Make It Fizz!

Make It Fizz!
By: Jeff Shoemaker 
This article originally appeared in the 
Jun/Jul 2019 issue of Winemaker Magazine 

Making non-traditional sparkling wine at home through force carbonation is simple and can yield amazing results. With just a few pieces of equipment, one can make delicious bubbly in a matter of weeks. In this article I will outline how to keg, carbonate, and bottle sparkling wine to be enjoyed with friends and family.
Force carbonation is done by injecting carbon dioxide (CO2) into a solution (up to 50-60 psi), as is the common method of carbonating soft drinks, sparkling water, and often beer. Even though we are not reaching traditional champagne psi levels (75-99 psi), it is the best we can do with readily available equipment. By racking wine into a keg, refrigerating it, and connecting the keg to a CO2 tank set at a specific pounds per square inch (psi), over time, results in the wine becoming saturated with Co2 and turning into sparkling wine. There is more to it, but this is basically the process.

Required Equipment
Before you get started, I must warn you that you will be working with contents under pressure. Be sure to wear protective clothing, and eye protection. Keep children away when handling pressurized kegs, especially when bottling. Wine could spray out or bottles can fail during the bottling process. Tell those kiddos to go play some Fortnite.
List of Needed Equipment
• 5-gallon (19-L) Cornelius keg and necessary connections
• Co2 tank and regulator
• Refrigerator
• Stainless steel counter pressure bottle filler with pressure gauge
• Hoses and tubing
• Bottles for carbonated wine: Champagne, flip-top, or beer bottles (if bottling under 50 psi)
• Bottle closures (crown caps, Champagne corks and wire, or plastic stoppers)
• Bottle capper or Champagne wire tightener tool
Let us briefly break down each piece of equipment so we can familiarize ourselves with them.
Cornelius kegs are the most popular kegs for carbonating wine and beer at home. They come in various sizes, but most common are 5-gallon (19-L) kegs, which can hold about 25 750-mL bottles of wine. They are readily available from local and online homebrew outlets and can usually be found used and at a discounted price. There are two different kinds: Pin lock and ball lock. Pin and ball simply refers to how the connectors will attach to the keg. Ball lock is a quick-disconnect style and the pin lock actually has pins on the post to secure the connector. Within each post is a spring-loaded pin called a poppet. Within each black and gray connector is a pin that will depress the poppet to allow gas to enter the keg through one and liquid to come out through the other. Another difference between these kegs are their height, with 5-gallon (19-L) pin lock kegs measuring at around 22 inches (56 cm) tall and ball lock kegs approximately 25 inches (63 cm) tall with another ¼- to ½- inch (~1-cm) added to each for the connectors. Be sure to measure the height of the inside of your fridge to ensure a good fit. Each keg is equipped with a pressure relief valve that will allow excessive pressure to escape in the event the keg is over-pressurized. The pressure relief valve on the ball lock keg has a pull-ring and can be engaged any time whereas the pressure relief on the pin lock can only be engaged when the pressure exceeds 130 psi. No matter what keg you choose, either keg style will do the job just fine.
Co2 tanks
These can be rented at local welding and gas supply outlets for a fee. If you plan to make sparkling wine production a part of your yearly wine making practices, the less expensive option, in the long run, is to purchase the tank and simply pay to have it refilled or exchanged as needed. A 5-lb. (2.25-kg) tank will do a few kegs before needing a refill. Choose the size that fits your output.
Dual Gauge Co2 Regulator
These can also be purchased from welding and gas supply stores, although purchasing online may be a less expensive option. These regulators have two gauges — one tells you the approximate gas level in the tank and the other informs you of the current psi level in the tank. The psi level is adjusted either by turning a knob or a screw with a flat-head screwdriver. Most regulators go up to 50–60 psi.
Co2 is absorbed into wine more readily at lower temperatures. To avoid wasting Co2, be sure to cool the keg of wine first before beginning the carbonation process (more on the later). Depending of your desired setup, you could use a spare fridge or a kegerator — just be sure the height allows for the size of your keg.
Counter Pressure Bottle Filler
These are hand held units that fill Champagne and beer bottles under pressure, free of oxygen exposure. You will see a few different versions for sale online. Since we are bottling wine, only a stainless steel bottle filler should be used. I recommend the bottle filler with a pressure gauge so you are aware of the pressure while filling.

Please Note: Only Champagne, flip-top (E.Z. Cap bottles), or beer bottles suited for bottling carbonated beverages should be used as they are made to withstand pressure. Be sure not to exceed the maximum pressure in order to bottle safely and securely. Remember to always wear personal protective equipment when bottling your carbonated beverages.
Beer bottles: 50 psi
Flip-top or E.Z. Cap bottles: 58 psi
Champagne bottles: up to 90 psi.
Which bottle you choose should dictate the psi level you set your tank to in order to carbonate it. I usually go a few above the recommenced psi level because I am assuming I am losing a few psi in the bottling process.

