One increasingly common practice at harvest is the night pick. Night harvest are really a win win for vineyard and winery. That is of course if you exlude the fact that all parties involved lose sleep, but we lose so much sleep anyway during harvest than another few hours doesn’t seem to matter.
I think vineyard workers enjoy night harvest because they can pick more in a day and harvest at cooler temperatures. Vineyard managers enjoy this as well because cooler weather improves labor effeciency, but over and above that their clients are generally happier with night harvests. Why might that be?
We enjoy night harvest because the fruit arrives cold and early. Cold is important because controlling and predicting fermentation temperature is very important for native ferments, and extraction of all those components that lead to the wonder texture of Donelan Wines. Additionally, cold fruit doesn’t ferment readily decreasing the risk of volatile acidity development in juicy grapes. When the fruit is early it sets up our day much better and we are able to accomplish much more in a day with the chance, the chance, of seeing our families at night!
The Chardonnay grapes have begun pouring in. This cool finishing weather in September has been perfect for dialing in the ripeness of our mountain grown, Sonoma County, cool climate Chardonnay. Our process is simple: get great grapes, press them patiently and gently, move them to primarily nuetral oak barrels, and let them ferment to dryness. Sounds easy, right? Our ingredients:
With a patient, slow pressing it is possible to obtain very clear, tasty juice: great for ferment quality:
Sure, you’ve imagined what it must be like to be in a wine growing valley during harvest, but what does it really look like? One common sight besides vines filled with Charonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah: dirty cars. Wine growers drive from vineyard to vineyard collecting grapes to taste and analyze for ripeness. With no time and plenty of dirt, our cars often look like this:
Then of course, there are the contents of the car: flagging tap, sun hats, nice clothes for dinner with a customer, zip lock bags to hold grapes, pruning shears, etc., etc., etc.:
As we walk the vineyard we taste, examine seed color (general browness means general goodness), chew on the skins (how do the tannins change?), and get a gut feel for overall flavor. Then of course we bring the grapes back to the winery to examine sugar and acid to compliment our impressions by taste:
Now that we are at the end of August nearly all our Syrah, Pinot, Chardonnay, and Grenache vineyards have either progressed through or are currently in a process called veraison. Veraison, a widely adopted French viticulture term, does not have a direct translation but defines the inception of ripening and more or less means color change.
While veraison signifies the beginning of ripening, it would be misleading to think that only after this physiological time point can one “ripen” the fruit. There are several important processes that occur well before veraison that we know impact the way a wine finally tastes, and as such they certainly impact the final “ripening.” However, it is at veraison that the berry undergoes significant changes that are principally associated with tasty fruit: acid decline, sugar accumulation, and color change. (Parenthetically, this is nearly identical to what happens to tomatoes, which botanically are also berries). Flavor development is also important, but some flavors are indeed developed prior to veraison; and others dissipate after veraison and it is their absence that signals “ripe” fruit. ”Flavor ripeness” in some respects is how these elements taste relative to the primary changes mentioned above.
Veraison really is a remarkable transformation in the grape. The obvious changes of color, sugar, and acid only tell part of the story. For example, the acid declines because the berry begins to “eat” the acid for energy in lieu of sugar, which it now stores. Water resources begin to come into the berry by a different conduit and only in concert with sugar. Seeds begin to brown, tannin levels change. I could go on.
The most important part of veraison though may be its psychological impact on the valley. There seems to be a palatable shift in gears from the entire industry. It’s as if we have stepped into the on deck circle in a close game, and it is nearly our time to bat. Time to hit it out of the park.
I once heard it said that if you want your heartbroken make Pinot Noir. I think the wine’s delicacy is a thin veil over vineyard quality and skilled management. Winemakers repeatedly give people the impression that Pinot Noir is one of the hardest grapes to grow and produce. How true is this? Is Pinot hard to make? I don’t think so, with caveats.
As a plant physiologist turned winemaker, I tend to strip understanding of a thing down its core then build up from there. Pinot Noir is still a grapevine like any other grapevine and there are certain vineyard aspects that we know contribute to higher quality wine: cool-ish climates (cool relative to normal ripening temperatures for a variety – cool for Syrah is warmer than cool for Pinot Noir), free draining soils, avoiding climatic extremes, etc. These all apply to Pinot Noir and if you find yourself in a vineyard with these broad characteristics you are more likely than not to produce quality fruit. And with Pinot the basic axiom for all quality wine is true: great fruit can be ushered into great wine.
Beyond these basics, it has been my experience that Pinot is quite easy to work. Flavors arrive in the grape early and taste great, it tastes great when fermenting, tastes great when
aging, isn’t as prone to stinky/savory notes like Syrah that need time in barrel to resolve, doesn’t tend to go through “dumb” periods in barrel or bottle, and generally requires little intervention. Making Pinot doesn’t require frequent handling and intervention; it really is a watch and wait wine.
