The Big Mother Lode Crush By Sarah Lunsford The coming of fall is almost on us with the changing of leaves

and hint of coolness in the air that signals the change of the season. These changes also signal another change, the one in the grapes around the Mother Lode telling winemakers that it is time to harvest the fruit and begin the crushing of the grapes. This region isn’t the only place around the world that finds itself in the middle of crush during the autumn, wine and wine making are steeped in the world culture in such a way that they cannot be unthreaded one from the other. In Medieval Europe all the way up through the Renaissance and beyond, wine and beer were what people drank in order to avoid water which was typically contaminated because of the sanitary conditions of the time. Ancient Italy and Spain are ripe with stories about winemaking complete with the Romans worshipping a god of wine in the form of Bacchius a god who was diminutive in appearance and whose behavior and personify encompassed all the hallmarks of someone who indulges a little too frequently in the fruit of the vine. With all the wine through the ages, there has always been the process by which that wine gets to the table whether those tables sat in the wine bars of Pompeii where winemakers from that time grew their vineyards in their backyards or our tables of today. That process starts with the crush. “They’re crushed when they’re ripe and ready, it’s up to the grape,” said Bonnie Miller, Sierra Lodestar Wine Columnist. In the Foothills those grapes ripen later than those in the valley because it’s cooler in the area at the higher elevations. Even in the Foothills the wine region varies enough that the vines are ready for crush at different times. When zinfandel vines are ready for crush in the western part of Amador’s Shenandoah Valley they are typically not ready in Fiddletown until about three or four weeks later because of the micro-climates in the area, according to Joe Shebl winemaker for Borjon Winery, Driven Winery, D’Vancey Winery and Fiddletown Cellars. The late summer early fall is the time in the life of a vine when they are ready for harvest. After a vineyard is planted, it typically takes three to four years before it is mature enough for a harvest and even then the grapes are not the best quality for wine, although they can be used and are typically blended with wines from other vines. Months before harvest, the vines are carefully taken care of having been pruned of dead weight typically in the beginning of the year, which allows for the new growth in the spring and summer. “The vineyards get really pretty (at this time of year),” Miller said. The grape clusters show up underneath the leaves around July, in this way they don’t get sunburned. In this position they are exposed to the heat which allows the sugars to increase but are hidden from the suns rays which could burn them.

Vineyard managers monitor the vines carefully throughout their growing process making sure they get what they need to grow well and sometimes holding back on them to ensure a better grape content. Deficit irrigation occurs when a vineyard manager actually reduces the amount of water the crop needs to put the plants in a slightly stressful situation which will increase the sugar levels but not stress them out to the point that it has lasting damage to the plants. This actually produces a better wine. There are a few factors that winemakers look at when determining whether grapes are ready for harvest and crushing. Grapes need to have a certain sugar level, acid or ph level and a flavor profile that is acceptable to the winemaker. All of these elements need to be in harmony before a grape cluster is ready to be harvested. “It’s a combination of those that tell the wine grower that it is the optimum time to pick,” said Tom Bender, wine appreciation instructor at Columbia College “Tasting the grape, the juice, tasting the seed,” said Winemaker Brett Keller of Cherokee Flat Vineyard about the experience of going out in the vineyard to determine the readiness of the grapes for harvest. In the world of the winemaker the sugar content is referred to as brix, a French term for sugar. Winemakers walk through the vineyard and randomly test grapes from different clusters either by using a refractometer which measures the sugar content or taste the grapes themselves to determine whether or not the grapes have enough brix to harvest. “Very rarely do I take any type of instrument out,” Sheble said. “It’s all based on flavor, bottom line is how does it taste?” The brix level is important because in a round about way it tells the winemaker how mature the grape is. Also, the sugar level is important because it ultimately determines the alcohol content of the wine. It’s especially important to get the brix level correct because while the acidity level can be adjusted during the winemaking process, the sugar level is difficult to change and in some regions of the world may or may not be allowed. “Each grape you want to harvest at various brix,” Miller said. The seeds are another indicator that the fruit is ready to be picked this tells the winemaker about the tannin development in the grape, green seeds are generally avoided with brown seeds being the best. Acids are important for the survival of the grape. They are also a part of the flavor of the grape giving it that crispness that in a wine can balance out the sugars. “If it didn’t have decent acidity, it (the wine) would be flabby and lack structure,” Bender said. In general the grapes that will produce whites are harvested first with the red coming later in the season according to Eric Costa, Sutter Ridge Winemaker. After it is determined the grapes are ready to harvest, the inevitable crush comes along with the crush celebrations. The modern mind conjures up images of barefooted people stomping grape clusters in wine barrels in order to get the juice. If anyone has actually participated in the stomping of the grapes, they will no doubt remember how many grapes need to be crushed for such a small amount of juice that will be used to make wine.

Crushing the grapes by foot is still a method used by small wineries, but most wineries depending on their size use a mechanical crusher that crushes the grapes and release the juice. The sheer amount of grapes that need to be crushed to produce wine can be mind boggling. There literally needs to be ton of grapes to produce about 65 cases of wine, or another way of looking at it is a ton of grapes roughly translates into 2 ½ barrels of wine with a barrel of wine ending up as about 24 cases. There are 12 bottles of wine in a case. How many grapes that are grown in a given season is determined by not only what the vineyard manager does to ensure the crop but also by climactic conditions. “It takes about 40 to 50 vines to make a barrel of wine,” Miller said. All wine needs to go through a fermentation process after it is crushed, and sometimes pressed which extracts more juice from the grapes. “It’s wine within a week or two of crush,” Bender said. The temperature level during fermentation can affect not only the taste of the wine but also the speed of the fermentation process. Red wines are fermented at a higher temperature than whites. Reds are fermented in their skins, this not only gives the reds their color but also affects the taste of the wine. “The most important influence on taste is how long the red wine remains on the skin prior to pressing,” Costa said. “This controls the amount of tannin in the finished wine and whether a heavy dark colored wine or a lighter wine is being produced.” The wine sits after fermentation when it’s technically wine, which allows it to age and clarify before blending. What the wine is aged in matters, with oaks barrels, either young or old, adding to the wine, while those aged in steel containers do not pick up anything from them. “It’s more of a sensation than a flavor,” Sheble said. Aging in oak barrels allows the wine to breath more because the oak is porous, but it is costly with new French oak barrels averaging about $800 a barrel and new American oak barrels averaging about $450 a barrel. “I use new oak to increase the layers of complexity to my wine,” Sheble said. When the wine is ready, the winemaker chooses to blend the wine to either enhance the flavor or correct flavor issues as well fining the wine to remove tannins, along with removing small particles form the wine that could cause cloudiness. Most winemakers use gelatin to find the wine, which forms sediment with the micro particles and after removal leaves no residual taste in the wine. “In some cases a basic consistency can be achieved by blending, but then again, mother nature has a lot to say about the final wine produced,” Costa said. At the end of the day the wine and how its tastes all comes down to the grape before it goes through crush and ends up at the end of the winemaking process out into a bottle. “Does it taste fantastic out in the vineyard?” Sheble said and that is the real question whose answer determines a good, or great, wine.

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