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Bin City

This year Deerfield is going to crush about 350 tons of grapes into sticky and oh-so-sweet juice (and hopefully ferment it into some darn good wine). It probably never crossed your mind though how all of those grapes get from the vineyard to the crush pad. I'm not going to tell you all about picking here because I'm sure I'll actually be doing plenty of that when harvest gets here. But I will tell you that after the grapes are picked and a preliminary sort is done they're loaded into huge plastic bins and shipped by the truckload to where ever they need to be, sometimes hundreds of miles away. None of the vineyards we buy grapes from are too far away though so our grapes' journey is much shorter.

But interestingly enough, the whole business tends to follow a BYOB rule. Bring Your Own Bins. That means that Deerfield has to have dozens of these large plastic cubes on hand for when it's time to go get the grapes. And because you never know when the first day of harvest will be it's important to be prepared. And that means a veritable cityscape replete with skyscrapers made of bins must be thoroughly cleaned. This city isn't as beautiful though as San Francisco or New York's skyline so for the 9 months out of the year that they're not in use we keep them out of sight. I'm actually not too sure where we were hiding them but I can tell you with certainty that it was somewhere very muddy. And damp too: A battalion of tree frogs had colonized the city. Ok, maybe a battalion is overstating things... I counted four.

I used my close friend the pressure washer to clean them and got drenched in the process, but I'm pretty used to that by now (I usually change my socks at least once a day). At the end of the day I decided that Ricardo, who brought the bins from the vineyard and put them on the crush pad, was a terrible city planner. So I hopped on a forklift and did some major reconstruction. Sometimes I get a little overly-enthused about a project. I guess that's a nice way of saying obsessed because I stayed an extra hour and a half after the day ended making sure my Bin City was perfect. And it did look better. But not nearly as beautiful as the view of the valley behind it, which it will do an excellent job of completely obscuring until harvest is over. At least I can still see the view from my tent!

Full Circle

Ladies and gentleman, Harvest has arrived. The grapes arrived like the first rain of Fall: They showed up abruptly, without warning and aren't going away. Actually, the first grapes of Deerfield's 2009 vintage appeared on the crush pad in the middle of bottling. The crew split in two with one team manning the sorting table and the other team running a skeleton crew on the bottling line. It was very cool how everything had come full circle so that the very beginning and end of the winemaking process were happening concurrently, side by side.

Everyday since then we've been receiving literally tons of grapes and have been staying at the winery well into the evening to finish processing them. So far we've crushed about 12 tons of Pinot Noir and about 6 tons of Sauvignon Blanc. Depending on what kind of grapes we're crushing and what we are trying to do with them, the configuration of the crush setup changes. For example, red wines like Pinot are fermented initially with the grape skins so the process looked like this:

The grapes arrive in the large macro-bins described in "Bin City" and are placed one at a time in the tall dumping device. The dumper can be precisely controlled by a worker on the sorting table, who empties the grapes into the hopper at one end of the table at a speed comfortable for quality sorting. About four people man the sorting table, keeping constant vigil for any bunches of grapes that don't meet Deerfield's high standards. There are many criteria for acceptable grapes but some of the factors that cause us to toss the grapes include over or under ripeness, mold and raisining. Often the only way to tell whether a bunch is good or not is to taste it. I've never eaten so many grapes in my life! We throw away a sizeable percentage of grapes that we paid for. But it takes grapes of only the highest quality to make wine of the highest quality. Next the grapes fall into the destemmer, which does 90% of the job. The destemmed grapes then fall onto a shaking table which most of the seeds fall through. Lastly the grapes fall onto the berry sorting table where the remaining stems are removed along with any other dissatisfactory grapes that escaped the first sort. The grapes fall off the end of the line into another macrobin. Those in turn are dumped into a larger bin intended for fermentation instead of transport. Once full, the bin is placed in the cave where it awaits the inoculation of yeast to begin maceration.

But that's just one way to skin a cat. Sauvignon Blanc isn't fermented with its skins, so once the grapes have been sorted they go straight into the press. Because they won't be destemmed or furthur sorted it's important to weed out the unripe grapes the first time. The juice is pumped straight from the press to one of the large stainless steel fermentation tanks. The process of making white wine is really much easier.

Harvest is in full swing now and I've already started working 12 hour days. The crew is really starting to become a team and work together. Tempers are already flaring, and pressure is mounting. Harvest is a very dramatic time. Though the work is hard, it is fun to be part of such a dynamic process and everyone is clearly excited for what lies ahead.

Because of my hand I've been given a new job until it heals. Learn just what it is next time!

Return Of The Rat

The Cellar Rat is back after a much needed harvest hiatus and I've returned with all of the stories and adventures that transpired during the rainy months that constituted the second half of the harvest. Where we last left our intrepid intern, he was crippled, without the use of his left hand, and relegated to the laboratory to aid the insular Amanda as she dutifully created and catalogued the mountain of data an ever-changing ocean of wine inevitably creates.

If you've been hanging on to the edge of a cliff for the past few months then let me now extend my paw to you: With my hand encased in fiberglass and a recommendation from my doctor that I refrain from doing anything that made strenuous use of it, lest the healing fracture break again, I attempted to pay heed to his costly advice. But our lab technician was deft in her craft and needed little assistance, so after a day following her around like a duckling I soon grew frustrated with my impotence and with increasing confidence I suspected that the pair of eyes staring over her shoulder were becoming more and more bothersome. Amanda was a good sport but I realized that another arrangement would have to made at least until my hand healed and I could return to my duties. Robert suggested that I do some office work for the time being. I probably should have accepted the offer, but I was enthralled with the exciting work at the winery that was only just beginning as the rest of interns arrived and harvest was getting into full swing. Loathe to miss out on the action, as well as peck maddeningly at the keyboard with one hand (partly a reason for the discontinuity in my posts), I decided I would continue work as usual and see how I could fare with one hand tied behind my back. I realized early on that my main enemy would be water. I believe I mentioned earlier that this job tended have the effect on a Cellar Rat of having jumped in a pool with their clothes on. My dear mother, thoughtful person that she is, ordered for me a special cast protector that, in addition to keeping my arm completely dry, had the added effect of making me look like I had the arm of a Smurf. It was a lovely shade of blue and when the air was sucked out it seemed as if I had shrink-wrapped an oversized cooking mitten onto my forearm. Having a soaking wet cast is a horrible condition, but being heckled about the strange appearance of my left arm was even more intolerable. So it was soon discarded and as harvest progressed my hand became quite sore and smelly. But the moral in this story is that I soldiered through it and hardly missed a moment of harvest because of my ill-timed injury. A few weeks and several casts later my hand was tender but healed. The brace I was given to wear for several more weeks also lasted about half a day on the crush pad. But maybe making use of it was the correct therapy because today it feels good as new.

As the coming weeks progressed the crew really began to learn to work as a team and the flow of work became steady and regular. With the wine now at multiple stages of production a daily routine was established, although the amount of work would vary depending on how much fruit we were to crush that day. And indeed the amount of grapes coming in seemed to increase everyday as wary grape-growers tried to harvest their crop before the coming rains that posed a major threat to their precious berries.

Next time I'll be talking about what a typical day at the winery was like with harvest in full swing: With all the fermentation tanks full of grapes at various stages of maceration, grapes being pressed and barreled down, and more grapes coming in to be sorted, all on the same day!

I will be posting at some point every Wednesday, though sometimes in the evening, so you can always be sure to check in every Thursday for the latest from the Cellar Rat. Also don't forget to check out Cellar Rat TV which also airs right here every Friday at 3:00pm. Until next time!