Crush. It’s That Time of Year

Those involved in the winemaking part of the wine world will be disappearing from social circles these days. Friends will think they have gone missing, loved ones will have only rumpled sheets to prove that they were home at all. Its crush time in California, a jam packed several weeks of harvesting, squeezing, and soaking that surround the harvest of thousands of tons of grapes.

For those whose enjoyment and interest in wine extends to how it tastes with dinner, this burst of activity goes unmarked. It is a remarkable time for those who are interested in how wines get made, and one can learn a lot about wine by participating or at least observing what happens in these frantic times.

With that in mind, Wine X Magazine brings us another in a series of articles by Brendan Eliason, assistant winemaker at David Coffaro Winery. I really enjoy Brendan’s writing because he very clearly explains everything that happens in plain English, without much jargon, leaving you with a great picture of the behind-the-scenes action at the winery. Enjoy.

So you Want to Be a Winemaker?
A continuing series by Brendan Eliason (via Wine X Magazine)

Going against the better advice of my high school English and sex education teachers, this story starts with the climax. For anyone involved in wine, the three months from the end of August until the end of November are both the most exciting and the most frightening of the year. These three months dictate the final say in whether you happily learn that your wines will be served at the White House or whether you become the largest vinegar producer in your neighborhood. These are months of 60- to 80-hour work weeks (and many times more) that on one hand require complete control of the environment around you and on the other hand require you to give in completely to the whims of nature. These are months where all thoughts of family and friends dim in an ever growing purple haze as your sleep deprived mind attempts to reconcile the hundreds or thousands of details that’ll make or break the next year of your life. This is Crush.

More specifically this is my accounting of Crush for David Coffaro Vineyards and Winery. This vineyard/winery is owned and operated by (take a big guess here) David Coffaro and I’m his assistant winemaker (i.e. only employee). This is the inside scoop of what we have to do in order to put a prime bottle of vino on your table. David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery consists of 20 acres of grapes that Dave planted in 1979 and a winery building that he’s been operating since 1994. We make wines that are big and red; zinfandel, petite sirah, carignane, an “Estate Cuvee” (a blend of the previous grapes plus cabernet sauvignon) and a “Neighbors Cuvee” (our only non-estate wine whose blend changes from year to year). Like a sandblaster to Tammy Faye Baker’s face, I hope to strip away the layers of overglamorized marketing rhetoric and highlight the best advice I ever got about becoming a winemaker — “Don’t do it!”

The excitement of crush takes place on two separate but intertwined stages that seem to spin and twist in independent motion. The first of these stages is the vineyard. The 20 acres of vines we grow is minuscule by industry standards (There are certainly vineyards that are smaller but we are definitely of the side of pretty-darn-tiny). The first job we have in the vineyard is to wait for the grapes to turn from a rather pretty translucent pink color into an intense dark purple/black color. This process is called veraison. Once the color changes we’re in the picking ballpark and ready to play the game. The second step is doing a large amount of grape sampling from each block of vines. It’s amazing how grapes will vary from one small block to another, even if they’re only 10-100 feet away. For about a month before the actual harvest, my job is to pick a representative sampling of all the grapes we grow and monitor them for sugar content. In general we’re looking for a level of 24 to 25 percent sugar, which we measure as 24 to 25 degrees Brix.

The Brix reading is only the second stage however. Knowing the sugar level lets you know the technical ripeness of the grapes but not their actual flavors. Somewhere in the early to mid-twenties (sugar level), grapes go through an incredible change of flavors that ultimately add to the complexity of flavors in the finished wine. This change can only be determined by tasting the grapes themselves. So during the final week before harvest Dave and I walk through every block and randomly snack on grapes to make sure they have the flavors we want. If the sugars are perfect but the flavors aren’t there then we simply wait until they develop before picking. Once they do, Whamo!, it’s time to wake up really damn early and pick some grapes!

