Wineries & Tastings: The Step-By-Step Process of How Wine is Made

The Grape-to-Bottle-to-Tasting Room Process of Making Wine: How Wineries Get it All Done

Visiting wineries is an activity that all wine-lovers enjoy. Each tasting room offers a unique experience and the ability to connect with new places, wines, and the people who make them. Hundreds have been inspired by a life-long dream of leaving the city for the country and owning a winery.  They imagine that being a winemaker is one of the most glamorous professions around.

Yes, some wineries/winemakers have achieved a lofty status.  For the most part, this is achieved after a huge monetary investment and years of hard work, fueled by passion and dedication. Let’s take a journey from the vineyard to the tasting room.

Making Wine in the Vineyard

The process of making wine begins in the vineyard.It is the single most important and most demanding factor determining how a wine will taste. Nature is in control here, so learning every element of the natural growing environment is essential before any vines are planted.

Choosing and Designing the Site

Vineyard site selection has become an increasingly exact science, offering detailed analyses of soils,elevation, weather patterns, sunlight,  rainfall, irrigation needs,temperatures, appropriate varieties,projected yields, and profit potential. Every possible component of growing grapes and making wine is considered before making a decision where to plant the vines.

Once that decision is made, it’s time to design the vineyard.  What is the orientation of the rows?How will the vines be trained?How high should the wires be?  How close together are the rows?  How close together are the individual vines?The contour of the land, how many buds will be kept when pruned,  and whether the grapes will be harvested by hand or mechanically are factors that will help determine answers to some of these questions.

Vineyard Maintenance

Once the vineyard is planted, the real work of making good wine begins:tending to the vines, carefully nurturing them through their first few years, and waiting for enough quality fruit to make good wine.The vines must be managed before, during, and after the growing season every year.

Winter pruning is the next most intensive task in the vineyard, next to harvesting. The prior year’s canes are cut back and the best ones are chosen to produce new shoots. Then comes bud break, accompanied by prayers there will be no late frosts or hailstorms.

Ongoing tasks include tilling between the rows, fertilizing, weed management,mowing, and spraying against pests or disease.More chores involve pruning suckers growing up from the ground or on the trunks,removing non-productive shoots,and positioning the remaining shoots on the wires.  Some winemakers do green harvesting, or thinning the crop, before veraison (when the grapes ripen and turn red). This involves removing some clusters to reduce the weight so the vine can concentrate on the remaining fruit.

Critter Control

Those luscious green shoots and leaves are heaven for deer and elk.  Large animals can trample the vineyard.  Raccoons and rodents are around to wreak havoc.  Birds love to feast on the ripening berries.  Appropriate fencing or other deterrents need to be installed and maintained.Bird netting or other types of bird control are a must to preserve the fruit of the harvest.

To produce the best quality fruit essential to fine wine, the winemaker must decide when how to do all the vineyard management tasks.It is a carefully planned and executed process that also requires a little luck.  Mother Nature’s whimsy can change everything in a heartbeat.

Making Wine in the Winery

It is in the winery, where humans take over from nature, that the glamour we envision with winemaking takes place. It is in the winery that, first and foremost, you must learn and practice one of the most crucial aspects of producing quality wine:  cleaning and sanitizing.

So much for delusions of glamour.  The truth is there is more scrubbing, cleaning, and sanitizing than any other activity in the winery.All of the equipment, utensils,tanks, hoses, pumps, fittings, barrels – you name it – is cleaned first and then sanitized.  Again and again, after every use, all year long. Too much work is done in the vineyard to risk wine going bad from sloppy practices.  Winemakers who have risen to fame and fortune have embraced the importance of this practice to ensure the quality of their wine.

