Not one who enjoys even the most rudimentary yard-maintenance task, I had to laugh at myself as on a recent, scorching afternoon, I was crouched beside a vine replete with ripe petit sirah grapes, holding a curved, serrated knife with a bucket hanging from a harness around my neck.
The funny part? This wasn’t an honor farm assignment. I was sweating in a dusty Lodi vineyard voluntarily, pickin’ and grinnin’ – to borrow a phrase from Buck Owens and Roy Clark — learning about the winemaking process first-hand from its starting point, the vineyard.
As part of a six-man crew that had permission from the vineyard’s owners to pick away, in about an hour, we harvested approximately 1,300 pounds of petit sirah and malbec grapes, took them to a private facility where they were crushed and de-stemmed. Then, the juice, skins, seeds and stems – the must — was poured into large plastic barrels to ferment. Commercial wineries go through the same process, just on a much larger scale.
We weren’t finished. Already in plastic barrels were cabernet sauvignon grapes that had been picked and crushed the week before. The fermentation process had run its course, so these crushed grapes were ready to be put through a basket press to extract the juice from the must.
The basket press has a bladder inside that slowly inflates with water, squeezing the juice through the sides of the meshed basket. The free-run and pressed juice falls out of a spout and is collected in barrels to begin the next step of the process — malolactic fermentation. In this process, natural bacteria from existing wine or freeze-dried bacteria is added to the juice to turn the harsh malic acid into lactic acid. This second-step fermentation helps stabilize and flavor the wine. Oak staves or chips will be added to to provide tannin and flavor. Not a bad way to spend the day, learning more about the winemaking process up close and personal.