Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alien Invasion

The other night, I was driving home from class around midnight and saw intensely bright and somewhat eerie lights throughout vineyards as I passed. Hulking machinery, which vaguely resembles alien space craft, lumbered through rows of vines, and tiny tractors pulling huge bins wove in and out. Extra-terrestrial invasion? Nope, just vineyards picking their grapes by machine.

While hand harvesting grapes is all around better, most large scale production wineries use machines to harvest their grapes. It's not as delicate, but it doesn't really matter because the fruit that is picked goes into lower priced wines. (It costs about $55 per acre to pick by machine, compared to over $350 per acre to do it by hand, so the math speaks for itself.) At Riverbench, we pick the fruit for our wines by hand, but for one of our vineyard clients, machine harvesting is it.

Picking by machines is done at night because it's cooler, and nobody wants a hot bin of grapes. They have high beam lights to make sure everything is illuminated, so it really does give the impression, at least from far away, that alien craft might be landing in the vineyard.

Craving my own alien encounter, I ventured out for a night picking experience. Earlier that day, Jim showed me every part of the machine up close so that I would understand what would happen and how it would work. It's hard to explain, but you can see by the pictures that the machine is pulled over each row, and the arms inside shake the vines to remove the grapes. These are then pulled by a conveyor belt into a gondola a few rows over, which collects the fruit. I don't mean to romanticize something that is rather aggressive on the vines, but the machinery is astounding. All those moving parts! Additionally, those guys driving the heavy machinery in pitch black dark perfectly? Stupefying. I can't even parallel park.

Jim and I followed along behind the machine to make sure it was picking right. It's a ton of walking, and dust, leaves, grape matter, and who knows what else completely covered us after just a few minutes. It was cold, but we were walking so much I didn't feel it. Riding on top of the machine was pretty killer, too; you can see every working part. Being about 10 feet up in the air is kind of empowering, too, especially for someone 5 feet tall. It was an adrenaline rush, and probably one of the coolest things I got to do this harvest.

Afterwards, we had a little while to just chill and wait for the fruit to come in, so me, Jim, and Raul, one of the foremen, watched the stars, talking about everything from beers to grapes to families to beers. And the aliens...well, they were probably up there just laughing at us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Clarissa Explains It All

Well, harvest is officially over for Riverbench Winery. The vineyard still has another week until all of the fruit is picked, but for the most part things are starting to calm down as cool weather approaches. And while I didn't get to work nearly as much as I wanted to with the fabulous Ms. Nagy (the day job got in the way), every moment was full of new things to learn. Here's a recap of the highlights:

Inoculations! Not only is it a cool word, but it's a cool thing to do. Clarissa explains that while native yeasts (those which occur naturally in the vineyard) are beneficial, they're not always predictable or constant. So if you truly want the best quality wine, it is best to inoculate with yeast which, by the way, is not man-made, but the real thing just produced in bulk. Adding it helps prevent stuck fermentations and other problems in a wine's baby stages.

I loved learning to inoculate, and I especially loved mixing the warm yeast/juice slurry with my hands. It smells amazing, and made me feel a little like a mad scientist.

Punchdowns! I didn't have time to do my usual kickboxing some mornings, but punchdowns more than made up for it. Clarissa showed me how to stand on top of a wooden plank balanced across the fermenter and then use a punchdown tool to mix the red destemmed grapes and juice. This keeps the color strong throughout and releases the most intoxicating smells of fermented wine. I find it super therapeutic, and man, your arms and back ache after! I not only got to do these by hand, but also got to "drive" the pneumatic punchdown tool this year, too. "Laura has the cleanest punchdowns ever!" See, I knew there would someday be a perk to having OCD.

Sorting! Again, the OCD makes me good at this, I think. Clarissa uses a very efficient sorting/destemming machine with a long conveyor belt which allows someone to stand over it and pick out pieces of vine, raisins, and leaves. Then off it goes to remove the stems from the grapes. I LOVED this- you have to work fast or it will get away from you, and it involves grabbing handfuls of grapes and picking out what shouldn't be there. Ultimately, this helps remove what could lead to undesirable flavors in a wine before you even start letting it ferment. With a new sorting table at our facility, this is the first year Riverbench has really been able to do this.

Overall, what can I say? Actually doing a little harvest work this year was pretty invigorating, exciting, and nerve wracking, but also so much fun! And Clarissa is truly an outstanding teacher. She explains things clearly and without being pretentious. She's calm and patient, the mark of a truly great winemaker. I learned so much just watching her and asking her a million questions. She is one of the most inspiring people I know, not only in the way she approaches her work, but in how she lives her life and shows such kindness to others. That, and she kicks ass and takes names in the cellar.