The anticipation of harvest is intoxicating. As the seasons change and the air feels a little crisper, you know it’s time for the work to begin. The feeling awakens the same every year around September, I get giddy knowing what is around the corner. I’ve experienced harvest in many aspects, mainly socially, sipping wines one after another as I skip from one winery to the next…always in awe at the beauty that surrounds me. This year I wanted to experience harvest in a different manner. I wanted to immerse myself in the process of “vine to wine”. I wanted to work harvest. And working is exactly what I got.
It is one thing to study wine and another to be hands on in the process of winemaking. I continue to be fascinated by wine and everything that is involved. One thing I love about wine is you are learning constantly, something new every day. As I completed my WSET 3 certification this past year, I realized I learn best when I experience things first hand. That’s when the ah-ha moments come into play. This year I had the opportunity to work harvest with Melville Winery in Santa Rita Hills and Dorcich Family Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley. As with anything, everyone does things just a little differently, offering me an added appreciation for a range of craftmanship in winemaking.
With the amount of work that goes into harvest means the days start early. At Melville, the work begins at 4:00 AM and DFV the day starts at 6:00 AM. Thank goodness coffee is a necessity, multiple pots disappear before 9:00 AM. One of the biggest differences between Melville and DFV is manual processes versus machine-based methods. At Melville their philosophy is to do punch downs by hand. This is a technique of breaking up the solid matter with paddles on the end of a stick, submerging the grape skins back into the juice, extracting more flavors, color and tannins. A practice that takes place during fermentation. At DFV their process involves pumping over techniques where the fermenting juice is drawn from the bottom of the vessel and pumped up over the top, wetting the cap. The pulp and skins are a mass known as the cap. Not only does this extract more flavor, color and tannins but it is a good way of dispersing heat and aerating the juice. Pumping over is a faster process, the very reason I believe Melville starts their day at 4:00 AM…it's not uncommon for hand punch downs to take 2-3 hours each morning. Keep in mind both these techniques need to be done twice a day!
Another common task is testing the sugar levels in the wines that are fermenting. Alcohol fermentation is complete when the sugar is converted into alcohol, this takes place through the action of yeast. When grapes are picked the sugar levels (brix) are around 24, in order for fermentation to be complete, that number needs to be around -2. Checking the temperature of the wine is also important. Fermentation will not start if the temperature is below 41 degrees and fermentation will stop before all the sugar is consumed if the temperature is above 95 degrees.
One activity that is quite mundane yet I found very therapeutic is sorting grapes. I’ll get back to that in a moment. Grapes are typically picked at night when the temperature is cooler, helping to preserve the quality of the fruit. This is done by the vineyard crew. Unlike the cellar crew, who’s day starts in the early morning hours, their work day normally begins around 10:00 PM. This is another big difference I noticed between Melville and DFV. Melville hand picks all of their fruit, whereas DFV uses both hand picking and machine harvesting. Hand picking is slower and more labor intensive, which naturally can be more expensive, but you get better quality grapes, minus MOG (matter other than grapes) when you meticulously select what grapes to pick. Machine harvesting shakes the trunk of the vine and collects the berries that fall off. With this process, the machine is not able to determine quality grapes, often collecting unripe or damaged grapes as well as anything else that was present, for example; insects, spiders, lizards and anything else that may have been lingering within the vines. The advantage of machine harvesting is that it is much faster than hand harvesting. This can come in handy if weather becomes an issue or if a grape variety becomes over-ripe too quickly, which is common with Sauvignon Blanc. The technology and mechanics of machine harvesting continues to improve but ultimately it comes down to a winemaker’s philosophy on how they want to handle the fruit.
Back to sorting grapes. Once the grapes are brought in from the vineyard crew, it is time for the cellar crew to get to work, sorting the grapes and getting them into a fermenting vat as soon as possible. I actually enjoyed working the sorting table at DFV. It was especially entertaining when we sorted machine harvested grapes as we picked out all sorts of things that should not have been in there. We saved a few lizards, a spider and a couple caterpillars. We also kept an eye out for bunches that were not of high quality or unripe. Once the grapes are sorted, they make their way into the destemming machine (if it is not whole bunch fermentation) before traveling into their resting place for the next couple of weeks where alcoholic fermentation will take place. Some winemakers prefer to have the grapes macerate for a period of time at lower temperatures before allowing fermentation to start. This is referred to as cold maceration or cold soaking. The purpose of doing this is to extract more color and flavor before starting the fermentation process, a method that can be beneficial with certain grape varieties. Once fermentation is complete it is common to rack the wine to another vessel, this is a form of sedimentation where the wine is slowly and gently pumped into a different vessel, leaving behind the gross lees (dead yeast).
Pressing the grapes is also an important part of the winemaking process, this is where the juice and the solid parts of the grape is separated. For white wines the fruit is pressed before the start of fermentation. Red wines are commonly pressed after fermentation in order to get more color extraction. Two types of wine presses wineries use are a vertical ‘basket’ press and/or a pneumatic press. A vertical ‘basket’ press puts pressure on the grapes from a plate that raises and lowers using a lever. A pneumatic press which is a horizontal tank, consists of an inflatable rubber tube and stainless-steel cylinder that applies pressure in a controllable manner. Melville uses both types of presses. At DFV, I only noticed a pneumatic press.
Did I mention cleaning is a huge part of harvest? It is important to ensure all machinery and equipment is clean to eliminate any bacteria. The floors get messy too, especially when racking wine. Cleaning is nonstop, I felt like I had a hose in my hand 80% of the time. Sounds silly, but another task I found to be soothing.
Many days turned into a 12+ hour day. I was exhausted. My body was achy. I was bruised and sore for a good week. But gosh I was happy. I learned so much. Working harvest gives you a new appreciation for what goes into a bottle of wine. I realize this is just a snippet of what harvest looks like, there are so many other details and steps not mentioned, but I hope this gives you an idea of the work that is involved in winemaking.
Once the last grapes are brought in and the winery seems a little quieter than usual, it’s a satisfying yet somber feeling, knowing that harvest is coming to an end. Will I do it again? Maybe. Who am I kidding, yes, most likely I’ll make this an annual journey. I am pleased to add ‘cellar rat’ to my resume. Cheers!