You begin to wonder whether the risk is really worth it when you're standing on the ladder high above the ground reaching for those rich, ripe deep-blue Mustang grapes, and the scorching July heat has you dripping with sweat and you're hoping your buckets will fill before the sun gets hotter as the day progresses. And if that isn't challenge enough, all along you're keeping a watchful eye for a nest of angry yellow jackets that may be hiding behind that next cluster of grapes.
You suffer through the hazards for one reason: You want to continue a winemaking tradition, and you want to savor good wine next fall. You keep right on picking. After all, winemaking in this country is a tradition that can be traced back to the first boatload of Europeans who arrived here centuries ago. They brought along their recipes and started vineyards. In the mid-to-late 1800s, Texans began cultivating a commercial wine industry.
Several varieties of fine wine were being made in Central Texas, and according to The Colorado County Chronicles, a book published by the Colorado County Historical Society, grapes from Germany had been introduced by the mid-1800s and vineyards were flourishing.
Two vineyards in the Mentz-Bernardo area belonging to early settlers Sigfried Bock and John Berger were very popular because of the high quality of their grapes and their wine. In 1890, Berger planted a vineyard using the Herbemont sweet grapes. The Berger family sold the grapes in baskets and took orders for wine sold in five-, 15-, 20- and 25-gallon kegs. An 1876 advertisement in the weekly Colorado County Citizen touted Charles Kesler's wine. "Kesler's fine Herbemont Wine is now to be found at L. B. Berighein's Drug Store in Columbus for medical use," the ad announced.
Perhaps the most famous winemaker in the area was F. A. Laake, who came to Texas in 1856 from Silesia, Prussia, and settled in New Ulm. The Laake family vineyard was known as Oak Hill Vineyards, and its fine wine won prizes all over Texas, including the Texas State Fair.
Those early success stories contributed to a flourishing industry in Texas, but the success was short-lived. Prohibition, enacted in 1919, left grapes withering on the vine. No one knew how long Prohibition would last, so farmers were reluctant to tie up their valuable land with vineyards that were virtually useless. Most ripped them out. The only commercial winery in Texas to survive Prohibition was the Val Verde Winery near Del Rio, which survived only because it had a contract with the Catholic churches to supply their sacramental wine.
Congress repealed Prohibition in February 1933. Although few vineyards survived the 14-year hiatus, Texans were still making wine. In fact, there may have been more winemakers than before Prohibition, because each family could legally make up to 200 gallons of wine annually for home consumption. Since wine was the only legal alcoholic drink available, winemaking became extremely popular.
Texans made wine from all sorts of fruits and berries, and many of the fine recipes have been preserved and passed on from generation to generation. Today many folks continue to enjoy winemaking as a hobby - and the 200-gallon rule is still in effect.
Just about anything that will ferment will make wine, but the most popular hobby wine is still grape wine. Native mustang grapes are abundant in much of Texas, and they make fine wine. The Texas A&M berries and other varieties of blackberries also make great wine.
In late June to mid-July, in a productive season, mustang grapevines will be loaded with the deep purple, almost black, ripe grapes. The key to telling when the grapes are properly ripened is when you open the skin, and much black pectin appears inside the rind.
To make fine wine, you don't need any special, sophisticated equipment. If you have a wooden wine keg, you're in luck. They are expensive - a barrel will cost $150 or more, depending on the size - so many winemakers are using glass jugs. Five-gallon glass jugs are inexpensive, and unless you drop one, they'll last forever. And you'll never have to worry about the little worms eating holes in them as you do with wooden barrels. Old-time winemakers will tell you that wine not made in a wooden barrel won't turn out right. I would argue that if it's fermented properly in glass bottles, it may be the best you've ever tasted.
Most homemade wine is very sweet, and many people like it that way. I prefer a drier wine, so I use less sugar. You'll hear of recipes calling for 10 to 15 lbs. of sugar for five gallons of wine, but for my taste, that's too much. I have settled on eight to 10 lbs. of sugar for five gallons. For the highest sugar content, pick the fruit in the morning. You will need about five gallons of grapes or berries to make five gallons of wine.
