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AgFocus: Grape harvest

Pressing matters for area wineries
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal features editor
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You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a winemaker taking a break this time of year. It’s harvest time, when the grapes wineries have worked so hard to bring to sugary perfection are ripe on the vine and ready to be turned into the delicious wine these foothills are becoming known for.

“It has been a really great growing season so far,” said Ryan Taylor, head winemaker at Mt. Vernon Winery. “We haven’t had too much interfere, actually, which is really different from last year. Last year we had a lot of rain.”

Taylor said he’ll probably begin harvesting around the first week of September, starting with syrah or zinfandel, depending on the weather.

“It’s getting there,” he said. “The flavors aren’t quite there in the grapes yet.”

That’s a perfect example of how grape varietals vary from farm to farm – at Pescatore Vineyard and Winery in Newcastle, the sugar level was perfect in owner Dave Wegner’s sauvignon blanc grapes.

To see photos from the Pescatore sauvignon blanc harvest, click here.

He gathered his family – sons Tim and Steve and grandsons Logan and Dylan, 3 and 4, along with his wife, Pat, daughters-in-law and two granddaughters – for a day of picking, pressing and preparing the juice to ferment.

“Because these are whites, after we crush them we’ll also press them today,” Wegner said, firing up his stemmer/crusher to fill with grapes. “If they were reds, they’d ferment in the bin for about 10-14 days, depending on the style of wine or type of grape. But the whites you don’t leave on the skins – there’s no coloring up to do.”

Wegner makes 800 cases of wine a year – sauvignon blanc, barbera, zinfandel, syrah and petit syrah are estate-bottled wines, and he buys grapes each year to make malbec, as well.

After the sauvignon blanc grapes went through the stemmer/crusher, they were poured from half-ton bins into a manual press, which was clamped down to press the juice from the stems and pulp. Next, Wegner dumped the juice into a 90-gallon stainless-steel tank, where he added metabisulfite to kill any natural yeasts or molds. The next morning, he inoculated the juice with a yeast strain that will allow the juice to ferment. He’ll pump the wine out in December to get rid of any leaves that may have snuck in, and then it will sit until it’s ready to bottle in February or March next year.

While Pescatore reds are aged in French and American oak barrels (for much longer than whites), Wegner said the stainless steel is what gives whites their crisp flavor.

“If you put it in oak, you’re going to get a little softer finish,” he said. “You’re going to start getting oak nuances. Chardonnay can be done that way, in oak, but for sauvignon blanc we like it crisper, and especially here in the foothills, where it’s hotter, people like a chilled wine that’s fresh and crisp on the end.”

 

Timing is everything

Winemaking is a balance of science and intuition. Taylor said he uses a refractometer to measure the sugar levels in the grapes, but also can tell just by looking at the fruit how well it’s doing.

“I go out and actually taste the grape, as well,” he added. “If it has the look and the taste, I’ll check some numbers on it.”

A refractometer is a handheld tool upon which grape juice is poured. The tool is able to read the brix, or sugar content.

“It’s a really neat instrument, this refractometer” said Dr. Frank Alfieri, a biologist and Wegner family friend who helps out during grape harvest. “It’s all calibrated for temperature and everything. You look through the dial and read the sugar content.”

Last weekend, Pescatore’s zinfandel measured around 21 brix, not quite up to the ideal 25 Wegner wants it at before it’s picked. The solution? Wait and let Mother Nature do her thing. Keeping the grapes well-watered helps, too, Wegner added.

At Naggiar Vineyards & Winery, near the Placer-Nevada county line, owner Mike Naggiar said his fruit is looking good and yields should be normal this year. He plans to start picking after Labor Day, starting with viognier and heading into syrah, sangiovese, Grenache, petit syrah, tempranillo and then the “stragglers” that come late, like cabernet sauvignon. They’ll be picking until the beginning of November, Naggiar added. His crews pick at nighttime to beat the heat and avoid the yellow jackets that just love pickers covered with sugary grape juice.

Naggiar has an excellent resource in winemaker Derek Irwin, who also makes wine for Vina Castellano and Dono dal Cielo. Irwin’s 20 years of experience have ingrained in him a keen intuition for knowing when the time is right to pick.

“He tastes before we pick,” Naggiar said. “He’ll go down the row and taste the grapes and he’ll make the picking decision. It’s one of the most important decisions for a winemaker to make, because the sugars could be up there, but the taste and the aromas might not be there. … Winemakers develop a palate that most of us don’t have, and they look for things in the grape as they taste.”

 

What’s next?

Once harvest is over, it’s time to let the wine set, in barrels or steel, while the magic of fermentation turns it into vino – another aspect where timing is vital.

At Mt. Vernon, the turnaround for whites might be eight or 12 months depending on taste, Taylor said. The general rule for red wines is two years.

That means that while the wine harvested this season is fermenting, wineries will be bottling previous years’ harvests. Naggiar said he expects to bottle his 2010 wines in the spring.

And of course, wineries will be keeping an eye on the prize – in this case the vines – to make sure next year’s harvest is just as good as this year’s.

Pescatore opened in 1997, Wegner said, and had its first harvest in 2000. The worst year so far was 2009, he said, because it got extremely hot right around harvest, halting sugar production in the grapes. The following year was interesting, he said, because it was nice and cool and all the winemakers were excited about their harvest, but then it got so cool around harvest time that the grapes stopped producing sugar. Luckily, there were about five days of 100-degree weather that solved the problem and it ended up being a nice year. And 2011, he smiled, was just about perfect.

Wegner looks forward to next year, and seeing what Mother Nature has in store for the grapes that mean so much to so many in this area.

 “The grapes right now are simply gaining sugar, getting maturity, trying to keep the deer out so they can ripen without getting eaten,” he said. “If the weather stays cool like it is, it’s going to be fantastic.”

Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at krissik@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter, @AuburnJournalAE.

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Wine time

Learn more about the area’s wines through the Placer County Vintners Association, www.placerwine.com.