What is a Good Wine for Force Carbonation?
The Answer: Anything and everything! What is great about kegging and carbonating wine is you can take a single gallon (4 L), carbonate it, and determine if sparkling is a good fit for that wine. I prefer to carbonate sweet wines that I make such as black/red raspberry, Catawba grape, cranberry, blueberry, and many others. One thing I have learned is that carbonated sweet wines will taste dryer than their still versions. This is because some of the carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid and contributes to the overall acidity of the wine (think of a wine that has not been degassed). This is something to consider when back-sweetening a wine before it goes into the keg. You may want to bump up the sweetness level just a bit. Be sure to experiment to nail down your usual suspects you will carbonate every year. Documentation is key to future successes. Rather than relying on your memory for sweetness levels, psi levels etc., write it down and refer to it later.

How to Carbonate: Step by Step

1. Ensure your base wine or cuvee is enjoyment ready. This means clear, stabilized, and ready to drink. The wine will not develop any further once in the keg and shut off from oxygen forever.
2. Sanitize everything.
3. Rack the wine into the keg. Stop filling once the wine has reached just below the gas-in dip tube. This is so if there is any negative pressure, wine will not be forced through the gas line back into the CO2 regulator potentially ruining it (it has happened to me).
4. Close the lid making sure it is properly seated.
5. Connect the keg to the CO2 tank and set it to 30 psi allowing gas to flow into the tank (remember the gray or white connector is for the gas-in post and the black is for the liquid out post). Once the sounds of the keg filling with CO2 subsides, remove the gas-in connector to the keg and slightly depress the poppet in the center of the gas post (Pink-lock kegs) or pull the pressure relief valve (Ball-lock kegs) to release the gas. By doing this you are purging any oxygen from the keg. Repeat this a few times and then finally allow CO2 into the tank without releasing it. As you wait for the gas to flow into the keg, spray the lid and posts with Star San or other no-rinse sanitizer to check for air leaks. A leak is indicated by bubbles forming where Star San was sprayed. In the event of a leak, tighten the posts or release the gas and seat the lid once more. It also helps to spray around the regulator and all gas connectors to ensure there are no leaks.
6. Refrigerate the keg down to 32 °F (0 °C) over night. Cold temperatures allow the CO2 to saturate the wine more effectively.
7. The next day, connect the keg to the CO2 and set the psi to 55–60.
8. Allow the CO2 to saturate the wine for up to two weeks.
9. After two weeks has passed, the now sparkling wine should be ready to bottle. Or, if you would like to serve this wine on tap, initially carbonate the wine to around 15 psi. At this low pressure level, the wine sparkling wine can be served from a stainless steel tap faucet (chrome plated brass will degrade from the acidity in the wine). .

Bottling Procedure

1. The stainless steel counter pressure bottle filler comes with set-up instructions. Follow those to get the unit set up and ready to fill bottles. Be sure to chill everything (wine and bottles) prior to bottle filling. The tubing and filler will cool down from the wine flowing through them, but you could even chill those things too. Warmth causes a loss of carbonation as well as foaming, which we would like to do our best to minimize.
2. Practice using the bottle filler first to gain an understanding of how it works. Practicing with water is fine, just know water is not a highly carbonated beverage and when it is showtime, the bottling procedure will be a little different. Your first time may be a mess of sprayed wine and half filled bottles. This is part of getting used to using the counter pressure bottle filler. A rite of passage if you will.
3. Place the keg of wine in an ice bath to keep it cool. I fill my bottles in a dish tub to catch foaming and any spray that may occur (and it will).
4. Sanitize everything
5. Release the gas in the keg, reconnect the CO2 and set it to 15 psi and allow it to fill the tank.
6. Place the bottle filler wand into the bottle and secure firmly by pushing down, ensuring the rubber bung makes a tight seal. Once the Co2 enters the bottle, the bottle filler will want to push out to some degree. Do not allow that to happen as foaming will result.
7. Engage the 3-way ball valve on top to fill the bottle with CO2, engage the pressure relief valve on the side of the bottle filler to allow oxygen to be purged out of the bottle for a few seconds.
8. Close the 3-way ball valve and the pressure relief valve on the side. Turn the ball valve to allow wine to flow into the bottle. Wine will not enter the bottle until the pressure relief valve to opened to allow CO2 to escape. Do this slowly until the wine starts to flow into the bottle at a moderate rate, making sure foaming is kept to a minimum. Excessive foaming takes time to dissipate, prolonging the bottle filling process. Open the pressure relief valve more to increase the flow of wine and close it to slow the flow of wine into the bottle. The relief valve will need to be managed to address any excess foaming as the bottle fills.
9. Fill the bottle to the top. The fill level will be perfect once the pressure filler has been removed.
10. When the bottle is full, shut the flow of wine off with the 3-way ball valve. Slowly unscrew the pressure relief valve, not all of the way, but just enough to allow excess Co2 to escape and the pressure gauge on the filler goes down to under 5 psi.
11. Remove the bottle filler and apply the closure immediately. If using a plastic stopper, insert it into the bottle (placing the bottle on a wood block and using rubber mallet works well), secure it with the wire hood and insert the wire tightener tool to pull the wire tight, ensuring the wire is under the lip of the Champagne bottle. Twist six half-turns, creating a loop. Bend the loop up or down and then a foil wrap and a label can be applied for decoration.

