In South Philadelphia, bottles of homemade wine flow freely as hostess gifts and gracious thank yous from friends and family. Most of them have three things in common:
- The gifter thinks highly of you to share their precious stash.
- You must be incredibly grateful for their generous gift and enjoy it, or at least pretend to love it.
- It will almost certainly be more palatable as salad dressing than wine.
Jules Esposito, Jr. is determined to change the perception that homemade wine is nothing more than glorified vinegar. Jules is our cousin, and far from the average twenty-something. By day, he works alongside his family at Esposito’s Porchetta (1627 S. 10th St., Philadelphia, PA 19148). You may have enjoyed their sandwiches at any number of festivals in the area. In his free time, he crafts delicious homemade wines.
Jules’s interest in wine began as a child, always hearing stories about his grandfather making wine. Those stories were always accompanied by some good-natured ribbing about how “beyond terrible” Elia’s wine tasted! So many friends and family generously gift their own wine to Jules’s parents, and he was sure he could make wine better than theirs. (In case you are unaware, the Esposito family – self included – is very competitive.) As soon as he was legally able, he purchased a 5 gallon bucket of juice to make his first batch of wine.
After 2 years of working with juice, Jules decided to start making wine from grapes. His grandfather owned all the necessary equipment, and the family friend who had been using it gifted the equipment back to Jules. He loved honoring his grandfather by continuing to use his antique wine press. He admitted it was rusted, but was reassured by my father who informed him that the press was rusted even when Elia used it. And Elia, in fact, had claimed it “gave the wine more flavor.” Based on what we have heard about said wine, it couldn’t have hurt the taste!
That first year, Jules decided to use traditional grapes, so he could compare his with the other homemade wines. Red Zinfandel grapes are most commonly used by the “old-timers.” He wanted his wine to compete directly with the wine they made.
Every year, his wine improves and he learns more techniques. Jules keeps a notebook with his observations, tips he has picked up and notes on his favorite batches. He experiments with different grapes, and has learned the importance of shocking the natural yeasts in the grapes in favor of using specific yeast strains to achieve different flavor profiles. He is conscious of the sugar level in his choice of grapes, and closely monitors his wine throughout the process.
Though the wine is Jules’s pet project, wine making is truly a family affair. The days when the grapes arrive and need to be crushed, when the wine gets racked and when the wine is bottled are all hands on deck. Racking wine usually occurs 3 times per batch, and involves pumping the wine from the top to remove it from the fermentation sediment that has settled at the bottom of the barrel. The sediment is removed, barrel cleaned and is ready for re-use.
Any time wine is exposed to the air must be minimized, so working quickly is critical. When it comes to filling, Jules was so happy to finally purchase a bottle filler that fills 5 wine bottles at a time with a volumetric stop. It has cut his bottling time down significantly. Now on bottling days, he pumps wine from the barrel into a holding vat which pours by gravity into the bottling station. He has one person minding the pump and passing empty cases of bottles to the person at the bottle filler. The bottle filler fills cases and passes them to the folks corking the bottles. The cases are then labeled, sealed and stacked on their sides to keep the corks wet and finish ageing in the bottle. All this hard work is done with good natured familial ribbing as everyone sips on the young wine Jules crafted that season. The scene is one of love and family, and would make Elia proud.
Recall how I mentioned the competitiveness of the Esposito family? Well, Elia would also be proud because of Jules’s performance at the 2014 Philadelphia Vendemmia awards, a competition for amateur wine makers. Jules won 1st place for his 2012 Zinfandel and his 2013 Syrah, as well as coming in 3rd place Best in Show for a blend of the two grapes he worked on with his friend and mentor, Frank.
How to Get Started
Juice Bucket: You can purchase a 5 gallon pail of grape juice to very easily get started making wine. Simply add yeast and leave the juice in the sealed pail to ferment. It is a great way for first timers to get a feel for making homemade wine. The pail will yield approximately 20 bottles of wine.
