I’ve had a number of people ask about Whitsitt Wines, with questions ranging from “How do you make wine?” to “Is this some kind of business venture?”. And my personal favorite, “Can I buy some of your wine?”. So, with several hours of flight time on my hands I figured I’d spend a little time trying to explain what I'm up to.
Winemaking is an interesting hobby, because it’s a mix of art and science. Fermentation is something taught in high school chemistry: the process of yeast consuming sugar and converting it into alcohol and CO2. Which is the first point about making wine that I always tell people about. The more sugar you provide for your yeast to ferment the stronger the wine is going to be (up to the point that the yeast can tolerate the alcohol level). Somehow this point seems of particular interest to my friends.
The art of winemaking comes into play in terms of balancing the characteristics of the wine, which I’ve found are incredibly complex.The type of yeast, juice, alcohol level, residual sugar level, aging time, aging vessel, acid level, temperature in the storage room, etc. all change the way the wine tastes. Something as simple as placing a batch into an oak barrel for a few of weeks completely changes the character of my wine. When making small batches, you can really see these changes quickly. I get the same level of oaking from 3 weeks in a 5 gallon barrel as it would take for a year in the typical 60 gallon barrel.
With all the variables, one of the first things I learned is that keeping track of details is really important to reproducing a good batch of wine.
Early on in the process, I had a few good batches that my friends raved about. Since 9 months or so had passed since I mixed up the batch, trying to remember all the details about the batch was nearly impossible. To help me keep track of the details, I created a batch details sheet and record all the details like ingredients, racking dates, tasting notes, etc. I've experimented with about 30 different recipes so far, and these little batch sheets have been a life saver.
The other thing I learned is that small changes in the batch (mix of juices, type of yeast, sugar level, etc.) yield some interesting differences. This is why I currently have so many different types of wine underway. My goal is to find 5-6 really awesome blends and then focus on making them the best they can be (to date, the Black Currant is a clear winner). But when you get this many batches going at the same time and each batch needs you to do something about every 30 days, a project plan becomes critical. Once again, I must thank Microsoft Office for providing the tool of choice for my "hobby".
The primary thing that I’m doing differently from most winemakers is that I’m focusing on fruit wines, sometimes known as country wines. It’s relatively easy to buy a pre-balanced kit of Merlot or Pinot Noir juice that is acid balanced, mix it up, and get a good tasting batch of wine. But when I first tasted homemade wine, it was red currant wine made by my brother-in-law and it got me hooked on fruit wines. They have a unique fruit forward taste with a subtle difference from single varietal grape wines (like merlot or cab). They're also low in tannin, which I find makes them more approachable and refreshing for most people.
Working with fruit wines also allows me to make test a wide variety of wines. For a light wine, I’ve found that apple raspberry is very good and can be made dry yet very drinkable because of the fruitiness. For a heavier bodied wine, black currant is very nice and most people actually think it’s a grape variety. Some of the other juices I've been working with are Pomegranate, Blueberry, Plum, and Cherry and they all have a bit of a unique style to them.
But what about the business aspects? Oddly enough, I see good potential for a business venture in this not simply because people appear to enjoy the wine. There are tons of wineries these days and the number is growing (although there is supposedly a world-wide shortage of wine). The business aspects that I find intriguing are related to the production and distribution process, and the health and environmental impact.
The interest in products that are environmentally responsible and local are all the rage at the moment. And when you think about the wine industry, one of the things that quickly surprised me is the cost of bottling and the waste that is generated by discarding bottles (billions of bottles are thrown away every year). You can recycle your bottle with your trash, but it will just be processed and ground into some other product, which requires the use of energy and the production of CO2. Very few wine bottles are actually re-purposed to live another life as a wine bottle.
This concept hit me as I was calculating the cost of buying bottles for the relatively small amount of wine that I’m making. At more than $1/bottle, I was looking at over $1000 just to buy empty bottles for the wine I’m making this year alone. Ironically, that is more than I’ve invested in my winemaking equipment. When I went in search of used bottles that I could re-purpose, I found that they are literally everywhere. Between friends and family, I’ve easily gathered 20 cases of bottles with little effort. And the results of a few queries to some local restaurants seems to indicate they also have no solution for their bottles. They just get pitched into the trash.
Which brings me to the underlying business plan is that percolating at the moment. A local winery that produces small batches of unique fruit wine, bottles them using re-purposed bottles from the local community, and builds a co-op with participating distributors that feed the used bottles back into the process. So far, label stripping has been the hardest part, but we now have a pretty good process and can easily prepare enough bottles for a 30 gallon batch (about 12 cases) in a few hours. This will allow us to hire a few kids locally, give them a "cellar rat" type of job, and still save money on bottle purchases.
There is quite a bit more that I could comment on, but we’re preparing for landing. If you're curious about the launch of the official Whitsitt Wines brand or want to buy some of this tasty nectar, visit www.WhitsittWines.com
and add yourself to our mailing list. It will probably be a year or so before I have proper licensing and wine available for purchase, but the wait will be worth it.