What I Would be Doing This Month if I Hadn’t Retired
I’m going to concentrate on the last phase of harvest this month, a lot of which usually happens in late October. I was out of the country for almost the entire month of October, but I was checking the Sonoma County weather regularly. Everything I read while I was gone reinforces my opinion that 2018 was a very good year for winemakers in Northern California. It was a late harvest in general, most notable for the very steady, even heat that promotes slow, even ripening and great flavor development. The 2018 harvest was marked by the absence of any significant heat waves. The only negative weather factor was rain that fell in early October, which no doubt caused some losses but shouldn’t have any effect on the overall quality of the harvest. In addition to great conditions for grape development, the even weather allowed for a relatively slow, orderly harvest. This type of harvest allows winemakers to spend more time focused on quality details rather than on crisis management, and, yes, every crush involves crisis management.
Crush is the most exciting part of a winemaker’s year, and the adrenaline that is created makes it possible to work long, hard hours day after day, week after week. When harvest finally starts to slow is when the fatigue sets in. I recall one time in the late 1990s in particular: a late October night. My assistant winemaker, Chris Loxton, and I were working side by side, one of us cleaning the stemmer-crusher and the other cleaning the press, for the 20 somethingth time that crush. It was long after dark, probably 9 or 10, the temperature was in the 50’s, and the cool wind was making our damp clothes quite chilly. Overall exhaustion, sore muscles, and a stiff back slowed my pace of work, adding 50% to the amount of time normally required to complete the task. At one point I turned toward Chris and asked, “Chris, you know what?”; his response was a snarled, “What!”. I said, “This is the true romance of winemaking”.
The pace and intensity also create a heightened risk of mistakes or accidents. I always gave two formal safety talks each crush, one on the first day of harvest and the second when activity finally started to slow (maybe when 90% or so of the grapes were in). The second talk was important because at that phase of crush everyone is run down and not as alert. Tasks have become routine to the point where attention to detail can wane, and this is a time of increased mistakes (spills, hooking up to the wrong tank, etc.). Almost all of the “human error” mistakes that occurred in my 32 years of commercial winemaking happened during the latter phases of crush. Fortunately, we never had a major injury at Wellington Vineyards, but the closest call came one early November day. A (normally) brilliant employee was dismantling a piece of leased equipment in preparation for shipping it back to the lessor. I had walked by during the process and noticed something, but in my state of tiredness it didn’t fully register. When I heard the sound of a 1000 pound piece of equipment hitting the ground from eight feet up I immediately knew what had happened. I sprinted out the door, afraid my employee had been crushed to death or seriously injured. Fortunately, he was fine, other than being shaken by both his close call and by his incredible lack of caution and forethought.
I mentioned crisis management as part of every winery crush. A crucial aspect of crisis management is prioritization of tasks; most crush work needs to be done in an extremely time dependent manner, and the last thing anyone needs when addressing a crisis is the creation of more problems. One problem fermentation can consume as much time and energy as several “normal” fermentations, so it is paramount to stay on top of everything, even while dealing with the crisis de jour. Once crush starts to slow it is time to start checking and caring for wine already in barrels. Is primary fermentation complete? Is secondary fermentation (malolactic fermentation) progressing or complete, and is blending to spread active ML culture needed? Topping? Is racking or early blending needed? At this stage any problem wines require a lot of attention, taking attention away from or delaying work on other wines. Generally, no one delay or other minor detail will lower wine quality in a profound way, but I believe that the cumulative effect of many small shortcomings (or conversely, the effect of doing everything with the utmost care in a timely manner) can make a huge difference in the final product.
The last major milestone of every crush is when we have pressed the last tank and put the wine to barrel. Then we can relax a bit – typically there is nothing that requires immediate attention (no “pressing” business). Now we can turn our attention back to the previous year’s wines that were last racked, topped and tight-bunged in August, as well as continuing to monitor and “elevate” the current vintage.
I haven’t mentioned anything about vineyards during harvest season other than sampling and determining harvest timing. Vine health for overwintering and nutrient reserves for budbreak the following spring can be enhanced by post harvest irrigation and fertilization. All of our irrigated vineyard blocks were at moderate or greater water stress the entire period from veraison to harvest and were putting all their energy into ripening the grapes. My post harvest goal was to maintain as many green leaves as possible for as long as possible to allow the vines to manufacture and store carbohydrates in their trunks and roots. I always gave our vines a huge soaking as soon as the last grapes were off each block, often the same day we picked. The old dry farmed vines didn’t have that luxury; I just had to watch as their last leaves turned yellow and dropped. The second irrigation, a few days later, would include a healthy dose of fertilizer, both to stimulate carbohydrate production and to increase the amount of nitrogen, calcium and potassium stored in the vines. Vineyard fertilization timing is tricky, particularly concerning nitrogen; there is limited nutrient uptake from roots in early spring, and by the time roots are active nitrogen fertilization poses a risk of poor fruit set at bloom. We also don’t want to be adding nitrogen during the final stages of ripening. What we’re left with are post-bloom and post-harvest as the only two safe and effective times to fertilize.