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Crush time – A winemaker chronicles his life during the harvest

Following is the journal of a full-day’s work by Nevada City Winery Winemaker Mark Foster during his industry’s busiest time of the year. Foster’s thoughts were written up by Rod Byers, director of marketing for the winery.

5:30 a.m. Sunrise. Well, you may call it sunrise. I call it dark. Either way, it’s morning and it’s time to go.

6 a.m. I start each day checking vineyards. I start several weeks before harvest begins and continue to check vineyards every morning through the end of crush. I’ve had too many loads of grapes arrive either over or under ripe not to realize that I need to check for myself. They might be right. I need to be sure.



7:30 a.m. This is my third and final vineyard stop today. In and out of the first two. I like to take clusters, randomly. Picking single berries doesn’t offer the same kind of cross sample. Too easy to get just the berry you want. Here the farmer was waiting for me. Wants to know if he can pick.

He points out some shriveling at the top of the hill. The grapes aren’t ready. I’m sorry about the shriveling, but the acids are just too high, the flavors not yet fully developed. I’ll check today’s samples to see how close we are. Call me later.




8:15 a.m. Back at the winery. The first order of business is to open all the doors, airing out the place. The barrel room is full of fermenting wines that pump out CO2 all night long into the enclosed space. At school they used to scare us with tales of workers passing out and tumbling head over heels into fermenting tanks.

9 a.m. I map out the plans for the day with my co-worker. He starts with pump-overs. I do the punch-downs. To get maximum color and phenolic extraction in red wine, the juice must be in contact with the skins. Trouble is, CO2, a byproduct of fermentation, causes the skins to float to the top of the container, minimizing contact. Doing a pump-over pulls the wine off the bottom of the 2000 gallon tank and splashes it back through the top cap. It will take a half hour to circulate one entire tank. To do the punch-downs, I stand on the inch-wide edges of the much smaller open-topped fermenting bins and use a gigantic paddle to push the layer of skins back down into contact with the red juice. There are 16 bins to do. I feel like a gondolier pushing himself to work in the morning.

10:30 a.m. My assistant sets up the press and the stemmer crusher and starts cleaning, preparing for the day’s activities. Making wine is one part winemaking to four parts cleaning. It takes a while to set up and ultimately even longer to clean up. I go to the lab to do the chemistry on yesterday’s work. First I want to check the sugar, acid and pH levels on the Merlot that we crushed yesterday. I left it to soak overnight. I’ll add the yeast this afternoon, once it gets a little warmer. I need to check the sugar levels in the bins where I just completed the punch downs. There are grapes arriving this afternoon and as of right now, I have no fermenters to put them in. I have to press something off to make room. That involves checking the numbers, but more than that, it involves a taste test. I have a couple of choices of what to press and have to decide right now.

11:30 a.m. The press is clean. We need to get this done before the next grapes arrive. I’ll have to check this morning’s samples later.

12:30 p.m. The zinfandel press-off is done, at least as far as emptying the fermenters that we will need now, but it will still take the press itself another hour and a half to go through its computerized final cycle.

After that, I want to press-off some Petite Sirah. I have been experimenting with extended maceration, leaving the wine and the skins together for several weeks after fermentation is finished. At first glance that might appear disastrous. Petite Sirah has no trouble picking up excessive tannins during even a short primary fermentation. The theory here is that the wine continues to pull tannin from the skins, building up increasingly massive levels of extraction. Ultimately the tannin molecules become so huge that they sink to the bottom, falling out of suspension and leaving a softer, more complex, fruity wine. There is a big reward if it works, but the risk is unmanageable Petite Sirah if it doesn’t.

2 p.m. Finally the grape trucks roll in. Two trucks carrying six bins of grapes, each weighing a half ton. A full afternoon for sure. But not as long as Friday will be. Then there will be 20 bins.

4:30 p.m. Got the last grapes crushed. I’ve got to get back to pressing the Petite Sirah.

5:30 p.m. Done. Well, sorta. My assistant starts to clean the crusher. By the time he’s done, the press will have finished its final cycle on the Petite. Then there’s another hour to clean the press. I need to return phone calls. There will be the growers I saw yesterday, wanting to make arrangements about when to pick. Then there will be the growers from this morning, wanting the results of today’s samples, which reminds me, I still need to run those samples. There will be a dozen other messages as well. One I hope is from the barrel maker. I would like to hear back from the pump repair guy, too.

6:30 p.m. It’s time for another pump over and a full punch-down. There is a lot of heat generated during a red wine fermentation. If you place your hand on the top layer of skins, you can feel the heat coming through. The CO2 created pushes the grape cap upwards. Even in a small bin, if you burrow your hand 8 or 10 inches into the grape skins, you’ll feel the heat more strongly, but you still won’t feel any liquid.

7:30 p.m. Can’t leave without checking the temperatures and sugar levels of some chardonnay I’m barrel fermenting. It’s important to keep the barrel temperature cool. Too much heat buildup causes too fast a fermentation. It dries out the flavors and burns up the fruit. I’ve decided to let a couple of the barrels sit on the lees after fermentation is complete. Another potentially risky operation offering big rewards. Last thing. Run those samples from this morning.

8:30 p.m. Done. Notes recorded. Close up the winery. I realize I am now closer in time to tomorrow’s morning vineyard tour than I am from today’s. There’s a phrase in the wine business, “it takes good beer to make good wine.” Time to test that theory.


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