While lugging this year’s freshly-picked grapes into the cooler, a family member complained about having to heft the grapes an additional time for weighing. Given the number to times we already have to touch those grapes, it struck me as amusing, from both a farm work and wine-grower perspective.
First off, vineyards are farming, with all its dirt, sweat, tools, prayers, and hopes. I want to pick grapes along the Rhine or on the cliffs of Portugal some time to remind my muscles just how easy we have it here.
Secondly, when we use volunteers to help pick the grapes, the winemaker knows we’re going to have wildly erratic lug weights, from a few pounds to thirty pounds in each, as well as empty water bottles, clippers, and gloves tossed in the lugs for good measure. After decades of picking as a vigneron, we can accurately estimate lug weights. Still, if any simple farm task, such as pausing every lug on a weigh scale, can help build the winemakers’ confidence in a vintage, you say “Yes, Boss.” So, let me walk you through how many times we might touch a grape before you drink it.
The first touch will thrill the “life begins at conception” people reading this blog, because the first touch on a grape begins the year before your grape crop arrives. In May and June, we need to leaf-pull the leaves around the clusters of this year’s grapes (See #7), but this also exposes sunlight onto the forming buds of next year’s crop on the canes. Your crop load in these buds is thus established a year ahead of time. Why a grapevine bud exposed to sunlight produces a more fruitful bud makes more sense if you realize the plant needs birds and animals to see the grapes, so they eat the fruit and pass the seeds on, away from underneath the parent vine. Grapes are not good acorns.
The second touch is eight months later, in the dead of winter, pruning. Cutting the canes of last year’s growth makes room for this year’s crop.
Then, of course, you have to do something with those cut canes. Left piled up under the vines; they could cause a lot of disease and pest problems. Raked away into piles or put through a chipper to make a quickly biodegradable mulch are a common third touch, but some vignerons simply burn canes in a wheelbarrow as they prune to keep warm in the cold. Myself, I prune the canes into a trailer, and about one plant in ten into a bucket and use a scale to measure cut cane weights and adjust my pruning accordingly. I then burn the big pile during snowstorms.
As the spring warms the vines up and they bud out, we begin the fourth touch, thinning. We want the same number of canes and leaves per cluster of grapes (See #11) to create uniformity. Too many canes on one plant over another cause imbalance in both the crop and the eventual wine.
The fifth touch is how most wine-growers spend the spring, tying; attaching the new vines to trellis wires or containing them in a specific growth style. Left to wild abandon, grapevines get unruly and become difficult to care for, keep healthy, and pick. Fine in the wild, but bad for business. In places where the vineyard real estate gets pricey per square foot, they use elaborate wire trellis systems, easily costing 10K per acre, and even more for the farm labor to tye them up to it.
Now that the plants are growing comes the Health Care portion of the grape’s sixth touch, spraying. Insects and fungus want the grapes more than we do, and they are not nearly as picky as the vigneron about quality. Whether one goes organic, biodynamic, or modern, the grapes are constantly hand-inspected for disease problems, and something is being sprayed on them to alleviate those problems. Here the “what” has a tremendous impact on the vineyard and the nature around it. Lots of rules and regulations here, no matter what style of sustainable responsibility the vigneron chooses.
For our seventh touch of the grapes, we arrive back at leaf-pulling again, but this time the focus is on getting the current grape clusters more exposed to sunlight, drying winds, and the sprays of #6. And yes, we are also starting the process for next year at the same time.
Rinse & repeat is the rule for tucking, our eighth touch, and begins the traditional image of the vigneron in the summer fields. Wind and nature despise pristine arrangments and the human compunction for an order to things. Still, vignerons dutifully put the canes back into place day after day like Disney employee’s keeping the landscape fresh every morning. Some vignerons go so far as to tye individual vine canes in specific leaf orientations to the sun for wine quality goals. You will know this by the price of the finished wine because this labor is costly meso-management of the vineyard canopy.
Now that our grapevines are growing happily with visible clusters of grapes forming underneath, we begin hedging, our ninth touch. Cutting off the top of the cane stops it growing endlessly. Canes will often happily grow into its neighbors and along wires, causing problems with vine disease and dramatically affecting the quality of the wine. Think of hedging as reminding the vine to concentrate on watching over the kids (the grapes).