My method is to pick the grapes early, bring them home and find a cool, shaded area where I can sit and pull off most of the stems and wash them in cool water. Next, put the washed grapes into a 36-quart cooler that has a drain plug at the bottom. Crush the grapes as well as possible and - this is optional - add a package of wine-yeast. (You can order the yeast or buy it at most wine shops.) Once the crushed grapes are in the cooler, mark with a pencil the beginning height of the must. As fermentation takes place, the must will rise.
Allow the crushed grapes to ferment for several days and begin checking the contents after about five days. As the must continues to rise, mark its height each day. Once the must levels off, or begins to drop, it's time to drain the juice through the hole in the drain plug and into a container. The deep magenta-colored juice is beautiful stuff.
Depending upon the moisture content of the grapes, the five gallons of fruit should yield about two gallons of raw juice. A bit more or less won't make much difference, so use it all. Pour the juice into a clean five-gallon jug. The jugs are very similar to the ones that companies use to supply drinking water to commercial customers. Some people use plastic instead of glass jugs, but I've heard that some types of plastic give off a chemical reaction during the fermentation and can cause a problem. For safety's sake, use glass or a wooden keg.
Once the juice is in the five-gallon bottle, dissolve about eight lbs. of sugar in cool water and add it to the jug. Fill to the top with water.
For the first 12 hours or so, nothing will happen, but soon thereafter business is going to pick up. The contents of the jug are going to go into a vicious ferment. It will remind you of putting an Alka Seltzer tablet into a glass of water.
Only the bubbles will be wine-colored. To avoid a mess, place the bottle in a plastic trash bag. When the wine begins to ferment, it will bubble very rapidly for a while and boil over.
While the fermentation is taking place, keep adding water, because you want the contents of the jug to continue spilling over. Many of the small pieces of stem, rind and seeds that slipped in with the juice will float to the top and boil out. For best results, take a Styrofoam cup, turn it upside down over the mouth of the jug. The cup will allow the foam to boil out and prevent anything from entering the bottle.
When the vigorous ferment slows, fill the bottle to within an inch of the top and place a bubbler on the bottle. You can purchase a bubbler at a wine hobby shop or order one from a seed catalogue. The bubblers have a water barrier that allows the gas to escape from the bottle, while keeping out impurities.
If you don't have a bubbler, simply use a cork, a small plastic hose and a bottle of water. Drill a hole through the cork, so the hose fits snugly, and put the cork in the bottle with the other end of the hose in the bottle of water. This homemade contraption will also allow the gas to escape and keep out impurities.
The bubbling process will continue for several weeks, maybe even months, depending on the amount of time it takes the acid in the fruit and the sugar to stabilize. Nature takes care of that. I have had wine that was entirely too sweet after it finished fermenting, so I added some yeast, creating another ferment and resulting in a drier, less sweet wine. If you like it real sweet, let it alone once it finishes fermenting.
After the wine has finished fermenting and before it is bottled, it's good to drain it from the bottle in which it was fermented into another jug. This process is called "racking the wine"; it removes a lot of the sediment and helps the wine clear. I rack the wine sometimes, and sometimes I don't. The only real difference I notice is that the wine will have less sediment at the bottom of the jug. The sediment is only pectin and won't hurt a thing.
Once the wine has been racked and you like its taste, it's ready to be bottled. A good way to siphon the wine without getting a lot of sediment is to attach a small plastic hose to a stick or rod and fasten it about an inch from the bottom. Insert the stick into the wine jug and, since it's attached an inch from the bottom, the hose will be above the sediment and it won't enter the bottles as they're being filled.
Now you're ready to enjoy your homemade wine. Remember, it's an alcoholic drink, and some wine carries a lot of kick. The same precautions that apply to commercial alcoholic drinks apply to homemade wine as well.