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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!


Slightly Cloudy With A Chance Of Mold

I would imagine that for most people the mere thought of wine evokes mental images of long vines and rolling hillsides covered with trellises. That's why I'm always perplexed at the disconnect it seems people have between the vineyard and the finished product. We don't at all view wine as a product in the same light that we see other agricultural products in the grocery store, like say... artichokes. Somewhere along the way the grape is transformed. It is fermented, studied, blended, bottled and lo! It becomes wine. And at that point, I feel, we cease to see it as an agricultural product. We hate to compare it to the likes of carrots and potatoes and arugula. That is what makes it easy to forget that wine really is a product of the land and that a crop of grapes is susceptible to all of the trials and tribulations that Mother Nature throws at it. In fact, the wine grape is far more imperiled by disease and weather than most crops. Vitis Vinifera is one of the toughest plants in the world in that it can grow in extremely poor soil and without much water at all, but it is especially vulnerable to pests, disease and molds. And when a farmer intends to make wine out of his grapes he can expect to grow more than a few grey hairs. To make a wine worth its yeast, the grapes that went into it must be harvested at optimal conditions: When the sugar is at the perfect concentration in each berry (known as brix). It's mostly up to Nature to decide when that will be, if at all...

And that is why this harvest, when the weather forecast came in for the end of October, we started to get many panicky growers showing up at the crush pad, asking with increasing melancholy when their fruit would be harvested. The person who is purchasing their grapes is the one who gets to decide when the harvest occurs but the fruit is weighed and paid for after it's been picked. So if the grapes get moldy due to rain, as was the case this harvest, and needs to be discarded, it comes out of the pocket of the grower and not the winemaker (if the two aren't the same party). So this can create a tenuous situation, as the winemaker is obviously more concerned with making the best wine possible, and the grower is concerned about selling the as much quality fruit as possible. The hope is that their interests will align. For most of the harvest this was certainly the case. But as the rain loomed towards November it seemed disaster might strike.

This harvest disaster struck. A cool early fall caused many of the varietals that ripen slowly like Cabernet to dawdle and then the monsoon that came at the end of October drenched all of the grapes still hanging on the vine. This made copious amounts of water available to their root systems. The resulting grape is the same as pouring some water into your glass of fine wine. Vines need to be stressed with only just enough water to perform their biological functions. That way the fruit they produce is concentrated in flavor and sugar. The only way to recover from the vines binge drinking is to wait for the ground to dry and the grapes to lose some of the water again. It's a dangerous game however, because a dense canopy of wet grape leaves provides the perfect environment for mold to grow. Almost all of the grapes we got after the rain were affected in some way by the mold. In a lot of places the winemaker would throw up their hands, exclaim "C'est la vie!", and throw the moldy grapes into the fermentation tank. But at Deerfield we rolled up our sleeves and sorted out every single moldy bunch. At our peak before the rain, the crew could sort about one ton of grapes an hour up to Deerfield's level of expectation. After the rain it took up to 4 hours to sort one half ton. For comparison, mass production wineries will sort up to 30 or 40 tons of grapes an hour. You'd be surprised: That type of production is by no means limited to the likes of Carlo Rossi, though I won't name names...

So harvest slowed way down and despite our best efforts, quality suffered slightly but I have full confidence in Robert's ability to save the day. After all, a lot can happen between harvest and the time it's ready to bottle. In the end, 2009 will be a mixed vintage for Northern California. We saw some truly spectacular fruit before the rain and some really terrible stuff afterwards. I hope the sour grapes don't tarnish the reputation of the whole vintage. Sometime I'll discuss how entire vintages can suffer from bad reputations and how that's unfair. Until next time!

The Winter Slumber

This week I'm going to take a break from the recap of the 2009 harvest to talk a little bit about what is happening at the winery right now. I promise though I'll be back to reminiscing next week.

