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Better Than Pruno

Home Winemaking Made Easy

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WINE IS THE FERMENTED juice of fruit. While it needn't be strictly made from grapes, grapes come chemically pre-packaged with nearly everything needed to easily make a palatable alcoholic beverage. They have a good amount of their own fermentable sugar, surface yeasts to ferment the sugar, plenty of liquid to contain the alcohol, and tannins for body. However, hang out near a prison toilet sometime and you'll see the beautiful ingenuity of some very determined amateur chemists who realize that any environment in which yeast can eat sugar will lead to an intoxicating byproduct, which will help them while away those long hours in deep reflection of past crimes. Call it what you will—pruno, swipe, jump-steady, mud jolt—with five days, moldy bread, and some commissary fruit you've hidden in your cheeks, a beverage that has been man's companion since the dawn of time can be yours.

Barring regular access to a prison toilet, wine can be made at home with unscientific and dirt-cheap equipment. Of all the homemade hooches, it is the simplest and safest to produce, as it requires none of the cooking and careful temperature monitoring of beer, and it can't blow up your house, give you a black temper, and fry your ocular nerves in the manner of poorly distilled whiskey. Even better is that seasonal fruit can be had very cheaply: berries from the Hood River "fruit loop" can go for a dollar a pound, and on November 1, ripening pumpkins on Sauvie Island are essentially free. If you buy surplus fruit at its peak, a bottle of homemade wine can cost under a dollar to produce, so if you find the idea of conjuring something valuable out of next to nothing as gratifying as I do, winemaking can be extremely rewarding. The only other real cost is sugar, which can be had for 50 cents a pound.

I'll explain the process quickly, then fill in the gaps: You put some mashed-up fruit in a bucket with sugar, water, and a yeast packet, seal it with a one-way stopper that will burp out the yeast's gas without letting oxygen and bacteria in, and in a week or two when the sugar has been eaten and the yeast stops bubbling, you have raw wine, ready for bottling and aging.

That simplification will raise plenty of hackles, because it says nothing of sanitation, racking (separating the wine from the dead yeast), recipes, and storage conditions. I just don't want to scare anyone off. To reduce the risk of spoilage and improve the clarity of your wine, you'll need a stopper, airlock, second bucket for draining the wine off the lees (sediment and fruit pulp), sanitizing agents, and a handful of other things which can be purchased inexpensively from the experts at F.H. Steinbart (234 SE 12th), or you can scour Craigslist for secondhand equipment (search for "homebrew"). For well under $100, you can pick up a couple used five-gallon glass carboys and a few other plastic bits that will make the process easier.

The hardest part is the waiting: Wine should age at least six months before its flavors begin to come into focus, and it will be a wholly different animal in a year. A few years ago, for one of my first batches, I made a Hood River strawberry wine that tasted like sharp Kool-Aid right out of the fermenter, produced a gentle, surprising almond note at six months, and was sherry-like at one year. Of course, anyone who tasted it after hearing me call it "wine" thought I was off my nut, and I'm sure it seemed like some kind of bizarre hippie syrup—but having been involved with it from fresh fruit, through the stage where the raft of yeast-digested pulp looked like five gallons of clown vomit, through the long, tense stages of aging, I found it enthralling. And there was plenty of it to enjoy, because my drinking buddies stopped coming around.

One last resource: I often refer to the winemaking notes, recipes, and general wisdom at winemaking.jackkeller.net, a deep and rich resource that provides basic and advanced techniques for grape wines, but also such oddballs as dandelion, watermelon, almond, beet, and whatever else might be laying around in your yard. Most recipes are for one-gallon batches, so your experiments don't take up much space, cost much money, or hurt too much when you pour them down the drain. Mr. Keller's website—which appears to have been designed while the McDLT was still available—also features documentation which will aid you in worshipping Ronald Reagan, Hummel figurines, and Texas... so be forewarned.

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