#Harvest2011: The Grape Path To Glory -or- The Sleeping Beast, About To Awaken

It’s Saturday, and the first delivery of fruit to Monte Bello is due in a matter of hours. Put another way, The Sleeping Beast Is About To Awaken.

And what, you might ask, will happen to said grapes upon arrival? Ok, I’ll show you …

From wherever is their vineyard place of origin, the grapes arrive at “The Crush Pad” …

They come to us in bins that look like this …

Delivered by a truck like this …

That lines up under a hook apparatus like this …

Which is utilized to tip over the bins, such that the fruit is gently dispersed onto a custom-built conveyor belt like this …

At this point, sorting will begin, and while it will get quite a bit more intense a few more steps down the line, there will most certainly be a gang of folks watching the fruit come in, and keeping an eye out for, for example, green and/or damaged fruit, as well as miscellaneous stems, leaves, and other organic matter.

The belt will deliver the fruit to a sort of gondola-meets-merry-go-round-esque conveyor like this …

Which will in turn deliver the fruit to what is called the “De-Stemmer” …

The De-Stemmer is a pretty self-explanatory machine; essentially, whole clusters (meaning grapes that are still attached to their stems) go into the de-stemmer, and they come out free of their stems; i.e. de-stemmed. This is achieved by a sort of spiky augur mechanism like this …

As these spikes rotate, the grapes are separated from their stems, and then consequently fall through a sort of mesh grid …

Which then disperses the fruit to its next destination via a series of rollers. If you’re a zinfandel grape, you’ll go through the rollers into what’s called a “Must Pump” …

Now, before we continue, a quick “summary pic” here is the view from by the must pump, looking up towards the belt and conveyor …

What you’re ideally seeing here is a bit of the first conveyor belt, the gondola conveyor, the de-stemmer, and the must pump.

It is at this point that methodologies diverge, as regards how the fruit proceeds. As noted above, if you’re a zinfandel grape, you’re ready to be pumped into the winery itself. But if you’re a cabernet sauvignon grape (or another of the Bordeaux varietals grown on our mountain), you’ve still got a bit more sorting to go through.

Why the difference? Well, the goal is to get the fruit to tank fully intact, and the more you move the fruit around, the more you run the risk of the skins breaking, and given that zinfandel is supremely thin-skinned, and likely to break anyway, it’s just better to get it into the tank asap. However, for the Bordeaux varietals, given that they’re sturdier, we’re able to take them through a few more tiers of sorting; this is one of the reasons why our Monte Bello so consistently maintains its high standard of quality; rigor of sortings. So, after these grapes have come through the de-stemmer, they’ve still got a few more steps to go through before they make the tank …

Like vibrating sorting tables, for example …

With grooves …

And blowers …

And after all that, there is still a final sorting table. And this one is the big one; this table is manned by as many as 8 very skilled and knowledgeable people, who will do their very best to pick out every single green berry, every bird-pecked berry, every shriveled berry, every single berry that isn’t, for whatever reason, perfect. This is a very important table …

Whatever grape you may be, eventually, it will be your turn to enter the winery itself, and you’ll do so via a complicated architecture of pumps and hoses. Your point of entry looks like this …

And that’s how you’ll depart the crush pad.

As for myself, descending from the crush pad, led by the very gracious, frighteningly knowledgeable, humbly benevolent, excellently hard-working Shun Ishikubo (Assistant Winemaker at Monte Bello) …

… I just had to stop for just one last pic; a last look at the hoses that will very, very soon be conveying the 2011 harvest to the Monte Bello winery. The hoses looked beautiful. Sinuous, strong, elegant, and focused. They looked ready.

Then, the winery.

Our beloved hoses, once inside the winery, begin the process of allocating out fruit to the appropriate fermentation tanks. If you’re a zinfandel grape, it’s quite likely you might go into a special kind of tank with a screen inside that can be used to submerge the “cap” (the mass of solid matter that forms during the fermentation process) …

Whereas if you’re a cabernet sauvignon grape, you might go to a smaller tank …

Delivered, of course, by the same mystically arterial intricacy of hoses previously noted …

These are fermentation tanks, and it is — unsurprisingly — inside these tanks that fermentation will take place.

Once fermentation reaches its conclusion, the “free run” juice (juice that has “naturally” separated from the skins, as opposed to juice that is “pressed” (i.e. squeezed) from the skins) is migrated to another set of tanks …

Within which temperature can me modulated, mitigated, and controlled via cooling lines that run behind the wall of tanks …

With that juice remaindered to those said tanks, there is still quite a mass of skins and such that can potentially be exploited for additional juice via “the press”; a mechanism that essentially “wrings” out, via the application of varying degrees of pressure, the juice that still remains in the skins. “Press Juice,” as it’s called, may or may not be called into use, depending on the character of the free run juice. By definition, press juice is more intensely extracted, and its relevance to a final assemblage is dependent on a multitude of factors. Ridge Vineyards is somewhat unique as regards its transportational methodology; our tanks are moveable via pallet jacks, and they are transported to the press thusly, to then be lifted by crane and hook, and consequently upended such that the skin mass can be delivered into the bowels of the press. Seen from a bit of a distance, the press area looks like this …

In the picture above, the apparatus is actually upside down, because it is still draining its water post-cleaning, in expectation of its pending use. Here’s what it looks like from below …

And from the side …

Ridge Vineyards traditionally drills down its management of press juice to a notably segmented level, by applying varying degrees of pressure (press “fractions”), and then segregating out those different press fractions of juice for possible later use. This is achieved by sending the differently realized juice lots to different destinations. Meaning, coming off the press, four different press fractions will be sent to four different tanks …

There to remain until the winemakers decide whether or not any or all of the lots can be utilized in an enhancitive role as regards the free run juice that will form the core of any given bottling.

Once the remaining skins have been pressed, there’s not a lot left to them; they sort of resemble cracklins at this point, but still, their use is not exhausted. Via an augur …

And a pair of belts …

this last remaining organic matter is dumped into a truck, and composted, until it’s ready to be recycled back into the landscape from whence it came …

And that’s the journey, from load-in to landscape. If you’re a grape, you’ve come a long way, baby.



Categories: Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Monte Bello, Varietals & Blends, Vineyards and Oenology, Winemaking, Zinfandel

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6 replies

  1. Wow. What an amazing, amazing process. I’m so often in awe of winemakers — the need to invest in the land, the equipment, the people — the need to caretake the grapes plus all of the above — and the sheer investment of time, especially the years before the wine can be released and allow any income to be realized. It’s a wonder anyone makes wine at all, and it must take a huge true passion. Congratulations.

  2. Outstanding presentation of the 2011 Monte Bello harvest! Thank you! :)

  3. Bitchen photo of the destemmer Christopher.

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