Aspen Times Weekly: The digits of wine |

Aspen Times Weekly: The digits of wine

by Kelly J. Hayes


One of the critical components of determining when to harvest grapes or when to stop them from fermenting is to measure the density of the sugar and water solution in the mix and assign degrees of measurement. This is the Brix, or BX. While levels can vary greatly depending upon the variety, the terroir and the choice of the winemaker, most grapes are harvested at between 22 and 28 degrees Brix. The higher the percentage, the more “jammy” the wine will be. The lower the percentage, the more likely the wine will be “thin.”

There are those who live by numbers. Those who feel that the whole universe can be figured out by studying math. And, based on that ones and zeros digital thing, I think they may well be on to something.

While wine is about taste, feel and emotion, it is also about working the numbers. I was recently in the California wine country and, while the winemakers I was with were tasting grapes, trying to get a sense of ripeness to determine just when to pick, there was also a lot of talk about numbers. About the number of “degree days” that this crop had endured or benefitted from. About the brix, or sugar levels, that the grapes registered. About the percentages that might make up specific blends.

Wine is, after all, a business based on turning soil, sun, and plants into profit. If one doesn’t consider the numbers then the entire operation adds up to, well, zero. Which is why the most important tool in a winemaker’s arsenal may just be the calculator.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers of wine starting with a bottle and working backward. A full bottle contains 750 milliliters of wine. That works out to a 1/5 of a gallon or just over 25 ounces. Who cares? Well start with a restaurant or bar that is selling premium wines by the glass.

The average pour, or the amount of wine in a glass in a bar, is right around 5 ounces. If the bottle costs the bar, say $20 wholesale, and they are charging you $10, a reasonable price for a premium pour (likely more at that bottle price), then they are making $50 on that bottle, or two and a half times more than they paid for it. The numbers start to add up.

You know that there are a dozen bottles in a case, right? This is important because wine is sold by the case to retail establishments and usually when you purchase a case at your local wine shop you will get a 10-15 percent discount. If you don’t, look for a new shop.

So, how many cases of wine can come from a single barrel of wine? Keep in mind that most premium wines spend time in barrels. Some in old or used barrels, some in new barrels. Some stay a short time in a barrel while other wines may be stored anywhere from 18 months to as long as four years, as is the case with some wines in Italy’s Piedmont region. A single barrel can hold 25 cases of wine. That’s 300 bottles or about a little less that 60 gallons of wine.

But before wine can be put in a barrel it has to be grown in a vineyard. How much land, how many vines, and how many grapes does it take to make a bottle, or a case of wine?

In this country the standard mode of measurement for a vineyard is the acre. An acre is just shy of 44,000 square feet or about the size of a 90-yard football field. In other parts of the world the measurement used is the hectare, which is equal to just under two and a half acres. We’ll use the acre because, well, we’re here.

An acre of land can, based upon the variety of the grapes, the way they are trellised, and the desire for a level of quality, host anywhere from 500 vines on the low end to as many as 1,300 vines. Each vine will have approximately 40 clusters of grapes depending upon the techniques used by the grower and each cluster will have somewhere between 75-100 grapes.

OK, so that means there are on average about 3,500 grapes per vine. The weight of those grapes is about 10 pounds. A high-end winery will usually shoot for somewhere between 2 tons and 4 tons of grapes per acre. Using our model, that means to yield 4 tons of grapes you need about 800 vines.

So how much wine does 4 tons of grapes produce? Well, again on average, a ton of grapes will crush down to 120 gallons of wine. Multiply that by 4 tons and you get 480 gallons of wine.

Still with me? Remember, a barrel can hold 60 gallons of wine. So 480 gallons would fill eight barrels. Again, remember a barrel produces 25 cases and there are 12 bottles in a case. So if you multiply eight barrels times 25 cases times 12 bottles you get 2,400 bottles of wine on your planted acre.

That’s a lot of digits to be sure, but you can bet that any successful grape grower has done that math, usually in their head, many times for every acre they have ever planted.

The bottom line is that there are some simple but important digits that define wine and how it is produced, sold, and consumed.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at