The Grape Vine: From Vine to Vat

By Paul Kovacich

Harvest time is that time of year when vineyard managers and winemakers are losing their minds trying to accomplish everything that makes a successful season. The excitement of seeing the year’s haul from the vine brings joy followed by a sense of dread when you realize just how much work there is ahead of you. Here’s what happens once the grapes are ready to come off the vine.

There are automated grape harvesters designed to straddle the vine trellis and shake the grapes from their stems. While this is a fast and economical process, many in the fine wine regions prefer to harvest grapes by hand. Typically, workers go through the vineyard with cutting shears or special knives and drop each grape cluster into harvest bins or lugs. This is a time-sensitive job and is usually done in early morning. The idea is to get the grapes inside the winery before they have a chance to rot or start fermenting on their own.

Regardless of how they’re harvested, once inside, the grape clusters are sent through a machine called a crusher destemmer. This machine is made up of two metal rollers atop a long cylindrical chute with holes along the sides. First, the rollers burst open the grape, releasing its wonderful juice. Next, mechanical “fingers” (or augers) force the grapes out of the hole leaving the stems to be pushed to the end of the chute. The crushed grapes are collected at one end while the stems are tossed out the other. If the grapes are to be made into a red wine, they will go directly into fermentation or maceration. The skins, pits and seeds are left in the juice to give the wine color and flavor. If the grapes are for a white or rose, the grapes are off to the press where the juice is quickly separated from the fruit pulp.

The press is the most iconic of the winemaker’s tools. The traditional basket press is easily recognized by wooden slats and a crank set on top that applies constant pressure to the grapes, squeezing juice out between the open slats of the press. This process can be delicate. If the press applies too much pressure, the grapes can release vegetal flavors that we don’t want in our final product.

Newer state of the art presses can use a bladder that inflates inside the basket allowing precise control over the pressure.

What comes out from the press is now prepped and ready for fermentation and perhaps some lab testing. Once the grapes are processed, all of our harvest tools are cleaned and stored until the next harvest.

Wine is known for being slow. From the long aging times to the ceremonious way we enjoy it, wine seems to tell us to slow down, be patient, and enjoy life. But from here, standing on the crush pad during the middle of harvest, all the machines are screaming at me to get back to work.

Paul Kovacich is the owner and winemaker at Falderal Winery (falderalwinery.com), 131 Third Avenue West in Hendersonville, and has been making wine for seven years. The winery currently produces between 150–200 cases per year, with new varietals rotating every couple months. The retail shop offers home winemaking classes and the supplies you need to get started. Paul can be reached at paul@falderalwinery.com or 828.693.7676.

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