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Crush time: One more chance to make the perfect wine
[September 2006]

Maybe today is the day.

It's mid-morning, late in September, and winemaker John Paul is winding his way through hillsides of vineyards, wondering how the grapes will taste today. Here in northern Oregon, at the edge of autumn, the sun is still low in the sky, so its golden light is raking the auburn vine leaves to a blaze of vermillion and copper. Outside the truck window, the air feels warm and clean, but there's a brittle edge to it that only confirms the seasons are changing and harvest is near.

Like an expectant parent, Paul has been feeling these and other faint contractions for weeks as the grapes arc toward ripeness, so he knows the labor of crush could start any day.

Maybe that day will be today. He'll know in a few minutes-and if everything is right, with one irreversible decision, crush will begin.

You gotta know when to hold 'em

In any winemaker's life, there is no more important and dramatic part of the year than crush. A term that loosely describes the entire harvesting season, crush begins when the grapes are picked and continues through processing and fermentation until the last wine is safely in barrel. After about 10 months of calm, deliberate pacing, crush is a 50-yard dash that will impact a winemaker's reputation, the quality of the wine, how much it will sell for, and who will buy it, enjoy it-and, hopefully, tell a friend.

Luckily, centuries of practice and technology have fine-tuned how the crush unfolds, and winemakers now have an unprecedented ability to control the wines they create. Specialized gear measures and controls every aspect of the process, from firm but gentle presses and crushers to temperature-controlled fermentation tanks and the rigorous analysis of chemical compounds with names that could break any spell-checker.

Yet despite all these advances, the basic outline of crush hasn't changed since winemaking began thousands of years ago: grapes were picked, crushed in some way, fermented and pressed off to produce a wine that, with luck and skill, your average Sumerian-in-the-street would enjoy.

What's more, there are still plenty of things over which they have just as little control as their ancestors did, so the quality of grapes they get-the largest factor in determining the quality of wine they can make-is never a sure thing. Storms at harvest, heat waves and cold spells, even how many pickers and workers they can rally at a moment's notice will impact how wild a ride their crush will be.

"It's a nerve-wracking time," says winemaker Patrick Campbell, who's been farming his Laurel Glen vineyard in California's Sonoma County since 1977. "If you start to slip into the rainy season, you've got to make some choices. Some decisions aren't based on perfection, they're based on necessity. But it's really exciting when it all comes together."

The first and most important of those decisions is when to pull the grapes off the vines. "The picking decision does feel like the first irrevocable decision in the sequence of a wine's life," says winemaker Tony Soter, founder of Etude Wines in California's Napa Valley and, more recently, Soter Vineyards in Yamhill, Ore. "It's fraught with pressure, anticipation, hope, anxiety and creative joy."

That's because, like blackjack, winemakers decide when to stop the deal and live with the hand they've got. If they stop too early, the grapes aren't ripe enough and it's harder to beat the house. But if they stop it too late, the grapes will be over-ripe, compromising their chances for a winning hand. "If you don't pick them at the right time," says Campbell, "I won't say you can forget it, but ... it's a critical time."

And, of course, there's the dealer: nature could have rain, cold spells and grape mold in its hand, delaying the harvest and sending it skittering toward winter storms. "The grapes are always getting better until they are getting worse," Soter quips.

To tilt the odds in their favor, winemakers begin with analytical tools to measure sugar, acid and pH in the ripening grapes. But while farming by formulas and target numbers helps winemakers zero in on when to pick, the most crucial decisions are made on a combination of intuition and experience.

"The three things I'm always focused on are the vine condition, the weather and the taste and condition of the fruit," says Soter, who estimates that, as a consultant, he's averaged around 50 picking decisions a year for the past 25 years. "What we're looking for is elusive. It's a tightrope of concentration and balance, and what the season and the vine have to offer. When the chance is there to make great wines and I get a glimpse of it, I hoot and holler and jump up and down. As they say in Burgundy, [France,] you might only get a few chances in a lifetime to make a great wine."

