The whole vineyard shows a golden cast as September heralds the beginning of harvest. Winemakers don’t return calls; people who work at wineries have fallen off the edge of the earth. Harvest has begun in California in earnest, and many grape varieties are being picked simultaneously. The warm spring and hot summer mean that the wineries are going to be slammed for the next month—Sauvignon Blanc is arriving on the same trucks as Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc is being delivered right behind Semillon. We watch the madness surround us before it engulfs us like all the rest. We will spend the next days getting ready for harvest, and chasing the potential problems before they become reality.
The nets are doing their job; the birds realize they’ve been excluded from a ripe grape feast for yet another season. The sugars are climbing and the acidity is dropping. We’ll be harvesting Pinot Noir this week or next, our first commercial harvest. Exciting times! So what do we do to prepare?
Field tests continue on a daily basis. We bring random samples of clusters from each vineyard block into the laboratory (a modified kitchen), and test sugar, pH and total acidity.
Picking bins, white plastic bins that are four feet on a side and two feet tall, are washed and stacked throughout the vineyard in preparation for receiving cut clusters of Pinot Noir.
Crusher/destemmer, a metal device that removes and discards the stems from the grapes and drops mashed berries into a fermentation vessel, is cleaned and sanitized from a long year of neglect.
Special strains of yeast are bought and kept in the refrigerator until a few hours before use, and then put in a solution of warm water to attenuate (or swell) into its active form. Each kind of wine varietal (i.e. Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon) is fermented using a separate strain of yeast. Carefully selecting yeast strains, or shunning them for native or indigenous yeasts, is one way a winemaker can make a wine unique.
Checking barrels, wine presses and winery equipment for defects or malfunctions is a key preparation. Fixing problems when the fruit arrives is usually not an option. When the grapes are picked, the quality begins to deteriorate. Winemakers will be quick to point out that the quicker the grapes are crushed, the better the quality preserved in the wine.
Getting a crew ready is key. I like to have enough friends, family and employees present to pick an entire field as early as possible, before the day heats up. We want to deliver fruit early and cool, which keeps quality high and degradation of fruit (mainly by oxidation) to a minimum.
Prepping harvest gear; picking shears, cleaning picking buckets, having clean cotton gloves, cold water, and paper cups for pickers is of vital importance.
It is key to have a forklift and a way to transport the fruit. A full picking bin of fruit weighs about 1000 pounds, and getting it four feet up onto the back of a truck requires some heavy equipment and a competent operator. Flatbed trucks can often deliver up to ten bins of fruit, which will make about a dozen barrels of finished wine.
A successful harvest depends on preparing in advance. A wise French winemaker once said that winemaking is a chain of successes that begins in the vineyard. Any mistake that occurs in the field will affect wine quality—and we only have one chance to get the fruit out of the field and onto the crush platform.