Wine Skins in Recipe Kits

I was on the Facebook home winemaking forum (I hang out there quite a bit, so if you have questions, drop by) the other day when I got hit up with a really good question. Below is my expanded answer to SD.

Just a general question on wine kits . . . I like kits that come with the skins. Do you know or anyone else knows if the skins are from the same where the juice comes from, the variety? Does the juice get processed here domestically or does it get processed at the location of where the juice comes from, i.e.: Italy, Spain etc? This is a question I have asked many of the home brew stores without any response so maybe Tim Vandergrift or someone can verify this. Thank you! Kits make great wines but curious if the juice is authentic for the Style/Region that I would like to believe they come from.

SD in WI

To your first question, while the grapeskins used in my Master Vintner™ kits are from the same vines as the grapes that go into making the juice portion of the must, they aren't the skins from the grapes that made the juice itself: those are all used up in the processing. Grapes used for skins aren't macerated for color. Instead, they're pressed immediately to get the skin and seeds (where all the tannins and color are) away from the pulp, which is nearly colorless, sugary liquid. Afterwards they're dried, pasteurized and sterile-packed.

To your second question, almost all juices and concentrates are processed very locally, usually right in a winery located on the vineyard property, or at a processing facility in the growing region. The EJ Gallo processing facility in Modesto is centrally located to tens of thousands of acres of grapes. This is no accident: any place where there is a strong grape growing and winemaking industry has processors that make both juices and concentrates.

The reason is pretty interesting, and it has nothing to do with wine kit companies. If you look at a really big company like Gallo, Mondavi, or Bronco Wines (they make Two-Buck Chuck) they all turn out wines in a price segment that needs fast turnover. They make wines on a very fast schedule, and can often turn a tank over twice, or even more often, per year.

But they only get one harvest, and it's a gigantic one. If they kept all the grapes and juice at full strength they'd need twice as many tanks as they currently have. By concentrating part of their harvest and making part of it into sterile, single-strength juice they can store it until they've sold the first part of the harvest, and then make more. It's important to note that alcohol producers pay tax on the wine when it's made, not when it's sold. As long as it stays juice, it's untaxed.

If you read between the lines, an awful lot of commercial wine is made exactly like wine kits, with the same raw materials, and the same techniques. That's why I find it consistently funny when anyone says they don't like 'kit' wine—they're usually already drinking it, but paying way more from a commercial source!

A few specialty grapes get shipped longer distances for crushing and juicing. Germany has few facilities that can or will produce juices for resale (most of their vineyards or very tiny compared to the gigantic ones in Spain, France and Italy), so often grapes are sent to Italy for handling. This adds cost and exerts real pressure on quality, so it's done in limited quantity and usually only for very high-end juices.

As for being authentic for the style/region, you can bet your boots. Declaring regional content on a wine kit brings it under the purview of federal labeling oversight. When we say California, Italy or Chile, we follow the exact same rules that wineries use to define regionality and appellation of origin, and we have to keep and store records of the content of the kits and provide them if requested.
Admittedly, for style you'll have to be the judge. We think we get pretty close, but if you're making an Amarone -style wine, keep in mind that they're usually aged for many years before they're released, and longer before they're drank—if you drink your wine up in a year or two it would be tough to qualify how authentic it really is! However, if you let it age, you'll be rewarding yourself with a really great wine with length and power and deep richness—what more could you ask?