Journey: Thoughts and Reflections along the path.
Our fourth commercial crush, and its been a big stretch. Last year we harvested and processed about 20 tons of fruit from 6 vineyards, selling a little here and there to home winemakers and trading for some cabernet. This year we harvested 64 tons and processed over 40 from 8, selling to home winemakers and several commercial wineries, all with the same basic crush equipment our 4 year old hobby model destemmer, a few pumps and the two Speidel 180l bladder presses.
We harvested Alicante, Barbera, Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Colombard, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Merlot (3 vineyards), Mourvedre, Petite Sirah (2 Vineyards), Rousanne, Syrah (3 vineyards), Tempranillo and bought Pinot (2 clones) and Chardonnay from Carneros.
Our only capital addition this year was a variable speed pump, easing barrel filling as it has a remote control that lets a person stand at the barrel and manage the pump, freeing up a body to do something else other than man the switch.
We started harvest on Sept 6 on the Athena's Vineyard Merlot and picked our last fruit Petite Sirah from the Chirala Vineyard on the morning of October 6th. Overall is about 3 weeks earlier than last year due to warmer weather during the spring and summer. At times we had three crews working in separate vineyards, and had to rent a flatbed truck and extra RTV to keep up.
Seeing a 16 man professional labor crew from Quality farm labor picking 8 tons in 4 hours was a bit daunting, they literally were picking faster than we could load the 1000 lb bins onto the flat bed for a while.
It was all assisted and made possible by good help; our employees who worked to support the pick crews, our intern Filipe who's looking at post high tech business choices, and of course the pickers. A hearty thanks to all, looking back it seems a blur, moving equipment, bins and people around the south county in the dark to setup for picks and driving fruit to Bonny Doon and Watsonville.
We are finishing up pressing over the next weeks, with our wines having had a prolonged maceration & soak and slower fermentation by intention. This year Jane is trying to limit the maximum temperatures to preserve more of the aromatics, so the reduced amount of yeast takes longer to convert the sugars to alcohol as it has to reproduce more generations, and the heat released is spread out over a longer time.
We've had to restack our barrels to fit all of the new wines, going to a pyramid or hexagonal stacking, where the barrels are sitting in alternating positions as shown on the left. We need the extra space as we crushed about 80 barrels worth this year and have a 600 sq ft space to fit it all. Sort of like playing Tetris with 500lb blocks at racking time. had to restack our barrels to fit all of the new wines, going to a pyramid or hexagonal stacking, where the barrels are sitting in alternating positions as shown on the left. We need the extra space as we crushed about 80 barrels worth this year and have a 600 sq ft space to fit it all. Sort of like playing Tetris with 500lb blocks at racking time.
Doing this sort of thing in your late 50's is that duality of being amazed that you can, and amazed/resentful that you need to, It really has highlighted the amount of brute labor needed, to move bins, shovel fruit and toss barrels around.
Fortunately we will be buying a used forklift that might actually be able to fit into the barrel room. Our neighbor to the west is shutting down his feed store and has an old Navy Surplus lift truck, Its not pretty, but we can fix that easy enough with some paint and a new seat. Rumors of "Lightheart Pink" have been floated. (see racks above)
As we wrap up Crush, and our aches fade, we'll have the satisfaction of lots of new wines to cellar and bring to release. We're very excited about the new varietals, and the vineyards we have been tending are coming up in quality and yield.
Harvest is always an interesting time of year. From planning the picks to the physical work of moving 1000 lb bins and shoveling fruit its a consuming wearying process. That's why we call it "crush". Not only for the transformation of fruit into must, but for the transformation of people into tired grumpy automatons. Somewhat akin to "hell week" at a boot camp or other rite of passage, instead of DI's barking at us, we have customers worrying about whether they should cancel the pick, and fruit samples that tested at 25 brix on Wednesday that suddenly measure 20 on Saturday.
We are sleep deprived, worn out and dealing with uncertainty, all of which makes a person snappish. Yesterday, we had three picks going off a 0630 (dawn is 0640) and a missing pickup truck. Simple mis-communication, it was at a different vineyard 15 miles away. Driving the roads of Santa Clara County in a 16 ft flatbed with three pickers stacked in the passenger seat before sun up is a memorable experience, instead of them being safely strapped into the rear seats of the pickup.
Watching another pick crew of 16 guys bring in a ton every half hour is almost intimidating, as one guy can't load bins on a short lift gate that fast. Vindication from the difficulty of the two twenty somethings who retrieved the errant truck brought the last bins in the nick of time and then loaded the second wave of 4 tons while struggling was bittersweet. For a 57 yr old I am doing pretty well, unfortunately, that doesn't replace the missing forklift which the rental people did not have.
Then there was the rain. We normally don't get rain in September. Its part of our climate. We do get rains in Oct-April, and we don't want to have rains before harvest as the bunches get soaked, the water gets trapped inside and we can get rot on the tight clustered varietals if they don't dry.
