Making Wine and Friends with Transition Towns

Laura with grapes

Laura picking grapes

I am Alex Baines-Buffery, the Director of Wine Rides. It is a company that provides short cycling holidays, where the guests camp on British vineyards. Recently I was delighted to be invited to lead on a wine making project with the Crystal Palace Transition Town.

We picked the grapes from a local garden. The owner’s late husband used to grow grapes and make his own wine. Having her husband’s kit lying in the garden collecting algae and the grapes being left to the birds was upsetting her and it would have been criminal, to just throw the stuff away. So the Transition Town group picked up that baton and my loose association with wine meant I ended up “leading” this project.

I work with vineyards, but I am not a wine making expert. I am just someone who likes to do things. I particularly like making processed foods from scratch at home in my own kitchen so I learn how it’s done. I had brewed alcohol before but it was always made in isolation, for my own consumption. In the past when I had dabbled in these things it has been driven by my curiosity. This time it was different, it was fantastic. I was brewing as a social activity.


Proccessing grapes

When I was a bee keeper, I used to enjoy making mead which is honey wine.  I had never made wine from grapes myself so this was an opportunity I jumped at. Grapes make the best wine because they have a higher sugar content than other fruit. As a result the alcohol content produced is high, and that in a nutshell is what you need for making wine. At the end of the day wine is a method of preserving food. Personally I think it is really important to keep that in mind.  If you forget what wine is for, you leave most of the pleasure in wine behind.

Sadly wine has been partially captured by thugs. It has been elevated beyond food and turned into a commodity. In the past, many people had a line of demijohns running up the steps of their house, the Silent Generation made their own wine. In fact home brewing only fell out of favour with the Baby Boomers. Almost all my brewing equipment was kindly donated to me by strangers in their 70′s and 80’s and it is a source of immense pride to me that I can help the Transition Town keep these country wine making skills going.


Grape tred

Grapes being tread

grape tred 2

Feels great

I level that charge of thugary at anyone who would sneer at a hobbyist making their own wine. Professional wine makers through years of experience and skill will be able to make a materially better wine. But getting involved with the Transition Town has taught me that buying a bottle and consuming it will never be as rewarding as drinking wine you have made yourself with friends.

If wine is just about consumption then we should be drinking: Tempranillo Garnacha at £3.29 a bottle. It is a quite nice and very drinkable Rosé wine from Aldi. The price has been dropped simply because the weather has got cold, and customers have turned away from rosé in droves.  The way to get the most enjoyment out of wine as a commodity is to buy low and drink high.

Wine is a preserve, it isn’t perishable, so the clever thing to do is track the price of wine and pick them up when they are on offer and lie them down until they are back to their average price.  That sort of thing is a lot easier than it used to be. Set up a series of Google alerts track wine critics on twitter and read the wine sections of all the major papers online and you will get a few tips.


I’m not much of a stamp collector, so if I see good wine sold under value, I buy it and drink it and as a result can’t get any further recognition from my friends for my cleverness.

Let’s face it: many are put off wine because the thugs use it as a status symbol. Some people wreck the fun for all of us by using wine and their knowledge of wine as a proxy for their wealth and therefore status. Knowing about wine signals you have disposable income. It indicates that you either have enough wealth to have repeatedly drunk an expensive product or you are so intelligent that you can remember the minutia of some fairly similar drinks or both.

Wine should be about taking the harvest and capturing it. It’s about taking the good times and spreading them out across the year.  If you want something fun to do with a bunch of mates, or even your family, I really encourage you to go to the grocers and see what is in season. Sweet fruit is a natural source of sugar and any fruit can be turned into wine.

Whatever is in season that month should be cheap in the grocers. EVERYTHING you need to know can be found in First Steps in Wine making:


Wine stur

October is the time for grapes and hawthornberry wine. November is the time for bilberry, cranberry, sloe wine, sloe gin and English Port which is made from elderberrys, black berries and sloes. Every month has its own flavor, all you have to do is get involved and discover them for yourself.

Many branches of Wilkinsons ( still sell the kit you need and everything is easily available online. It is not hard to do; it’s just hard to master. It takes time, your wine probably won’t be ready to drink for 12 months, and you may have to give up some space in a cupboard for the brew but here’s the thing. The old boys that home brew wines and beers regularly beat the professionals in blind taste tests. This is because they don’t need to worry about the bottom line. Hobby brewers gild the lily and know how to make fantastic drinks.

I am not there yet but I know what knowledge I would rather have. If I drink a wine and there is something wrong, I would like to be able to say what I think the maker did wrong and how I would remedy that problem.  I don’t particularly feel the need to be able to say “ummmm, that was a very good year, in …… but I prefer the ….. “.  It is the difference between being an artist and a collector. As soon as you accept that wine making is an art you can see it for what it is.

Please don’t be put off by those who would scoff. Haven’t you always wanted to tread some grapes? I have only made wine a few times, and the fact is that the first few times it won’t be your best. That’s the nature of skill. If you want to have a go at this and insecurity is holding you back, just remember, if it isn’t good, you can change the recipe, you move on and learn.

Hayley and wine

My feeling is that people who really know about wine, as in they have made it, tend not to harbor prejudice against the country wines. Most people will admit grape wine is the best, it is the highlight of the year but there are some really good country wines.

The trouble is wine is exactly like art, people who know what they are doing, tend to know what they like, people who don’t seek validation from others. They don’t have enough points of reference and so they panic and dismiss things out of ignorance.

There’s no need to do that. If you’ve got grapes, make grape juice add sugar if needed, add yeast, and BOOM! You will have wine. Let the yeast settle and decant it the liquid into another vessel. Repeat once a month, until you have a crystal clear, highly alcoholic fruit beverage.

If you don’t have grapes use something else. The only thing you have to remember is to consume with friends and it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

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