The grape is a fantastic little chemical plant that has
fascinated man since its vines first curled a tendril
around the pillars of history.
Man as wine maker has minced and munched them, beaten and baked them,
stomped and tromped them, peeled and congealed them, dried
and fried and fermented them.
The grape is a near-perfect, self-contained fermentation
package. Inside the skin is just about the right amount of
sugar and acids to satisfy ravenous yeasts and bacteria
hanging around on the skin. Crush the grape and these
interact, forming alcohol and eventually wine, and possibly
David H. Benzing, assistant professor of biology at Oberlin
College, is among those fascinated fans of the grape. He
has been with the college five years. His specialty is
plant physiology and ecology.
What’s all this got to do with wine making? Not a thing
except that Benzing happens to like good wine and he’s
convinced that some of the best wines can be homemade.
As an eighth grader he turned grape snatcher, raiding the
vines of neighbors in Mansfield to make his first batch of
wine. Was it a success? Well, not so much a success as a
blast. The whole mess blew up.
He tried again in the 10th grade and this time it was a
success . . . but a pretty sour one. Nobody could drink the
But now, with some years or experimentation behind him.
Benzing turns out a wine that would make old Fourchette
Escargot tip his hat, blow a kiss and whisper, “le beau
With a sharp eye for a bargain, Benzing says, you can
outfit yourself with all the necessary equipment for wine
making for less than $100. If you are good with tools, you
can make the stuff for a fraction of that.
His equipment includes a hand-operated grape press he
picked up at an auction. However, these can be purchased
new at modest cost.
His grape crusher is handmade, purchased from a farmer.
It’s simply an open-ended hopper with a wooden cylinder
studded with brass nails and driven by an electric motor.
The crusher is mounted on a large crock which catches the
He uses five-gallon glass bottles (carboys) for fermenting.
He buys them from a firm that sells spring water. These
bottles are chipped and cannot be used commercially but are
good for home use.
For storage, used wine bottles gathered from friends. The
corks he buys from a mail order firm. Wine corks are
difficult to get from local outlets.
But how about the bag used in the grape press? Is that a
hard-to-get item? Well, not really. He uses the family
laundry bag when it is not being used for other things.
Without taking overhead costs into consideration, Benzing
estimates home-made wine will cost about 40 cents a bottle
if you buy the juice.
If you buy the grapes and press them, the cost will be
about 30 cents a bottle and if you grow the grapes and
press them, the cost drops to a few cents a bottle.
To demonstrate his wine-making technique, which is rather
casual, he set up his press and crusher in the driveway.
Right away he attracted two Ph.D.’s and their wives who
gave him a hand, thus proving that wine, indeed, has an
amazingly social property that goes into effect even before
it is made.
Benzing hosed off the spiders and webs, hosed out last
year’s residue from the carboys and set his crusher on a
He fed grapes through the crusher until the crock was
filled, stuffed the mangled grapes along with a few fruit
flies, spiders, yellow jackets and little black beetle’s
into the laundry bag, squished the whole mess in the press
gathering the juice in a plastic refrigerator bowl, then
poured the juice into the fermentation carboys.
It is easy, but not as easy as it sounds.
A key factor in making good table wine, Benzing says, is
the sugar content of the grape–22 % to 24% is ideal.
Often additional sugar must be added since local grapes
rarely exceed 20%.
How do you determine the sugar content of a grape? You buy,
beg, borrow or steal a refractometer. That’s a little
tube-shaped instrument you squeeze a drop of grape juice
into, squint through and take a reading.
When sugar content is at the desired level, you start
picking the grapes. Benzing figures 14 pounds of grapes for
a gallon of juice and a gallon of juice makes about a
gallon of wine.
If you don’t want to invest in a press or crusher, you can
buy the juice from a vineyard equipped with a press. The
sugar content of the juice can be measured with a
hydrometer, the same type used to measure the antifreeze in
Benzing’s driveway production was white wine, using
Delaware and Seyval Blanc varieties, purchased at a
vineyard owned by Emil J. Novotny,
in Vermilion. In addition to Novotny’s commercial plantings,
Benzing and Dr. Robert Pugilese, Columbus psychiatrist,
maintain an experimental vineyard containing 40 to 45
varieties including five grafted French vinifera types,
considered by most experts to be the best wine grapes
Benzing poured juice into the five-gallon carboys only to
During primary fermentation, yeast feeds on the sugar,
making alcohol. In the process great quantities of carbon
dioxide gas (C02) are released. If the carboy is filled to
the neck the violent action of escaping gas can force the
juice to spill out, causing a great gloppy mess and a loss
With a flourish, Benzing tore up an old sheet for wadding,
which he stuffed into the necks of the carboys to keep bugs
from the murky, foul-looking liquid, but still allowing
gas to escape.
He moved the garage. The yeast kept steadily at work until
it had made about 12% alcohol . . . then it quit . . . went
into a dormant stage and settled to bottom with other
At this stage, the wine looked like the mess in a
stopped-up kitchen sink, and the sour taste was
Secondary fermentation is launched by a little bacterium
(harmless to man) that has a thing about malts acid, a
natural constituent of the grape. Another natural acid,
tartaric acid, has formed in crystals on the bottom and no
longer contributes its sourness to the wine.