So rain makes pickers, growers and customers nervous, nobody likes to work in the rain, it makes the vineyards slippery, and is unpleasant at the least. So we cancelled picking for today, as the showers of yesterday were cyclical and it was not clear that we would get enough drying. Perhaps that was an over reaction, but the break will help, give the crews some rest, let the fruit have another week to mature, and give the customers a chance to get over their worrys.
For myself, its nice to be sitting inside at Dawn, and not out setting up more picks. I'll go punch down in an hour or so, we have 3 tons of Cabernet coming in today from a grower who didn't cancel. That will fill up another 2-3 fermenters leaving us with 1 or 2 available. Good thing we bought another 10 for this season. If our 2 tons of Martini clone Pinot comes in we'll have to press off the Merlot to free up some space.
This year we are preparing to crush 40 tons, or about twice what we did last year. We will be also harvesting another 20 tons for other wineries and home wine makers. To give a scope to that number, a ton of wine grapes is about the volume of a long bed pickup. We will pick, sort and destem those grapes, punch down the reds and then press them all into barrels and tanks.
From our first commercial crush in 2010, where we made a ton each of Chardonnay, Colombard, Pinot, Merlot and two of Cabernet, we have come a long way.
Some of the varietals will be blended, but we have a lot more flavors to work with in the coming vintage.
Our venerable basket press is no longer in use, with two Spiedel bladder presses, though our original destemmer is still in the plan, along with shovels. We picked up an additional 10 fermenters, to give us the ability to ferment 24 tons concurrently, and we will be punching that down twice a day. Along with the vineyards that we have taken on, we have a barn to work in, where we have a bit more space to do the crush and fermenting.
Its 0530 on a Sunday Morning, do you know where your pick crew has been?
Hopefully our has been sleeping instead of patronizing "el Pato Loco" the neighborhood dive. We will be picking out the last of the Soli Deo Gloria Cabernet Sauvignon at 0700 today and then returning to Athena's Vineyard to pick Cabernet Franc. Yesterday they got 3 tons for 7 guys, better than the Friday 2 tons for 5 and not as good as two week ago's 2.5 tons for 4.
There's many a lesson in sociology in a field crew; who picks across from who, which teams are faster, which teams are not. How the peer pressure motivates both a minimum of hard work, and diminishes the standout who would show up the rest. The guys will have cumbia music playing on a blackberry, and work steadily down the rows, moving "el Kubota" as needed to place the bin into which they are dumping their 5 gal pails.
The location of "el Kubota" our RTV 900 utiliby vehicle, and who drives it are fascinating as well, there's a definite pecking order of who operates machinery and who does not, who gets a long walk and who gets a short one.
After the Cab Franc there's only the Colombard, currently just about 21 Brix and slowly ripening. We hope to pick that in about 2 more weeks. and close out Crush12. It's been an education and a lot of work, but well worth it.
"Crush" is the term winemakers use for Harvest, Its a very apropos, with connotations of the process and the energy, when the pace of events becomes overwhelming and the wineries are running flat out.
The pace depends on the weather for the year, if you've had near ideal growing conditions, the Burgundies come in late September, then the Merlot in Early October and the Cabernet and red Rhone's a bit later.
This year we had a bit of a warm spell in late September in the Santa Clara Valley and our Merlot is coming in nearly two weeks ahead of the Carneros Pinot and Chardonnay. With 4 days over 100F, our Syrah is being picked on Thursday 10/4 and we may be all done by 10/15. Compressing all of that picking into only three weeks is daunting when you have a day job.
Fortunately we have some good help, family and a developing cadre of part time younger neighbors and local pickers.
When you add in a major industry event the Semi Annual Passport, which is usually safely ahead of major harvest it makes for a very full schedule.
One of the necessary items for making wine is a container to do it in. We use French Oak barrels by preference, and choose to buy used ones and supplement with convection toasted oak inserts, as its both more economical and allows us to tailor the oak exposure.
Since we buy the barrels used, they are empty when purchased, and may have been empty for a while. Usually that is no issue, if they have been gassed or had sulphur burned inside every 6 weeks or so. However if they have been left empty and were allowed to sit outside in the hot sun, then they can start to dry out. This results in the seams opening up.
Not per se a huge issue, its the experience of every Northern wooden boat owner that their craft will leak in the spring when re-launched until it swells up. And so it is with barrels. We soak them, depending on the leak rate by simply filling, or if they are particularly weepy, by sitting in a bath of water to allow them to take up the moisture they need.
Occasionally a barrel will sit long enough that the hoops become slack, and that is where the new tools and skills come in. We've ordered a "hoop driver" and cooperage supplies to allow us to tighten the hoops which hold the staves. The supplies include wedges and splies which fill in leakage paths and also coopers nails which hold the hoops in place.
I'm looking forwards to re-working the few barrels that seem to need some attention and learning another archaic skill.
Both Jane and I have "day jobs" which provide the bulk of our income and underwrite Lightheart Cellars establishment and expansion at a rate that exceeds our organically available funding. From time to time they take precedence. Such was the case last week, when I needed to be in Dallas for four days. On the weekend prior, we had toured the vineyards and taken samples, and Jane had noted the bird pressure was higher in the two big ones that she was comfortable with.