But if we believe in democracy, don’t we believe that the majority is correct at least some of the time? And if so, then why do so many people think Pinot is hard to make unless it is actually difficult to make? As noted above, I think the answer is that Pinot’s delicacy is a thin veil over site quality and deft management. You can be exposed – and thus heartbroken – very easily by Pinot Noir. This is for a couple of reasons. First, true believers in Pinot tend to hold the wine in such high regard because when it is great it is ethereal. All of the best wines of my lifetime have been either red or white Continue reading
Want to find out what a wine grape harvest really is? Follow our intern, Sarah Green, as she chronicles her experience as a first time cellar rat. This entry highlights the close of her new perspective as she navigates a large winery experience.
I’m settling in from my transition from Donelan (Tiny Winery Land) and things are starting to feel normal, whatever that means. At the end of a rigorous day in the cellar, I am fairly destroyed. The other day I spent a couple of hours first thing taking down temperature and dissolved oxygen measurements on about twenty tanks. Then I spent a couple more hours pressure washing (“wahter-blahsting,” the Kiwis say) the crush pad, climbing endlessly in and out of the 10-ton hopper and up and down “the pit,” where the destemmer lurks like a beast in a medieval torture chamber.
Then I cleaned tanks and fixed lines.
A word on cleaning here in Big Winery Land. Once upon a time in Tiny Winery Land, I was Continue reading
Want to find out what a wine grape harvest really is? Follow our intern, Sarah Green, as she chronicles her experience as a cellar rat. This entry highlights the beginning of a new adventure of a completely different scale than with Donelan Wines.
I don’t even know where to start.
I have made my way to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand and settled into the charming, idiosyncratic, slightly broken and mildewed bungalow next door to the winery that I share with three other cellar hands. After arriving in Auckland, a few stops to satisfy the awestruck sensation that I could see to Antarctica (I couldn’t), and a traipse over sheep-filled cliffsides I made it to my new home, at least until the grapes are all crushed and stirred.
As of yet, things are still slow at the winery. After a cool summer, harvest is behind schedule and winemakers are getting nervous. The conversation is like déjà vu from 6 months ago in California, as pick dates loomed despite low sugars and rain in the forecast. We’re holding our breath. Today we passed around a Chardonnay sample at the winery; a cloudy, split-pea green juice that, at 17 Brix, is nowhere near where anyone would like it. Raising the winemaker’s blood pressure: there’s already botrytis pressure in the vineyards and there’s more rain ahead.
The winery is committed to making the best possible product it can and is hard at work in Continue reading
How is it that we know that a vineyard will produce exceptional grapes and terrific wine? Our winemaker Tyler Thomas provides some principles that we utilize when scouring Sonoma County for the best new terroirs.
Want to find out what a wine grape harvest really is? Follow our intern, Sarah Green, as she chronicles her experience as a first time cellar rat. This entry highlights the close of her time with Donelan Wines.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s true: my time in Sonoma and at Donelan has officially come to a close. The first months all blurred together, overwhelmed as I was by the brave new world of my job and new people, places, things. The harvest months were their own blur – a whirlwind of work and fruit and cuts and bruises and exhilaration and adrenaline and work and fruit and and and – I can almost trick myself back into that mode just by talking about it.
I’ve been learning from the pros – both those I work with and those I play with. Although I’ve come a long way in their hands there is still a long way to go. It takes me roughly half the time it once did to do many tasks at the winery, but I’d like to cut it all down by half again, and so on (there’s the Donelan cellar mentality for you).
I’ve had a lucky and happy run here, but my learning goes onward now, and southward. Continue reading
Want to find out what a wine grape harvest really is? Follow our intern, Sarah Green, as she chronicles her experience as a first time cellar rat. This entry highlights how winemaking can be much like a game of Tetris.
Consider a cellar. Any old space will do. Large, cavernous. Big tanks in a few areas. Machinery and pumps and sumps and hoses and nuts and bolts and clamps and valves and endless bits and bobs ranging in size from – to be specific – the tiny to the enormous. A few sources for water. A handful of electrical outlets. Drains all over the place.
Now let’s go into harvest mode. There’s a crush pad – sorting table, hopper, crusher-destemmer. There are bins of fruit being forklifted around, getting dropped onto the crush pad, getting moved into tanks. Empty bins need cleaning and moving. Fruit needs sorting, monitoring, moving, sulphuring, dry-icing.
There are punch downs and pumpovers with their tools, pumps, and hoses. There is pressing with its, well, press and its digging and its barrels and its own pumps and hoses. And all the cleaning and the moving.
Nearly everything in the entire winery is currently in use and in your way. Your hands are wet. The cellar is loud.
And now take a relatively simple task: moving your pump or barrel or bin or forklift or, really, Continue reading