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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!

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!

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