So we ordered more nets from Nancy Sweet at http://www.bryanbins.com in Gonzales. Nancy is a great person to deal with, as you can call her mobile on a Sunday, and she dropped the nets off Monday morning, while I was sitting in the Los Angeles Airport. I figured that I would be putting them on when I returned. Jane had a better idea.She decided that she would take a vacation day, and put them on with the help of our field crew, who had been finishing up the posts at Soli Deo Gloria. But there were a few problems.
The guys dropped the truck off and told Jane that there was a flat tire on the RTV, the Kubota utility vehicle we use for netting. Following a few rounds of text and phone calls, Jane determined that she could take the truck to get the tire fixed on Tuesday, After visiting 4 tire places she was eventually able to get it patched and out into the fields to put nets on the Petit Syrah. We will cover the Cabernet today, and net some of the Cab Franc as well.
Its great to have a partner who can overcome the problems and carryon in your absence.
We've ordered a spare to avoid the hassles in the future, and picked up a replacement battery for the truck to avoid hassles during harvest.
We are looking into the abyss a bit this week, planning for our third commercial harvest. We expect to crush somewhere in the range of 20-25 tons this year, between what we are farming, what we have contracted and what people are offering us as opportunities.
Jane and I have invested in a 2" Diameter Flexible Impeller pump that should be able to move wet must. This will be a key labor saving device, as it replaces our trusty red 5 gal buckets. We will still have to shovel from the pick bins on the back of a truck or trailer into the destemmer, and then hopefully that is the last hand labor until we are handling bottles.
We will be harvesting Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Syrah from Soli Deo Gloria, expecting 1-2 tons each depending on bird losses. Athena's vineyard should yield 16 tons of Cab Franc and Merlot, though the birds have taken a toll on the Merlot up near the powerline. Behlmer vineyard's Colombard is looking especially good this year, and the Coop vineyard's mystery grapes and our Estate will round it out.
We've managed to retain our contract with the Thomson vineyard for Pinot and Chardonnay, even though they were made an offer for their whole crop at a premium. Future Pinot prices will have to reflect that unfortunately.
And then there's the recent offers of Syrah, Malbec and Chenin Blanc, all in the last week, where there are opportunities to broaden our lines, which we have to fit into our production plan of barrels, fermenters and space.
The first brix readings are in, and they are in the 19-20 range, so we're about 3-4 weeks out at this point. October should really be "crush" based on the season so far.
Harvest is a romantic term, it has connotations of happy peasants bringing in the sheaves, their voice raised in harmony. Harvest is the consumation of year's work in the fields, the garnering of sustenance and payback for all of the foregoing labor. Harvest is a lot of plain brutal hard work. All of these are equally true, you particular view perhaps whether you are savoring the fruits, or loading them into the bins at dawn.
2011 has been a challenging year, with early cool weather, premature rains and low crop yields around the region. We've had to scramble a bit to find the fruit we need, and added an additonal Gilroy vineyard to our management portfolio, with Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Syrah.
This year, we used professional picking crews for the second time, and it was the first that we had to negotiate and manage them. It's been a learning experience, as the pros and cons of hourly vs by the ton compensation, and supervised vs autonomous picking have presented. The value of a trust worthy crew, who can take the truck to the field, harvest efficiently, return promptly, destem and clean up is worth a lot more, than the crew who took 27 labor hours to pick less than a ton, and left the crush pad a mess, and then complain that the hourly rate should be $15 not $12. One learns, and moves onwards, the ranking of the crews for future calls the logical result.
Crush was handled mostly by Jane, with help from Joan, the ladies manned the destemmer for the Mtn Chardonnay and Colombard, and ran the 180l Spiedel bladder press for all of the reds, with help from Noah and me, lifting and dumping the pomace out into the estate vineyard. 11 tons is a lot to hand process, and our muscles have been complaining, but there's the undeniable satisfaction of making something with your own hands. We are already planning ahead to next year, and realize we need to add press capacity to keep up.
March 11, 2016
September 18, 2015
July 7, 2015
May 28, 2015
May 23, 2015
January 7, 2015
November 2, 2014
October 5, 2014
August 27, 2014
June 6, 2014
- November 2014 (1)
- October 2014 (1)
- August 2014 (1)
- June 2014 (1)
- April 2014 (3)
- March 2014 (1)
- February 2014 (3)
- November 2013 (2)
- October 2013 (1)
- September 2013 (2)
- August 2013 (3)
- June 2013 (1)
- May 2013 (2)
- April 2013 (2)
- March 2013 (2)
- February 2013 (4)
- January 2013 (3)
- December 2012 (4)
- November 2012 (5)
- October 2012 (4)
- September 2012 (4)
- August 2012 (3)
- July 2012 (1)
- June 2012 (2)
- May 2012 (1)
- April 2012 (3)
- March 2012 (3)
- February 2012 (4)
- January 2012 (6)