Winemaking is very simple:

  1. Pick the grapes,
  2. Crush the grapes,
  3. Ferment the grapes into wine,
  4. Age the wine,
  5. Bottle the wine.

Step 1 – Pick The Grapes

When to pick is the first decision. White grapes are generally

picked before reds, but it comes down to the ripeness of the grapes and the style of wine to be made. Now and then, the weather does not cooperate and grapes don’t ripen properly, or a late summer hailstorm can cause damage to the fruit and require it be picked immediately or entirely lost. The grapes are harvested either at night (easier by machine with lights) or in the very early morning (by hand) to beat the heat and stabilize the sugar levels.

Step 2 – Crush The Grapes

The grapes arrive at the winery in large bins, complete with stems and some leaves. They are sorted to remove “MOG”, material other than grapes (sounds like a Klingon name, doesn’t it?). After sorting, the grapes are sent to the destemmer where the stems are removed and the grapes crushed. Here’s where the process differs slightly.

White wines are usually not aged with their skins on.They go directly to the press where the juice is gently squeezed out and pumped to tanks to rest for a while so the sediment can settle to the bottom.  After this settling process, the wine is “racked” or filtered out to another tank for fermentation.

Red wines are also destemmed and crushed, but the difference is that they go directly to a fermentation tank to ferment with their skins on.

Step 3 – Ferment

This is where the yeast is added to both reds and whites to convert the sugars to alcohol.The winemaker uses a complex set of technology, techniques, and record-keeping to monitor the process and measure the sugar levels regularly.

White wines need to preserve their delicate fruit and floral aroma so the winemaker usually ferments them at cooler temperatures of around 50°-60°F. Red wines ferment a lot hotter, usually around 70⁰-85⁰F. All these temperatures are monitored and steps are taken to adjust one way or the other, according to the winemaker’s preferences.

Carbon dioxide is released during fermentation and causes the red grape skins and seeds to rise to the top, forming a “cap” on the wine.  This cap is then either manually punched down  2-3 times a day, or pumped over by filtering juice out of the bottom and pumping it on top of the cap. The choice of pump down or pump over is determined by the winemaker, often influenced by the grape and the taste profile.

After fermentation of the red wine is complete, it is taken to the press.  The juice that runs out before it is pressed is considered the purest and highest quality wine called “free-run”.  It is to wine what  “extra-virgin” is to olive oil. Both the pressed and free-run wines are then pumped into tanks to allow the sediment to sink.

At the end of this process, both white and red wines are racked into vessels to age.

Step 4 – Age The Wine

Winemakers have many options when it comes to aging, depending on the kind of wine one wants. The flavors and aromas in wine will change due to these choices:

  • aging for several years or several months
  • aging in stainless steel vs. oak
  • aging in new oak vs. “neutral” or used barrels
  • aging in French oak or American oak
  • aging in various levels of “toasted” barrels (charred by fire)

A lot goes on in the winery while waiting for the wine to age into something great. During this time, wines are racked, tested, tasted, stirred, and sometimes blended together to create a final wine.  The glamorous task of cleaning and sanitizing continues after each and every activity.

Most reds and some whites (Chardonnay) will undergo malolactic fermentation where microbes convert malic acid to lactic acid.  Fear not, your wine is not turning into milk, but it does become rounder and softer, characteristics many winemakers (and drinkers) prefer.

Step 5 – Bottle The Wine

Some white wines are ready to bottle after a few months of aging. Dry red wines usually need 18-24 months, some longer. When the winemaker decides the wine is ready – it’s time to bottle, label, and get that wine ready to be enjoyed in the tasting room.

So there you have it, a condensed version of the journey from the grape to the bottle to the tasting room.  The next time you visit a winery, think about all the hard work that went into producing that beautiful liquid in your glass.  Kudos to the winemaker and the crew!

If you would like to visit a winery or learn a little bit more about some aspect of the process then any of the following posts may be right up your alley.

Wine Tastings & Winery Tour FAQs

How Much Does It Cost To Visit a Winery?
Can You Go To a Winery In The Winter?
Are You Supposed To Drink The Wine At a Wine Tasting or Spit It Out?
How Long Do Wine Tastings Last?
Do You Tip At Wine Tastings?