Saturday, November 28, 2009

Vino Vallero, 6 years ago and today

A few months ago I was at one of our Southern PA Homebrewers meeting. While talking to a young engaging couple, they started lamenting the lack of success with their homemade wine. I’ve been making wine for about 6 years now so started querying them about their ingredients and process.

As I was listening a lightbulb went off and I looked at them and smiled. “You’re making boat wine! Well, that’s what I called it. Learned from this crazy English vet!” I said with a big smile, because just thinking about boat wine reminds me of good times sailing and some of the great and nutty people we met on the high seas.  (

At the club beer exchange last week, the same couple and I got to laughing again as we discussed boat wine. They asked for the recipe that I used on the boat. I told them I would gladly provide it on my blog, as well as the story of how I first met Alan, the man who taught me how to make it.

Ken and I had been sailing from San Diego to Panama in 2005 when we stopped in El Salvador at Barillas marina. It was an adventure just getting to this marina…we had to be guided in through the breakwater by a man in a panga (see picture). Waves were breaking on both sides, and the entrance was always shifting.

Once we were through the breakwater we had to travel 5 miles or so up a river, still following the panga.
The marina itself was all mooring balls with no dock access to land. Although the cruising books said they would send a panga out to get you when you needed to go ashore we found that was not the case. But customs, and immigration came right out to the boat to review our papers and passports to get us signed in.

The marina was specifically designed for safety and protection because it was a favorite place of the big politicians during the hot summers. The guards carried weapons, but were friendly with cruisers.  We didn’t see any known politicians while there however.

Remote from stores and grocery shopping, the marina did provide a van for us to go into a fairly large town to stock up on provisions. It had been a long passage so we were running low on canned goods as well as being out of fresh vegetables and fruits.

Sitting in the cockpit of the boat in the early mornings and sipping on a cup of our good coffee, watching the locals go about their routine was my favorite way to start my day when we were at a marina or anchored in a cove.

Zebedee on mooring ball in Barillas, El Salvador

The first morning there I noticed a nice looking fairly new sailboat made in the junk-rigged style. No one was around that first morning but the owner did show up in the next few days. I saw him paddling his strange looking square dinghy one day and waved to him as he headed to the marina bath house. Later that day we met up with him and started chatting.

Alan (left) makes Doogal, his dinghy, with one sheet of plywood. 
One of the things I love about cruising is the friendliness of just about all cruisers. It reminds me a lot of Alaska. In both scenarios you have to make your community or “family” from those around you. We don’t have generations of family members at sea, unless you are on the same boat. Your neighbor, the boat 5 miles away or over in the next cove, or anchored next to you may be your only contact and support during emergency situations. So you meet, and interact quickly.

Such was the situation with Alan, the owner of the junk-rig moored near us. After our brief chat on land, we invited him over for dinner on Cadenza, our boat. An hour or so before sundown he rowed his strange dinghy over to our boarding ladder and hailed us. The first thing I saw was a 1 litre pop bottle being handed up. The liquid inside was almost clear but not quite.

Once he had climbed the ladder, and settled down on the cushions in the cockpit I asked him what was in the bottle. “That’s my homemade wine. Thought you would like some with dinner,” he said with a smile. I was shocked to learn he made it on his boat! He had been gone for about two months, and had just returned to the boat from England. During the evening he regaled us with many funny stories of his large animal veterinary practice in England, his adventures in the military, and his woes from his divorce and business partner.

But back to the story of the wine. My nature is to learn to do things that help me be more self-sufficient. Cruising was adding to many skills I had learned in Alaska. While it wasn’t great stuff, it was passable and the fact that he had made it on the boat was a continuing discussion for me. But why would he go to the trouble of making it in the first place? Wine was cheap in a lot of places. In California for instance we could get “two-buck chuck” at any Trader Joe’s! Sure you only had a choice of white or red, but at $2 a bottle, it was decent stuff! What could be cheaper than that? Alan explained that due to the high taxes on wine in Canada, England, and many other countries previously run by Britain, lots of people made wine. Hmmm.

OK. So I queried him more and deeper we went into the process and recipe. We had many fun conversations with Alan over the next couple of weeks, and all seemed to be accompanied and enhanced by Alan’s boat wine.

The next time Ken flew back to the states for a business meeting in York, PA, he picked up the yeast and other chemicals from Mr. Steve’s. (

As soon as I had the key winemaking ingredients Ken brought back, I bought the needed apple and grape juices, and made sure I had ample sugar on board. Then I got busy.

When talking with Alan originally, he had told me just to use a 5 gallon water jug and never even mentioned the word carboy, or wine bucket. Looking back on that and thinking about all the equipment I have now, I really have to laugh at the crude beginnings of one of my favorite hobbies!

Since I didn’t have a carboy with an airlock (and didn’t know I even needed them, or what they were), I just popped the pour spout on the water jug every day. The water jug sat under the table in the salon. That had the boat smelling like a winery in no time as the yeast went to work on the sugar and the juices! From the beginning I went with 4 litres of white grape juice and 1 litre of apple juice, making it less like Boone’s Farm Apple wine than Alan did.

Our first taste of the finished product was hilarious. Yes, it still tasted like cheap wine, and it was high in alcohol content…but we had made it ourselves on our boat! Vino Vallero was born. Every three or four weeks I would make a new batch. Once it was done fermenting, and clearing I bottled it in 2 litre pop bottles. Then “aged” it in the spare cabin for as long we could…at least 2 weeks! LOL.

We quickly learned to serve our vino vallero instead of our good liquor to our sailing friends. We met so many heavy drinkers while sailing, and found they would quickly drink up everything on the boat. So we would pull out the vino vallero and they were happy. I did have to cut people off many a night though.

One night we had a great party in a wonderful, picturesque cove in Bahia Panama. But I told everyone that I had run out of wine after about two hours. The next morning one of the gals told me she couldn’t remember how she got home…keep in mind we were all on boats! Going home meant getting in a dinghy and rowing or motoring back in the dark to a rocking boat. Now you know why I cut every one off!

So here is the recipe just as Alan told it to me.

Homemade wine

4 litrs apple juice
1 litre grape juice
(or use all grape juice or any combo)
1 pkg wine yeast
5 tsp yeast enhancer
3 litres sugar

In 5 gallon jug pour all ingredients. Put cap on and let sit for 2-3 weeks until you like the taste. Pop the water jug valve every day or so to release the gas during this time. The action of the boat rocking in water at anchor, or even heeling in a good strong wind will not hurt the wine. In fact it keeps everything stirred up and helps the yeast!
2/3 tsp potasium metabisulphite
2 tsp wine finings
2 1/2 tsp potassium sorbate

Let sit for another week to 2 wks, then bottle in 2 litre pop bottles. Let sit again for another week to two weeks.
One note. One of the other cruising boats also took up the habit of making boat wine thanks to Alan. They went fancy though by bottling it in glass wine bottles and even etched their bottles with their boat name! Class all the way! LOL.

From this humble beginning I began making wine. Now I use kits or go out and pick my own grapes. But every once in awhile I have to make a batch of vino vallero just to remind us how far we have come, and how much fun we had while cruising!

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