Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Harvesting the Grapes at Night -The Benefits

Harvest Moon
Gathering the grapes under a harvest moon is a romantic image, but it also has its roots in an age-old tradition.  Europe, Chile, and Argentina all harvest at night.  In the U.S., California, our largest grape producing state, harvests about two-thirds of its grape crop after the sun goes down.

Harvesting grapes at night allows the picking to occur when the temperatures are cooler.  This is a benefit for workers, but it is also when the sugar levels in the grapes are more stable, the quality and acid levels are better, and there is less chance of spoilage. Plus, more tonnage can be picked and processed at night.

Nighttime harvesting is also more energy efficient.  Picking grapes when they have cooled in the darkness cuts down on the time and energy needed to pre-cool them before they can be pressed or fermented.

When grapes arrive at the winery in the early morning hours, they can immediately be crushed, pressed, and the first fermentation started. When harvesting during the heat of the day, grape temperatures can get up to 110 degrees.  To crush and ferment they should be in the 55-degree range, which means they must be chilled.  Cooler grapes also means the winemaker has better control of the first fermentation process.

When harvesting begins at dawn, it is usually stopped by noon or 1 P.M.  The temperatures in the vineyards are just too hot for the workers, and the grapes.  When harvesting at night, workers can pick any where from 8 to 12 hours.

And the benefits for the workers are great.  Nighttime temperatures are much easier to work in than the hot 80 to 100 degree days during August and September. Workers don't have to worry about bee stings and surprise snake encounters among the nighttime vines. The only disadvantage to nighttime harvesting could be hilly or rough terrain, which is more difficult to navigate at night.

Night harvesting began in the U.S. in the early 1970’s.  California and New York understood the benefits of harvesting at night and blazed the trail.  Now, night harvesting is a common practice throughout the world.  While mechanical harvesting is common at night, it takes a bit more prep work when the grapes are handpicked. 

Workers may harvest under rented diesel-powered lights that road crews use for nighttime work.  Smaller vineyards may simply give each worker a headlamp.  Regardless of the lighting method used, the grapes and the workers are all fresher in the end.

While I’ve done my share of daytime grape harvesting, I have yet to take part in a nighttime harvest.  Something I'll add to my bucket list ; )

~ Joy

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Harvesting the Grapes

With September comes harvest time in the vineyard.  From now through October, most of the grapes will be picked and crushed, juice will be put into tanks and barrels, and wine making will begin.

The actual timing of the harvest varies, year to year, depending on what types of grapes are being picked and when they have reached their peak ripeness. There are several factors that come into play when deciding when to pick; including the varietal, the acid, tannin and sugar levels of the grapes, what style of wine the winemaker will be making, and the weather.

Even the actual method of harvesting can cause serious discussions in wine circles.  Most vineyards that mass produce wine prefer to use machines to harvest the grapes, while smaller vineyards, and those with a more traditional approach, prefer handpicking.

Mechanical harvesting caught on in the U.S. during the 1960’s. This involves a machine that goes along the rows, beating, shaking, or stripping the vines.  The grapes fall onto a conveyor belt that deposits them into a waiting bin.

The disadvantages of using machines instead of people include the fact that the machine cannot distinguish ripe grapes from rotted clusters, so both get taken to the transport container.  Other vine debris is also dumped into the bin, including bugs and leaves.  In the end, the grapes must still be hand sorted to eliminate those that are rotted or unripe.  Grape skins, which are fragile, may also be broken or damaged when machine picked.  This can cause oxidization or an unwanted amount of color the juice.  Also, there are many areas where mechanical pickers cannot be used because of the terrain.

The benefits of using machines to do the harvest mainly have to do with cost and quantity.  A machine can run 24 hours a day, harvesting anywhere from 75 to over 200 tons of grapes.

Hand harvesting also has its advantages and disadvantages.  Again, cost and quantity can be figured into the disadvantage column.  But the advantages include gentler handling of the fruit and a keen eye as to what is ripe and ready for picking. Grapes are put into lugs or containers when picked and set at the end of rows to be gathered and placed on trailers or truck beds for their journey to the winery or harvest shed. And hand picking increases the number of people employed during the harvest.

