In the heat of the summer, the wine industry is alive with activity. It’s a popular time to visit wineries and enjoy tastings of the latest harvest, but while tastings are always fun and informative, they only provide a very small “taste” of what goes on at the winery year round.
Wine has been my passion and profession for over 10 years, and I thought that it would be fun to bring you all on a special kind of tour behind the scenes to learn how the wine you taste got to your glass.
A Walk on the Wine Side
Winery life is all about contrast:
The methodical quietude of a typical day, compared to the sheer chaos that defines a day of bottling or harvest.
The crisp smell of clean concrete and bright, shiny stainless steel in the cellar, versus the heavy, warm odor of wet oak and wine in a humid, dimly lit barrel room.
The heat of the vineyard, juxtaposed with the chill of the production floor.
The pure physicality of laboring heavy hoses and pumps through the cellar, whilst mulling over the microbiology of the yeast in the most recent ferment.
From the industrial warehouse feeling of many cellars, to the intimate seduction of many tasting rooms.
Science and art. Technology and tradition.
Through the Grapevine
A winery would be nowhere without its grapes. An exceptional amount of planning goes into deciding the type of grape(s) to grow and where they will be planted, and it typically takes three years before the grapes are ready for their first harvest.
Using a mix of chemical analysis and taste-testing, a winemaker will determine when the grapes are ready to be picked. The fruit on the vine will offer flavor and aroma clues as to when mother nature’s done her part. Now, it’s time for the experts to intervene.
White grapes usually come in first. Most white grapes get dumped right into a press at the winery, squished to expel the juice, and pumped into a tank. Typically, whites settle for about 24 hours as the solids separate from the juice. The juice is then “racked” off the solids into another tank using pumps and hoses.
Preparing the yeast is always fun for me. The most conventional method is to choose a specific yeast strain for your needs, measure it out, rehydrate it with warm water, add juice little by little until the yeast solution and the juice are within 5 degrees of each other, and then pitch it in!
Once you add the yeast to the water, it starts to bubble and sometimes foam if it’s happy enough. I have a happy yeasty song that I sing during this part.
Fermentation (the process of converting sugars into alcohol) takes anywhere from three days to two weeks, and the process is monitored closely, usually twice a day. When the sugar level decreases to the winemaker’s specifications, fermentation is stopped and you have white wine.
Although most of the fermentation process is similar between red and white grapes, there are some key differences that make the wines noticeably different. Red grapes are typically fermented with the skins on to extract the chemical compounds that make up the color, heavier mouthfeel, and “dry” effect of red wines.
Most reds go through a destemmer and a crusher before the resulting grape “must” is pumped directly into a tank via large hoses.
While fermenting, the carbon dioxide the yeast expels lifts the grape skins to the top of the fermenter to form a thick “cap.” To get the best juice out of the skins, one of these methods is used to mix the tank:
• Punch down (as in “Punchdown Princess,” my nickname) is when the ferment is small enough that you can use essentially a huge potato masher to push the skins down into the juice.
• Pumpover is used when a ferment gets so big that the juice must be pumped to the top to be sprayed on the skins.
• Pulsair is when gas (typically CO2) is pumped into the bottom of the tank to break up the cap.
When fermentation is almost finished, the juice is drained into another tank. Then you wash your boots, grab your safety gear and a sanitized shovel, and jump into the tank to physically dig out the must. Strange as it sounds, I actually love this part. It’s like mucking out a livestock pen, except it’s hotter and smells much better!
For safety, carbon dioxide meters are used to ensure the gas levels are not too high. If the CO2 gets too high, you can end up passing out, which is why you should always wear a retrieval harness and have a dig-out buddy on deck.
All the must is then dumped into a press to squish out the rest of the wine. Now you have red wine! Traditionally red wine is now “barreled down” into oak barrels to age for 6 to 24 months – but I’ll talk about aging in a later post.
Before the wine gets bottled, it normally undergoes a barrage of lab trials (blending trials, acidity trials, and fining trials to stabilize and clarify the wine) to create the best end product.
Once flavor, aroma, acidity, stability, and color are dialed in, the wine is ready to be blended in the cellar. Many people don’t realize that most wines are blends of different varietals, different vineyards or even just wines that were treated differently throughout the fermentation process in order to craft the exact wine desired.
On the bottling line, the wine is pushed through at least one filter before being poured into the mechanism that will fill the bottles. Gas is blown into the empty bottles to remove any debris, then the bottles are filled and the wine levels are equalized.
Next, a “sparger” forces inert gas into the bottle a second before the cork is forced into the bottle, ensuring there is no oxygen touching the wine. Oxygen will prematurely age the wine and cause distortions in flavor, color, mouthfeel, etc.
Finally, all the decorations like the label and the foil hat are added to the bottle (fun fact: the only reason for the foil is to hide ugly corks from consumers).
The bottles are then boxed back up and palletized while they wait for the trip to the tasting room, stores, and/or restaurants. Whites will typically be shipped out within weeks, while many reds are held for a few months.
And Now, We Drink
I’ve worked in this industry for a long time, and I’ve made friends who work in every corner of wine production. I began in the tasting room, teaching and learning from guests, but as my career progressed, I’ve had the opportunity to work in cellars, labs, and vineyards.
All this experience has prepared me to eventually fulfill my dream of being a well-rounded, vineyard-focused winemaker. I still love talking shop with consumers, but being behind the scenes is where I belong. Shaping a bottle of wine from start to finish is truly a blessing.
There is always a reason to open a bottle, especially if you had a hand in making it. I hope this peek behind the scenes has given you something to share the next time you pop a cork with friends and family.