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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!

What Happened To Summer?

A couple of days ago the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle informed us Californians that our cool summer was here to stay. Like everyone else I was looking forward to the heat after a particularly wet spring. That sun never really came and now that it's August I suppose that I'll just have to wait until next year for a proper summer. All of the crops seem to be waiting for the sun too. Everyone I talk to has the same story to tell: Their backyard gardens are about a month behind. The grapes are no exception. Growers around the Valley complain that their grapes are lagging about 3 weeks behind.Unripe clusters of grapes on August 1st

At this rate, everybody jokes, they won't be ready to harvest until the December 1st. Typically, harvest starts at the end of August or the beginning of September. The concern is that they don't fully ripen before the heavy rains arrive. I've written about what can happen if that is the case in a past post. The harvest of 2009 was a similar story with late ripening grapes. It's during the challenging years that the talented winemakers stand out though, and last year Deerfield produced some spectacular wines. It is very strange that while girls are walking down the streets of Moscow in bikinis and the East Coast is seeing record highs that I find myself wishing I had brought my sweatshirt along. I have never put much faith in long term forecasts and I'm still holding out for the sun. It's only the beginning of August after all - there's plenty of time for beach weather. The seasonal pond in Kenwood Marsh is emptying on schedule so perhaps the grapes will ripen on schedule after all. The truth is that until the fruit is on the sorting table no one really knows what 2010 will be like for Northern California.


The Grapes Ripen (Finally!)

Though the grapes have been maturing slowly, the fruit hanging on the vines has almost completely turned red during the process called véraison. In other posts I’ve used the term véraison quite a bit and briefly explained its meaning but didn’t go into much detail. It is a borrowed French word meaning “the onset of ripening” and in English it is defined as the “change in the color of the grape berries”. Up until this point in the life cycle of the vine they have been expending their energy dividing and expanding the cells which form the grapes. The reddening of the grapes mark the moment that growth stops and ripening begins. The green turns to the familiar red hue of the grapes as chlorophyll breaks down and new pigment molecules such as anthocyanins are formed.

The acidity in the grapes begins to decrease as sugar accumulates. You may be familiar with the measurement Brix which is the percentage of sugar in the juice. Each week, the grapes will gain about 1.5ºBrix until they are fully ripened, usually at around 25ºBrix. Depending on the varietal, the winemaker may choose to harvest the fruit well before they become this sweet. Brix may rise further due to dehydration of the berry with no further sugar being produced.

This year I’ve really enjoyed watching the vines transform from little more than twigs into great leafy hedges. I’ve been eating the grapes throughout the growing season even when they were so sour they made my face pucker. It wasn’t until véraison occurred that they started to actually taste like grapes. The vines have a finite amount of energy available to produce the fruit. The trick is to channel that energy into producing high-quality, fully-ripened berries.


You hear the phrase “dropping fruit” a lot this time of year. It means removing clusters of grapes so that each vine has fewer bunches with the aim of producing more flavorful grapes. This is definitely something that distinguishes the wine industry from other agricultural industries: Growers get paid by yield, like every other farmer, but many are dedicated to quality and are willing to reduce yield to increase quality. At this point some of the clusters are lagging behind – while most of the bunches have reached 100% véraison, a few stragglers still have half of their green berries left. These bunches will never fully ripen and in the meantime just sap the energy out of the vine that could be used to ripen the other grapes. These green bunches will be cut off and sacrificed to help ripen the rest.

The crew is busy cleaning the winery in preparation for the incoming fruit but the harvest is so late this year that it’s likely they will finish well before the first grapes arrive. We’ll be using this downtime to send the crew into the vineyard to drop under ripe bunches and remove any grapes that raisined due to sun burn during the heat wave last week. Usually the grapes laid bare to the sun have a chance to tan, thus protecting them from sunburn. This year they never tanned. It was too cold. When the heat wave hit and temperatures got up to 105º these exposed berries got burned. Most of these bunches will be culled along with the green bunches.

No Sour Grapes Allowed

Harvest has certainly been slow to arrive this year but soon the grapes will show up on the crush pad and begin their transformative journey. Part of what makes Deerfield wine so good is that we only use ingredients of the highest quality. So the first step is to sort the fruit - only perfectly ripe grapes make the cut. By the time the grapes arrive on the crush pad they have already been sorted once. In the vineyard, grapes that are fully ripe are the only ones that make it in the basket. But picking is huge job and workers, who often get paid per picking basket, don't always operate with as much scrutiny as we would like. For that reason once the grapes reach the winery they are sorted two more times by our crew.

The fruit is dumped from the half-ton bins that the grapes arrive in into a hopper which dumps them onto a conveyer belt and spreads the grapes out. At this point the grapes are still attached to their stems so we call this portion bunch sorting. We remove any leaves and clusters that are underripe or raisined. Sorters keep a constant vigil for any bunches that have any sign of mold or mildew. As the endless sea of grapes drift past, your eyes dart rapidly from bunch to bunch. Sometimes the signs of under ripeness are barely perceivable: The skins are a slightly different shade of red. Sometimes the only way to be sure is to taste them.

By the time the bunches of grapes reach the end of the sorting table and drop into the destemmer, only fully ripe grapes remain. The destemmer is a fairly simple machine. Paddles spin one direction and a cylinder with holes for the berries to fall through spins the other way. It's effectiveness varies, usually by the varietal. Zinfandel with its thick stems, for example, sometimes comes through the destemmer with no sign of any green at all. Just beautiful black pearls come out the other end. On the other hand Merlot's delicate stems often get chopped up and ejected along with the grapes.

The grapes then fall from the destemmer onto a "shaking table" which just a table with a grate that oscillates. It does an exemplary job of catching stems leaves and "shot berries" (tiny green grapes which were never pollinated). The shaking table was the bane of last harvest because it made a terrible racket. It was so loud that you couldn't hear the music that your headphones were playing. Halfway through harvest, Robert overheard a cellar rat grumbling about it and 30 minutes later, using only a wrench, silenced the machine.

The shaking table dumps the grapes onto a final sorting table. At this point the goal is to remove the MOG - industry slang for "matter/material other than grapes". If the yeast doesn't encounter any toxins during fermentation, the yeast will not need to produce histamines to protect themselves. Histamines are what cause red wine headaches. That is what we mean by clean wine and why Deerfield triple sorts our fruit, which is definitely not the industry standard. Mostly the focus is to remove anything green. The tiny stems that make it through the destemmer are often referred to as "jacks" because they look like jacks from the popular children's game of the same name. At the end of this sorting table all that remains is perfect, delicious grapes. We're anxiously awaiting the arrival of the first grapes! Harvest continues next week on