of questions and get advice from other winemakers.

What are the basic things you’ll need?

A good space to work in and a barrel room storage room that’s temperature and humidity controlled. You’ll also need to invest in a lot of equipment to get started.

What are the most expensive items?

There are a lot of fixed start-up costs. Barrels, Presses, Pumps, Tanks, Macro Bins. For a home winemaker this ends up costing you considerably more than your initial grape cost. You can rent a lot of items too but if you’re planning to do this for a long time you’re better off buying a lot of these items.

What are some lessons learned about buying the grapes, barrels, and any other things you need?

You’ll make a lot of mistakes when you’re first starting out, so in my opinion, it’s a good idea to not buy the most expensive Napa Cab grapes or dive right into brand new French Oak Barrels. Do that as you become a better winemaker.

Is it beneficial to do it with friends, and if so, why?

It’s a great hobby to do with friends. It’s a lot of fun and it’s also a lot of work so you definitely don’t want to do it by yourself. Communication is key so everyone knows what their roles and responsibilities are.

What are the lessons you learned about the fermentation process?

Experiment with different yeasts to bring out different tastes and qualities in the wine. Make sure to be diligent about stirring the lees in Whites and punching the cap down for Reds. Test the PH, TA and Brix levels frequently. If you need to make adjustments to the wine it’s best to make them early in the process.

How about extracting the wine and bottling?

Get a good crew and get your assembly line set up ahead of time. You’ll want a person on every station.

How about cleaning out the barrels during fermentation?

Barrel maintenance is a huge deal. You can cause a lot of problems with your wine if you don’t take good care of your barrels. When we were first starting out we ruined a whole barrel of Zin due to bad barrel maintenance. You should keep them in a cool humid environment and make sure to sanitize them after you bottle.

What tricks did you learn regarding how to save money?

A lot of items can and should be bought used; especially equipment that doesn’t have a lot of moving parts. You can also get better grape prices if you deal with vineyards directly.

What are some tricks you learned for getting questions answered?

Get a good mentor or talk to a lot of vineyard and winery owners.

Anything you would do differently if you started again?

Take a lot of notes. You forget things from year to year so it’s easy to forget or miss a step. Keep track of all your measurements/levels along the way.

What are the most important elements to make the wine taste great that one can do?

You can make a bad wine out of a good grape but you’ll never make a great wine out of a bad grape. That being said, find grapes that you really like and be very meticulous with your process.

What else would you like to talk about, regarding the experience?

Sanitation is super important. Make sure you work in a clean environment and thoroughly clean all your equipment. Also, every time you’re planning to work on the wine, think ahead of all the steps and everything you’ll need that day. Nothing worse than realizing you forgot to buy the yeast the day your grapes come in and the store is already closed.

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