With many varieties of grapes, the moment you hedge the top of the cane, it responds by forming new canes off buds up along its length. These perpendicular canes are called laterals. These laterals can act like rogue canes in a trellis, and can often create little “earing” clusters of grapes that are weeks or even months behind the main ripening crop below. Touch ten is removing laterals before they become a more severe problem.
The eleventh touch is a critical, tearful touch for the grapes & grower, and it goes by two names. “Balancing” is what the vigneron is doing, by dropping off certain little parts of clusters called shoulders, or dropping whole clusters off vines that have developed too heavy a crop load compared to its leaves and neighbors. This tearful moment can also be called “dropping money,” because, at $2 a pound for grapes, that is precisely what you are doing. Again, this is a quality decision every winemaker wants and every vigneron fears. Sampling grapes begins here as well, to access that quality.
Finally, in fall, we arrive at the most critical twelfth touch, picking. Picking has so many variables that it would take an entire blog to cover all by itself. Suffice here to say someone or something has to separate the grapes from the vines to proceed. Machinery to do this can cost a quarter of a million dollars, so that is out for the small producer like us. Paying to have a service come to us and use such mechanical harvsters is also cost-prohibitive. Harvest picking thus tends to rely on family and volunteers to get the job done.
Lugging is the process of picking up those picked grapes and taking them to the winery. This thirteenth touch is the back-breaking portion, and at a minimum, requires the picked grapes to be carried and dumped into another container. We use stackable lugs that are lifted and put on a trailer, but again, there are many options here based on size, scale, and personal preference.
Cooling is the fourteenth touch. We once heard in class that you should treat a cluster of picked grapes the same way you would a glass of milk, and I’ve always loved that advice. You can’t just leave the grapes out in the hot sun, and very few modern wineries can crush every grape within minutes of picking it. We also feel the cooling process makes a better wine for us, so the brimming lugs are stored temporarily and kept cool. Under a shade tree is the old stand-by, but we use a walk-in refrigerated cooler. The cooler lets us keep the grapes above freezing but cold enough to stay fresh as we take a couple of days to finish picking the entire crop.
The fifteenth touch is almost as famous as picking; the crush. If you picture Lucy dancing about in a vat of picked grapes, you probably count this touch as feet instead of hands, though nobody really stomps grapes to make commercial wine. Ancient winemakers didn’t always have a wine press available nearby, and medieval lords charged peasants a stiff percentage to use their expensive wine presses, so folks figured out alternative ways to squash grapes into juice themselves.
The sixteenth and seventeenth touches, pressing and fermentation, are reversible, depending on if you are making white or red wine. With white wine, we take the crushed grapes and press out only the juice into tanks, where we will add yeast and ferment the juice into wine. With red wine, we add the yeast to the crushed grapes, skin and all, and then press out the red wine when the fermentation is complete. This critical touch is where good winemakers earn their keep.
Letting the tanks of wine, red or white, settle over weeks is how wine is clarified. Filters would remove lees and things faster, but filters also remove flavor, body, aroma, and color. Fining is where winemakers can add items like oak, powdered milk or egg whites to tweak wine flavors. As the milky layer forms at the bottom, the cellar workers start racking, or draining off the more transparent wine above it into another tank and throwing away the thin cloudy layer. We can perform this eighteenth touch once or repeat it several times, depending on the style of wine and winemaker’s wishes. This can also be the coveted touch know as “barrel-tasting,” where the winemaker (and happy potential guests!) “steals” wine with a long “thief” to judge how the vintage is coming along.
Unless you want to drink out of barrels like Fortunato (and look where that got him), the nineteenth touch is bottling.
Twenty touches and probably two years from when we started, we arrive at the bottle of wine released from the cool winery into the tasting room, or a fine wine shoppe or restaurant, or perhaps your grocery store shelf.
All this brings us to the last, most important touch. Twenty-one is handing the finished bottle of wine to you.
Sometimes, like live musicians and painters at an exhibition, winemakers get to witness your emotional reaction to their art instantaneously. Usually, though, winemakers, like novelists, now step back from a similar artist’s perspective once they hand the sealed labor to you like a wrapped gift. As you savor the wine, may you begin to understand and appreciate the long process and work that goes into crafting something purely intended for your potential enjoyment.