The Grapes are Ready!
As vineyard owners, Brian & Janice are about halfway through this year’s harvest. However, they only just started picking the Bordeaux varieties we use for our Estate 1856 wines, adding another layer of complexity to an already full schedule.
Curious to know what an average day of grape picking involves? Here’s Janice’s account from Monday, when we officially kicked off the Estate 1856 harvest.
What a treat – we got to sleep in until 6am! But as soon as the alarm went off, Brian and I threw on our work clothes, downed a few bites of breakfast, and started toward the vineyard. I ran back to the house to grab a jacket, as the temperatures have dropped from last week and it was definitely still chilly at dawn. The change in temperature was actually a good thing because it slowed down the ripening and also allowed the wineries to catch up after the influx of fruit that came in when the heat rose.
The sun was coming up as we made our way to the vineyard and I took a few minutes to appreciate the view of the sun lighting up the hills that frame the west side of Dry Creek Valley. What an amazing place we get to call home! The valley was still relatively quiet at that hour – we passed just one other truck full of what I’m guessing was the last of the mid-season varieties, maybe Zinfandel or Merlot. Today we harvested the first Cabernet Sauvignon of the season, the base variety for our Duvall’s Prospect Bordeaux Blend. We’d been sampling the Cab for two weeks, watching the sugars rise with warm days, pause with cool days, and begin to rise again as it warmed until the sugar level got to 24.5 – 25.0 Brix. I like to pick the Cab at this sugar level because the final alcohols are then in perfect balance with the flavor and depth of the wines. This year has been the perfect growing season – cool mornings and warm days, some with heavy fog in the morning, giving us great hang time for flavor development.
We met up with our ranch foreman, Pedro, and quickly reviewed the plan for the morning. We were starting with our two European clones, 191 and 337; clones that are distinctively blackberry and cassis in aroma. It usually takes a crew of four about one hour to pick 1 ton of heavy-clustered fruit, like Zinfandel or Sauvignon Blanc. However, Cabernet Sauvignon grows in light-weight, open clusters, so it takes twice as long to pick the same amount of fruit. We thought we would finish up at 11am, but unfortunately we only had 3 of the 4 pickers we were expecting, so we didn’t finish picking until 12:30pm. While the crew picked, Brian, Pedro and I divided up the supporting tasks. Today, I was behind the wheel, moving the tractor & macrobin forward as the crew made their way down the rows. Pedro kept track of the number of bandejas, or lugs, that each person filled; and Brian pulled out leaves and any green grapes as the fruit was dumped into 1000 lb macrobins. We filled a total of eight macrobins.
By 1pm, we were at the winery. The grapes were first unloaded onto a conveyor belt, allowing us to sort the grapes and take out any leaves that got past Brian during the field sorting. The fruit was then dumped into the hopper for de-stemming, then the individual grapes fell into a 1.5 ton fermentation bin. At this point, I adjusted the SO2 to reduce the normal background microflora so that the yeast do not have to compete for nutrients, then I flagged the forklift over to move the bin to the barrel warehouse, where it will sit for 24 hours. Tomorrow, I’ll come back to the winery to inoculate the fruit with yeast and nutrients.
With the winery work completed, Brian and I got back to the ranch and started taking the next round of samples, which I then analyzed for the sugar and acid levels. Different parts of the vineyard ripen at different times, so the samples help us determine which sections we’ll pick next. In addition to our large winery customers, we also sell grapes to home winemakers, so I spent the rest of the day calling and emailing the home winemakers to schedule their picking days and times.
Exhausted after our 18th day of picking, we made an easy dinner, reviewed the plan for the following day, and headed to bed early – ready to start the whole process over again the next day!