Home brewing, yes. But where’s the home winemaking?

One of the most exciting drink stories in America is the craft beer revolution and its related rise in home brewing. An article on Slate details that policy held back the hops: banned after Prohibition, it wasn’t until President Carter signed legislation in 1979 that allowed households to brew up to 200 gallons a year. Unregulated by laws such as Germany’s famous beer purity law of 1516, American home brewers experimented (as had the Belgians who were similarly unfettered by regulations) and today we have arrived at the point where the US is seen as the most innovative craft beer market in the world. Indeed, Belgian breweries are even buying American hops.

In the piece, the author says there are 27,000 home brewers who pay $38 a year to be members of the American Home Brewers’ Association. Home brewing is wildly popular, even among wine geeks. Josiah Baldivino, sommelier at Michael Mina is so confident in his brewing skillz that he whipped up an IPA to serve at his wedding. Jim Clarke, somm at Giorgio Armani restaurant had a couple of brews going when I spoke with him recently. The Slate author suggests the motivations of home brewers include “self-reliance, community-building, autonomy, independence from monopolies, an alternative to rampant consumerism, innate curiosity, and the desire to make something cool.”

So here’s my question: given how popular home brewing is, why is home winemaking not more popular, particularly with younger wine hipsters? Wine is certainly popular and would be cool to make. And we wine geeks like both community and autonomy (an odd mix) and are just as self-reliant as home brewers. Home winemaking is popular as judged by the fact that three of the regular, top-selling wine titles on Amazon have to do with home winemaking. Even though some outfits such as Crushpad and City Winery have altered the demographic somewhat, it appears me, anecdotally and generally speaking, that the demographic is older and people who are more into drinking rather than sipping. Even though I have made neither at home, it seems that it would be much harder to make good wine than it would be to make good beer because it is hard to get good grapes, especially if you live some distance from a vineyard. And most home-made wines that I’ve tasted have gotten 99 points for effort and decidedly fewer for what’s in the glass. Whereas, I’ve had some quite good homebrews.

In your experience, who makes wine at home? Will urban hipsters be making wine any day soon?

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30 Responses to “Home brewing, yes. But where’s the home winemaking?”

  1. I have friends who are home winemakers and have been to meetings of their larger group.

    The biggest difference with beer is that winemaking is so much more involved. Grape sourcing is a big issue; so is timing.

    Observation: the home winemakers I’ve met tend to be wealthier than average people. They have large basements in their suburban homes, by necessity.

    And in my observation, their only interest in commercial wine is in stating how much better their own wine is at every opportunity. This is why they’re not generally weighing in blogs like yours and mine: We’re not writing about what they’re interested in.

  2. In California it isn’t hard to source grapes online. This year some friends and I decided to make wine so we found some Grenache from Ojai near a citrus orchard and an LA wine blogger documented it in a series: http://www.brunelloshavemorefun.com/2011/09/making-wine-at-home-part-1/

  3. as a homebrewer who works at a winery, this has been my thought on the subject: “i enjoy making beer because it is easy. i enjoy making wine because it is hard”.

    winemaking requires a good grapes, tons of equipment, and lots of time. i do know a few people who have made wine at home, but it is an extremely involved process. it takes weeks to process grapes, then you have to worry about malolactic fermentation, barrel aging, micro-oxidation, etc.

    making beer requires 10 pounds of malt, a few ounces of hops, and a stovetop. if it’s going into keg, it takes about a week to go from grains to suds. mostly, it’s just me and my friend drinking beer and stirring a pot…only a little more complicated than making dinner.

    plus, beer hides it’s flaws much better. i know a lot of beer snobs, and i’ve never heard someone complain that a beer was reductive or had v.a.

  4. We make new home winemakers every day at Curds and Wine in San Diego (curdsandwine.com). We make wine with wine kits, so you can make any varietal from anywhere in the world ANY time of year! We also have several very active home winemaking clubs, including San Diego Amateur winemaking society (SDAWS.org). High quality fresh grapes are available August through November from around the county, and we have grapes delivered to Curds and Wine during harvest season. Also check out Winemaker Magazine (http://winemakermag.com/), they’ve been sharing advice for novice and experienced home winemakers for years, and will hold their 5th annual national conference in Finger Lakes this year. Cheers!

