Making Wine

If there is any story worth telling after our three years living in Bulgaria, it is the story of our homemade wine. It still amazes me that we actually did this. Isn’t making wine a form of fine art? Or at least, isn’t it hard? The illusion is that only rich people whose lives are unfettered should attempt a hobby with details like terroir, vintage, and hand-crafted oak. Good wine is elusive, and something I cannot do because I’m not a retired millionaire, and I didn’t inherit an Italian vineyard from my grandparents. Right?

But then we moved to Bulgaria. Where every home, in every village and small town, has grapevines twisting over the driveway. As soon as the hot August days start to wane, trucks show up at the side of the road with mountains of grapes stacked in plastic crates, and all you need to do is stop with a car big enough to take them home. Even in an economy with barely enough power to keep the woodstoves burning, (or maybe because of that?), every Bulgarian household and literally their dog is out pummeling grapes in the fall and making wine. So. I’m watching all of this and thinking, if these guys can do it… can’t I make wine too? And thus, the story begins.

It took a little convincing, but Mike got on board when he realized I was determined. I almost gave it up when I heard fermenting wine attracts flies, which seemed super gross. But then I thought, what if I never live in a house with a garage again? What if I die without ever making wine? This would be a tragedy far worse than flies, so the time for Chez Gower must be now.

As a wine-growing region, Bulgaria dates back to ancient times, like all the other famous Mediterranean countries. They’ve been farming and cultivating vineyards since the ancient Thracians lived here 7,000 years ago. Typical grapes in this area include classics like Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot, but also a few unique ones like Mavrud, Dimyat, Rubin, and Melnik 55. My friend, Dr. Spassov, has a vineyard where he lives on the weekends, in a village that grows all kind of grapes. He brings them to work in giant bunches and we eat grapes every day from late August to October, carefully rinsed and snipped and piled in a Pyrex bowl on his desk. “A portion for each day,” to be started Monday morning and finished by Friday afternoon. As someone whose life has been filled with Thompson Seedless, it was surprising to learn that grapes can taste distinctly different. Here, from left to right, are Misket, Mavrud, Hamburski Misket, Velika, and Pamid.

My favorite is the Velika. They are sweet and juicy, and you can see here how big they are compared to the size of my thumb.

This wine adventure has only been possible because of the patience of my dear friend, Lubo. For the past three years, Dr. Lubomir Spassov has been my colleague, teacher, and the kind of friend you keep for a lifetime. He is a grandfather to five kids, a caregiver to several cats, a doctor, wine-maker, computer wizard, and world citizen with previous homes in Nigeria and France. He has an endless supply of jokes and funny stories, and is fluent in more languages than I know. With him by my side we’ve cared for sick patients, given thousands of COVID vaccines, and spent hundreds of afternoons sharing dark chocolate and stuffed peppers. But in addition to camaradarie and friendship, the next best thing he’s given me is grapes.

On a hot September weekend Lubo met us in Vinogradets, where he owns a country house and is familiar with the terroir. We weren’t sure we’d find the place in this rural area, but he assured us we would know when we saw it.

He was right!

Tons of grapes stood stacked under sheds. The sun was hot and there were bees flying around, and everything looked vaguely clean enough. All we had to do was decide, what kind of grapes did we want? Lubo steered us toward a blend called cabernet-merlot, a hybrid that had been a good crop that year. Sounds good! 2kg of grapes makes about 1 liter of wine, and the cost of a kilo of grapes is less than a dollar, so we bought 100kg.

The grapes were then weighed, sent through a machine to remove the pits and stems, and siphoned into two blue plastic containers we’d bought earlier that morning at Mr. Bricolage (the Bulgarian Home Depot). There are many times I’ve regretted our giant SUV, but when I saw how easy it was to load up our wine vats, I was grateful! Several people helped us heave the heavy vats into the back of our Honda Pilot and secure them with a rope.

While we were waiting for our grapes to be de-stemmed and smashed, we met other people with plans to make wine. All of them spoke Bulgarian so it was hard to make small-talk, but one couple had lived in Australia for a while and was returning to Bulgaria for the slower lifestyle and lower cost of living. They owned a restaurant, and like many family restaurants, made and served their own wine. They were so encouraging, that of course we could do this too! It was nice to talk to them.

