Conversations with a Winemaker

What better way to wrap up our Fortnight of Wine than to make our very own? Growing up, I somewhat took for granted how much time and effort my parents put into making things from scratch, whether it was pasta, pizza, or pesto. With regards to wine, I rarely took an interest in what my Dad was doing in the cellar until the last few years.

Last September was the first time I made wine with my Father from start to finish. We opened our first bottle just a few weeks ago and we’re now enjoying the fruits of our labour. What I discovered is that making your own wine isn’t as difficult as you might imagine.

Welcome to FMMS’ Fortnight of Wine! As the harvest season approaches, we thought it would be the perfect time to take a deep dive into that most wonderful of elixirs. Over the next two weeks, we’ll have a few more posts than usual as we explore wine’s ins and outs, after which we’ll be be back to our regularly scheduled programming. So grab a glass of your favourite and read on, for as Andre Simon said, “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.”

Monday, September 15 – A Brief History of Wine
Wednesday, September 17 – Varieties of Wine
Friday, September 19 – Sangria
Monday, September 22 – Conversations with a Wine Connoisseur
Wednesday, September 24 – Our Wine Tasting Experience
Friday, September 26 – Conversations with a Winemaker

The following interview describes the winemaking process that took place just this past week. I was fortunate enough to sit down with my Father and have him share his passion and knowledge with us.


FMMS: Thanks for doing this interview with us. You’ve been making wine for a long time; when, approximately, did you start?

Giulio Di Virgilio: In my late 20’s, about the same time as you, I guess.

FMMS: How did you learn how to make wine?

GD: By watching my Father, and seeing how he did it.

FMMS: A lot of people might be reluctant to make their own wine at home. They might think that it’s a complicated process and that they need a lot of equipment. Can you address these concerns?

GD: Making wine at home is easier than you think. Anyone can do it, really. You need a cool space to store the wine over the year, and some equipment that you can usually find wherever you buy your grapes.

Some people make wine by buying juice, so they don’t need to transport 10 or more cases of grapes back to their home, they don’t need equipment to crush and press, they don’t need barrels, etc. Most places will allow you to choose which grape juice you want and they can even ferment it for you at a cost. You can even bottle it yourself after the wine is ready.


FMMS: Where do you buy your grapes? Where can you do all of this?

GD: Most cities have places where grapes are imported – there’s only a few locations in Ottawa. I get mine at Musca Wine in Little Italy.

FMMS: What grapes do you commonly use to make wine?

GD: I always use Zinfandel as the base. I combine Zinfandel with different grapes each year until I discover the mixture that I like the most.

FMMS: What other grapes have you tried with Zinfandel?

GD: I use Ruby Cabernet for the colour and for the taste. I’ve tried Merlot, Valpolicella… mostly reds.

FMMS: Last year we added a white grape, Moscato, for the first time. What made you suddenly add that particular variety?

GD: I wanted to add a bit of sweetness to the wine and Moscato is a very sweet grape.


FMMS: Yes, it worked out really well! So how about Zinfandel? Why do you choose it as your base each year? How long have you been using it?

GD: Oh, as long as I can remember. Well, it’s a very good grape; I like the colour it makes, I like the taste; a lot of people use it. This year they ran out of Zinfandel, so I only got four cases. We are mixing that with seven cases of Ruby Cabernet, and one case of Muscato. We’ll see what it tastes like next year. It will be different, but I’m sure it will still be good. I usually do 50% Zinfandel and 50% Ruby Cabernet, but this year and last year I introduced Moscato.

FMMS: How many bottles of wine do you get from that? What is the total cost per bottle?

GD: This year I got 12 cases of grapes, at 36 pounds each. That will make about 120 -125 bottles. The average cost per bottle is about 4 dollars or less, so it’s definitely cost effective, but best of all, you get to drink your own wine. There’s a lot of joy in that.

FMMS: Let’s talk a bit about the winemaking process.  What do you do after you have the grapes?

GD: Since the grapes are usually refrigerated, you have to bring the grapes to the same area where you will be grinding them, and leave them there for a day, so that the temperature can slowly adjust.


FMMS: Then you grind them to separate the stems from the actual grapes?

GD: Yes. Some people have grinding machines that separate the grapes from the stem, but I use a manual grinder. They sell them where you would buy the grapes. I grind all the grapes into a large plastic barrel.

FMMS: Even after grinding there are still a considerable amount of stems in the barrel. Why is it so important that you remove as much stem as possible?

GD: You want to ferment the grapes by themselves, as the stems will give the grapes a bitter taste. So we’ll go through with our hands and pull out as many stems as we can find. This is a great time to filter out some of the grape juice to enjoy before it starts to ferment.


FMMS: The grape juice is amazing. How many days do you have to wait after this process?

