Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Memoir of a Winery Assistant---Welcome To The Winery

When the trucks came, they came fast. On the fastest days we'd process 180 tons of grapes with 17 people in 24 hours (that's more than 10 tons/person). Trucks would arrive filled with half-ton bins of grapes and you'd hop on forklifts to unload them, then weigh the grapes and bring them inside the winery. It could be an amazing sight: flatbed trucks arriving at night, torrential rain pouring down, and 4 to 5 guys on forklifts racing to unload the fruit while staying out of each others way.

Inside the winery, the half-ton bins of Pinot Noir are dumped into hoppers on top of destemming machines. One person drives a forklift with a dumper attachment. The hopper on the destemmer we used stood about 12 feet up, so the half-ton bins were dumped at this height. To make sure the grapes went down well, another person grabs a plastic pitchfork and climbs a ladder up to the top of the hopper. If the grapes were too wet, we would run some of the free running water and juice off in order to get a higher Brix reading. This is the saignee method, which Assistant Winemaker Andy McVay described as making espresso instead of coffee.



The destemmer knocks the grapes free, then the mixture of grapes and juice is pumped into one of the many steel tanks in the winery. One person has to keep track of the amount of grapes pumped, to make sure that the tank doesn't overflow. Pinot Noir grapes are very delicate, breaking easily to release juice. Other varieties, such as Sirah, have much thicker skins.


For all intensive purposes, this is the complete winemaking process. Believe it or not, all you have to do is break grapes and put them in a clean container for a little while, and they'll turn to wine on their own. Of course, this is only the 2nd of a 6-part series: There's a lot more to tell. But those are the fundamental principles.


For white wine, it's a little different. We worked with Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Muscat. The grapes are poured into a hopper, but they are not destemmer or pumped directly into steel tanks. Instead, they are pumped into a giant bladder press. The grapes are then pressed immediately. I'll get into pressing---one of the more subjective and artistic components of winemaking---in part 4. In the next part, I'll describe blasting.

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