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Grape Harvest

After driving past the Alfalfa Farm Winery for 9 years, I finally decided to check out what they are all about. It turned out to be perfect timing – this weekend they invited volunteers to come harvest the grapes!

Alfalfa Farm Winerys grapes

Alfalfa Farm Winery's grapes

We first took netting off of the vines. It is the same type of netting my dad used to cover his cherry tree, plus they tied the sections together with twist ties and staked it to the ground with tent stakes. It seemed to work quite well, and may have also helped to keep the vines trained along the rows. This activity allowed the volunteers to work in pairs and meet one another as we rolled the netting and put it away.

Then it was time to start harvesting! We got a quick lesson from Chris, the winemaker, about how to do it. Rule #1 – don’t get stung by a bee. They always seem to loiter on the back side of the bunch, just where you’d grab it. Turn the bunch around before cutting it off, gently shake the bunch or move onto another one until the bee flies off. There were four kinds of bees, the most humorous being large bumble bees that are only a few weeks from the end of their life; imagine a grandpa bee that’s been gorging on fermented grape juice. They were slow and clumsy. I managed to avoid getting too friendly with any of the bees, in large part due to wearing gloves, long sleeves and long pants, as well as following this rule. Rule #2 – cut off all the grapes you see. At this time of year the plants need to be putting their energy back into the vines to prepare for winter. Grapes that were over or under ripe were simply dropped below the vines to serve as fertilizer. Key Technique for White Grapes – use your pruners to cut away or dig out any brown or bright green grapes. Ones that are translucent are good! If in doubt, taste them. If they taste sweeter than any store grapes you’ve had, they are right. If they are tart or sour, don’t use them. And with that, we were off to work in groups, making our way down each row with a laundry basket or shallow crate to fill with beautiful white bunches.

Once we finished the two rows of Sayval Blanc grapes, I headed up to the crushing pad to observe the next few steps in the process. First, we weighed the grapes to record the magnitude of the harvest. It looked to be much better than last year, and the winemaker thought this year might set a new record. I figure I harvested 20 lbs of grapes myself, and there were at least a dozen volunteers. Next, each basket of grapes was poured out into an automated de-stemmer and crusher. It looks a lot like a meat grinder – grapes are dumped into a slightly funnel-shaped trough that has a screw running along the bottom. When the machine is turned on, the stems are shot out the bottom on the back side and the crushed grapes and juice fall into a tub below the machine. After that, the crush is fed into a wood press, with a circle of slats through which the juice is pressed. It was a pretty neat looking old wooden press, much like a cider press. It took one person to screw down the top, another to hold the plastic pan lining that funneled juice into buckets, and another to swap out buckets as they filled. The juice was then stored in large 100 gallon barrels for the winemaker to tackle later. They put in a cup of large grain rice every so often, which was meant to serve as a natural abrasive to help extract the juice. When the press filled with skins, they were shoveled into a holding bucket to make room for more crush. The by products of skins and stems would end up being composted, though the intern said that at other wineries they are used to make grappa. He also said that for red grapes they ferment on the skins for several days before continuing on with pressing, to impart some of the tannin and provide the red color.

I received a bottle of wine as payment for my help, so of course I chose a bottle of the Sayval Blanc, so I could tasted the fermented product of the grape variety I harvested. I was really excited to take another step in supporting local agriculture – like a CSA for wine – as well as getting in some quality gardening time. I miss winemaking with friends, so this might be a good opportunity to continue my hobby without the hassle of sanitation and cleanup. The staff at Alfalfa Farm seemed very friendly and were more than happy to answer questions. I am looking forward to participating in more events at the winery – there is still racking, bottling and labeling to do, and of course tasting!

Comments

Comment from Sarie
Time: September 12, 2010, 8:57 am

I miss winemaking with friends, too! Let’s make some plans for the fall, even though we’ll have to do our own cleanup. My solo projects never turned out quite as good as the stuff I made with you, but I think together we might be able to tackle a mead.

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