Everything happens all at once in the life of a winemaker. They are dealing with a seasonal crop so all the winemaking takes place in lockstep with the harvest. In general, the white grapes mature faster than the red grapes, so that’s what comes in first. This year I was harvesting Viognier with Williamson’s Orchards & Vineyards on the 20th of September and Cabernet at Huston Vineyards on the 14th of October.
Being prepared and having a solid team in place to process all the fruit when the tractor or truck drop off bins at the winery is really the key to success. The farmers should have a pretty good idea of how many tons of grapes they’ll harvest this year so it’s the winemakers' job to make room in the wineries for all the fruit. They need room in their barrels, tanks, concrete eggs, cubes, and even amphora to hold all the wine. But there is so much to do before the wine goes to sleep to age!
The grapes leave the vineyard in larger plastic bins the hand crews filled in the fields or in larger metal bins on a semi-truck that were filled by the mechanical harvester teams. Great wine is made in the vineyard so it’s important to get the fruit to winery quickly and in good condition. Remember that it’s the Winemakers' job to not screw up the farmers' grapes! Bad things can happen if the juice starts fermenting on its own in a warm truck on the way to the winery. You also need to make sure you have enough clean bins, clean tools, clean machines and people to get the jobs done.
Once the grapes hit the “Crush Pad” the pace picks up. To get the best flavor from the grapes you need to make sure you separate the grapes from the stems and any other vine material that made its way into the bins in the field. There is a really cool machine called a de-stemmer that does this for you but it does have its’ limits. White wine juice usually goes right from the de-stemmer into the press since you don’t want the juice to sit on the skins with whites. Reds you ferment in another set of bins before they press off the juice. Our friends at Hat Ranch Winery in Caldwell were de-stemming and pressing some Chardonnay when I visited them in September.
Some winemakers also will look over the fruit as it leaves the bins and even after it leaves the de-stemming machine to keep foreign bits of flavor out of the process. The video below really shows the initial process from bin to bin for some lovely cabernet being made at an urban winery in Boise. From left to right the clusters of grapes get dumped on a table for a leaf check and foreign object sort before riding the elevator up to the de-stemmer and then hand sorted again to pick out any bad grapes over on table two.
Super Slow Motion shows the clean grapes coming out the bottom of the destemming machine while the waste stems shoot out the side of it. The process is important to keep the flavors correct. Too much stem material in the grapes (due to cold damage or messy destemming) can produce a bitter taste in the end product. If the winemaker catches it they can use a different strain of yeast to ferment the juice or change the style of the barrel they will age the wine in to help compensate for the inclusion of “material other than grapes”. It’s the knowledge and skill of the winemaker that comes in to play right here in the timeline that makes me marvel at how much these talented folks have to keep in mind as they are blazing through this process. It may look easy but winemakers are paying attention and being very intentional about everything they do as they work hard to put wine on your holiday table.
Fermentation is the magic that makes juice into wine. Other than one miracle this is the way it has been done since the beginning of time. Add yeast to the sugary grape juice and you end up with alcohol and CO2 gas. Wines run from 11 to 15% alcohol depending on the variety and style. Whites generally ferment in tanks while reds lay up in bins and have to be stirred up to make sure the yeast and sugars all get together and do their thing.
There is still a lot of work to do before this wet sloppy looking mess gets to your table but the process starts with the grower and continues as the grapes are harvested, make their way to the wineries and become the best Idaho wines. As with any other agricultural product, the timing is determined by the grapes, so if you run across a winemaker in the fall, cut them a little slack. Odds are they are getting few if any hours of sleep and they are running full tilt for a month or two. Their hard work is to our benefit though! While this isn’t a primer on how to make wine I do hope it sheds some light on the complexity of the process. We will look at aging and barrels and all those decisions in a later report.
Thanks again to the great Idaho winemakers that have let me hang around with them this fall. Huston Vineyards, Hat Ranch, Williamson's, Skyline Vineyard and team Telaya were all gracious hosts at a very busy time of the year.
Cheers to you and don’t forget to ask for Idaho Wine!
The Idaho Wine Ambassador
© 2019 Jim Thomssen
About Jim Thomssen, the Idaho Wine Ambassador: Jim grew up in Minnesota but moved west to get away from the snow. He landed in Washington state with a degree in Economics. He discovered the wines of Washington in the 1980s as the region emerged, and when his banking career brought him to the Treasure Valley in 1993 he saw the wine region in Idaho had the same potential. Jim has worked with and volunteered for the Caldwell Economic Development, The Idaho Wine Commission, The University of Idaho, Great Northwest Wine, and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail over the last ten years to help develop the Idaho wine industry and promote Idaho wines. Jim is an avid wine traveler and has visited Napa Valley, the Alsace, and Portugal. He earned the title of Ambassador after arranging a trip to the Rioja in Spain with an Idaho Winemaker to explore the differences and similarities between the Snake River AVA and the Rioja Alta.