In Vino Veritas – First Brewing – Unveiling Orta-Lily Wine

Somehow, I managed to grow some grapes in my backyard and rather than leave them to the birds and the mold, I decided to attempt brewing some wine. What kind of wine?

Well, that depends on the grapes you’re using and the brewing method. I am by no means an expert or even a novice on any of this. I’m just sticking my toe into the deepest of oceans because I can. There are also a staggering number of different opinions and takes. I guess that should be expected for something like this.

My path began over a year ago when I wanted to add a little panache to my backyard garden. I had four beds in a square pattern and used some inexpensive 1×1 and 0.5×1 wood to build a little trestle between them adorned with a wind chime and some bricks. I did this late in the winter and was looking for some plant I could stick at each of the four corners that would grow up the trestle.

My bright idea was to use grape vines. Afterall, Home Depot had them for sale at the front of the store. I got two red and two green (I think) and planted them. Initially, the vines grew relatively well. I had to time them up the trestle to help them reach the top where they could really cling. What I learned pretty quicky was grape vines don’t care much for making corners. If you bend a grape vine too far, it tends to snap.

I was also discouraged by the total lack of growth that first season and, well, the lack of grapes. The vines survived a pretty strong multi-day freeze and I kind of assumed I lost at least two of the vines. Later that spring, I dug those “dead” vines up and planted some Peggy Martin rose bushes. Those grow like weeds, but haven’t bloomed as often or as much as I would have hoped so far.

The remaining grapes vines, though, went wild. And before I knew it I had tiny, baby grapes in little bushels all over my trestle. I watched them grow in size for weeks, wondering the whole time what I would do with them. After trying a ripe one, which was really sweet, I decided to give wine making a shot.

Getting the basic equipment for fermentation wasn’t especially expensive and is reusable for brewing other types of drinks. The local store, LA Homebrew, had everything I needed to get started. A couple of 1-gallon carboys, some yeast, a siphon, an airlock, a little Star San, and some potassium metabisulfite powder and I was on my way or so I thought.

When I told the local gardener I was growing some grapes to use to make some wine, he laughed at me. Louisiana is not a great place to grow grapes. The biggest reason is mold. Grapes easily succumb to powdered mold in the high humidity. My big initial problem was birds eating my grapes, which was why I asked for advice in the first place.

I couldn’t do much about the mold, except pick the best grapes as soon as I could. As far as the birds, I used a combination of bird netting and a fake owl (F—ing $30 for a plastic owl). Those solutions were minimal effective but better than nothing. After several grape picking runs (I was picking the grapes one at a time to save the best from birds and rot), I managed to collect about 5.5 lbs. of mostly good grapes. That should be enough to make one gallon of wine, but it really depends on where you go for advice or what recipe you’re attempting to follow.

At the advice of the local homebrew store, I froze my grapes as I picked them to preserve them and to hopefully wring more juice out of them. Once I felt like I exhausted my vines, I let my grapes thaw in the fridge and then began the sterilization process.

The process is relatively simple, from what I’ve done. Mix an ounce of the Star San solution into 5 gallons of water and then rinse everything you want to sanitize in that. The solutions will hold good for a couple of weeks. I then dumped my cold grapes into a cleaned and sanitized 2-gallon bucket, put on some nitrite gloves, and then went to mashing with a potato masher.

I worked those grapes for about half an hour and realized my fingers were going numbers from cold and I was really only producing sludge. I let the concoction warm up to room temperature and then went back at it to better results. I had a lot more juice.

Smashing my grapes.

I carefully poured the entire slurry into a clean 1-gallon carboy. Juice, grapes, and whatever little stem pieces remained went in. I wasn’t sure about how much water to add, so I poured in 4 cups of water filtered from my fridge.

I wasn’t clear on the next part, so I added the sulfite powder and let it work on sterilizing the grapes, juice, and water for 24 hours. I needed to let it go that long so the powder wouldn’t kill my yeast when I was ready to add it. The next night, I added 2 cups of granulated sugar, thinking that would be plenty. Then I poured in my yeast packet after priming it with some carefully warmed water.

This is when I made the first mistake I’m aware of. I attempted to use my hydrometer to take a measurement of the initial specific gravity. You need this reading to compare to the final reading of your brew to determine the alcohol content. I tried to take it, but the grapes in my mix wouldn’t let the hydrometer float freely, so I let it go.

I then sealed the carboy with my little S-shaped airlock and stored it in the top of my hall closet where it would stay a little warmer than the rest of my house. The fermentation began pretty rapidly. And I realized I had made another mistake. I didn’t leave enough headroom in the carboy. I had to spoon out clumps of my grapes to leave enough room so fermenting grape juice wouldn’t bubble it’s way out of my air lock.

It’ll look more appealing eventually, I swear.

In retrospect, I could have put on some gloves and squeezed those grapes as much as possible to get the juice out of them instead of just throwing them away, but I chalked it up to another lesson.

Headspace saves on messes.

I also realized, after doing some reading online, that I only added about half the sugar I needed. So I shoveled in two more cups of sugar and stirred the mixture well. Since beginning a few days ago, I’ve been stirring the mixture twice a day and smelling it to make sure there’s no sulfur dioxide (bad egg smell). The mixture began with a super sweet smell and not has a definitive, though bitter wine smell. I probably need to put the brew in a cooler spot and aerate it a little more.

Lily and Orta observing fermtation.

