The Secret History of Wine Kits

Wine with Tim Vandergrift

Modern wine kits, like Master Vintner, are excellent examples of consumer-friendly DIY products: high quality ingredients, complete with everything you need, designed to work with custom built wine making kits, and packed into a sleek box with instructions that help you make great wine from the very first time. But it wasn't always this way.

Technically, the very first wine 'kit' was a hybrid beer-wine beverage. The ancient Mesopotamian people melded two technologies by combining the domestication of wheat and barley and the use of pottery into a brewing system. They blended fermentable carbohydrates in the form of barley, dried dates, spices, and honey into hard-packed cakes, which were then dried in the sun. When they needed a drink they'd crumble the bricks into a clay jug of water, allow wild yeast to ferment the sugars and drink through a straw to strain out the chunky bits. Brewers claim it as a beer recipe, but it's actually date wine with barley--so there!

As knowledge of vine growing and winemaking spread throughout the ancient world, the juice of freshly harvested grapes came to dominate winemaking, and as wine was much more shelf-stable than fresh juice or grapes, that was the final form that got shipped around and drank. We tend to think of past civilisations as very local, but one of the most widely shipped commodities of ancient Greece and Rome was wine, stored in amphorae stacked in specially constructed racks in the hulls of ships.

The Brave New World of Prohibition

The Volstead Act prohibited most alcohol consumption in the USA, preventing Americans from getting wine on their dinner tables or in bars. Naturally, this meant that vineyard acreage quadrupled during this period.

'What?', you ask--yes, it's true. An increase in demand for Sacramental wine (permitted), medicinal wine (by prescription) accounted for only a small part of this increase. What actually happened was that certain entrepreneurs, headquartered in Chicago and lead by a used-furniture salesman named Al Capone, wanted to give local winemakers the opportunity to pursue their craft.

Accordingly, vast areas of Zinfandel grapes were planted and on harvest were dried and compressed into bricks. These bricks were then shipped by railcar to the Eastern US, well-wrapped and plastered with a bold sticker: "Warning! Do not mix the contents of this package with five gallons of water and five pounds of sugar or it will ferment and become wine!"

The First Modern Wine Kit

Prohibition was a very strange time. After the passing of the 21st amendment winemakers returned to using fresh grapes shipped from growing areas, and to some juices shipped by refrigerated railcars.

The next big change in home winemaking came courtesy of a Canadian. Stanley Anderson from Vancouver BC founded a homebrew supply company called Wine Art in 1959. He imported wine ingredients and equipment for thirsty Canadians, but when the fall rush of grape harvest died down, he looked for a way to sustain his business in the off-season.

Turning to the manufacturers of concentrated fruit juices, he wondered why you couldn't use the same technology on grapes. Soon enough, he was selling cans of vacuum-distilled grape juice concentrate, which he packaged with tannins, nutrient, acid, oak extracts, yeast and a bag of sugar for an all-in-one winemaking 'kit'.

While these kits worked as advertised and allowed winemakers to produce beverages all year long, the technology was primitive and the grape juice was heavily affected by the high-temperature processing and canning methods. As time passed they slowly got better but it wasn't until a couple of hard-partying local college boys got into the act that kits changed radically.

The Next Modern Wine Kit

The Tocher brothers came from an entrepreneurial family and out of school they founded their own homebrew shop, focused on beer. According to one of the brothers, their first and only sale on their opening day was a single packet of yeast, so it wasn't exactly a rousing start.

They sold some wine kits, and wondered if there wasn't a better way. After experimenting with importing bulk drums of concentrate and packing them down into disposable containers (some of which fermented immediately and couldn't be delivered) they happened upon a packaging line for sale. It came from a local brewery in Vancouver that had tried (and failed) to sell beer wort in bags. They adapted the machine and the Pasteurizing unit, used it to do HTST (High Temperature/Short Time) treatment of the grape juices, and packed them into sterile bags.

HTST was the first key to their success: by ensuring the juice was only heated long enough to kill wild yeast and spoilage organisms, but not long enough to caramelize or burn the sugars they got a much fresher tasting wine.

The second key was making the kit all-in: a combination of concentrate and fresh juices with all of the tannin, acid, nutrient, and other additives included, it didn't require added sugar. All you had to do was pour it out, dilute to 6 US gallons (23 liters) and pitch yeast. Packed into the now familiar cardboard box it was the first thing we'd recognize as a modern wine 'kit'.

Other kit companies came and today there is a wide choice of kits available. Master Vintner, founded in 2014 is the only wine kit produced for and sold by an exclusively American owned company. We're proud to have built on the legacy of Mesopotamia, the ingenuity of the prohibition-era vineyards, and the innovation of Stan Anderson to bring you the best-tasting and highest quality wine kits.