Harvesting grapes is a demanding and sticky job. The grapes are about 25 percent sugar and as the workers dump their picking tubs into the half-tons bins, grape juice splashes everywhere. It’s well worth the effort, however, because I get to drive a really cool tractor. Once the half-ton bins are full they are driven to the winery and weighed. From there they’re taken, by forklift, into the winery and the grapes are put through a machine called a crusher/destemmer. Now, agricultural machine manufacturers are not very creative when it comes to naming their equipment. When I say we dump the grapes into a crusher/destemmer you can be well assured that the machine will probably crush (lightly) the grapes and destem then, doing very little if anything else. We then pump the destemmed/crushed grapes (a.k.a. “must”) into a one-ton bin (again, no big guess on how much it holds). The must is then inoculated with yeast and the transformation into wine begins. [As a side note I should mention that this is specifically the process for making red wine. White wine is processed in a similar but distinctly different manner. I’ll get into the whites later.]

The addition of yeast is technically a winemaking choice and not a requirement. Native yeasts, which accumulated on the grape skins in the vineyard, will naturally transform the grapes into wine. But most winemakers don’t trust these native yeast strains for the same reason you don’t let your crazy cousin Leroy baby-sit your kids — you just don’t know what might happen and, even though the results might be fine, it’s just not worth taking the chance. Yeast contribute four things to the winemaking process: heat, alcohol carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfites. The heat and alcohol produced make it possible to adequately extract the flavors and characteristics from the grape skins (almost all of the character and all of the color of red wine comes from the skins being broken down). Alcohol acts as a solvent that extracts organic compounds in the grape skins and the heat aids in and speeds up the chemical reaction involved in fermentation.

The CO2 has a separate and interesting effect on the fermenting grape skins. As the CO2 is released by the yeast cells it catches in the grape skins and causes them to float to the surface of the fermentation bins. This forms a solid layer of covering the top of the bins like ice on a lake. This layer is called the “cap” and can get so thick in larger tanks that a full-grown person can walk across it without falling through. The cap, however, presents a small problem. Since most of red wine’s character comes from the skins, having them separate from the juice during fermentation can be bad. This small problem is solved by either “punching down” or “pumping over” your bins or tanks. Punching down involves taking a stick-like device (a 2×4, garden hoe, etc.) and breaking up the cap while at the same time mixing it with the juice. Pumping over involves hooking up a pump to the bottom of the tank and pumping the juice over the top of the cap. These actions insure that the grape skins have enough opportunity to breakdown into the wine.

We monitor the fermenting bins at Coffaro constantly and record the residual sugar levels and temperatures at least once a day. When our measurements show that there’s one percent sugar or less left in the wine we prepare the press. We use what’s called a bladder Press (For $200, what item is inside this press?). The bladder press is a long cylinder made up of a perforated screen. We pump the fermented juice and skins into the press and rotate it while inflating the internal bladder. This is such an efficient form of pressing that when we remove the grape skins — the squeeze-dried skins is now called pomace — they are dry, warm and flaky. They serve no real further purpose and are dumped back into the vineyard as fertilizer.

The pressed wine is pumped from the press into a selection of barrels that we’ve pre-chosen dependent on the wine varietal and individual character it exhibits. At Coffaro we use six to 10 different cooperages, with barrels ranging from American, French and Hungarian oak. However, this doesn’t mean we make “oaky” wine. Barrels serve two general purposes; the first is storage and aging; the second is imparting flavor. Barrels only contribute oak flavors to wine for the first two-to-three years of their life, then, after that, are considered “neutral.” As storage containers they can be used for decades with the proper care. So, although all of our wines are barrel aged, we only use 20-25 percent new oak to contribute delicate oak flavors. (This percentage varies from winery to winery. Some use as much as 100 percent new oak, some don’t use any depending on the varietals grown and the style of wine preferred by the winemaker.

Once the wine is in the barrel we inoculate it with a malo-lactic starter. All red wines and most whites go through a process called malo-lactic fermentation (ML). ML is a bacterial process that changes the malic acid that’s naturally found in wine (it’s the same acid that makes green apples taste tart) and changes it into lactic acid (the same acid found in milk). This process makes reds more chemically stable, and for white wines it adds flavor (i.e. that “buttery” flavor in most chardonnays). Now that this is done both the wine and the winemakers get a chance to take a short break and recuperate before it’s time to start the whole process over again.

Check out Brendan’s “Harvest Diary — A week in the life of Crush at David Coffaro Winery” at