  5. Having made both beer and wine at home, beer is much easier to make at home. Plus, with wine, you have to wait well over one year to enjoy the fruits (heh) of your labor but with beer you can crack open a bottle after only about six weeks, less if you use a keg.

  6. Chris — not true! Making wine at home with wine kits is very straightforward and does not require any big equipment (or big messes). Wine kits are ready to bottle in 5 to 8 weeks, and white wines are pretty drinkable after a month in the bottle (to get over bottle shock). Some reds are good in just 3 to 6 months, big bold reds do require 2 years for proper aging. You just need to keep making wine so you build your cellar!

    I also want to mention the high quality of homemade wines. I’ve done blind tastings with commercial wines and my homemade wines, and my wines are always preferred. Not to say that I haven’t had bad homemade wines, but I’ve also had bad homebrewed beers.

  7. I’m a young urbanite (decidedly not a hipster though) and I make wine (and beer)! It’s a lot less time up front, but it’s really tough if you don’t want to make wine from a kit. That’s pretty much my only option, so it’s limiting. Also in my tiny apartment I find the bottles build up too quickly. I can see why most people don’t do it. I also think there’s a feeling that with wine, there are too many variables that you can screw up. Of course the only way to get comfortable with it is to try it!

  8. Visit any major Italian community in North America, if they are not making wine from selected grapes they have lost it as a community. I know home wine makers that send trucks out all over the west coast to pick up their Barbera, Merlot and Cab grapes, then the competition is on, most is consumed young as it never gets to age with the giant families I know and all the parties through the year. Simple straightforward red is what it is all about.

  9. We have two batches of wine going as I type this…..

  10. My wife and her family all come from Molise, Italy; when I married into this clan it was expected that I start making my own wine. The first year I tried and failed and lost a few hundred dollars for the cost of grapes. The second year the grapes available in Chicago were atrocious and I made what I affectionately refer to as “Dago Plonk.”

    Even with a borrowed grinder, press and 55 gallon plastic fermenting barrels, I can’t economically justify making my own wine. The $300+ I would spend on grapes now goes to purchasing commercially made wine. Having tried countless home winemaker’s offerings, it’s soon apparent that even their best isn’t even close to what you’d expect from a $10 bottle.

    Had I “succeeded” in making my own wine, I likely would never have discovered the depth and breadth of the world of wine that I enjoy today. (My brother-in-law, however, is dismissive of my purchased wine and prefers to bring his gallon of Dago Plonk to serve at my own table!)

  11. I live in the San Juan Mountains at 7,800′ and grow Maréchal Foch grapes which I crush and mix with concentrate (Barbera, etc) from California to make wine. The vines were planted in 2002 and 2003 and I have made wine since 2005. I

    would love to correspond with other winemakers who use the Foch grape. I also make a white from Moore’s Bright Diamond grapes which I grow and with the WineExpert Limited Edition series.

  12. I agree that making beer at home is MUCH easier than making wine. In my pre-pro days, I had great results (except for inadequate SO2!) using frozen grapes from http://www.brehmvineyards.com/ . You can get very high quality grapes from them YEAR-ROUND. To my mind, I was much more interested in the romance of using real grapes than a kit. (Not to knock kits!)

  13. My father-in-law and I started making wine last year and joined the Amador Winemaker’s Association (AWA) which has mostly home winemaker members but a few commercial winemakers as well. If you are using fresh fruit as opposed to kits, sourcing high quality grapes is definitely a challenge. We were lucky enough this year to souce some grapes (Primitivo) from Shake Ridge Vineyards just outside Sutter Creek, CA. Anyway, it is certainly possible to secure good fruit but IMO it pays to join a local club and network through it. As others have said, home winemaking takes a grip of patience, can be quite expensive, and depending on the volume of wine being made requires a lot of space.

  14. Doc, wish I had stopped to talk to you at Return To Terroir today. We come pretty close to hitting our 200 gal limit each year, and reviews from pro friends have been positive even with The friendly bias. Of course we do not waste good home made wine on the critics. 😉

  15. I’ve been making both beer and wine at home and I think they’re both fairly easy to do, obviously beer is a lot faster to make than wine so I think that appeals to people more. But you can make wine pretty quickly if you use kits or if you make sweet wine. I know that sweet wine is frowned upon by snooty wine drinking people but I’m not asking them to drink my wine. Sourcing grapes is hard if you don’t live on the west coast or upstate new york but you can make good wines out of almost any fruit. I’ve made an excellent wine from rhubarb, it tastes pretty similar to riesling. And you can make a good dry red wine from elderberries.