Once the grapes have been sorted, they may or may not be destemmed.  Depending on the type of grape and the type of wine to be made, grapes may go directly into a wine press.

While crushing brings about images of an “I Love Lucy’ episode, feet are seldom used.  Instead, the grapes are placed into a wine press and gently crushed with controlled pressure.  This crushing breaks open the grapes, allowing the juices to flow. The grape juice then runs into a waiting tank.

Once crushing has been completed, it is time to start the primary fermentation and another season of winemaking begins.

Harvest can last from a few days, to a couple of months, depending on the grapes and the size of the vineyard.  Once the grapes are all in, a party is usually held to celebrate the conclusion of the growing season, and to thank those who took part in this exhilarating tradition of bringing in the grape harvest.

Now pour a glass and enjoy the fruits of the wine harvest!

~ Joy

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Winding Down with a Wine Movie

Wine drinkers are usually romantics at heart. We love the history, the legacy, the terroir of the grapes.  We’re swept away by an Italian wine harvest, a Spanish wine cellar, even a sunset over a vineyard.  So it makes sense that most wine movies are romantic comedies.  Most, but not all; here are a few wine movies to consider for your Autumn viewing.

A Walk in the Clouds (1995)
A Walk in the Clouds is actually a remake of a 1942 Italian film, Four Steps in the Clouds.  It tells the story of a WW II soldier who has returned home to California after the war, determined to make a go of his hasty wartime marriage.  But fate intervenes and he meets a pregnant young woman on a train in need of assistance.  Posing as her husband so that her traditional Mexican family will not know the truth, he decides to stay at her family’s vineyard and help with the harvest.  A growing attraction develops between the couple, but there is still a wife and angry father to be dealt with, along with a raging fire.  Maybe a bit melodramatic, but nothing a brooding glass of Zinfandel won’t set right.

French Kiss (1995)
In French Kiss, wine is more of an after-thought than a star player.  The plot centers around the girl planning her wedding, when her guy goes to France and falls in love with someone else. Girl goes to France to win him back, but accidentally joins up with a petty crook who has stolen a vine cutting.  There's a lot of racing around France where confusion reigns supreme.  But all’s well that ends well - in a vineyard. Pour a lighthearted French Beaujolais Nouveau and enjoy this American romantic comedy.

Sideways (2004)
After almost ten years without a wine movie, Sideways came barreling in to theatres with very little romance, but a whole lot of wine character(s). The movie was actually adapted from a book by the same name.  Billed as a comedy-drama, the movie follows two friends as they take a weeklong road trip to the Santa Ynez Valley wineries to celebrate one’s last few days of  ‘freedom’ before his wedding. Of course, trouble ensues in the form of two wine savvy local women, and one friend’s perpetual tendency to be depressing.  The ending, while somewhat predicable, is not totally what you expect and it leaves you waiting for the sequel – Vertical to be made.

Sideways is the movie that pushed Merlot to the back of the shelf after regaling the attributes of Pinot Noir.  (Sales of Pinot went up 16% after the movie’s release.) So depending upon your alliance, pour a glass of California Pinot Noir to sip and savor, or allow yourself to be seduced by an oaky Merlot – Miles be damned!

A Good Year (2006)
A Good Year is a blend of nostalgia and fond memories, with a focus on the future.  Based on a novel by Peter Mayle, this British romantic comedy is set at a vineyard estate in Provence. When a British investment trader inherits his uncle’s estate, his life becomes even more complicated.  He also inherits a possessive vineyard manager/winemaker, an unpredictable café owner, and a long-lost cousin.  Suffice it to say the vineyard manager’s dedication, so far as to sing to his grapes, and all of that gorgeous French countryside had me at "Bon Jour."  Pour a robust French Syrah, add some cheese and olives with a hearty French bread and aimer la vie.

Bottle Shock (2008)
The movie, Bottle Shock, is based on the 1976 wine competition called the Judgment of Paris.  For the first time ever, a California wine beat out a French wine in a blind wine tasting.  The movie depicts how California wines were regarded before Napa Valley was famous, and how, with the right amount of devotion and dedication, you can craft a wine that literally speaks from the glass.  Billed as an American comedy-drama, this is a favorite of those who root for the underdog!  Pour a glass of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (the winner in the 1976 competition,) sit back and say “Cheers” to the home team….again.

