Since we don’t have grapes of our own to harvest this year, we did the next best thing, and took a class at Piedmont Virginia Community College on “Harvesting and Basic Analysis of the Must,” taught by the incomparable Gabriele Rausse.
After a brief classroom lecture, we moved on to Blenheim Vineyards, where we helped (help being a relative term) pick one section of Viognier grapes. I went into this assuming that picking grapes might be the one thing about viticulture that would be so straightforward, so foolproof – SO SIMPLE! – that we could just do it, without staring at the vines, paralyzed with fear, before asking for help.
Well, no such luck.
For this particular section of the vineyard, Blenheim was “sorting in the vineyard,” which is to say, we were dropping grapes that had succumbed to disease or sour rot, or were otherwise not suitable for pressing. Most often, you bring the grapes in and sort at the crushpad, separating out the fruit that doesn’t belong in the must, and getting rid of MOG – matter other than grapes. (You’d be surprised at how many spiders make their way to the crushpad. )
This has been an exceptionally difficult year for Virginia vineyards, and Blenheim didn’t want to take a chance on letting bad fruit infect the good back at the winery. So, in addition to sorting at the crushpad, Blenheim left bad fruit on the ground in the vineyard.
Which meant that I ended up staring at the vines, examining each cluster in minute detail and wondering whether to add it to the lug or leave it on the ground. I didn’t want to send bad fruit back to the winery, but I also was worried about dropping good fruit to the ground, needlessly reducing the size of the harvest. Honest to God, I was almost at the point of worrying about each individual grape.
Which meant that I ended up asked Gabriele for expert assistance on about every other cluster, at least at the beginning. By the end of that session, I was feeling more confident, and asking for help only about every fifth cluster or so.
If you remember the episode of “I Love Lucy,” where Lucy was working in the chocolate factory and unable to keep up with the candy moving down the
assembly line, that’s how I felt. The clusters of fruit moved down the conveyer belt, and we sorted as quickly as we could, but always with the feeling that we were falling behind. Fortunately, there were ten or so of us on the sorting table at any one time, five on each side, and so I think we did a pretty fair job.
I tasted a few of the grapes as they passed by, and I couldn’t believe how sweet a perfectly ripe wine grape tastes. So much different from what I buy at the grocery store.
Since this course was titled “Harvesting and Basic Analysis of the Must,” you may be wondering what the hell the “must” is. The must is essentially the fermenting juice. If it’s white wine, which is pressed and separated from stems and skins, the must is essentially just juice. If it’s red wine, then the
must will also include skins and perhaps some seeds and stems that didn’t filter out in the destemming process. The skins add color to the red wine, as well as tannins and other qualities. And they create a huge amount of work for the winemaker, or at least for the cellar rats who do the work. The skins rise to the top of the must and must be “punched down” a couple of times each day.
In a large fermentation tank, that can be a lot of work. But if you only have to do it once, as I did, it’s a fabulous experience!
Gabriele had a Pinot Noir fermenting, and we all took turns climbing the ladder to the top of the tank and punching down the must. It was pretty cool to see the cap of skins floating on the top, and amazingly satisfying to punch it down. I suspect we all punched down the same skins over and over and that someone had to come along after us and do the job properly. But for a moment or two, I felt like a genuine cellar rat.
Not bad, for a guy who works in an office all week.