Back at home, the next job was to loosely cover our barrels in the garage and stir them twice a day. The long, wooden nshima spoon we brought from Zambia was perfect for this. Pushing around the grape skins is necessary to keep them wet and to prevent them from forming a hard, air-tight crust. It was fun to run downstairs twice a day to check the barrels, sort of like going to the barn to feed the cows. Within days, our garage was a bubbling wine cellar, filled with the fragrance of fermenting grapes.

As the fermentation picked up, our grape mash transformed into an aromatic, bubbly mess. The “open” style meant we could watch the process every day, with the barrels covered only just enough to let gas escape and keep out the flies. Isn’t making wine harder than this? Lubo reassured us that no, it wasn’t harder than this. He gave us a yeast slurry from his own mash to give it a little extra boost, and advised we add a bit of potassium metabisulfite to keep bacteria from spoiling the wine. I briefly considered not using sulfites to keep it “organic,” but decided what I wanted most was to decrease the odds that my wine would be gross. It seemed a little stupid, given our inexperience, to potentially blow the whole batch over “sulfites.” So yeah, I added the sulfites. At a ratio of 1 gram to 10 liters, I sprinkled a 5 gram pinch into the barrel and had no regrets.

Eventually, some time in late October, we noticed the bubbles had stopped. This meant fermentation was over and it was time to strain the skins and transfer the juice to a smaller vessel, where it would clarify and settle for a few months. If we had a winery and a bunch of fancy gadgets, we would press the grapes with a wine press and do things like measure the pH and specific gravity. We didn’t do any of that. We just got out the kitchen strainer and a meat pounder, and set about straining our 100kg of grapes by hand. Wow, was it messy! By the end of the afternoon, our garage looked like a murder scene.

It was a labor of love, and I understand now why wine presses were invented. But I think the point is that we were able to do it without all those extra things. Maybe this is how people have made wine for centuries, and in the world’s small villages, still do? It’s really cool to see how this can all come together with just our own humble determination, without the fuss of steel or oak or temperature-controlled cellars. If a plastic barrel and a funnel is all you’ve got, well then, it will do just fine.

Dr. Spassov told us we could sample our wine any time. The sediment left in the juice would settle to the bottom, and it would probably take 6-8 weeks to clarify. It’s important not to move or stir up the sediment during this time, since this will start the process all over again. By December we thought it should be okay, so we had a party to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas (not Santa, but the Greek god of fish), and served our wine for the first time. None of us could believe it, but it actually tasted good!

By January, it was time for bottling. We went back to the Bulgarian Home Depot and looked at the options for casks, bottles, corks, and siphons. There is an entire section of the store set aside for home distilling and wine-making. We had no idea what to buy, so we bought a siphon made by the brand Ferrari. That’s probably good, right? The boys were intrigued by the way a siphon works. Turns out it works pretty well on a bottle of Coke too!

The bottling process was much less messy than straining and pressing. We used three 10L jars, two 5L jars, and a bunch of 2L casks, like the kind that hang on walls in Italian restaurants. Gus was also very interested in the wine-making. I think he really wanted to help.

So now our garage holds 50L of homemade wine that we made entirely ourselves, and three years later, what’s left has aged well enough that we’re still proud to take it to parties. I’m pretty sure that this time we just got lucky! But one good experience is all it takes to want to do it again. We’re winemakers!

The wine culture in Bulgaria is thriving and strong, with the climate, the terrain, and the history to make it magnificent one day. Plastic bottles of homemade wine sold on the roadside make it feel accessible and friendly to everyone, and farmer’s markets always have wine on the table alongside the vegetables, bread, and cheese. It’s not so much a hobby as it is a livelihood, and something to do on the weekends with family and friends.

We’re super glad that Eli and Jake had the chance to make wine with us. It’s not Napa, but it’s also not every day that you get to buy your own grapes, smash them into wine, and bottle it in your own garage. One day, along with Chardonnay and Merlot, I believe the whole world will know about Mavrud and Broad Leaf Melnik!