Rent a Vine Workshop: Picking and Crushing
by Eliesha Rae
The morning of Workshop 2 dawned, less bright and sunny and more extremely overcast and drizzly than one might have hoped for. But as it turns out, bright and sunny isn’t necessarily the weather you’re looking for when it comes to grape picking, and despite the inauspicious start to the day, the rain cleared up and my lack of preparedness in failing to pack a change of clothes (just in case of being soaked via downpour in the vineyard) didn’t end up being an issue at all.
And, as it turns out, all those memes and motivational mindfulness posters about getting your hands dirty and spending time in the great outdoors might have a point. I’m not saying I’m quite prepared for three weeks of full-time hand harvesting in Burgundy just yet, but an hour in the fresh air, without a thought in my head but filling my bucket with juicy looking pinot grapes was exactly all it was cracked up to be.
And so passed the first hour of our second Rent a Vine workshop. Spurred on by the success of Saturday’s pick, and looking fly in our fluoro yellow high-vis Austin’s vests, our group managed to almost double the amount of grapes picked the previous day (just sayin’), amounting to enough for approximately 47 dozen bottles of five-star vino.
But before we move on – let’s just put that in a little bit of perspective…
How many days would it take to pick the Austin’s vineyard?
Apart from my wine nerdiness (and BBQ Shapes addiction), I’m also somewhat of a stats nerd, so breaking down some numbers was at the top of my agenda.
In an hour, the forty or so of us keen amateur winemakers picked around 1/10th of an acre of grapes. Austin’s have 150 acres planted with grape vines. That means, with forty sets of keen hands picking, it would take around 188 days to hand pick the whole vineyard.
That’s more than six months. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Picking the grapes
Sports teams have finals. Students have exams. For winemakers, the big moment of truth, the event the whole year’s efforts have led up to – is harvest.
Typically, harvest takes place over 3-4 weeks. When those grapes are ready to be picked, there’s no time to waste.
When you hand pick, bunches are individually picked from the vine using snips, placed into a bucket and transferred into larger grape bins before shipping to the winery. This method of harvest is very gentle on the fruit and can help capture more delicate flavours. However, as we now know, it is VERY labour intensive, expensive and time consuming.
This is where machine harvesting comes in.
When using machine harvesting, a machine drives over the rows beating the fruit off and is caught in a conveyor, which is caught by a chaser bin. The fruit is instantly exposed to oxygen and can be harvested with MOG (material other than grapes), which needs to be removed before winemaking. This method of harvest is not gentle, but it is fast, efficient and can be done at night, when temperatures are low to minimise oxidation.
But mostly – it doesn’t take six months.
Who knew there was so much to learn just about getting the grapes from the vineyard to the winery?
Getting the fruit to the winery
And at this stage, we were only an hour into our workshop.
As with Workshop 1, the time flew by. Once we followed the fruit back to the winery, the fruit was weighed and recorded, while we thoroughly washed our hands (can I get an “Amen”?) and took a tour of Austin’s winemaking facilities (complete with a few tastings of pre-ferment, mid-ferment and post-ferment grape juice).
For such a huge operation, the footprint of the winery itself is surprisingly small. It’s humbling (and yes, a little thirst inducing) to imagine the quantity of quality vino being processed through this facility.
Speaking of things being… processed through things (that segue could probably use some work), seeing the destemmer in action was definitely one of the highlights of the day. If you’re as nerdy as me, maybe you’ve seen one of these babies in operation on YouTube (or any one of a million wine blogs out there), but it’s not until being part of the process that I really understood how it worked. The technology itself is pretty basic really, it’s more like a giant spinning colander than anything, but it certainly makes shorter work of the destemming process than hand sorting could possibly do. And almost before we can blink, the must is pumped back into a bin ready for the winemaking process to truly begin.
More microbiology than chemistry, the most important part of winemaking at this stage is keeping your yeast happy. And not just any yeast, but the right yeast.
We’re all used to hearing about yeast when it comes to bread making, but when it comes to producing your favourite drop, it’s just as important.
There’s the sulphur dioxide to inhibit the ugly yeast and bacteria that can come in with the grapes from the vineyard and leave the wine tasting like vinegar; the tartaric acid to adjust the pH balance and keep the environment good yeast friendly; speciality tannin to bind with unwanted flavours; the decision on whether to use “wild yeast” from the winery or inoculated yeast (and which sort) to start the ferment; and, maybe most importantly, temperature control – not only to keep the yeast babies at optimal sugar eating capacity, but also to control the quality, flavours and aromas of the finished product.
As it turns out, winemakers have to be farmers and gardeners, chemists and microbiologists, tasters and managers, machine operators and calculators and round-the-clock grape sitters.
So, do we have what it takes? Only time will tell…
Eli is a self-confessed nerd of many things and can appreciate a fine Pythagorean theorem as readily as a fine pinot. Eli is also particularly keen for everyone reading this to know that she picked two entire buckets of grapes herself, but can probably be convinced to share the finished product… depending on how much toilet paper you have to trade.