Maybe today is the day. It’s mid-morning, late in September, and winemaker John Paul, of Oregon’s Cameron Winery, is winding down a familiar dirt road, through hillside vineyards, wondering how the grapes will taste today. At the edge of autumn, the sun still low in the sky, the leaves on the vines are a blaze of vermilion and gold. Outside the window, the air feels warm and clean, but there’s a brittle edge to it that only confirms the seasons are changing and harvest is near. Like an expectant parent, Paul has been feeling these and other faint contractions for weeks as the grapes arc toward ripeness. He knows the labor of crush could start any day. Maybe today is the day. The day crush begins.
Gotta Know When to Hold ‘Em
In any winemaker’s life, there is no more important and dramatic part of the year than crush. A term that loosely describes the entire harvesting season, crush begins when the grapes are picked and continues through processing and fermentation until the last wine is safely in barrel. After about 10 months of calm, deliberate pacing, crush is a 50-yard dash that will affect a winemaker’s reputation, the quality of the wine, how much it will sell for, and who will buy it, enjoy it and, hopefully, tell a friend about it. Luckily, centuries of practice and technology have fine-tuned how the crush unfolds, and winemakers now have an unprecedented ability to control the wines they create. Specialized gear measures and controls every aspect of the process, from firm but gentle presses and crushers to temperature-controlled fermentation tanks and the rigorous analysis of chemical compounds with names that could break a spell-checker.
Yet despite all these advances, the basic outline of crush hasn’t changed since winemaking began thousands of years ago: Grapes were picked, crushed in some way, fermented and pressed off to produce a wine that, with luck and skill, your average Sumerian would enjoy.
What’s more, there are still plenty of things over which producers have just as little control as their ancestors did, so the quality of grapes they get—the main factor that determines wine quality—is never a sure thing. Storms at harvest, heat waves and cold spells, even how many pickers and workers they can rally at a moment’s notice will determine how wild a ride their crush will be.
“It’s a nerve-wracking time,” says winemaker Patrick Campbell, who’s been farming his Laurel Glen vineyard in California’s Sonoma County since 1977. “If you start to slip into the rainy season, you’ve got to make some choices. Some decisions aren’t based on perfection, they’re based on necessity. But it’s really exciting when it all comes together.” The first and most important of those decisions is when to pull the grapes off the vines. “The picking decision feels like the first irrevocable decision in the sequence of a wine’s life,” says winemaker Tony Soter, founder of Etude Wines in California’s Napa Valley and, more recently, Soter Vineyards in Yamhill, Ore. “It’s fraught with pressure, anticipation, hope, anxiety and creative joy.”
That’s because, like blackjack, winemakers decide when to stop the deal and live with the hand they’ve got. If they stop too early, the grapes aren’t ripe enough and it’s harder to beat the house. But if they stop it too late, the grapes will be over-ripe, compromising their chances for a winning hand. “If you don’t pick them at the right time,” says Campbell, “I won’t say you can forget it, but … it’s a critical time.”
And, of course, there’s the dealer: Nature could have rain, cold spells or grape mold in its hand, delaying the harvest and sending it skittering toward winter storms. “The grapes are always getting better until they are getting worse,” Soter quips.
To tilt the odds in their favor, winemakers begin with analytical tools to measure sugar, acid and pH in the ripening grapes. But while farming by formulas and target numbers helps winemakers zero in on when to pick, the most crucial decisions are made on a combination of intuition and experience.
“The three things I’m always focused on are the vine condition, the weather, and the taste and condition of the fruit,” says Soter, who estimates that, as a consultant, he’s averaged about 50 picking decisions a year for the past 25 years. “What we’re looking for is elusive. It’s a tightrope of concentration and balance, and what the season and the vine have to offer. When the chance is there to make great wines and I get a glimpse of it, I hoot and holler and jump up and down. As they say in Burgundy, [France,] you might only get a few chances in a lifetime to make a great wine.”
