Basics of Making Wine


Old World vs New World

Old world wines come from Europe and follow traditional methods for winemaking. The wine must follow strict regulations, including wine blend percentages, aging, and labeling.

New world wine is any region outside of Europe. These regions enjoy the freedom to explore new methods for producing wine. Luckily for consumers, their wine labels are much easier to understand making the wine selection process much easier to navigate.



Part of the winemaking process involves selecting the proper location, environment, and soil for each type of grape to thrive. The cooler climates generally produce more acidic, crisp, herbaceous wine. The warmer climates produce riper, jammy wine.

The soil and climate help to give the grape its overall flavor. It is said that the terroir comes through in the wine. Terroir gives the wine a sense of place.


Harvest Time

Harvest time happens in the fall and varies based on the type of grape and ripeness desired. The winemakers pay close attention to acidity vs sweetness levels of the grapes to determine harvest time. Weather forecasts play a big part in the harvest timing as well.


Grape Juice and Skin Contact

The juice from all wine grapes runs clear. It’s the contact with the grape skins that cause coloration to come through. For red wine the grape juice is left in contact with the skins for a period of time to develop a nice red coloring to the juice. For white wine, the skins are taken out of the juice immediately and for rosé, the skins are left for a very brief time before removing them.

The skins are also what create the tannin in red wine. It gives the wine a more bitter, earthier flavor.

This step in the winemaking process is called crushing and pressing. The grapes are lightly crushed first, then white grapes proceed to be pressed in order to remove the grape skins. The red grapes that are lightly crushed move into the fermentation phase.

Grape Crusher at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley |
Grape crusher at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley.



Yeast is added to the juice to start the fermentation process. The yeast eats away at the sugars in the juice. The more sugar eaten by the yeast, the higher the alcohol content. As a result, the sweeter the wine, the lower the alcohol content and the dryer the wine the higher the alcohol content.

Once the red wine goes through its fermentation process, the juice is pressed away from the skins and the skins are removed. The red wine is then transferred to oak barrels.


Oak Barrels vs Stainless Steel Tanks

Maturing wine in oak barrels results in a deeper coloring of the wine and adds a flavor of vanilla and toast. Nearly all red wine is matured in oak barrels for some time. The length of time in oak, the type of oak and age of the oak barrels are all variables in this process and dependent on what the winemaker is trying to achieve.

Chardonnay is often matured in oak for a time, giving it a toasty flavor and creating a deeper straw coloring to the wine. Some highly oaked chardonnay can taste a bit like a campfire. To find the right balance, producers will make chardonnay with a certain percentage from stainless steel mixed with some from oak barrels to achieve a light oak flavor.

Other whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are matured in stainless steel tanks to keep them light and crisp.

Stainless steel tanks used for white wine at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley |
Stainless steel tanks used for white wine at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley.
Oak barrels aging red wine at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley |
Oak barrels aging red wine at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley.


Bottling & Storage

You may have noticed that more and more wine is coming with a screw top instead of a cork. This is becoming more acceptable in the wine world and is no longer reserved for the value wine. The biggest benefit of screw tops is that it keeps oxygen from the wine which helps keep the wine fresh.

Wine producers still use corks for the wines that need a little oxygen to develop their complexity. For wine with a cork, it should be stored on its side in a cool, dry location away from sunlight. Storing wine on its side will keep the cork from drying out which can allow too much oxygen to reach the wine. Once oxygen reaches the wine, oxidation begins which breaks down the wine.