    I think the reason why home wine making isn’t as hipster friendly is because wine is (for the most part) very much an agricultural product. You get good fruit, your ferment the juice and you drink it, the crafting of the wine was done in the vineyard, you just gave it a place to ferment. Beer, on the other hand, is something that can be crafted at home, by developing recipes, determining a hop schedule, adjusting mash temperatures or methods, picking from 50 different yeast varieties, etc.

    Also, like Dave S. wrote it’s very easy to fail at making wine, especially if you’re trying to make a dry red wine. So people try, fail, and go back to making beer, not realizing that wine doesn’t have to be dry, that it doesn’t have to be made from grapes, that there’s no rule saying you can’t add spices, or blend fruits together, or use ale yeast, or hell even mix it in with wort and make some crazy wine/beer hybrid! There’s a lot of creativity to be discovered in wine making and people have barely scratched the surface of what can be done to push the limits (like so many are doing with beer right now).

  16. I like wine more than beer, but certainly would attempt beer making before wine. The biggest issue with wine seems to be that to avoid oxidation, you need a significant volume. So forget about the labor, cost and technical hurdles, and you simply need to make a bunch of it. And chances are it’s not going to be as good as commercial wine, not the first run or two. Not something I want to be stuck drinking when the pros can do better.

    Beer is something you can produce in small batches in different styles. Experimentation or off-batches, no biggie. You can mix it up without much risk.

  17. in my experience, older european immigrants are the only people I saw daring to make wine at home, and doing it in a simple very traditional method. For me, the abundance of good, budget-friendly wines makes diving into home winemaking doesn’t seem worth it

  18. Hi, My uncle always makes his own wine….for years and years…And it’s really good! He lives in the north of Italy. Nowadays I guess we don’t have the time to do it ourselves….we’re always ‘busy’ right ;)?!

  19. Terrific comments on this thread while I was out of pocket yesterday!

    Blake – Thanks for your observations from California. Here in the northeast, a lot of the people I see or hear about making wine at home are over 50 and are first- or second-generation immigrants, often Italian and don’t have large basements. And I’m not sure that they would claim that their wine was better than store-bought wine, or if that’s their goal. Maybe it’s more of an ancestral connection or a bit of the community aspect that the Slate piece touched on.

    Clearly an ethnography of home wine makers in America, especially with regional variations, would be terrifically interesting!

  20. Mark Ryan – Thanks for observation. Again, regional variations seem to be in play. How’s the wine coming?

    Gabe – you confidence in beer making is contagious! Makes me want to try it. But then again, I can get a growler of delicious craft beer at my local store for $12…

    G Claassen- Thanks for stopping by. What, in your experience, motivates home winemakers? And are there any differences in motivation for those who use grapes as opposed to kits?

    Dave S. – ha, a silver lining!

    Laura and Lee – exactly what I mentioned in my first comment. And here’s Howard Goldberg weighing in on Twitter with a similar view:

    Out of sight, Italian immigrants’ descendants have made wine in Brooklyn and Staten Island homes since the 1900’s.

  21. Matt – Thanks for the comment. In the spirit of innovation and experimentation, have you heard about a new beer from Dogfish Head called “noble rot”? It gets half of the fermentable sugars from (some botrytized) grapes, the other half from grains. Apparently the TTB didn’t have too much of a problem with it!


    Todd- Yes, too bad we didn’t say hi in person! Good luck with your fermentations…where do you source your fruit from?

    Cabfrancophile – Yes, time, cost, freshness of grapes, and technical know-how all can conspire to make home wine-making more difficult, if not impossible. Get a shot of Gabe’s beer-making confidence!

  22. In reply to your questions: What, in your experience, motivates home winemakers? And are there any differences in motivation for those who use grapes as opposed to kits? Home winemakers are motivated by several factors; most of them love wine, and want the experience of making it themselves and understanding the processes involved. There are often differences between people that use fresh grapes as opposed to kits — by analogy, there are brewers that will only brew whole grain and those happy with extracts, cheesemakers that will only make cheese with fresh milk versus regular homogenized, pasteurized milk from any grocery store, and people that will only drink French wines/local wines/sulfite free wines compared to those that like to experience as many different styles and world influences as possible.