Wine Schools: There are schools that make wine and will teach you what to do as you follow your own barrel through the fermentation process. You can share barrels with friends and family. You are required to help crush the grapes and rack (transferring wine to a second container to removing sediment) the wine approximately 3 times. You have an expert on the site that will monitor the batch with you, and you rent the equipment from the school instead of having to purchase it all yourself. A 60 gallon barrel will yield approximately 300 bottles of wine.
From Grapes: If you are ambitious and know you are going to “crush” [pun intended] making your own wine, Jules cautions it is an expensive and time consuming hobby. It requires dedicated space in a cool, dark environment and equipment: a crusher/destemmer, a wine press, fermentation vat and an ageing vessel with an airlock in addition to bottles and corks at minimum. An electric pump, bottle filler and corking machine will aid your efforts greatly.
If ageing wine in a wood barrel, you will also need existing wine to top off the barrel, approximately 1.5-2 gallons of wine every 2 weeks to minimize the exposure of the wine to oxygen. Veteran wine makers will keep some wine from the previous season. For your first year, Jules recommends saving the remnants of wine bottles from dinner, or simply purchasing wine from the store. Keep in mind that the wine you use to top off the barrel will end up comprising around 20% of your finished product, so please use wine that you would be willing to drink (and leave the cheap cooking wine out of it!). If ageing wine in stainless steel, glass or plastic, topping off will be minimal.
If you have friends that are interested as well, working together is an advantage. Whether you share a barrel, or each concentrate on your own, you will be grateful to have extra hands on the busy days, as well as the ability to share equipment and cellar space. Jules shares his cellar with a handful of family who each have their own barrel.
Barrels: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Traditionally, wine is aged in oak barrels to allow the flavor of the oak to infuse into the wine. There are many varieties of oak, and all have different flavor nuances, depending upon your preference. There are also burned barrels and whisky barrels that will impart a charred, smoky flavor to the wine. The possibilities are endless.
Barrels are expensive. One of the most economical ways to obtain a wood barrel is to purchase a used barrel from a winery. Most commercial wineries will use wood barrels for a maximum of two years. The average life of a barrel is 5 years, and that can be extended by using oak spirals. Oak spirals are exactly what they sound like, and are suspended in the wine barrel during the ageing process. It is a way to increase the oak flavor while continuing to use an older but functional wine barrel.
Oak barrels have a limited life and will absorb wine, requiring each barrel to be topped off every couple of weeks. Stainless steel barrels are forever (and more expensive), but traditionalists like Jules often shy away from them. Commercial wineries love them because they do not wear out like traditional wood barrels, and oak spirals can be added to control the flavor profile. Stainless steel barrels do not require to be topped off as they are more airtight and the stainless steel does not absorb any liquid. Many will come with an expandable rubber gasket on the airlock that will keep out oxygen without using more wine to top off the barrel.
Winemaking is a labor of love. It is not economical, it is not easy and it is not foolproof. But if you love the work, there is nothing more satisfying than enjoying the fruits of your labors each time you open a bottle.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Clean and sanitize your equipment. Period. Clean equipment is priority #1.
Wild yeasts produce wild wines. One reason that traditional homemade wines yield wildly different tastes and results is because they are fermented using only the wild yeasts naturally present in the grapes. It is almost impossible to predict fermentation results or to control the flavor profile.
Temperature control is key. Fermentation is a biological process that is 100% temperature dependent. Variations in temperature are disastrous and often result in spoilage.
Taste as you go. Each time you top off the barrel, taste a bit of the wine. This will allow you to track its progress, and to detect any problems that may arise with your wine early so they may be corrected. This year, Jules had a barrel of merlot that developed a deep sulfur smell. Because he caught it early, he was able to pump the wine through copper tubing and remove any sulfur traces. I can vouch for the successful intervention – the merlot is delicious.
Your first batch will not be award winning. And that’s okay. With each batch you learn and progress, and the wine will continue to improve. Experiment with different grape blends and yeasts, and keep track of the results. Approach making wine like the chemical experiment it is.
The only person who needs to enjoy your wine is you. Though if it really is terrible, trying to find homes for 300 bottles a year becomes daunting.