Now that the bottles are filled and the closures are in place, they can be kept at cellar temperature on their side or upright. When you decide to enjoy this wine with friends, be sure to use Champagne flutes as that will display the bubbles beautifully.
An easier alternative to the hand held counter pressure bottle filler is Williams Warn Bottle Filler. It is countertop positioned, hands free, does not foam, and does not lose carbonation. Consider this if you really ramp up your sparkling wine production at home.

As you can see making sparkling wine at home with the force carbonation method is simple, and gives you excellent results. With just a few pieces of equipment, you can now add more diversity to your cellar and have something different to share with family and friends.

For a short read of my first experience with the counter pressure bottle filler check my winemaking blog post “The Counter Pressure Bottle Filler. A Bloody Mess Ensues” at

Working with Small Barrels

By: Jeff Shoemaker
This article orriginally appeared in the
Apr/May 2019 issue of Winemaker Magazine

Oak wine barrels are a valuable addition to any winemaking set-up. Not only does a barrel add complexity, aroma, and tannin, it also allows a gradual, controlled amount of oxygen through the wood staves, which results in reduced astringency and helps stabilize color (among other beneficial phenolic reactions that increase sensory properties of the wine). When we compare our home winery to that of a professional one, we see that our home operation is a miniature version of the big guys, and the barrels we use are often no different. Using small barrels is perfect for home winemakers seeking the benefits of oak but not making enough to fill a 59-gallon (223-L) behemoth. In addition, their small stature is manageable, meaning you can pick them up and carry them around for cleaning (empty of course) and their footprint is smaller, which is a positive attribute in a home winery setting. Batches made at home are typically in the 5- to 15-gallon (19- to 57-L) range. Barrels at these volumes are very affordable compared to their 59-gallon (223-L) counterparts (have you ever priced a 59-gallon (223-L) French oak barrel? Gee wiz!) However, with the benefits of using a smaller barrel come a few challenges we need to overcome in order to take full advantage of what they have to offer. In this article I will attempt to alleviate any concerns you may have of using smaller sized barrels. I will go over how to prepare for your new arrival, how to break it in, and go over other things we will need to consider to get the most out of this new addition to the winery.

How to Choose a Barrel

Each type of barrel comes in several different sizes to accommodate virtually any volume being produced. Therefore, when thinking about what barrel is right for you, one must consider the different flavors and nuances a barrel provides and worry about the volume of the actual barrel a little later. There up to 400+ different species of oak and only a few are considered fit for wine barrels. Of these few, two types are grown in the six main forests of France known for oak: Limousin, Vosges, Nevers, Bertranges, Allier, and Tronçais. It is in these six main forests of which Quercus robur, known as pedunculate or English oak, and Quercus petraea, known as Sessile Oak are grown, with the latter being considered superior for its tighter grain and contribution of beneficial aromatics, phenols, tannin and volatile aldehydes. Hungarian and Eastern European forests also produce Quercus robur and Quercus petraea in the famous Zemplen forest of Hungary, with barrel oak also coming from Romania and Croatia. And last but not least, American oak (Quercus alba) which is grown in the eastern United States, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Each type oak has its own flavor profile and oak flavor transfer rates. French oak tends to add dark chocolate, roasted coffee beans and exotic, savory spices, with a subtle and slow extraction. Hungarian oak lends vanilla, spice and caramel-like flavors. Although Quercus robur and Quercus petraea are grown in both France and Hungary, it is the terroir that sets the barrels from each location apart. In my research I have found the trees grown in the Zemplen forests with its volcanic soil grow slower and smaller, which makes for a tighter grain, and a very slow, delicate extraction compared to the oak growing in France. American oak, with its more intense approach to its infusion of flavors into the wine will impart vanilla, aromatic sweetness, roasted coffee, coconut, and dill. Compared to French and Hungarian oak, American has a more intense flavor, and a quicker extraction. When it comes to cost, French is at the high end of the spectrum, American at the bottom and Hungarian oak somewhere between the two. If you want the French essence at a fraction of the cost, I recommend Hungarian oak. If you are working with hybrid grapes, experiment with oak cubes and staves of different types of oak to determine the best fit for your goals.

What Size is Right for You

The oak-surface to wine ratio is a major factor to consider when deciding the length of time a wine may age in a barrel.

