From Vine to Vino - A Toast to Homemade Texas Wine

Each Independence Day my wife and I get up before the sun and put on a big pot of coffee. Then we wander through the house and wake up any of the kids who were nice enough to come for a visit. As they dress, I fix pancakes. After breakfast I throw the ladder into the back of the truck and the adventure begins. With kids, dogs, ladders, buckets and clippers in tow, we slowly drive around the back roads of Washington County in search of wild mustang and muscadine grapes.

Homemade wine makes an excellent gift.

Each year, my family makes at least five gallons of wild-grape wine. The method I use was taught to me by Marvin Marberger of Brenham, Texas. Marberger is descended from some of the original German immigrants who settled Washington County. His ancestors arrived here about 140 years ago. One of the many culinary traditions that they brought with them was the art of winemaking. The method that he uses has been passed down through several generations of his German family. Marberger has really embraced his family’s winemaking tradition. Now, in addition to his grape wine, he regularly makes wine from things like tomatoes, dewberries, peaches and even jalapeños. According to Marberger, he can make wine from anything that has juice. Since he currently has 17 different varieties of wine in his house, I believe him. The process that he uses, and has now taught to me, has three simple steps and requires just three simple ingredients: juice, water and sugar.

The wine that is made through this method is a very sweet table wine. While it is probably not going to win any awards, it is very drinkable. I like it over ice and my wife and female kids (I say kids, but they range in age from 24 to 32) like it mixed with a little Sprite. It is a good thing that my friends and family like this sweet, homemade wine. One five-gallon container makes twenty-five 750 ml bottles of wine.


If you want to make wild-grape wine, you are going to have to harvest some grapes. In my opinion, this is the toughest part of the process. Even though wild grapes can be found on just about every fence row in the state, they are usually hard to harvest because their vines snake all the way up to the top of those cedars and hackberries (hence the ladder I threw in the back of the truck).

As you can tell from Heather’s short sleeves, the author’s daughter is not nearly as allergic to poison ivy as the author.

There are two types of wild grapes in Texas, mustang and muscadine. Mustang grapes are the most plentiful where I live. These grapes have a thick, dark purple cover and white “fuzz” on the underside of their leaves. Muscadine grapes have a more translucent skin and they can range in color from green, in the immature form, to a deep purple when fully mature. While the birds and varmints seem to love them, they really are not palatable to humans.

Both mustangs and muscadines have extremely high acid content. Because of this, you will definitely want to wear long sleeves, long pants and gloves when harvesting. Other good reasons to cover up your skin are poison ivy and Virginia creeper. For some reason, these plants always want to climb up the same trunks as the grapes. No matter how well I cover myself, I always wind up with a nasty rash.

Mustang grapes are ready for harvest in my part of Texas around July 4. In the northern parts of the state you will have to wait a little longer. Smudgy, dark stains on the asphalt under the trees that line those back roads are a good indication that the grapes are ready in your area. Those “smudgy” stains happen when the birds and critters knock the ripe berries onto the road for passing cars to run over. Between the rash-giving vines, the animals eating the grapes, and the fact that neither produces very big clusters, picking the grapes is definitely the toughest part of the process.

Five gallons of wild grapes will make five gallons of wine. In dry years, harvest six gallons of juice to ensure you have enough.

If you are willing to brave the heights and the irritating vines, pick five to six gallons of grapes (more in dry years). Once they are harvested, mash them ASAP.

The author’s wife Sally and daughter Jessie use old wooden baseball bats to turn grapes into juice.
A grease filter from a restaurant supply company allows you to quickly strain large volumes of wine.
You cannot filter your wine too many times. A coffee filter works great to capture the tiny sediment particles.

Do not wash them before you mash. The yeast needed for the fermentation process is lying on the skins of those wild grapes. If you wash it off you will have to add supplemental yeast later. It is not necessary to remove the stems before you mash.

Simply fill a five-gallon bucket with the grapes and mash into a pulp with a wooden implement of your choice. We use an old baseball bat. If you want to relive that classic “I Love Lucy” episode, you can use your feet to mash the grapes. However, I wouldn’t recommend it. Their very high acid content will leave you with itchy feet.


Once the grapes are mashed you need to cover them tightly with a clean cloth or plastic wrap to keep the bugs out. The initial fermentation process begins as the natural yeast on the skins begins to reproduce. This creates carbon dioxide. You will know that fermentation is occurring if you see bubbles coming up through the mixture or if you have a strong smell of grape juice permeating the area in which the grapes are fermenting.

During primary fermentation the skins, stems and seeds will separate and float to the top of the juice.

This process should be allowed to proceed for about two weeks. During this time, the tannins and the color of the grapes are being transferred to the liquid. As the process progresses, the pulp, stems, seeds and skins will separate and float on the top. Sometimes a light mold will begin to grow on the top of this mash. If you see any signs of mold, pull the liquid off immediately.


The last step in the process is when the wine is actually made. First, siphon the liquid from the container used in the first step into a clean container. I use a food-grade, six-gallon bucket purchased from a restaurant supply store. Siphoning is important. It will reduce the amount of pulp and sediment that is passed to the secondary fermentation container. When pulling off the juice, make sure you have about six quarts. While this recipe will work with four or five quarts of juice, I have found that using six quarts or more makes the secondary fermentation process work better and also makes the wine taste better.

The airlock allows carbon dioxide to escape during secondary fermentation.

Once I am certain I have enough juice, I begin filtering. I have a large cone-shaped colander used in canning. I line this with cheesecloth and strain the juice from one container into the other. When this is done, I strain the juice a second time by lining the colander with a grease filter also purchased from the restaurant supply store. If the second round of filtering contained a lot of pulp, I strain again.

