Thursday, September 13, 2012

Week 5: Tales from the 100hr work week

One thing is for sure, my professors were not joking when they insisted that harvest was tough work! I feel kind of like a doctor: always working and always on call. One may refer to me as a wine-doctor, if you will. Collecting grapes as patients- setting them up into tanks rather than medical beds, using a winery instead of a hospital, giving them nutrients, diagnosing them with analysis, keeping track of their sugar level, even writing prescriptions for what they need to make them better...

Last week we began harvest by picking certain blocks of Chardonnay. This week, we continued to pick Chardonnay, but also introduced Pinot Noir to the party. I felt a bit differently picking Pinot Noir, perhaps it is because of my distinct affection for red wine. I felt a certain obligation to inspect each cluster that passed over the sorting table, keeping a close eye for botrytis (rot), raisining grapes, and debris.

Cluster in later stages of botrytis
The process for Pinot Noir production differs from that of Chardonnay. In the case for a red wine grape such as Pinot, rather than crushing the grape, one must separate the grapes and their stems in what is referred to as a destemmer. The grapes fall into a 1-ton tank, and are guarded with dry ice (carbon dioxide) which helps prevent the juice from oxidizing and also keeps it cool. The grapes then remain in their tanks for six months to one year until the winemaker deems they should be transferred to barrel. For fermentation, we inoculate the juice with yeast nutrient and the selected yeasts. Right now we have 24 tanks of Pinot Noir (16 of which hold 1 ton and 8 which hold 2.5 tons). This is the most Pinot Noir Hanzell Vineyards has ever received, totalling at 35 tons.

There are five vineyards at Hanzell, and within those five vineyards, the rows are separated into blocks, or sections. They are separated because there are distinguishable differences in ripening tendencies, flavor profile, rootstock, or year they were planted. They differ drastically even from one row to the next. Each row is also picked separately and tanked separately. This is where the winemaker really shines, as he is able to show his personality when he creates the final blending of all of the blocks and vineyards.

In my last post I discussed the production of Chardonnay. To recap, Chardonnay is crushed, and then pressed with a bladder filled with air which pushes the grapes onto the sides of the machine, releasing it's juices and discarding the pumace (stems and skins). For red wine, we leave the grapes intact because they must go through maceration, or the period of time which grape juice spends in contact with its skins. The Pinot Noir goes through its fermentation in the tanks with its skins, and the Chardonnay is inoculated and moved to barrel, although some of the blocks stay in stainless steel. This depends on whether the grapes are going to Hanzell's main estate label (has longevity and meant for aging) or "Sebella," their second label, which features a wine that is more fruit forward and meant for younger drinking.

At this point, we have inoculated the Chardonnay that we have in tanks with yeasts and the process of fermentation has begun for them. During this period, I must take the Brix (level of sugar) several times a day on each tank. I also need to run tests on their pH levels and TA (titratable acidity). It is very common that the grapes release their natural tartaric acid during the crushing process, thus we need to run these analysis to determine the quantity of acid that needs to be added back into the juice. During fermentation, the level of sugars drop drastically and quickly. This is because throughout this process, the yeasts are consuming the sugars and creating ethanol, or alcohol, and carbon dioxide.

I have really had my work cut out for me with these Pinot Noir grapes. They require "punch downs," which refers to the use of a long, stainless steel paddle that pushes through the grapes to get them all equally mixed. Thus all of the juice is in equal contact with the skins and also the liquid has an equal climate since the stainless steel jackets surrounding each tank are what controls the temperature. This is not officially considered a punch down until the juice is inoculated with yeast. Depending on which point of fermentation we are at, this will need to be done numerous times a day. Simultaneously, it is a great work out for my arms.

We have just completed our second week of harvest, but we aren't done yet. We still have a few more blocks of Chardonnay that need to be picked, which will be completed within the next few days. But just because the grapes are in, does not mean the hard work stops... It has just begun! I have been working seven days a week, 15 hours a day. Being a wine-doctor is no joke (although it is tons of fun!). Everyday I learn something (many things, actually). As this experience progresses, so do the steps in winemaking. Wine is a living, breathing, talking thing (literally, you should hear the sounds it makes while fermenting).


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Week 4: Happy Harvesting!

This week I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning tearing open my gifts with wide eyes and a happy grin... but only instead of Christmas it was harvest, and instead of presents I got grapes!

Now the fun (and by fun I mean work!) has really started. The moment we have all been waiting for: harvest! The weeks leading up until now have been all about preparing the winery for this time.

So here is how harvest works:
We arrive at the winery around 5 or 6am to see the crew in the selected vineyards picking the grapes. There is a lot of traffic- with cars, fork lifts, and tractors all dancing around each other to get the grapes from the field up to the winery. Bin by bin, the luscious Chardonnay grapes get poured onto a "sorting table". On the sorting table a few of us touch every single grape, picking out anything that does not look "good enough to eat," as the winemaker says. I enjoy the conversation that takes place during the many hours we spend here. We take out leaves, branches, pruning grapes, rotting grapes, etc. This truly is hand selected fruit, which not every winery does. From there, the grapes that make the cut go into the "crusher" and come running down a slide until they fall into a small tank, or tanquito as we call them.

Grapes being poured into press
The fork lift then lifts the small tank and dumps all of its contents into the "press". The press has a bladder on the inside which fills with air, pressing the grapes onto its sides, squeezing out all of that delicious juice. There are huge hoses attached to the press, so the juice instantly is sent over to a large stainless steel fermentation tank. But before the juice is sent to the tank, it must pass through a
screen which catches any seeds or skins from going into the tank. We have been processing anywhere from 9 to 15 tons per day!

McNeil, the winemaker, says "winemaking is all about making messes and then cleaning them up"! And boy, was he right! It takes longer to clean and sanitize after the picking of the grapes than this whole process. They like the winery to be very clean, and there cannot be a single grape left on the ground. After 15 tons, that's a difficult task!

With Bob Sessions, legendary
 winemaker for over 30 years
In addition to our new set of responsibilities with harvesting the grapes, I still need to do my other daily responsibilities, like vineyard sampling. I need to continue to sample grapes from other areas of the different vineyards on the estate so the winemakers can determine what is ready to be picked next. This greatly depends on the climate. The weather has been fluctuating a bit, going from very cool to a few days of pretty high heat. This is important to consider because higher heat climates mean that the sugars will rise in the grapes. And when the sugars rise to where the winemaker wants them, around 22 Brix (measurement of sugar in grapes), the grapes are ready to be picked. But when it cools down, the grapes return to their natural stages of ripening. I never knew I would ever be so interested in the weather!

Picture of juice coming out of press
before going into tanks
So the length of harvest varies depending on which parts of the vineyards are ready to be picked and when. Not all of the grapes will be ready at the same time, or even the same week. And we encourage them to take their time. No need to rush to the party, we want them to get ready and maybe even put some lipstick on. Typically we pick Chardonnay first and then Pinot Noir, because we want slightly higher sugars in the Pinot Noir grapes.

Everyday is really a surprise. The winemakers determine the picking schedule literally the day before, so I just need to be ready to be there at all times. This week I worked 6 days and 60 hours! And loved every minute of it (except the part where I have to clean drains).

                                                               Happy Harvesting everyone!