This started out as a simple dream of making homemade wine. It turned into an exploration I never expected.
My first taste of dandelion wine was disappointing. One of my cousins used to make it every year and it always tasted like pure rot-gut. It wasn’t until I met a 70-year-old Italian in Montreal’s Little Italy who made an exquisite white wine – from grocery store grapes, no less – that I saw the potential and vowed to make my own wine one day. A dandelion wine.
I kept the dream tucked away for “someday.”
Twenty-eight years later, the 2020 pandemic gave me the time – and a dandelion recipe – to finally tackle that wine.
My wildly creative friend, Mary Holland, had a family recipe and basic instructions. But with a COVID lockdown in place at the time, we decided we’d each try a batch on our own and share notes.
Being an artist, I’m not one to simply follow directions so I scoured the internet for other recipes and combined several of them for my first attempt. (I include the links to the recipes at the end of the article.)
The winemaking adventure started right in my own backyard!
I know I’m supposed to consider dandelions a weed to be actively purged from lawns and gardens, but I’ve always embraced their fluffy faces filled with sunshine, making little bouquets with them for the kitchen table. Their warm shade of yellow always brings a smile.
I merrily picked my dandelions early in the morning after the dew had evaporated. I was “in the zone,” enjoying the moment, lost in the sounds of birds and the buzzing of bees. An elderly gentleman passing by on his morning stroll felt compelled to wander over, clearly intrigued by my joyful task. When he discovered I was making wine and not just pulling up weeds, he jumped right in to help (with an appropriate social distancing, of course!) He was smiling like a kid who was let out of school to play. We left a few flowers for the enjoyment of local bees and for the flowers to eventually go to seed.
We managed to get almost half a grocery bag filled and then I settled down to the task of removing the petals.
It was far more work than I imagined. To avoid a bitter-tasting wine (which was probably part of the problem with my cousin’s wine), I learned that I had to remove ONLY the petals and avoiding the green part holding them in place. I tried several methods – plucking the petals a few at a time (definitely not efficient), cutting off the green base (which also cut into most of the petals, and finally settled on just grasping as much of the yellow petals as I could and pulling them from the base.
This is where you break out a bottle of the previous year’s wine and invite the neighbors over to help, but since we were in a pandemic, I was on my own. It got more challenging as the day wore into evening because the flowers started to close. As more and more of the green bits were ending up with the petals, I decided to do two batches to test the bitterness theory. One batch would be completely free of the green bits and one would have some in it. I finally got them done by eight o’clock that night.
I boiled water, poured it over each batch of dandelions and left them to soak overnight, pleased with my efforts for the day. (The image below is the batch with the green bits!)
The next day, I strained the dandelion liquid, squeezing the dandelions through a cheesecloth. The dandelion is not a fragrant flower, so the steeped liquid had a somewhat grassy aroma. Since I never had a good dandelion wine, I didn’t know what I was aiming for, so I just kept following my instincts and experience in gardening, canning and cooking.
I added honey and fruits and used a regular dry yeast since I didn’t have a wine yeast. I covered the container with a lid and let it ferment. It did get nice and fizzy so the yeast worked!
In the good ol’ days of home winemaking, you’d pour the strained wine in bottles and put a balloon with a small pin-prick in it over the opening to let it finish fermenting. As the wine continued to ferment, the balloon would fill with a bit of air. Supposedly, once it deflated, fermenting was done, the yeast would settle to the bottom and the wine would get clear. Really low-tech!
I did do a few bottles like this just to see how they would turn out, but in the meantime I found a winemaking supplier and picked up a “carboy” (an odd name that conjures up all sorts of fun visuals) which is a glass jug for fermenting and clearing wine. This was definitely a step up from the bottle-and-balloon method which gave the wine store owner a good chuckle for the day.
I didn’t have enough wine to fill the carboy (which means there’s more oxygen than there should be in the head space) but heck I just went with it. At this point, I’ve probably made every mistake in the book, but that’s the beauty of learning (and art). Mistakes always move us forward and sometimes they lead to something new and interesting that we never would have discovered had we been focused on doing everything “right.”
So now we wait…..
Mary and I made plans to get together to try our wines before bottling. I’m hoping for the best, but am not sure what to expect.
This initial winemaking attempt sparked a renewed curiosity into a parallel world that I hadn’t explored since I took a hiatus from my sculptural gourdwork. Paying attention to nature proved to be even more powerful to me now – in the middle of a pandemic – as life as we knew it has been turned upside down. Re-establishing this connection with the earth is a welcome grounding in these chaotic times.
Something tells me this first batch of homemade wine won’t be my last.
DANDELION WINE RECIPES:
Here are the links to the various Dandelion Wine Recipes that inspired this effort:
The Spruce Eats