In a smaller barrels, initially, oak will be imparted into the wine faster than that of a 59-gallon (223-L) barrel, which has just the right surface-to-wine ratio for extended aging without the worry of over-oaking, before the slow controlled oxidation has had its chance to influence the wine in a positive way. In our case, it will take a few rotations of wine in and out of the barrel before we can leave the wine in long enough to make use of the beneficial oxidation process. In other words, the barrel will need a breaking-in period to avoid an undesirable level of oak flavor, which would take years of aging before the wine mellows to a desired taste. American Oak, with its looser grain, is the quickest to impart its oak influence into the wine. Whereas French and Hungarian oak (depending on where the wood was grown and what species), will tend to have a tighter grain that will influence the wine with its oak flavor over a longer period of time. However, wood-to-wine ratio should be your primary consideration over grain tightness. Although the grain may be tighter, the barrel is still of a small size and will oak faster than a larger one. That being said, when preparing for the arrival of a new barrel, you will need to have up to five different batches ready to rotate in and out of it. This is because the first wine may need be racked out in a matter of weeks due to how quickly the wine takes on oak flavoring. After four or five rotations, you can rest easy and allow the wine to age for extended periods without the fear of too much oak character. You can even make a few less expensive wines from kits, juice, or non-premium grapes to go in first so if you accidentally over oak, you will not be doing so to a batch from grapes that you spent a year caring for in your own vineyard or paid a premium for.

With the oak to wine ratio concept in mind, you can determine the correct sized barrel that fits your production output to avoid storing it empty half of the year. If you purchase your grapes annually, simply get enough fruit to keep the barrel full until next harvest (85–100 lbs. for 5 gallons of finished wine/39–45 kg/19 L), and be sure to have extra wine for topping. When growing your own grapes, it may be difficult to project yearly output unless you are documenting and looking back at harvest data from previous years to determine if what you are harvesting will be enough. If you feel it may be a light year, juice pails or additional grapes can be purchased to fill the void. Evaluate your yearly volumes and plan accordingly to keep your barrel full and happy. However, if your wine is in danger of being over-oaked, and you do not have a wine to immediately follow, storing the barrel empty until another wine is ready to go is always an option. Simply rinse the barrel several times, drain, allow to dry, and burn a sulfur stick within barrel and replace the silicone bung. Be sure to check for the presence of sulfur monthly and replace as needed. Another option is to store barrels with a sulfur-citric acid solution, which keeps the barrel swelled and kept form drying out. This method of storage is recommend for well broken-in barrels as the solution will leach out some of the precious oak flavor from a new barrel. Monitoring and caring for your broken-in, but empty, barrel is incredibly important if you plan to continue use of this significant tool in your home winery. Improper storage and lack of intervention can cause contamination of the barrel and spoilage of any wine that eventually goes into it. It is highly recommended to keep wine in the barrel at all times. Otherwise there are options for empty storage if needed.

For an in-depth look at barrel care please read Barrel Care Techniques by: Daniel Pambianchi

In an effort to maintain a fully topped barrel, you will also need extra wine for topping as it evaporates. This evaporation is known as the “Angels Share,” which creates an ullage (head space) in the barrel that needs to be replenished every so often to prevent oxidation and the growth of surface yeasts that could impact the flavor negatively or even ruin the wine permanently. Depending on the humidity of the room, the barrel may require up to 500 mL of wine every two to four weeks to maintain a properly topped-up barrel. Strive to maintain a cellar temperature of 55–60 °F (13–16 °C) and a humidity level of 60–70%. When humidity levels fall below 50% then wine evaporation losses are higher, and levels above 85% are the perfect storm for mold growth. I realize this is home winemaking and conditions are seldom perfect, but do your best to maintain these levels for best results. In the winter when humidity levels are low, use a humidifier that allows the user to set the desired humidity level to keep it consistent. High summer temperatures and humidity levels can be kept in check with an air conditioner and/or dehumidifier.

At cooler temperatures, aging is slowed. At higher temperatures there could be an imbalance in the ratio at which oak compounds are being extracted along with the rate of microbial spoilage becomes accelerated. Be sure to purchase a thermometer and hygrometer so you know what is going on in your barrel storage room at all times. Another thing to consider is for the first two months you will need to monitor the absorption rate of the barrel and top up at least twice a week. As the barrel soaks up a portion of the wine, topping up will be less frequent and can be performed once a month or thereabouts. A good rule of thumb is to have at least 10% more wine than fits in the barrel for topping wine, or you can top up with a similar wine you already have bottled from a previous vintage. Even store bought wine can be used as long potassium sorbate is not an ingredient (as it would cause off flavors with wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation).

Preparing for its Arrival

Before we get our new barrel, we need to have a few things ready. As mentioned above, I recommend up to five batches of wine ready to rotate through the barrel as the first couple wines will obtain oak flavoring rather quickly. The barrel will need a cradle to sit in so it is up off of the floor and not rolling around. There are plenty of pictures on the internet to work from to build your own, or one can be purchased from the barrel seller, often with wheels attached for easy mobility around the winery for racking operations. Or the barrel can sit on a workbench or the floor with four wedges cut from 2” x 4” lumber in the front and back on each side to prevent it from rolling and to keep it elevated a bit off the floor. Typically your barrel will come with a wooden bung. These do not seal well and I urge you to purchase a silicone bung. These achieve an effective seal and are very durable. Be sure the room you are storing the barrel in is close to the recommended temperature and humidity levels outlined earlier.

