Think you want to work a harvest? Want to find out what that really means? Follow our intern, Sarah Green, as she chronicles her experience as a first time cellar rat. This entry highlights the receiving of our first fruit of the vintage.
After months of planning, after weeks of mounting anticipation, of monitoring weather patterns, running samples, jostling pick dates back and forth, and just generally getting antsy – we have FRUIT.
Let me back up a moment. We are still monitoring weather patterns, running samples, jostling pick dates, and staying antsy, because it’s a grape’s world and we’re just living in it. In the vineyards we source from, as for most of the region, the vast majority of the fruit is still on the vine, ticking up in sugar and down in acid daily and taking its final shape. Different varietals ripen on their own schedules, under the governing influence of microclimates – in the most general terms, the warmer vineyards are ripening faster and the cooler vineyards are a little behind.
After pushing it off twice due to cool weather, Tyler made the call at three vineyards. Four bins of fruit came in from Walker Vine Hill on Tuesday; nine bins came in from Steiner Vineyard on Wednesday morning, and another seven came in from Perli vineyard later that day – all Pinot Noir.
It’s hard to describe the mood. When the truck pulled up with our bins, each one emblazoned with the Donelan logo and full of the fruit that will make up the 2011 vintage, Joe seemed to walk on air as he made his way to the forklift to bring it all in. I couldn’t help but let out a gasp and a squeal when I saw the first berries come through the door. Joe weighed each bin on a state-calibrated scale and Tyler – who had been at the pick since dawn already – decided which bins would be destemmed and which would be fermented at whole cluster.
Let me back up again. The fruit gets harvested in lots – sections of a given vineyard that are a) ripe at the same time and b) seem to be expressing similar characteristics in taste or chemistry or growth that we want to isolate so that, once the fermentations are complete, we can have true building blocks in the blending stage and know what part of the vineyard each lot derived from.
Tyler and Joe exercise their judgment in sorting the lots. Some lots will be 100% whole cluster or 60% or 24% – whatever proportion makes sense given how the fruit tastes and looks. The berries contain tannins – that component of wine that tastes big, full, and grippy and is in all wine to vastly varying degrees, based on winemaking as much as varietal. The stems also contain tannin and leaving them in the fermentation naturally enhances the fruit’s tannin.
Once Tyler had settled on the whole cluster per ferment, the moment I had been cracking jokes about for months finally arrived. He told me … to get . . . IN THE BIN.
I’ve been burning with curiosity about this process for weeks. So there I was. About to get in the bin. And finally able to ask: “what does stomping … um, involve?” And then Tyler spoke words I had never heard together before.
“First you need to spray your feet with vodka.” I still can’t get over it. (no joke: we routinely use plastic handles of vodka – yes, the kind we drank in college – to clean surfaces in the kitchen, the lab, and the cellar. All those jokes about using Popov as a plumbing solvent were COMPLETELY ACCURATE)
So I sprayed my feet with vodka. And got in the bin. Joe said, “what do you want to dance to?” I asked for his best stomping music, he plugged in the sound system, and I stomped until all the clusters were broken up and I was half-swimming in juice. “Get your toes in there,” Joe instructed, “raptor-style.” So I did.
While I stomped, Joe and John dumped bins of fruit into the hopper, which sprinkles it into the crusher-destemmer by way of an augur. The non-whole-cluster fruit gets pulled from its stems. Then we consolidate the destemmed berries into tanks, where they will remain until they are done fermenting – still isolated by lot. Then we throw some dry ice on them, which creates a gaseous cap on the fruit that keeps a layer of carbon dioxide over the fruit to prevent oxygen ingress.
We are just getting our toes wet in the 2011 harvest – literally and figuratively. As the days get shorter, our hours are getting longer. I am beginning to see how the fatigue will add up and create a crazy energy. Now when I gather with my friends after work, we are all starving and exhausted and dirty, eager to put our feet up and fall sleep, but still running on adrenaline.
The learning goes on, and on and on. I’ve been asking Tyler and Joe for more feedback. This is the real thing. The margin for error is smaller than ever – the cellar is full and crowded and sweaty; things are heavy, sharp, and hot; there are many opportunities to get injured, to drop things, make a mess, pull the wrong plug, lose things, etc. But the idea is to keep the mood as mellow as possible. Despite prevailing industry habits and the romance of chaos, a chaotic winery is not a healthy winery; it’s bad for the wine, the cellar, and the people. And so we’re trying to work like a well-oiled machine.
Luckily the four of us seem to make a good team. In preparation for these long days and nights, we’ve brewed our own beer (for starters, a Mexican-style lager), stocked up on snacks and things to grill for the many lunches and dinners we’ll be spending together. Our spirits are high, our senses of humor armed and ready. We are still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (especially me).
And I keep expecting to change my tune, but so far I can’t seem to: it’s Day 3 of harvest and I am 100% digging it. Pretty soon I’m going to be doing some actual digging.
All in due time.
Sarah Green is a wine industry newbie who grew up in Southern California, attended Smith College in the northeast, and joined Donelan Wines for the 2011 harvest. Track more of her thoughts on her shared blog Crushed and Stirred.
© Sarah Green