I hope to move to the second stage of fermentation in the next couple of days. I’ll strain the juice through a fine mesh bag and squeeze the juice out of the grapes. I’ll then store that in a clean carboy and let the remaining yeast starve and suffocate itself to death while the dead yeast and sediment falls to the bottom.

There will be more to the process past that, but if everything works, I could have one or two bottles ready by the end of the year. Ideally, it would be better to bulk age them a little longer than that, but the appeal of Christmas wine seems too much to pass up.

As far as what type of wine am I brewing? I hoped to have some form of red or grape/muscadine wine, but it’s looking more and more like I’m brewing up an amber wine. I’ve actually never tried that before, so I’m looking forward to the final result.

Spring and Summer Galaxy Shoots

It’s been really hot lately, so I haven’t felt like going out much to do more astrophotography or even any observing. I get enough of the heat during the day from running and gardening. However, I did make a couple of trips out to the dark site when weather conditions were favorable in the spring and earlier in the summer and was able to gather some data for Messier 51, The Whirlpool Galaxy, and Messier 64, The Black Eye Galaxy.

The spring trip to the dark site was the more pleasant one of the two, at least initially. The weather was cooler and conditions were decent and the bugs hadn’t come out in force, but it did get chilly toward the end of the night.

A look at the Atchafalaya Basin from the dark site levee.

I set up my rig like usual and was determined to take another crack at the Whirlpool Galaxy. I had no problems aligning my rig and getting the focus sharp. The PHD2 was holding the scope on target. I was pretty excited to gather at least 2.5 hours of crisp images of this pair of galaxies.

But as the night progressed, I ran into problems. The first was one of the locals driving by in a pickup truck slowly and with their bright lights. With the angle of my scope, the light broke PHD2’s autoguiding. I noticed it fairly quickly though and was able to stop my camera and redo the autoguiding calibrations.

The next thing to happen was I didn’t notice when the external power supply for my laptop ran out of juice. Once it did, my laptop’s power scheme reverted to “battery mode” and powered down the system after 20 minutes. I caught this a little late, lost some images to streaking, but got everything going again.

The final thing to go wrong came with the dew. The humidity was pretty high and the dew settled hard and fast on the cooler metal of the scope. The lenses and mirrors appeared fine, but my focuser started slipping. I didn’t catch this for quite a while and lost even more data to all several images being completely out of focus.

I got to survey the damage the next morning and realized I lost about half of the data I hoped to gather. But the result wasn’t terrible and was definitely an improvement over my last attempt, even with the minimal amount of processing I did.

Messier 51a, Whirlpool Galaxy. ~1.5 hours of 6 minute exposures at 3200 ISO with Canon EOS Ra.

My next trip and my only summer trip to the dark site so far was more productive but less pleasant. I arrived earlier than I intended and waited in my car for the sun to set lower because the horseflies were swarming. I could hear them hitting my card like heavy rain drops. They thankfully went away as the temperature dropped and the sky got darker, but the mosquitos came next. The repellant I had was only so effective, so the best I could do was to keep moving and to keep spraying.

Setting up my rig went even smoother than last time and I was up and running pretty quickly. The only issue I ran into was one I should have thought of. My equipment is relatively old and I’m not using a software package that unifies tracking, autoguiding, and imaging, like the Astro Photography Tool (ATP). That’s definitely something I need to learn.

So, as my target for the night, The Black Eye Galaxy, slipped closer to the horizon, my mount went below its meridian and PHD2 either didn’t detect this or wasn’t set up to perform a meridian flip. In layman’s terms, the mount was turned too far to one side and needed to flip around to keep tracking the object.

I did see what was happening and was concerned my camera would eventually hit the tripod. I knew I’d have to stop everything and let the mount re-locate the object to get it to flip. And I did do all this without too many issues. Since I don’t use plating (again, learning ATP would have helped with this), I had to manually reframe the galaxy in my images to be as close as possible to what it was before I made the mount flip around. Of course, I didn’t find out until the next day that many of my images were ruined with the mount becoming unsteady on the object once it went too far past the meridian. I ended up with image after image of streaky, squiggly stars.

But there was some saving grace to this. I learned about the “Drizzle” feature in DeepSky Stacker, which “is a simple algorithm that creates an image that is larger than the images in the stack and interpolates between pixels to ensure it reproduces fine detail in edges despite the effects of stacking transformations.”

One of the astronomy society members that was out there with me told me about it but couldn’t recall what it was called. When I sat down to stack my images, I went through all of the settings in DeepSky Stacker to find whatever this feature was and I’m sorry I hadn’t been using it all along. It’s CPU intensive, but I have CPU power to spare.

Despite losing about half of my data, again, I got a decent result. And I’m almost curious enough to try re-stacking some of my earlier images with Drizzle x3 turned on.

Messier 64, Black Eye Galaxy. ~1.5 hours of 6 minute exposures at 3200 ISO with Canon EOS Ra.

Between my trips to the dark site, I also caught the lunar eclipse that occurred mid-May. Setting up my trusty 8″ Orion Dob in my own backyard with my phone’s camera and no computerized mounts or laptops, while listening to an audiobook, and sipping some bourbon is a lot more relaxing than hanging out on a levee with cows and bugs. If you look closely at this image, you may be able to see the little object heading toward the moon. It might have been a meteorite or a satellite. Whatever it was, it’s not an artifact in the image.

Lunar Eclipse, May 15, 2022. Taken with Orion SkyQuest XT8 and Samsung Galaxy S20.