Working with a Small Barrel

When I was researching the use of small barrels, I was very concerned about an aging schedule. How long will I leave the wine in the barrel? What if I over-oak my wine? Will the wine even be in the barrel long enough to benefit from the slow ingress of oxygen? While all of these are valid questions, one must realize each wine is different and will require a different aging regimen.

When the first and second wine go in, a good guideline to follow is one WineMaker’s Technical Editor Bob Peak's has stated in previous articles: One week per gallon (4 L) rule. This means for a 10-gallon (38-L) barrel, the wine can stay in for approximately 10 weeks. This time frame is definitely not enough time for any sort of oxygenation effects to take place (at first). But as we rotate more batches of wine through the barrel, each batch can kick its shoes off and stay a little longer than the last, as is the case with another schedule guideline that was recommended to me by a couple professional winemakers: The first wine may be in the barrel for just 8 to 10 weeks. The next wine could then stay double the previous time at 16 to 20 weeks and the next 32 to 40 weeks and so on. These time frames should assist you in determining how long to leave each wine in and prepare for how much will be required for topping the barrel off to keep it full at all times. According to Daniel Pambianchi’s “Techniques in Home Winemaking,” the first one or two wines aged in the barrel will be higher in tannin. The proceeding wines will be of higher quality because the wine can age longer as tannins are transferred from the barrel to the wine at a slower rate. Pambianchi goes on to recommend leaving a portion of the first couple barrel-aged batches un-oaked to be blended later to adjust for the right level of oak flavor. This is wise in case the wine unintentionally gets too much oak flavor. The biggest hurdle to jump over is the break-in period, which is all that is needed in order to allow wines an extended stay in a smaller barrel. This goes for 5-gallon (19-L) barrels up to other home winemaking sizes too. Using a smaller barrel is not difficult, it is just different.

Tasting for your Desired Oak Level

When using a new oak barrel for the first few batches of wine, it is important to smell and taste the wine weekly. As mentioned earlier, once a few wines have taken up residence in the barrel, you can taste it when you top-up (every four weeks) to see how the wine is developing and if the level of oak is to your liking. I prefer to slightly over-oak before I remove the wine from the barrel. Once bottled, the oak flavor will integrate into the wine over time and an oak level you were happy with 6 months ago will no longer have the same impact it once did. Over-oaking the wine slightly ensures that some of that oak essence fades to a sweet spot. Just know this determination of oak is completely up to your palate and what you prefer.


• Once the barrel has gone neutral, meaning the barrel has no oak flavor left to offer, oak cubes can be used. This enables you to use any type of oak while taking advantage of the slow oxidation affects. In addition, the concern of over-oaking is past.

• 5 to 9 gallon (19-23L) barrels may be lifted to an elevated work bench for gravity racking. 10 gallon (38L) barrels and up will require a pump to rack the wine out as it will be far too heavy to lift for gravity racking. Vacuum pumps work well as do diaphragm and impeller pumps. If you have a Buon Vino Mini-Jet or Super-Jet, these too can be used for racking operations. Be sure to have a racking plan before you get your barrel.

• Topping wine can be conveniently kept in a Cornelius keg under the protection of nitrogen or argon. When it is time to top off the barrel, simply fill it with the plastic cobra tap connected to the keg. I recommend oxygen barrier tubing to prevent oxygen ingress affecting the wine, as is the case with vinyl tubing.

• When rinsing or cleaning out your barrel, avoid the use of chlorine in your rinse water by using an in-line carbon water filter. The chlorine can contribute to the production of 2,4, 6-trichloroanisole (TCA, or cork taint) and some molds. You can even use filtered water when mixing sulfite powder and other additives before adding it to the barrel.

• If you are getting serious enough in your winemaking that you are getting a barrel, I highly recommend the purchase of a sulfite testing kit. Whether it be an Aeration Oxidation kit, or the Vinmetrica unit, testing sulfite levels as your wine ages in the barrel gives you a huge advantage and allows you to add the exact amount of sulfite needed to protect the wine from oxidation, rather than guessing and adding too much or too little. These sulfite testing kits provide clear instructions and everything you need to get started. You do not even need a degree in chemistry to perform and interpret the tests results.

At first, I was afraid to get a barrel, most notably the smaller version, especially with all of the horror stories you can read online of folks over-oaking their wines and barrels being a major pain to maintain and take care of. There are even stories of folks oxidizing their wine because they did not monitor sulfite levels or experienced other issues. However, if you monitor the wine’s progress closely and take care of your equipment, after a brief break-in period, small barrels are easy to work with, affordable, and the benefits far outweigh any potential risks associated with aging wine in them. After a while, maintaining and working with small barrels becomes second nature and any anxiety you had fades away.

