I inherited my pioneering and restless spirit from my parents, Jan and Wayne. Products of the “back to land” movement of the 1970s, both grew up in suburban areas of Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, respectively. As a newly married couple, they shared a desire for a simpler rural lifestyle. They quickly learned, though, that the homesteader’s life is anything but simple.
When they bought the 100+ year-old house where I grew up—situated on a 40-acre (give or take) patch of land in Gallatin County, Kentucky, between Louisville and Cincinnati, it was quite literally a shack. They had no money, but they did have a lot of plans and the drive to make those plans happen. Today, due to their perseverance—and a whole lot of help from us kids—they live on a homesteader’s paradise. It took them a while to get there but they had a lot of fun in the process.
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When I asked her about their first years in that house, my mom explained, “You were a year old. Your dad was working on his master’s and we moved over here at three in the morning into a completely unlivable home. We started working on the house and doing research into everything we did because we couldn’t afford to hire out. And leaning on friends to help us and teach us, inch by inch, we tore down old barns, picked up rocks off the expressway, traded and did everything we could to make the farm livable.”
Throughout all of this, Dad made wine. Although he grew and made wine from his own grapes for a period, he also made a lot of country wines. That’s what the old-timers called their wine. Although most commercial wine is made from grapes, wine can be made from any fruit, vegetable or edible plant. All that is required is fermentable sugars and yeast. Much of the fermentable sugar comes from the liquid produced by mashing the fruits or vegetables, but generally a sugar- or honey-water mix needs to be added. Yeast can be purchased in various forms, but it is also present on most botanicals that haven’t been sprayed, boiled or “disinfected,” and can be easily saved and passed along to future ferments.
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I have dabbled in some country wines but beer and mead are my passion. I knew my dad had made wine but have only vague memories of helping him (begrudgingly) de-stem and mash grapes with his winemaking buddy Bob Wainscott while they drank wine and raised havoc as I sat there bored out of my mind. One day, while looking around my older brother Aaron’s basement, I came across Dad’s long-unused winemaking equipment. While I had the rest of the equipment I needed in my brewing inventory already, the real gems were a 5-, a 10- and a 15-gallon ceramic crock and a well-worn stir stick. These had an aura about them that seemed ideal for using to make country wines and meads.
Lessons From Dad
I knew how to make wine, since fermentation is a simple, easily adaptable process, but I was curious to learn more about how my Dad made it, so I convinced him to sit down and talk with me and make a batch of wine in the process. Dad spent little money on his winemaking, as he made all of his wine from ingredients he obtained from his garden, yard and woodlands. Ingredients he has used include corn, sumac, elderberries, potatoes and dandelions.
He recalls corn wine being one of the best he made and dandelion being the worst. Dandelion wine, if made only from the petals of the flower, can be excellent. He made the mistake of having us kids pick the dandelions and didn’t think to remove the green bits before adding them to the wine must (“must” is unfermented wine or mead). “It was terrible,” he told me.
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I’m not going to say that my brothers and I and our friends didn’t get into Dad’s wine once in a while, nor am I going to say that we did. I will say, though, that he made some fine-tasting (and highly effective) wine. Since he spoke so fondly of his corn wine, I decided to make some with him while preparing for this article. I also made up some beet-rhubarb and potato wine to add to my collection of meads and wines made from wild ingredients.
Classic Corn Wine
The process for making country wine is simple and doesn’t vary much based on the ingredients, so I’ll outline the basic technique for making a corn wine. Veggies with similar textures can be prepared similarly. Once you get the basics down, I recommend you experiment.
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I’ve covered fermentation in past articles in The New Pioneer, and you can learn more from my articles at earthineer.com (as RedHeadedYeti) and my book Make Mead Like a Viking. This should be enough to get you started, though.
1. Pick corn fresh, and prepare it for dinner. Cook the cobs in a pot with a gallon of water or just enough to cover them. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut off the heat, remove the cobs and reserve the cooking water, which is now your wine must.
2. Pour must into an open-mouthed vessel and dissolve sugar or honey (a large ratio of honey to water will make it a mead) in must, stirring constantly. Add several cobs to must, cover with two layers of cheesecloth or a towel and let it sit for 24 hours.
3. Add a 5-gram packet of wine yeast to a 1/2 cup of room-temperature water mixed with a 1/2 cup of orange juice anywhere from two to 12 hours before proceeding to the next step. I prefer the old-time method of adding a cup of active starter I’ve saved from a recently fermented batch of mead or wine. Either way, cover the jar loosely with a lid or towel and let it sit a few hours to overnight.
4. The next day, remove the cobs and strain the must through a funnel into a jug. Add yeast starter, raisins and a tea bag. Fill to 2 inches below the neck to allow room for active fermentation and insert an airlock. Top it off with sugar or honey water after fermentation subsides in a couple of days.
5. Rack off the sediment (lees) that will gather on the bottom two or three times to clarify, starting at one month and repeating every two to three months. If going for a dry wine or mead, don’t add more sweetener. For a sweeter end product, dissolve a 1/2 cup of sugar or honey in a cup of water and add at each racking. Once you’ve added sweetener and there is no visible reaction, fermentation is complete.
6. Whether shooting for dry or sweet wine, wait six months to a year to bottle and cork (or cap). Watch closely for active bubbling or test for a reaction with a teaspoon of sugar to ensure that fermentation is complete. Otherwise you risk creating bottle bombs!
7. Try to wait at least six months before sampling—unless nobody’s watching.
Like Father, Like Son
Whether it’s hereditary (we do have plenty of German in our blood after all) or just because it’s plain fun, I seem to have picked up the booze-making bug from my dad. Even better, I inherited his penchant for using natural, locally produced and wild ingredients to make tasty homestead booze at minimal cost.
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I have many fond memories of the goat roasts and other events where Dad shared his homemade wine, and as I grow older I enjoy hearing the stories and quips he lets loose about the good times he had with his winemaking buddies while I was off playing. I look forward to my children picking up this hobby when the time is right. In the meantime, I do my best to answer the questions they have when they help me make “papa drink.”
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.