Wine has to have some acid in it for that zestful tang, but
concentrated malts acid tastes like yechh to man and like
hmmmm to bacteria.
So the bacteria chomp up the malts acid molecules changing
them to lactic acid which is hmmmm to man and yechh to
The beginning of this process is usually marked by a sharp
fall in C02 production. Bubbles still rise but at a much
Right here things get tricky.
Benzing advises topping the carboys (filling them up to the
neck with excess juice set aside in smaller jugs) and
putting on a water lock about the time the wine begins to
A water lock is a stopper device which allows C02 to bubble
out through water but does not allow oxygen to come in. If
the wine is exposed to oxygen for too long a time, at this
point, it will start to turn to vinegar. So it is best,
Benzing says, to be a little early, rather than a little
late with the water lock.
During the secondary fermentation the wine clears, all the
crud falls to the bottom. This stage takes anywhere from a
few weeks to months, depending on the acidity of the juice
and the temperature. If the temperature falls below 55, the
process stops until a warm-up comes along.
Adding another casual facet to the art of wine making,
Benzing scrubs out his used wine bottles in the bathtub.
After they have been rinsed and allowed to dry, he siphons
the wine off into his sparkling little bottles. Only the
layer of crud is left in the carboys.
The small bottles are corked and stored an their sides in a
place where the temperature will stay between 55 and 60.
The bottles are kept on their sides to bloat the corks with
wine, insuring a perfect air seal.
Now the third stage of aging takes place. This very slow
action is the conversion of certain trace compounds of the
grape into other compounds, causing subtle changes in
color, taste and odor but not alcohol. It stays the same.
After two or three years of lying around (the wine, not
you), it’s festival time! But if you can’t wait that long
for the white wine to reach its peak, Benzing says you can
pop a cork the following spring.
The making of red wine differs slightly. The crushed grapes
(Benzing suggests Foch or Siebel 10878) are allowed to
ferment in the crocks a week before pressing.
This allows pigments in the skin to blend with the juice
giving the wine its rich red color and the characteristic
red wine flavor. Be sure to remove the stems before the
crushed grapes ferment or they will impart a bitterness to
Red also will age longer than white, keeping well in an
air-tight bottle for four to five years or longer.
The process for sweet wines is essentially the same as that
for table wines, except sugar is added to the juice, 5% to
6% above the level desired for table wines.
Uncle Sam says you can make 200 gallons of wine per year
for home use without paying a tax, and unless you have a
huge drinking family or are Herman P. Lushwell, that should
be plenty. Two hundred gallons a year is about 1,000
To keep Uncle informed, however, you must write the
Internal Revenue Service, Alcohol and Tobacco Division. If
you live in the Cleveland area, that office is located at
the Federal Building.
The tax people will send you two forms that you must fill
out and send to Uncle five days before you plan to start
Uncle wants to know where you are in case he thinks there’s
a little hankypanky going on with your driveway wine
production facility. After all, he got 684 applications
this year from Ohio for wine making and when he checks all
those driveways, if there are more active viniculturists
than his records show, somebody’s in trouble.
For the serious amateur who wants to grow his own grapes,
Benzing points out vines will cost anywhere from 50 to 90
cents apiece if purchased from a commercial grower; that
is, one who sells vines to large vineyards. He suggests
about 40 to 50 wines planted six to eight feet apart.
A vine often produces eight to 15 pounds so he suggests
eight to 10 vines of each variety, assuming you will want
to make more than one type of wine.
Benzing says that in the early 1800s the first generation
of wine grapes in this country was grown. This generation
contains the well known eastern varieties and was developed
from wild American grapes.
There are at least 20 of this group still cultivated,
including Catawbas, Delawares, Concord, and Niagaras, which
still are the backbone of wine making in the eastern part
of the U.S.
A second generation was developed at the Geneva
Experimental Station in New York and in other installations
from about 1930 to present. However, this generation is not
exclusively used in wine making. Many were primarily
developed for table use.
A third generation is the French hybrid series. French and
American grapes were crossed in an attempt to come up with
a vine having the hardy, disease-resistant qualities of the
eastern American varieties and the high-quality fruit of
the French vinifera types
There are 50 to 75 types of these hybrids in cultivation.
Among there are the Siebel series and the Seyne Villiard
series. Some are grown in Ohio but most, in the United
States, are in New York State
The mast recent improvement in eastern wine grape culture
is the result of grafting European varieties onto hardy
local stock. This is in the experimental stage now but at
least two wineries in the east are using them.
Benzing points out that it takes three to four years for
the vines to mature and that many members of each
generation can be planted in this area.
And for the very serious amateur, Benzing suggests a
reading list: Wine Making at Home, by Homer Hardwick.
Benzing says it is the best all-purpose book for the
beginning home wine maker. General Viticulture by A. J.
Winker; Technology of Wine Making by M. A. Amerine, H.
HIV. Berg and W. V. Cruess; American Wines and Wine
Making by Phil lip Wagner, and Folk Wines, by M. A.
If you don’t happen to live in the Cleveland area, just
go down to your friendly, neighborhood federal income tax
office, wherever it may be, and request United States
Treasury Department Internal Revenue Form 1541, titled “Tax
Free Wine For Family Use.”