How to Become a Garagiste

by Sheridan Warrick

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Warrick looks over a portion of his 2015 syrah, just pressed, from a vineyard in California’s Carneros region.

It’s not that hard to get started making excellent wines—as good as the ones you usually buy—right in your own home. In fact, you already know how to do it. I’m not kidding.

First, crush some red wine grapes—with your feet, if you like, as in the terrific old I Love Lucy episode or as the New York Times just showed amateur vintner Matt Baldassano, age 35, doing in his New York apartment. Second, get a fermentation going. Let it start by itself or speed it up by adding yeast, as you would to pizza dough. Next, when the fermentation ends, dispose of the grape skins and seeds. You’ve seen that, too: An Italian guy pulling on the handle of an old-fashioned wine press. Finally, let the wine stand around in sealed containers for several weeks or months. It’ll get clear.

That’s it—that’s the recipe. It’s pretty much how they do it in Napa and Sonoma and in Burgundy and Bordeaux. But what does it take to become an accomplished garagiste? Someone attuned to winemaking’s aromas and flavors. Someone who knows when to watch versus when to act, who’s enthralled by the seasonal rhythm: harvest, crush, fermenting, cellar work, and tasting. Who understands the mellifluous language of yeasts. That could be you. Accomplished winemakers put stock in four principles.

  1. Trust your senses. They’ll tell you if your grapes are good or if they’re funky, when a living wine is healthy and when it’s struggling. Swirl, sniff, sip, and spit: It’s the law.
  2. Embrace the new world. Enologists have created strains of yeast and bacteria that abolish much of the risk and trouble of making wines at home. Likewise, they’ve found ways of sanitizing gear and shielding wines from spoilage. Be wise and follow their lead.
  3. Be a sponge. Knowledge evolves, new ideas pop, old dogmas falter and die. Soak up perspective from vintners, friends, and wine shop staff. And read everything you can find. WineMaker magazine, for amateurs, regularly highlights new gear and methods.
  4. Never stop hunting for fruit. Explore the many sources of great grapes around the country, some likely near you. A wine can only be as good as the grapes that go into it.

Sheridan Warrick is the author of The Way to Make Wine: How to Craft Superb Table Wines at Home (2d ed., University of California Press, 2015).