With Autumn's arrival comes cool nights, perfect for stoking up the fire, pouring your wine of choice, popping in a wine movie, and getting lost in an entertaining tale about wine.

~ Joy

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Are Wine Clubs Worth It?

If you enjoy wine, you’ve probably considered joining a wine club at some time.  There are a multitude of wine clubs out there, from those offered by a local winery, to clubs from select wine regions, retailers, internet wine clubs, even media outlets.

And wine club themes are plentiful too – red wines, white wines, sweet wines, dry wines, gold medal wines, organic wines. Some themes even change with each shipment.

Wine clubs allow you the convenience of receiving select wines directly at your door. Wine clubs have helped introduce consumers to varieties, locations and producers they might not normally have tried or had access to.  And that has helped in expanding the customer’s range of knowledge about wine, wine regions, and the industry as a whole.

The concept of the wine club supposedly came about in 1972 when Paul Kalemkiarain, Sr., started choosing  ‘monthly wine selections’ to offer to the customers of a liquor store he managed in California.  Customers requested that the wines be delivered to their homes and Kalemkiarain began sending them by mail – thus began a monthly wine club.

Today wine clubs are as different as the wines themselves.  The varieties of wine offered, the number of bottles sent, the frequency of the club; monthly, bimonthly or quarterly, and the frequency of shipping are all variables you should consider when selecting a wine club.  Newsletters, wine tasting notes, food pairing tips, recipes, even personal notes from the winemaker may be added perks with a wine club membership. But in the end, cost may be the true deciding factor. 

Prices charged for wine clubs are what the market will bear.  Clubs can start at $30 + shipping for two bottles of wine and go up to around $200 + shipping for two bottles. Wine may be shipped by ground (the lowest rate) or overnight by private carriers, but never by the U.S. Postal Service.  Some wine clubs will offer shipping at a flat rate, regardless of what you order.

• Specific wine clubs offers exactly what you want.

• Wine clubs offer wines that may not be available through regular store channels, especially true for small wineries.

• If you reside in a rural or limited wine area, wine clubs may give you access to wines that are difficult to obtain in your area.

• Wine clubs are a good way to experience different wines from all over the world.

• Limited wines may only be released to wine club members.

• Wine clubs strengthen relationships with the customer and the winery or producer.

• Wine club prices may be highly inflated.  What will the club cost you over a year? (Figure in the price of the bottles, taxes, and shipping.) Do the math before you sign.

• Wine clubs select the wines to be sent.  You could end up receiving wines that you don’t necessarily like.

• State-to-state wine shipping laws. Rules vary from state to state, sometimes county to county, regarding wine shipments, including how many bottles/cases you can receive and if taxes are charged. Learn more at
• Shipping prices can be prohibitive.  Since wine cannot be sent by regular mail, private shippers must be used.  Keep in mind that UPS and Fed Ex also include extra charges for adult signatures.

• Condition the wine arrives in.  Once the wine leaves the wine club premises it is at the mercy of the shipper.  This means it can set on a dock in the sun or inclement weather.  Check with the club and see if they will hold shipments for you if your area is difficult to ship to weather-wise.
• Wine clubs are not personal.  You can’t get a recommendation or up-close, personal service like you would in a wine shop or store.

• Other limitations and requirements - Find out if there’s a penalty for canceling your membership. What happens if you don’t purchase the agreed upon amount of wine in the amount of time specified?

Bottom Line:
When you join a wine club make sure its one with wines you will continue to enjoy over the length of the membership period.  Check out how often wines are shipped, when your card will be charged, and how you can track your shipment.  Can you request fewer shipments, or have them held and shipped at more appropriate times?  Also read the fine print before signing and find out what’s required to join and cancel a club membership.

If it’s a club that sounds too good to be true – check it out. Make sure the wine club is legitimate.  Has it had complaints registered against it?  Are the wines delivered what they’re promised to be?  Are there unseen costs added in?  Is the shipping really free?

Like anything else, a wine club is only as good as the value you feel you are getting. Make sure it’s a good fit for your tastes and objectives.


~ Joy