Black Star Farms, Part 2: Sirius Winemaking

“I believe in a loving God,” Don said, “because he gave us a way to turn unremarkable grape juice into something alcoholic.”

I don’t drink wine – never developed a taste for it – but I enjoy learning about how it’s made. And Black Star Farms takes its winemaking seriously. Or perhaps I should say, “Sirius-ly” because all their beverage lines are named after stars. (To learn who Don is, and why I was here in the first place, see my previous post.)

Black Star Farms - Inside the wine cave
Inside the “wine cave”. Naturally, we could bring our beverages with us.

Here are some fun facts about winemaking that Don shared with us:

There are wineries in all 50 states today. Michigan has over one hundred wineries and is among the top grape-growing states, although most grapes (80%) go into grape juice instead of wine.

Black Star makes standard red and white wines, fortified dessert wines, and even some ice wine. They also make stronger beverages, such as cherry and apple brandy, and hard cider (which I sampled and found remarkably light-tasting and smooth).

Entrance to the wine cave. They took the top off the hill, built the cave, then put the top back on.)
Entrance to the wine cave. (They took the top off the hill, built the cave, then put the top back on.) The cave stays at a constant 55 degrees year-round.
"Exterminate! Exterminate!" (Sorry, I had a Doctor Who moment for some reason.)
“Exterminate! Exterminate!” (Sorry, I had a Doctor Who moment for some reason.)

The large vats you see here are where the wine ferments. The grape skins collect at the top of the vat and are skimmed off for white wine, or forced back down into the fermenting juice to color it for red wine. Don told us that recently a worker fell into one of these vats and drowned. “His end would have been quick,” he said, “but he got out six times to use the bathroom.” (*)

Sparkling wine is made with younger grapes, which have a higher acid content. When sugar and yeast are added to the juice, the fermentation produces natural carbonation. Instead of being aged in casks, it is fermented in the bottles. These bottles are extra thick and strong to handle the pressure of the carbonation. Black Star cannot call its sparkling wine “champagne” because that term is legally reserved for use only by the Champagne region in France.

Sediment inside a still-fermenting bottle of sparkling wine.
Sediment inside a still-fermenting bottle of sparkling wine.

The residue of yeast and grape solids is removed from sparkling wine in a multi-step process that preserves the carbonation. The bottles are set at an angle with the top pointed down, and rotated a quarter turn each day, so the solids settle in the neck of the bottle. Then the necks are cooled to freeze the plugs. The bottle is uncapped and the pressure shoots the plug out of the bottle, which is then quickly corked.

Black Star Farms - Brandy barrels

Dessert wines have fruit spirits added. This also “fortifies” the wine, which means to increase its alcohol content.

Black Star dessert wines have been served at White House dinners, and their Sirius Maple Dessert Wine remains in stock there as an example of a “truly American” wine.

Ice wine requires at least 8 consecutive days of cold temperatures for the grapes to freeze in the proper manner. Every year the farmers have to decide whether to take the chance that there will be enough cold weather to freeze the grapes and therefore to leave some on the vines after the normal harvest. The risk is that without enough cold weather, those grapes will rot and become useless.

If the weather cooperates, the grapes are harvested at the coldest time of the coldest night, picked up one at a time off the snow. Each grape yields about one drop of concentrated juice. And this is why good ice wine can cost over $100.00 per bottle.

So why, I asked innocently, couldn’t you use a freezer to create ice wine? Don said it could be done, but it’s illegal. According to Wikipedia, wineries in northern Michigan follow German ice wine laws, which dictate that “ice wine” can be made only from grapes that are frozen on the vine. So unless you want to sell “freezer wine,” I guess you’re in for some chilly harvesting.

After this marvelous tour, some of the group went off to the tasting room, while the rest of us headed to the cafe for wood-fired pizzas. Not a bad way to cap off a run!


(*) Actually, this is an old brewer’s joke. In another variant, it’s a whiskey vat, and when someone falls in, four co-workers jump in to save him, but he fights them off.

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