Siphon wine from the primary fermentation container into the secondary fermentation container to reduce the amount of pulp that will need to be filtered later.

Once I am certain I have enough juice, I begin filtering. I have a large cone-shaped colander used in canning. I line this with cheesecloth and strain the juice from one container into the other. When this is done, I strain the juice a second time by lining the colander with a grease filter also purchased from the restaurant supply store. If the second round of filtering contained a lot of pulp, I strain again.

Once the six quarts of double- strained grape juice are in my food-grade container (which has handy measurements on the side), I add 10 pounds of sugar. I know that sounds like a lot of sugar. However, because wild grapes do not have a lot of natural sugar in them, you need to add lots of sugar to this mixture so the yeast will have something to feed on.

Pour the sugar directly into the strained juice and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved. Once the sugar is dissolved, add enough filtered water to the mixture to make the volume in the food-grade container equal to five gallons. Once this has been stirred again, I use a funnel to pour the five gallons of liquid into a clear plastic water bottle.

Once the mixture is in the bottle, secondary fermentation takes over. While the yeasts on the grapes were beginning to divide during primary fermentation, the addition of the sugar will make the process accelerate rapidly. Wild yeasts can be a little unpredictable. Because of this, this recipe uses an airlock to keep any airborne contaminants out of the juice while fermentation is happening. The airlock that I use is very simple. I have a large, solid rubber stopper with a 3/8” inch hole drilled in the center. I bought the stopper at a local hardware store. Feed an 18” to 24” length of clear, rubber 3/8” hose into the stopper. Next, fill a plastic water or soda bottle 3/4 of the way full with water. Drill a 3/8” hole through the cap. Tape the water bottle to the neck of the five-gallon water bottle and then feed the rubber hose through the lid of the soda bottle all the way to the bottom.

Once the airlock is in place, place the wine in a cool dark place. Cool is a relative term. I keep mine on an enclosed back porch and Marberger keeps his in his garage. In two to three days you will begin to see bubbles in the airlock. These bubbles are caused by carbon dioxide that is being released during the fermentation process.

Your wine is ready for bottling when there are no more bubbles passing through the airlock. This can take as little as a few weeks or as long as a few months. Mine is usually done in six weeks. It will not hurt the wine to leave it in the fermentation container for sev- eral months. If you want to bottle your wine quickly, make sure the fermentation process is absolutely complete. You can literally get explosive results if you bottle your wine before the fermentation is finished. Since it does not hurt the wine to sit in the secondary fermentation container for several months, I bottle mine on Christmas Eve. I wait this long because I know my kids will be home to help. Bottling takes a little work and it is nice to have the extra hands.


Before you can bottle your wine, you need to sterilize your bottles and corks. My lovely wife is an experienced canner, so she does most of this job. The wine bottles and corks are sterilized with boiling water.

The bottles are sterilized by pouring boiling water into them.

Sally brings two pots of water to a rapid boil. She places the bottles in the deep pot that she uses for canning. Then she uses a large glass measuring cup and a funnel to fill the bottles with the boiling water from the other pot. After a few minutes she removes the bottles with tongs and drains them. They are then placed upside down in the dish drain. A fivegallon container of wine will make 24 to 25 bottles of wine, so you will need to have that many bottles and corks on hand.

While Sally works on the bottles, I filter the wine again. You want to get as much sediment out of the juice as possible. While the sediment does not hurt the wine or you, it does not look good sitting on the bottom of your bottles. We first strain the wine through cheesecloth and into a large tea pitcher. We then pour the wine from the tea pitcher through another grease filter and back into the food-grade container used to make the juice mixture in the first step.

When the wine is filtered and the bottles are cool, you can begin to fill them. To fill the bottles, we dip our large glass measuring cup into the filtered juice. Then we place a funnel into the neck of the wine bottle and slowly fill it with the wine.

Five gallons of wine will fill twenty-five 750 ml bottles.

Once the bottles are full, we can cork them. I used to save and reuse corks. However, for this to work you have to boil the corks until they are soft. Then, you have to try and force them into the neck with shear brute force. No matter how strong you are, you will not be able to force the used cork all the way down the neck of the bottle. This results in bottles of wine with corks that are sticking half out the top. I do not like the way this looks. Also, reused corks do not always do a great job of sealing the wine. I have made more than one mess in the cabinet when I tried to store them on their side.

To avoid all of these issues, you can buy a hand-held corking machine for about $30. I also recommend buying new corks. The corks cost about a quarter each but are well worth it. The hand-held corking machine perfectly forces the corks down into the neck with minimal effort. This results in a more finished look for your bottles and the bottles will not leak.

The wine is ready to drink any time after the fermentation process is complete. However, the flavor will mellow and improve if you store it. My one-year-old wine is much better than my new wine. If you are going to store your wine, place the bottles upright in a cool dark place for about a week. This allows the corks to properly dry and seal. After that you can store them on their side like any other bottle of wine. Bottles stored on their side keep the wine in contact with the cork. This will keep the cork moist and help keep the seal tight.

The author’s 25-year-old daughter Jessie samples the “fruit of the vine”.
Marvin Marberger, of Brenham, Texas, has been using this recipe to make wine for more than 50 years.

The longest running Fourth of July parade west of the Mississippi happens each year in Round Top, Texas. I love this parade, and my wife and I go almost every year. However, before we load up the cooler and the folding chairs, we harvest the wild grapes that our family will turn into our Christmas Wine. The wine we make will never win any awards. However, that’s not why we make it. Making homemade, wild-grape wine is a fun way to honor the traditions of the past and create memories for my family that will outlast me! Cheers, y’all!

By Jay White