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Crush means grape expectations

Local winemakers in midst of early harvest
By: Loryll Nicolaisen, Journal staff writer
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Local winemakers aren’t going anywhere this fall. “Fall’s, unfortunately, not vacation time in the wine business,” Paul Burns of Ophir Wines said with a laugh. With fall right around the corner, it’s time for grapes to come off the vine, and winemakers throughout the foothills have already kicked off their 2008 crush cycle. “It is pretty much a 12-month-a-year process, but fall’s definitely the most hectic, when you’re working the 12-, 14-hour days,” Burns said. “But it’s also the most fun because you’re harvesting all these grapes, you’re crushing the grapes, the winery smells good.” Crush came a little early this year, said Teena Wilkins, managing partner at Auburn’s Viña Castellano. “We started probably two, three weeks early and then we had a little bit of a slowdown,” she said. “We’re going to finish early this year, for sure.” Viña Castellano’s Syrah is off the vine, as are some of the Tempranillo grapes, Wilkins said. “This will probably be our busiest week,” she said. “The majority of the grapes will probably come off in the next week or so.” An early spring meant plants came out of their winter dormancy a little early, Wilkins said. Viña Castellano’s first crush was similarly early, Wilkins said, but most harvests have occurred around the second week of September, instead of the end of August, as is the case with this year’s crush. Wilkins said this time of year is exciting because of the potential and the expectations surrounding crush. “Every year you’re so hopeful that this year’s going to be better,” she said. “It’s just the thought of something new, something exciting. It’s my favorite time of year but it’s also my least favorite time of year.” In other words, Wilkins looks forward to crush all year, but it comes with stress, long hours and anxiety. But it’s all worth it. “There’s all sorts of opportunities out there, and it gives us something to look forward to,” she said. Vicky Morris, of Secret Ravine Vineyards and Winery in Loomis, said crush is about two weeks ahead of what could be considered normal. “We only have a few more varietals to pick, so we should be done by the end of September,” she said. Morris said everyone will rest a little easier once all the grapes are off the plant. “Rain would not be good,” she said. “We wouldn’t want rain until all the grapes have been picked and crushed.” Burns, from Ophir Wines, shared a similar sentiment. “It’s always a real relief and satisfaction to get the grapes off the wine and into the winery,” he said. “In the winery you pretty much have complete control, where in the vineyard you don’t. You’re subjected to all the forces of nature.” Burns says the only grapes Ophir Wines has yet to harvest are Mourvedre. They’re not normally harvested until October, but Burns said they could come in around the end of September. Burns said an early bloom typically results in an early harvest, and that the sooner-than-usual crush is not really cause for concern. “If you have a bloom earlier, you have harvest earlier,” he said. “This would be the earliest we’ve had. It varies from year to year. As long as the quality of grapes is good, it’s not a problem.” The early spring and a mild summer treated the grapes well, Burns said. “When it gets really hot, that kind of slows the process down,” he said. “The fruit was able to ripen as nicely as possible. There was nothing that stopped the process.” One factor that doesn’t appear to have had a negative effect on the grapes was the smoke from summer wildfires, Burns noted. Burns said Ophir’s grapes, particularly the Syrah, grew smaller this year, both the berries and the clusters. “On the plus side, the small berries have very intense color and flavor, so we’re excited about the quality,” he said. Grapes that have been harvested have been crushed and are sitting in plastic bins. Yeast is added to the grapes, which converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, Burns said. Fruit mass in the bins is “punched down” to extract juices from the grape skin. Burns said the wine will be moved into stainless steel containers, and that a process called racking enables winemakers to skim wine off of the solid mass. Around November or December, this wine will go into 60-gallon barrels, where it will stay 18-24 months. “It’s like giving birth to kids. That first six months, just like kids need you all the time, this is when the grapes and the wine need you,” he said. The Journal’s Loryll Nicolaisen can be reached at lorylln@goldcountrymedia.com, or comment online at Auburnjournal.com.