GD: I cover the grapes with a mesh screen so that bugs don’t get in. After 2-3 days the grapes and the juice will start to ferment together. Then I wait another 3-4 days until it finishes fermenting, so usually a total of one week, roughly. As it is fermenting over these final 3-4 days, I push the grapes into the juices and mix it around. I’ll do this every 3 hours, except at night obviously. I need my sleep!

FMMS: How do you know when the grapes are done fermenting?

GD: Companies that make large batches will use a special thermometer to tell when it is finished and they check the alcohol content, etc. But at home you can tell the grapes are done fermenting just by looking. The bubbling will stop, and everything will settle. I’ll usually wait 1 day after this point just to let it fully settle. Then we start pressing.


FMMS: What do you use for pressing?

GD: A wine press (laughter).

FMMS: Sounds simple enough, but where do you get one?

GD: You can get one on Kijiji from old Italians that don’t make wine anymore or have passed away, because Italians will usually make wine until they die. Or, like I said before, you can usually buy one at the same place where you purchased your grapes.

FMMS: What’s the easiest way to transfer all the fermented grapes into the press?

GD: I use a pail to slowly scope and pour the grapes and juice into the press. You put the juice in the press a little bit at a time and then you start pressing. You gather the fermented juice that comes out and then you put that in another plastic barrel.

You let it sit in the plastic barrel for another day or two so that all the sediment can sink to the bottom, and then finally, you transfer the juice without the sediment into the damigiane (demijohns). Make sure you airlock the damigiane!


FMMS: And then thats it? We’re done? How long do you let it sit in the damigiane?

GD: Yes, we are done! We let it sit anywhere from 6 months to a year. After that it’s ready to drink. You can siphon the wine out into bottles so that you can give them to your friends and family.

FMMS: Can we have a few? For research.

GD: (laughs) Yes of course!


FMMS: Just before we wrap-up, can you please tell us what your favourite post on FMMS has been so far?

GD: I like all of them, honestly, but I think my favourite was Marco’s post on Zuchinni Flowers.

FMMS: Yes they were very good! Thank you so much for taking the time to not only do this interview, but to actually make the wine with us!

GD: It was my pleasure, cheers!


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  • Brandon Wright September 26, 2014 at 10:24 am

    So do the grapes need to be in a certain specific temperature range, or does it just matter that they have time to get to the same temperature as the room they’ll be ground in?

    Also, any advice on the how leaving the wine for, let’s say, 6 months instead of a full year, will impact the taste? Eg. Will it be stronger if left longer?

    • Anthony Di Virgilio September 26, 2014 at 11:30 am

      Thanks for the question Brandon! I spoke with my Dad about this. He explained that the grapes should be at room temperature around 22-23 degrees before you start to crush them.

      For your second question, my Dad explained that the wine matures more over time, which may make it a bit stronger, and it may effect the fullness of the body. Some people like their wine younger, some people like it more aged. I think my dad starts drinking the new batch whenever he runs out of his previous year’s batch, which is usually after a year of maturation.

      It would be a nice experiment to leave a bottle for several years and then drink it, to see if there is a slight difference, but I’m not sure how discernible it would be unless you were very well trained, and of course, if you remember exactly how the wine originally tasted, with only a year of maturation.

      • Brandon Wright September 26, 2014 at 2:26 pm

        Sounds good, thanks!

        One more: What happened to people crushing the grapes with their bare feet? Does anyone still do that or has the grinder/crusher replaced that entirely?

        • Anthony Di Virgilio September 27, 2014 at 4:16 pm

          The stomping tradition still exists but from what I have read, the new (and even old) equipment has mostly replaced that method. This is partly because of the labour costs for all the stompers VS the cost of machinery, but some companies, despite the added cost, still insist that stomping produces a uniquely soft wine that maximizes the extraction of flavour without breaking the pips and releasing bitter components. To each his own, I guess!

  • Barb September 27, 2014 at 8:13 am

    I loved this post! Can’t wait to try the wine and someday meet the winemaker 🙂

  • Jill Hache September 30, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    Loved this post! My boyfriend and I make our own wine as well and it makes great Christmas gifts, and we always have some on hand for guests, or when we feel like having a party for 2.
    Great article!

    • Anthony Di Virgilio September 30, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      Thanks Jill! What grapes do you use for your wine?

      • Jill Hache October 1, 2014 at 7:16 pm

        We used Valpolicella! 🙂

  • Mano Kardaras October 2, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Does your dad prefer cork over screwtop? I know that in the past, cork was the only way to go for most wine “experts”, but they’re rarer nowadays.

    I’d be curious on his take.

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    […] Monday, September 15 – A Brief History of Wine Wednesday, September 17 – Varieties of Wine Friday, September 19 – Sangria Monday, September 22 – Conversations with a Wine Connoisseur Wednesday, September 24 – Our Wine Tasting Experience Friday, September 26 – Conversations with a Winemaker […]