Living in the Land of Israel, we see vineyards everywhere. I have long harbored a secret desire to have a vineyard of my own, to harvest the grapes annually and make my own wine.
Meanwhile I live in an apartment in the city with no vineyard to my name. This has not thwarted my long-held interest in making my own wine. Yet there were three main obstacles:
- I have no wine grapes
- I have no equipment
- I don’t know how to make wine
If you are also feeling stuck on those obstacles, this post will show you you can do it nevertheless. Next Shabbos you could be drinking your own homemade red wine!
Right now is the perfect season to do it!
Obstacle #1: I have no wine grapes
This year is shmitta and everywhere you drive around Israel countryside, you will see yellow Shmitta signs flapping on agricultural fences, including those surrounding vineyards.
This means that the farmer is keeping Shmitta and has acknowledged that the fruit of his vineyard is hefker this year – ownerless and free for anyone to take.
Guidelines for picking grapes on Shmitta
- Some farmers rely on the heter mechira and cultivate their land as normal this year. Do not enter their property without permission.
- It is always nice to get permission if possible, especially if the vineyard is in someone’s backyard. Nevertheless, large commercial vineyards are usually in the middle of nowhere and it’s difficult to know who owns them or ask permission. Still, always act respectfully when entering someone else’s vineyard – don’t leave any garbage, don’t cause any damage and close the gate after yourself.
- Though technically you are entitled to pick any vineyard, if the farmer doesn’t want you there for some reason, obviously we prioritize Shalom and move on to a different vineyard.
- Network in your community to find the local hobby winemakers, Ask them where they’re picking. The average vineyard produces infinitely more grapes than 100 hobby winemakers could use, so hopefully they will be more than willing to share their source.
- According to the halachos of Shmitta, it is forbidden to pick more than you will use. All grapes and the resulting wine must be treated respectfully, as it has kedusha. For more info on what that means, speak to a rabbi.
- Make sure the grapes are ripe. They should taste very sweet and look just a little past their prime. Another good way to determine ripeness for winemaking, is that the seeds should be completely hard and brown, not soft and green. They should crack between your teeth like nuts.
The vineyard we picked was located in the Shomron. We did not get permission as the owner is overseas. However, other people told us that he was happy for anyone to pick this year, as he was not harvesting at all. We have heard of several vineyards where the farmers are not picking and hobbyists are having a great time.
Wine grapes are coming into season now and will be in season through most of September. If you just want to make a small batch to give you wine for the next few weeks, 10 kg of grapes will be plenty. That will take you and a friend under an hour to pick.
Update for 2023: It’s no longer shmitta. This year we will buy wine grapes or pick the leftovers (with permission) from vineyards that have already been machine picked.
Obstacle #2: I have no equipment
You do need some equipment to make wine. There are business that sell these supplies in Israel. If you don’t have time to schlep immediately or wait for your delivery to arrive, this is the bare bones list of what you need to start immediately.
- A large plastic barrel or food-grade buckets with lids to do the primary fermentation in.
- Winemakers yeast
- Sulfites to sterilize everything and neutralize the wild yeast (optional but highly recommended)
As for the buckets, buy them at a catering supplier or rescue them from the waste of restaurants. If you just want to make a small batch, one bucket will suffice.
With these three things, you can have your own, homemade dry red wine by next Shabbos.
if you want to make a year’s supply and age it to make higher quality, long-lasting wine, in a few weeks you will also need 2 glass carboys. But you have some time to organize that.
The important thing is to pick the grapes ASAP!
Obstacle #3: I don’t know how to make wine
Here’s something amazing I discovered from actually doing it: winemaking is a natural process. It happens on its own when grape juice comes in contact with the outside of a grape’s skin. That’s how our ancestors did it, starting with Noach after the flood.
Of course, if you want to make wine that resembles the kind that our taste buds have gotten accustomed to from a life-time of buying the stuff in the store, there is a learning curve.
There are literally dozens of way to make wine but I am keeping it super simple. IN this information age, anyone can learn the basics in an hour from the comfort of the their sofa. Read a few how-to blog posts and watch a few how-to videos.
But one word of warning: stick to the simplest possible methods.
There are plenty of experts who make winemaking extremely complicated. For your first time, keep to the simple backyard guides.
We are a week into the process and our wine is already drinkable. If fact, we removed some from the barrel to use for Kiddush this Shabbos. It tastes quite a lot like the “real thing” already. I am no wine connoisseur but my more knowledgeable sister tasted it and she pronounced that “it has potential.”
Making Wine is Fun and Rewarding
This is our first time and we don’t really know what to expect, but for me that is part of the fun. We are skipping lots of common practices and keeping it barebones, because that’s what feels doable.
We are not adding oak chips. We are not worrying about pH levels or malolactic fermentation. And we are not stressing about temperature control.
Will the wine turn out well? I don’t know. I’ll write another update later and let you know.
Soon we will rack it into carboys and let it age for a few months. Hopefully by the time the wine drinking seasons of Purim and Pesach arrive, it will be a good drop to share with friends.
Let me know how yours turns out!
Update from After Shabbos:
My husband and I really enjoyed the wine on Shabbos. It tastes like a good dry red but lacks the really full mouthy body that characterizes what wine-lovers call a “big red.” Apparently that comes with the aging process, which we had planned to begin soon.
However, my husband and I agreed that we like this lighter wine better than regular professionally produces red wine, even the pricey stuff.
Update from Six Months Later:
We have racked and bottled our wine. We’re still enjoying drinking it very much!
I have meanwhile graduated the WSET Level 2 Wine Course. As part of that, some of Israel’s top wine experts tasted my homemade wine and I got very positive feedback BH!
I am amazed by how enjoyable both the results and process have been. Winemaking is a extraordinarily rewarding and satisfyingly city farming adventure that I highly recommend you try too!
My name is Naomi and this is my tiny little farm in the heart of the rapidly growing city of Beit Shemesh, Israel. I enjoy growing, making and processing as much of my family's food and household essentials as possible, while nurturing a biodiverse ecosystem filled with beauty and life.