Once You Pick, There’s No Turning Back
“The decision to pick unleashes an irreversible reaction,” says Paul, who made wine in California and New Zealand before starting Cameron Winery in 1984. “All of the energy the grapes have accumulated over the summer months is suddenly unleashed in a single act of fermentation. Working around that vast store of potential and then kinetic energy can’t help but infuse you with some of that energy … which is good, since 12- to 16-hour days are common this time of year.”
The longest of these days come at the beginning, when the grapes, fresh from the vineyard, arrive at the winery. If approaching storms have forced winemakers to bring a lot of fruit in at once, the arrival can look more like a tidal wave. So, before the fruit hits, winemakers have done everything they can to prepare—equipment has been checked and washed, barrels prepped, chemicals and yeasts ordered and on site, and, most important, skilled labor is standing by.
What winemakers won’t be prepping, however, are vats for grape stomping—that ancient practice survives in professional wineries only as ceremony or entertainment (see page 61). But while purple feet are one of winemaking’s most enduring clichés, the practice has its roots in a key process: breaking the skins to unlock the grapes’ flavor and color.
These days, crusher-destemmer machines accomplish what grapestomping did, but much more efficiently (and with no athlete’s foot). In one swift motion, the machine breaks the skin of the grape, yanks out the stem it’s been clinging to for the past four months, and sends it hurtling toward fermentation.
It’s here that red and white wines part ways. Because red wine gets much of its color and structure from contact with the grape skins, winemakers send the entire fruit into a vat, where the must (industry lingo for “grape goo”) is left to luxuriate on the skins during fermentation, before it’s pressed off. By contrast, winemakers press white wines before fermentation, often as quickly as they can after the grapes are crushed. That immediately separates juice from skins, resulting in a more delicate and light-colored wine. So here, at least, beauty is indeed skin deep.
Now the yeasts take the helm, converting the sugars in the grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In red wines, the gas will push the skins to the surface, so to keep the fermentation healthy and to extract the most color and flavor, winemakers submerge the cap of skins at least twice a day. Especially if it’s done by hand with a plunger (a practice called “punching down”), it can be a complete, two-week home fitness program.
Between processing an avalanche of grapes, punching down vat after vat, and cleaning everything all the time, crush can lose its romantic luster quickly. So a winemaker’s most important tool is a positive mindset. “The more tired you are, the more you’ll make mistakes, and emotions can run high,” says Oregon winemaker Sam Tannahill, whose resumé includes Arche
ry Summit and A to Z wineries and, most recently, Francis Tannahill in Dundee, which he owns with his wife, Cheryl Francis.
He tries not to lose sight of experiences from the beginning of his career, when he worked in French vineyards and wineries for two years. “The culture of harvest in France is entrenched in celebration,” he recalls. “There were hour-and-a-half lunches every day. At the end of harvest, there would be a grape fight in the vineyard. There would be flowers on the tractor delivering the last load. A guy with an accordion would come to play on the last morning. It sounds pastoral and quaint, but it was very real.”
And healthy, he believes. So even at the apex of crush, he tries to slow things down with longer dinners at night, or even a trip away from the winery for an afternoon to hunt mushrooms. “You get to take a break and talk about things,” he says. “You’re bringing in something you’ve spent a year nurturing, but why bother if you can’t enjoy it? You’re making wine! It’s a joyful process, you’re surrounded by friends; it’s an excuse to celebrate.”
Back in his vineyard, in early September, Paul is like a kid at the top of a huge waterslide, ready to dive. The flavors, the color of the juice, the taste of the seeds, all tell him it’s time.
“Some people are cup-half-empty people; I’m more a cup-half-full person,” he says. “The half-empty guy says, ‘Oh jeez, here we go.’ Me, I say, ‘Yeah! This is great! Let’s go!’ It’s all possible. It’s like you’re a Mariners fan at the beginning of the season, and you think maybe this is the year, maybe. It may have been a crappy summer—maybe it’s raining—but things could always turn around and this could be a great vintage.”
Story by Matt Giraud