Further Reading

I urge you to read up on barrel storage, maintenance, and signs of microbial infections to address any potential issues before they get out of hand. Below is recommended reading for barrel care, maintenance and what could go wrong.

-Techniques in Home Winemaking by: Daniel Pambianchi. Chapter 7 Page:189

-Oak Barrel Care Guide By: Tristan Johnson

-Oak Information Paper By: Shea A.J. Comfort

The Retirement Plan

By: Jeff Shoemaker

This Article Originally Appeared
 in the Jun/Jul 2018 Issue of 
WineMaker Magazine

The Retirement Plan
By: Jeff Shoemaker

Do you have a drip pan under you barrel? Is your press held together with scrap wood and duct tape? Or perhaps your old-school grape crusher from your great grandfather can’t be taken apart and properly cleaned. If any of this sounds familiar, maybe it is time to form a retirement plan for your equipment that has served you for so many years. Although it may be difficult to see a piece of equipment decommissioned (I don’t know about you, but I got attached to my first crusher and press) sometimes it is better to move on (if you love something, set it free yadda yadda). Once you get that shiny new press or new sweet-smelling barrel, all of those sentimental feelings just kind of go up with the angels share. In this article I will provide you with reasons to retire old equipment, what to do with the old stuff and how to increase the life span of your new or existing equipment you have now.

Why Are You Getting Rid of That?
The decision to retire equipment and upgrade is an easy one when it comes to things like tubing, buckets, long handle spoons or other little things that are inexpensive to replace. However, some pieces of gear such as the wine press or grape crusher, decisions may not be so easy. Maybe replacement is cost prohibitive or you have an attachment to a press that is a family heirloom. At some point you risk the microbial stability of your wine using old or damaged equipment. Below I have compiled a list of reasons to retire old equipment. This will help your batch success be more consistent, sanitary, safer and more enjoyable.

  1. Equipment that cannot be effectively sanitized should not be used: Items such as plastic food-grade fermenters, or PET carboys with deep scratches from the misuse of metal stirrers or harsh scrubs should be discarded. Deep scratches and gouged areas in plastic (and stainless steel for that matter) can harbor bacteria that are not easily eradicated and can impact your wine in a negative way. Old grape crushers that cannot be taken apart to be thoroughly cleaned or a well-used press with cracked or splintering wood are a challenge to be properly cleaned and sanitized for winemaking. If you have a similar situation, consider replacement or refurbishment.
  2. Equipment is too old to find replacement parts for: Old basket presses and vintage grape crushers can be found almost any where online and are a great choice for when you just want to dip your toe into the hobby. If the press or crusher is questionable, but it gets the job done, that is great. But if a part breaks, replacement parts could be hard to come by. You are then in the position to have a custom part built or forced to Macgyver it. There would be nothing worse than to load up your press with grapes only to have it break. New presses and grape crusher/destemmers have spare parts available and most issues are easily fixed. You could even have spares on hand for the parts most likely to break on a busy crush day so you will not miss a beat.
  3. You have simply out grown your current equipment set: With most winemakers (including myself) growth is always in mind. When you make that first successful one gallon batch you will then want to make a five gallon batch. Before you know it you are receiving a ton of grapes and fermenting in macrobins! (Sorry honey but we will not be parking in the garage anymore). You may tolerate your old equipment, but eventually you will tire of refilling the press over and over again, or even worse- hand destemming grapes! When picking your first pieces of equipment, have an eye on the future, and plan for expansion. You will make more and you will get crazy with it.
  4. Advanced Spoilage Issues: As is the case with oak barrels. Compared to a winery, home wine makers can get more use out of a barrel. Barrels in a winery will see only one to seven fills before it is sold off due to lack of oak flavor imparted into the wine. A home wine maker can use a barrel for years and take advantage of the micro-oxygenation while using oak adjuncts for flavoring and tannin. However there are spoilage processes that can shorten a barrel’s life. In his article- “Barrel Care Techniques” Daniel Pambianchi outlines the common problems a barrel can face such as Penicillin Mold, Acetobacter (acetic acid bacteria) Brettanomyces, Lactobacillis, and Pediococcus. Pambianchi goes on to say that if these issues are caught in the early stages, they can be treated with a percarbonate solution, followed by a thorough rinse with a citric acid solution. If the cleaning process works, no off odors should be detected when you smell the inside of the barrel. If the spoilage is too advanced and you notice off odors after the percarbonate treatment, the barrel should be discarded. For the complete article check out the Feb/Mar 2002 issue of WineMaker Magazine.
  5. The Equipment No Longer Works as Intended: I knew it was time to retire my first press (an Eagle Junior Press from way back) when I poured must into it and I got more wine on the floor than in the catch basin. I would repeatedly seal it up with food-grade sealant every year, but eventually I grew tired of repairing it. I did what I could, but it was time to go. The decision to upgrade also comes down to what you want to deal with. If you don’t mind fixing your equipment to keep it operational there is no reason to retire it. Or if you don’t mind refilling a smaller press with several pounds of grapes over and over to get the job done, that is fine too (I know I did that for years before upgrading.) You will know when you have out grown your equipment when you spend more time and resources on repairing equipment than actual wine making. Efficiency is key in the wine making process. Efficiency allows you to work faster which in turn helps you to process the fruit faster. This could help to reduce oxidative pick up and other baddies when handling the wine.
  6. Glass Carboys: Be sure to examine them for cracks or chips prior to use. If you discover a crack, retire it immediately to avoid injury or lost wine.
  7. You Are Maturing In Age: Eventually as you get up there in years, you will be looking for ways to reduce manual labor. Things like upgrading to a powered crusher/destemmer, using pumps to transfer between carboys to avoid lifting them off of the floor, or even forgoing the use of glass carboys all together. I recommend taking a good hard look at your process and consider ways to reduce labor and increase efficiency. This makes the process even more fun, safe and easier on the body.

