As the hot, humid days of summer appear in our rear view mirror, we Midwesterners smile in anticipation of an Indian summer with its cooler, blue-sky days and gentle nighttime breezes that make us want to say “aahhh." It is one of my favorite times of year for many reasons, but at the top of the list is harvest. Having been in the agricultural industry most of my adult life, fall brings fond memories of all the wonderful past harvests of everything from corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar cane to, of course, grapes.
Yes, there is something quite stimulating about being in a vineyard or hanging around a winery during harvest. Finally, the culmination of a full year’s worth of work is about to yield its bounty in the form of plump, ripe grapes ready for picking. The vineyard crews spring into action at the first sign that the grapes are ready for harvesting, and work diligently to fill their crates over and over again until the last of the fruit is cut from the vines, ready to be turned into wine.
I have been fortunate to visit many different vineyards around the country during harvest and while the general process is the essentially the same, specific techniques vary from place to place. These variations are typically measured by the different machinery and mechanical processes used. Some of the smaller boutique wineries continue to conduct much of the process by hand; others mix hand and machinery; while a smaller percentage of wineries are fully automated.
There are many stages involved in converting harvested grapes into wine. These stages vary depending upon whether the grapes are white or red, and on the wine maker’s personal style and preferences, but generally, the stages appear like this:
• The grapes are crushed.
• The crushed grapes (known as “must”) are de-stemmed.
• Primary fermentation of the juice begins.
• Secondary fermentation occurs.
• Finally, the fermented juice (wine) is moved to barrels (for reds and some whites) or tanks (most whites) for aging.
While automation certainly has its value, I can attest that by far the most fun crush method is a good old-fashioned grape stomp just like the one you may remember from the old “I Love Lucy” episode with Lucy and Ethel’s Italian grape stomping adventure ending in madcap comedy. What fun it is, stomping around in a bucket of grapes, feeling them squeeze beneath your feet as you convert them to juice!
Although the ultimate “destination” remains producing a great wine, it is the “journey” of harvest that is the most meaningful: the weather, the people, the fruits of labor, and the sharing of food, drink, and stories happening at every winery at harvest time. It is a truly a celebration of the year’s bounty.
If you are adventuresome, there is even a way for you to be directly involved in harvest. Many smaller wineries will welcome your participation and assistance in the grape picking process, so just pick up the telephone and contact them for more information.
There is really no better fun than to enjoy a wine you had a part in producing, so get out and make this fall a special one by visiting a local winery and enjoy the truly great adventures it has to offer – I know you will not be disappointed!