    Overall, anyone that has tried a wine kit has been very pleased with the results, even if they have made wine from fresh grapes previously. Conversely, I’ve met many more people that made or tasted very bad wines made from fresh grapes, because there are so many ways it can go wrong. At that point for many it is the challenge of making something good, compared to knowing you are going to get a good quality result with wine kits. I’m happy either way — and I make my cheese with grocery store milk, too.

  23. Part of the reason several old vine Central Valley vineyards survived prohibition were the train car loads of fresh grapes they sent east to the Italian community when commercial wine production was illegal, that and the Catholic Church were their only markets for years, most vineyards were grubbed up and fruit trees planted to be replaced by vines again in the 1870 and 80.

  24. Dr. V – glad you’ve been inspired! All it takes is a couple of friends and a little moxie. In the past 3 years, my two friends and I have produced nearly 50 batches of beer! There were definitely some stinkers in the first dozen batches or so; but these days, it really is as easy as cooking dinner. I suggest a group of 2-3 people. 1 person is not enough, 4 people is too many.

    Now, as for making wine…that’s a whole ‘nother story. I’ve been doing that for 4 years, and I feel like I’ve barely started…

  25. p.s. you can probably make a growler of homebrew for about $4

  26. I make wine and can attest to its allure, and to reasons why fewer people do it. The biggest problem is where to get the juice. I’m fortunate to live near a winery that will call when the crush comes in – I take my bucket, and they fill it from the firehose. But otherwise, it’s necessary to buy a kit, which ranges upwards from $45 for a nominal yield of 30 bottles. The most expensive kits can get close to $200, which means that you’re paying about half retail for comparable quality (I like what I make, but there’s no way it would fetch more than $10-15 at retail). If it goes bad, you’re out a fair amount of cash.

    The second problem is what to do when you’ve finished. A 6-gallon batch of beer can be done in by two people in a month – 30 bottles of the same stuff can be a formidable undertaking,unless you want to have a lot of parties. I do 2 white and 2 red batches a year. My wife and I drink a bottle every two nights, so unless I give it away, there’s not much room to explore other things, or pairings different foods.

  27. Doc,
    Each autumn for the last four years, I have harvested cold hardy varieties; a small amount of fruit from VT vineyards (primarily Marquette and La Crescent grapes), but my biggest hauls come from the Cornell Trial Vineyard in Willsboro, NY on the west coast of Lake Champlain, where my extended family resides, and I have been volunteering with maintenance and data collection. It is always a dice roll, as to what varieties I can bring home, but have included Frontenac Gris, St. Croix, Leon Millot, more Marquette and La Crescent, Louise Swenson, Petit Amie, La Crosse, ES-6-16-30 (Adalmiina in Finland) and NY76. Despite what bad rap hybrids have in general, I have seen them make very interesting wines.
    But that is not enough, for the last 3 springs we have brought in a few hundred pounds of Chilean red fruit (Carmenere, Malbec, Cabernet Sauv) though the regional market in Hartford,CT, as well as containers of white juice (Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier).
    If you are interested, you are welcome to come up and help with the hand-destemming. 😉

  28. My retired hippie parents are making wine – merlot and elderberry so far. The jury is out but I am looking forward to a taste.

  29. Of beer needed to age a whole year (a minimum, even when making fruity rose, syrah , merlot, or sangiovese)
    after the 3-5 weeks brewing period, no one would be brewing at home.

    But on the other hand you have cider and mead makers (which also takes months untill its ripe to drink) participating in home making.
    Perhaps its because homewinemakers have premium wine to compere and strive to while cider and mead makers just do their thing to produce a good drink. who cares if it doesnt taste smooth or complex like a good english cider.

  30. I make homemade wine and I’m hardly a hipster. When I first started I had no help and little information so all of my batches were flawed or undrinkable. After two years of asking questions, surfing forums, and learning from mistakes I found success. There’s a lot to know and a lot of misinformation to avoid.

    It seems that while brewing science is just as complicated as wine making science, brewing has a much shorter feedback loop. It’s easier to find your mistakes and less perhaps less discouraging when you fail.


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