Increase the Lifespan of Your Equipment
If you already have a home winery full of functional equipment, there are ways to increase the lifespan of your gear. Below are some tips so it lasts you for the long haul.
  • Food-Grade Plastic Fermenters and Carboys: Avoid the use of harsh scrubs such as steel wool or a carboy brush (the metal interior within the brush could scratch the plastic). For stubborn stains, perform an extended soak with a percarbonate solution. This will typically do the trick every time. For stirring up your must, use plastic long handled spoons, or avoid scratching the sides with stainless steel cap punching tool.
  • pH Meter: A pH meter probe will have a lifespan of about one to two years. In order to get that time out of your pH meter, rinse the probe before and after use with distilled water. Make sure to store the sensor probe in a storage solution (not in distilled water) and never store your pH meter’s sensor probe dry. Occasionally you will want to clean the probe of the pH meter to remove any build up of wine residue or other just plain funk. Please refer to the instruction manual of your pH meter for the proper cleaning procedure.
  • Wine Press: Be sure to properly remove debris from the basket after each pressing. For any stubborn stains and debris use a pressure washer and/or a percarbonate soak. Repaint any areas that have chipped off with food grade paint to prevent rust from getting a foothold. Keep all moving parts sufficiently lubricated with food grade silicone lubricant and free of crud. The pins on a basket press are sensitive to rusting if allowed to stay wet for too long. Dry them off immediately after use.
  • Grape Crusher/Destemmer: Similar to the wine press, it is important to keep all moving parts (chains, gears) lubricated and moving smoothly. Be sure to do this one last time before it is stored in the off season. This keeps rust at bay. Crusher/destemmers have a million nooks and crannies where fruit can hide. Be sure to get those areas clear and repaint any areas with chipped paint. Proper storage in the off season is key. For more information on off season storage of equipment, check out Proper Equipment Storage by: Bob Peak in the Dec 17/ Jan 18 issue of WineMaker Magazine.
  • Oak Barrels: Know what you are getting yourself into. Barrels require the utmost care, and upkeep, especially when storing them empty. If treated right, you could benefit from the micro-ox effects for years to come. Carefully plan your wine making efforts to keep the barrel full of wine. When one wine is ready to come out, have another wine ready to go in. This avoids storing the barrel empty which could open it up to spoilage organisms. Although you can burn a sulfur stick in the barrel in while in storage, there is no substitute for a full barrel of wine to keep it healthy and free from issues.
  • Wine Pumps and Filters: Wine transfer pumps are sensitive to lees and debris. The use of an inline pre-filter will prevent fruit matter and oak chips from entering the pump head. After use, closely follow the manufacture’s instructions for cleaning the unit. This typically involves running a few gallons of clean water through the pump head to ensure no sticky wine residue is left behind.
  • Tubing, Plastic Wine Thieves, Long Handled Spoons: After a while, these items will start to get stained and hard to reach debris will reside in the tubing. To get these items looking new (with the exception of tubing, it is inexpensive and easily replaced) soak these items in a percarbonate solution followed by a thorough rinse.

The message here is: clean, maintain and just plain take care of your gear. Most pieces of winemaking equipment are heavy duty and well made. With proper care and proper use, you should be able to use the same equipment for years to come.

Never Say Never
When I was asked to do this article, I asked myself; when IS the right time to retire equipment? The first answer that came to mind was NEVER! I say this because if a piece of equipment is not too far gone, some elbow grease, handyman skills and just plain creativity (or if you know some handy folks) can make old equipment like new once again. Big pieces of equipment such as presses, crushers, barrels and tanks should be repaired (or at least attempted to be repaired) before they become a decoration or hit the Craigslist ads. Another reason to make an attempt at repairing old equipment is if money is tight and you need some gear, it can be found used from places like Craigslist or local winery classifieds. Chances are these pieces of equipment are not going to be in optimal condition and some repairs may be needed, but in the end you will get what you need. A press can be stripped down and soaked in percarbonate solution. The metal parts of the press can be powder coated or repainted with food-grade paint. The old wooden slats on the basket can be removed and new ones put in their place or the existing ones sanded down and used once again. If you already have a press in this condition, maybe a total face-lift is needed to get it into sanitary, working condition. The perfect example of buying used equipment and bringing back to life is demonstrated by one of my wine maker friends. When outfitting his winery he found great deals on equipment like a crusher/destemmer, wine press and winery grade filter. All that was needed was some elbow grease and know-how. Now his equipment looks and works like new! All for a discounted price. But, for the rest of us (including myself, sigh…) we need to look to buying our equipment in good working order, which is just fine too.

