From root to glass: Home winemaking in Beer City

EASY DOES IT: At his West Asheville homebrewing shop, Hops & Vines, David Pottharst serves a small but devoted clientele of home winemakers. “Wine is a lot more forgiving [than beer],” says Pottharst. “You can ferment literally anything that has sugar.”
EASY DOES IT: At his West Asheville homebrewing shop, Hops & Vines, David Pottharst serves a small but devoted clientele of home winemakers. “Wine is a lot more forgiving [than beer],” says Pottharst. “You can ferment literally anything that has sugar.” Photo by Jonathan Ammons

Asheville isn’t entirely reliant on its award-winning craft breweries for its designation as a brewing hub, though they are certainly in great abundance. There has always been a large community of homebrewers bubbling just beneath the surface, enough to have maintained multiple homebrewing stores in the city for well over a decade.

And while nearly 80 percent of the customers David Pottharst services at his West Asheville beer, wine and homebrewing supply shop are beermakers, Hops & Vines also has a small but consistent clientele of home winemakers. Which makes a lot of sense, because it is actually pretty easy to make decent wine at home.

“Wine is a lot more forgiving,” says Pottharst. “Beer is a little bit more involved process — you actually have to have a brew day. But with wine, it’s a little easier. You can ferment literally anything that has sugar.” Apples, pears and berries from the garden, he says, all make for good wine.

Waste not

“You know, yeast is an animal, and it eats sugar and poops alcohol, so it’s really one of the best pets in the whole world,“ says DeNeice Guest. Guest is an Asheville resident and co-author of the book Drink the Harvest: Making and Preserving Juices, Wines, Meads, Teas and Ciders, an easy home guide to making wine from virtually anything. “It’s a great way to use things that would usually go into the landfill or compost,” she says.

Guest often finds herself making ciders and meads using the spent pulp from apples she presses for juice combined with herbs. And her co-author, Nan Chase, often finds herself trimming the mint that grows like a weed in her garden to make a mint wine that has an almost vinho verde-like quality in the finished product. “Now is a great time to be making mint wine, when the plants are young, before the mint has lost all of its oils,” says Chase.

Contrary to popular conjecture, fruit and herb wines don’t have to be sweet. “What we’ve found is that you can get lots of different results with the same kind of fruit by using different kinds of yeasts,” says Chase. “A Champagne yeast will be dry, a fruit yeast will be fruity, and then there’s cider yeast. … That’s what is great about relying on these local shops is that you can go in and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve got; what do you recommend?’”

When Guest and Chase speak of their wines, it isn’t with the ambition of a homebrewer who is shooting for a perfect, malty stout. Rather, they speak with the resourcefulness of a farmer, fermenting as a means of preservation and a way to use perishables that would otherwise be wasted. But they also view winemaking as a way to have fun and experiment.

“I’ve even got a recipe for tomato wine,” Chase says. “Two years ago there was a bumper crop of tomatoes, and I saw a recipe that said not to touch it in the jug for two years. So we are coming up on two years, but I haven’t tried it yet. I’m very skeptical. We’ll see about it.”

“It’s good to start with whatever is growing in your yard,” advises Guest. Blueberry, strawberry and rhubarb patches are easy places to start, but she also points out that a wide variety of herbs make for great-tasting alcohols.

“Every herb is going to impart a different flavor to your wine,” she notes. Sticking with the sweeter herbs will likely produce a more pleasurable result, but not necessarily a sweet wine. Herbs like lemon balm, mint and thyme play a little nicer with the fermentation process than pungent herbs like sage or rosemary. “But even if it is something that you don’t really care to drink, you can always cook with it,” she adds.

Time and tools

It is best not to judge your wines too harshly too soon. As Pottharst observes, “With wine, patience is greatly rewarded.” While it’s fine to taste your wine early, it won’t taste quite as good as it will get with a little more age. “Generally speaking, for a lot of fruit and grape wines, at three to six months you’ll start getting those flavors that you want out of it. But if you can wait a year, that’s when it really gets into the sweet spot.” Guest notes that wines in her cellar range anywhere from 2 to 8 years of age.

One great perk of the winemaking hobby is its affordability. Chase, who is decidedly utilitarian about the process, posits that “you can really get started for about $10-$12 if you get a jug, a stopper, an airlock and about 4 feet of pipe.” But Pottharst puts his estimate at $50.

At Hops & Vines, you can pick up all the basic fermenting gear for about $25. Filtered piping, corkers or cappers and special paddles are also highly suggested and can bring the tab up to around Pottharst’s $50 range. “But all of this stuff is reusable,” he points out.

If you want to buy new bottles, those can add up in cost as well, but most people just reuse old beer and wine bottles. Regardless of what vessel the winemaker chooses to use, though, Pottharst makes one thing clear: Proper sanitation is key. “The biggest thing about reusing bottles — cleaning and sanitation are two very different things in the homebrewing world,” he says. “Cleaning just gets all your debris out; sanitizing is actually killing the microbes.” Inexpensive sanitizing tablets, powders and solutions are available at local homebrewing shops or online, but Chase and Guest say they prefer simply using boiling water.

For those who want to get into the serious side of clarifying and boosting the taste of the wines, Hops & Vines as well as other local spots, including Asheville Brewers Supply and Fifth Season, also sell a wide array of acids and enzymes to help the process along, although they aren’t exactly necessities.

“The biggest rule is just don’t be afraid,” says Guest. “With an old glass cider jug, you can have enough tools to make some really good wine with as little as a $20 investment. You can do this on the cheap side.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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