By far, harvest is my favorite time of year in any wine country. The sweet smell of ripe grapes fill the air as they wait their turn on the vines to be picked. Night picking is the norm in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley as the cool late summer nights provide a natural refrigeration, delaying oxidation and spoilage before the grapes get into the winery for processing.
Driving around the vineyards between sundown and sunrise can be a surreal sight as the fields are ablaze with spotlights, providing the ideal backdrop for the night workers. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Vineyard & Winery). The deafening din of the tractors and heavy harvest machinery can be heard for miles as the grapes are quickly harvested. Within hours, the vines are stripped and the grapes are loaded into large plastic bins and hauled off to the winery’s crush pad.
Upon arrival, the grapes travel down a vibrating conveyor belt where they are hand-sorted. Undesirable grapes or under ripened grapes are removed by the sorters. In larger winery operations, the grapes may be laser optically sorted instead. Depending on the varietal and wine style, grapes may be placed in a de-stemmer machine which effectively removes the stems to avoid bitterness, or in some cases, the grapes are placed in separate bins, with the stems to add tannin, for whole cluster fermentation.
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gerwurztraminer are among the first grape varietals picked in Russian River Valley, followed by Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah or Grenache. Rest assured, there’s a buzz on the crush pad, literally, from the yellow jackets circling the bins of grapes as they are gently de-stemmed, pressed or crushed. Everyone is “sticky” with the sweet grape nectar and some have stained “purple hands”, but everyone is definitely on their A-game. There is no time to waste as the day’s heat sets in.
Fermentation begins, sometimes sooner than expected, once the grape skins are broken. Hot daytime temperature spikes accelerate the fermentation process, so it is imperative that the grapes be quickly processed and stored out of the heat. Usually by noon, most of the labor intensive crush pad work is finished and the cleaning of the equipment takes place, to prepare for the next round of grape harvest, whether it be the next day or the next week.
Nothing is more pleasing to the eye than Pinot Noir grapes resting in the bin. Ahhhh, the 2018 Harvest is in full swing, and, thankfully is called “uneventful” by the local wine gurus, which is a very good thing.