Let Us Get Creative Shall We?
When I visit a winery, I love when they have old wine making equipment decorating the tasting room. Old-world presses and crushers add a cool vintage vibe to the room. You too could have this when you retire your equipment. Below are some ideas for your old gear to decorate your tasting room. You could also keep the old pieces as a back up just in case, or selling is also an option as folks will buy your old pieces of equipment. One man’s trash is another man’s… You know the saying.
  • Wine Press: Just an old wine press sitting the tasting room looks cool without having to do anything to it. But a press could also be a water fountain, which adds some nice ambiance to a room. Find a decorative catch basin, fountain pump and some tubing to fit the pump. I even went as far as to fill the press basket with faux-grapes and dye the water wine colored for an authentic look.
  • Oak Barrel: This is an easy one because what can you not do with a barrel? It could be a bistro table with a glass or wooden top to be used as a tasting table. A barrel could be used as a water fountain or it can be made into a wine rack.
  • Old-School Grape Crusher: I would just hang this baby on the wall. It can also be mounted on top of a barrel and filled with faux-grapes for a great decorative look.
  • Scratched PET Carboys: Coin bank. Save up for wine stuff.
  • Buckets and Primary Fermenters: Picking buckets or hey look, a new garbage can!
  • Tubing: Jump Rope. (Sorry, I could not resist.)

In the End
The decision to retire equipment really comes down to how handy or creative you are, how much time you want to spend fixing things, and how deep your pockets are. We cannot all just go buy things so we refurbish the old stuff. Some of us cannot refurbish, so we buy new! The point is there are options for all walks of life and once you retire the old guys, they can grace you cellar with their presence, or make you a little cash on the side. If you refurbish any old gear, please feel free to send the before and after pictures to the WineMaker Magazine’s Facebook page to inspire the rest of us!


When to Retire Vineyard Equipment
Vineyard and wine making equipment differ in the sense that vineyard tools can get scratched and beat up and still be functional, as is the case with shovels, hand-held cultivators, rakes etc. The choice is clear when to retire these items-when you break them. The choice may not be so clear with other pieces of equipment such as pesticide sprayers or pruning shears.
Sprayers get retired due to wear and tear. The use of granulated fungicides will accelerate the breakdown of the sprayer. The good thing is the various parts that break, can be replaced or repaired. This avoids the need to buy new. You may choose to get a new sprayer because you have outgrown the old one, or you are tired of lugging it around on your back and want to just cart it around for ease of use. I decided to upgrade to a 12 gallon ATV sprayer that runs on a tractor battery because I got sick of lugging around a 4 gallon sprayer on my back; not to mention the constant refills. Now I can just cart it around the vineyard and walk down each row and spray with ease. The choice to upgrade here was quality of life improvement. The backpack sprayer works fine, and I can still use it for when the shoots are 1”-12” long; for when it is not really worth getting out the big guy. Plus it is nice to have a back up.

Pruning shears are a tool that needs to be in tip top shape. Nice clean cuts are what you want. Once your shears do not accomplish this consistently, it is time to replace them. Some higher quality shears can be taken apart for cleaning, sharpening, repair and replacement of parts. Lower quality shears can not be taken apart for repair and they should be replaced when they do not work as intended. With anything, you get what you pay for, in the long run the higher quality shears will save you money because they can be maintained and cared for. Be sure to spray the shears with WD-40 after each use and in the off season to prevent rust and keep the pruning shears loose.

In my home vineyard of 60 vines, my equipment is limited to a lawn tractor, cart mounted sprayer, good quality pruning shears and the usual equipment that would be found in a gardener’s shed. Before the start of the season everything is evaluated, repairs and tweaks are made. If I need anything, I have a chance to get it well in advance of the growing season. This preseason evaluation should not be limited to just the equipment to operate with your hands. This check should also include, wire tighteners, vineyard posts, tension wires, lawn mowers, and of course the vines themselves! Be sure that if there are any vine defects such has split trunks, or crown gall issues, a plan should be formulated with time for the plan to be executed. Say, this home vineyard is starting to sound like the real thing! But that is the point, utilizing professional techniques on our micro-vineyards to get professional results!
Good luck!

Make It Fizz!

Make It Fizz! By: Jeff Shoemaker  This article originally appeared in the  Jun/Jul 2019 issue of Winemaker Magazine    Making ...