Winter and spring have a very different feeling at the winery then does the late summer and fall. There's none of the clamor and fervor and anxiety of the harvest and instead it is replaced with a muted calm as the vines sleep for winter. The dormant vines need little attention as they save their energy for budbreak as the spring approaches. The wines in the cave are also sleeping, as it is often referred to, as they age and the molecules that form the taste and shape of the wine evolve into increasingly complex combinations. So the work the slows down and a winery that was understaffed with 12 crew members becomes comfortable with just two. Inside the cave there is little work to be done. The barrels must continue to be topped and a watchful eye is kept on them. Racking takes place more often than during the harvest. The pace of the lab tech's work continues as usual as a constant vigil of the developing wines must be kept. The winemaker can take this time to focus now on past vintages and creating the blends that will constitute future releases. This is an opportunity to bottle because of the lull in other commotion. The only problem is that it takes a large crew to bottle and the seasonal harvest crew has been disbanded. Aside from the occasional bottling though the crush pad is peaceful which I like because the surroundings feel more pronounced. There is this incredible shift in the hillside vineyards that line the valley from fall to winter as the rain revives the sun-dried grasses and turns the hills an emerald green and the vines conversely shift from green to brown as they shed their leaves and the shoots become wooden. In the vineyard workers prune the vines, removing all of the one-year-old wood from the arms of the vine so that when the buds start to blossom next spring the energy the vine expends will be channeled into fewer bunches of grapes. Here and there you can see a white pillar of smoke in a vineyard as the resulting piles of twigs are set ablaze. The air is crisp and chilled but the sun is warming and pleasant. The last rains will be over soon. It's a patient time of the year and in the coming weeks the juices of the plant will again begin to flow. The buds will break and the transformation of the plant will begin again as the cycle is renewed. Although it seems a long way off, I'm sure harvest will be upon us again before we know it.


Second Protocol

Thank you for indulging me last week in my aside - I hope I conveyed the feeling of winter here at the winery. I'll return now to my recap of the 2009 harvest.

Where we last left off the heavy and early fall rain had greatly complicated things, creating mold in the vineyard, and we were slowing down the sorting table to a crawl in a valiant effort to remove the affected fruit. But the sorting table wasn't the only front at which we were to battle the gray-green scourge. We would have to change our entire method of operation to combat our foe...

And so our winemaker put into effect a Second Protocol with which we were to handle all of the wines we were crafting. No matter how discerning we were at the sorting table it is impossible to completely remove all the mold as some of the pesky microbes aren't even visible to the naked eye. The wines would be later treated to remove all trace of the fungi but in the interim it was imperative that the clean wines we had fermenting already not be contaminated. During fermentation it is crucial not use equipment on different lots without sanitizing it in between, in order to prevent cross-contaminating the lots with different yeast strains. It only takes one little yeast cell to create an entire colony.  But there are many stages during production where it is not necessary to totally sterilize everything between working with different wines. After the Second Protocol was instituted those days were long gone. Everything had to sprayed with ozone between every time ANY piece of equipment touched a grape or juice. Ozone is used industrially as a disinfectant. It's useful because Deerfield has an ozone generator which creates it from the ambient air so you have an unlimited supply. Ozone is an O3 molecule whereas oxygen is O2. It's amazing how that one extra oxygen atom changes it from life giving to lethal. Ozone has incredible oxidizing power and as it decays back to the stable oxygen configuration is releases free radicals that can break the carbon bonds of organic molecules making it a deadly enemy of the unwanted spores invisibly infesting our hoses and pumps. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But it's a double edged sword because since ozone is such a terrific oxidizing agent it must not come in contact with the wine either. So a spray with ozone and a thorough rinse before any work is done is prescribed but not expedient. I think I've mentioned before how much easier the process can be if you just cut a few corners. To follow the protocol to a T required dedication, patience and imagination: You have to imagine how much better the wine will taste if you take the time to do it right. And at Deerfield we do it right. Every time.

Fortunately, this all happened as the work at the winery was beginning to reach its zenith as the last of the grapes came in. As sorting stopped the attention of the crew could be shifted to the fermenting wines and our time was freed up a great deal. Next time I'll talk about the winding down of harvest and putting the wines to sleep so they can mature. Salut!