Harvest: Time to Crush It -- Part 1

Harvest has come early this year in California.  It’s been in full swing since mid-August.  With the grapes still flooding into the wineries, Grant is going to do a series of mini-posts on the blog about what goes on in the winery this time of year.

Making wine is actually pretty easy.  Anyone can snag some grapes off the supermarket shelf, squish them up in a plastic bucket, cover them with cheese cloth for a couple weeks, and make some vino. I've seen it. I've done it. Elephants do it (seriously, google that).

Perfectly ripened Syrah grapes, ready to be plucked from the vine

Perfectly ripened Syrah grapes, ready to be plucked from the vine

Making great wines is an entirely different matter. A whole year of grape growing and vineyard management funnels down into two-to-four months of organized chaos during harvest. Work levels double or triple during the fall, and I have been lucky enough to be part of the lovely chaos for the last eight years.  So without further ado, here’s how we make the wine:

Step 1. Pick grapes at optimal ripeness

As grapes ripen throughout the late summer and into the fall, flavors develop, sugars increase and acids decrease. Tart green grapes plump and mature into super-sweet sugar bombs. These are worlds sweeter and smaller than a standard table-grape from the store. Remember, sugar equals alcohol in the end, so the sugar concentration, measured by “Brix”, is the most important factor in deciding when to pick.

To minimize ‘green and leafy’ flavors in our red wines, we want stems and seeds to turn brown in a process called lignification.  Green flavors can also arise from incomplete ripening of the grapes, for instance if they are picked too early, or if they are an uneven ripening variety.  We also like to see red grapes with slight dimpling like golf balls. This means the grapes have lost water and are slightly more concentrated with sugar and flavor.

Grapes coming in from the vineyard, awaiting their transformation into delicious California wine

Grapes coming in from the vineyard, awaiting their transformation into delicious California wine

Grapes are often picked at night or in the early morning so they can remain at a cool temperature, minimizing microbial activity and preventing fermentation from starting before the grapes arrive at the winery. High-end wine production will run the clusters down a sorting table to pick out any under ripe clusters and or any non-grape objects. Lots of crazy things can sneak their way into the grape bins coming in from the vineyard. I have seen bugs, lizards, snakes, mice, and even a sparrow pop out sticky yet alive when sorting the grapes.

When the grapes arrive at the winery, then the real fun begins, which we’ll cover in the next few posts…