Once you pick, there's no turning back

"The decision to pick unleashes an irreversible reaction," says Paul, who's made wine in California and New Zealand before starting Cameron Winery in Dundee, Ore., in 1984. "All of the energy the grapes have accumulated over the summer months is suddenly unleashed in a single act of fermentation. Working around that vast store of potential and then kinetic energy can't help but infuse you with some of that energy ... which is good since 12- to 16-hour days are common this time of year."

The longest of these days come at the beginning, when the grapes arrive at the winery. And if approaching storms have forced winemakers to bring a lot of fruit in at once, that arrival can look more like a tidal wave. So, before the fruit hits, winemakers have done everything they can to keep things running smoothly-equipment has been checked and washed, barrels prepped, chemicals and yeasts ordered and on site, and most important, skilled labor is standing by.

What winemakers won't be prepping, however, are vats for grape stomping-that ancient practice survives in professional wineries only as ceremony or entertainment (and not a bad one at that: see sidebar). But while purple feet are one of winemaking's most enduring clichˇs, the practice has its roots in a key technique: breaking the skins unlocks the grapes' flavor and color.

These days, however, crusher-destemmer machines accomplish what grape-stomping did, but much more efficiently (and with no athlete's foot). In one swift motion, the machine breaks the skin of the grape, yanks out the stem it's been clinging to for the previous four months, and sends it hurtling toward fermentation.

It's here that red and white wines part ways. Because red wine gets much of its color and structure from contact with the grape skins, winemakers send the entire product of the crusher into a vat, where the "must" (industry lingo for "grape goo") is left to luxuriate on the skins all through fermentation-only then is it pressed. By contrast, winemakers press white wines before fermentation, and in fact, often as quickly as they can after crush. That immediately separates juice from skins, resulting in a more delicate-and light-colored-wine. So here, at least, beauty is indeed skin deep.

Now the yeasts take the helm, converting the sugars in the grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In red wines, the gas will push the skins to the surface, so to keep the fermentation healthy and to extract the most color and flavor, winemakers will submerge this "cap" of skins at least twice a day. Especially if it's done by hand with a plunger (a practice called "punching down"), it can be a complete, two-week home fitness program.

Between processing avalanches of grapes, punching down vat after vat, and cleaning everything all the time, crush can lose its luster quickly. So a winemaker's most important tool is a healthy mindset. "The more tired you are, the more you'll make mistakes, and emotions can run high," says winemaker Sam Tannahill, whose resume includes Oregon's Archery Summit and A to Z wineries, and most recently, Francis Tannahill in Dundee, Ore. with his wife, Cheryl Francis.

That's why he tries not to lose sight of experiences from the beginning of his career, when he worked in French vineyards and wineries for two years. "The culture of harvest in France is entrenched in celebration," he recalls. "There were hour-and-a-half lunches every day. At the end of harvest, there would be a grape fight in the vineyard. There would be flowers on the tractor delivering the last load. A guy with an accordion would come to play on the last morning. It sounds pastoral and quaint, but it was very real."

And healthy, he believes. So even at the apex of crush, he tries to slow things down with longer dinners at night, and even leave the winery for an afternoon to hunt mushrooms. "You get to take a break and talk about things," he says. "You're bringing in something you've spent a year nurturing, but why bother if you can't enjoy it? You're making wine! It's a joyful process, you're surrounded by friends; it's an excuse to celebrate."

Back in the vineyard, Paul is like a man at the top of a huge waterslide, ready to dive. The flavors, the color of the juice, the taste of the seeds all tell him it's time.

"Some people are cup-half-empty people; I'm more a cup-half-full person," he says, collecting some samples to quantify his decision in the lab. "The half-empty guy says, 'Oh jeez, here we go.' Me, I say, 'Yeah! This is great! Let's go!' It's all possible. It's like you're a Mariners fan at the beginning of the season, and you think maybe this is the year, maybe. It may have been a crappy summer-maybe it's raining-but things could always turn around and this could be a great vintage."


©2006 Matt Giraud. This story originally appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Imbibe Magazine.

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