So, I’m making wine…

Many of you who I communicate via more analog methods (phone calls! what shock!) have wondered what exactly is going on out here. Winemaking from a manual labor standpoint is essentially a three step process. I apologize to those of you who find this boring, but it’s a little difficult to make something this technical sound sexy.

Sorting, Destemming, and Crushing

First, the grapes come in and we do pre-fermentation processing. We sort away MOG (“matter other than grapes”, similar to the MOOP any Burner should be familiar with) and put them through the crusher-destemmer. The machine is a big rotating cylinder-and-paddle operation with holes in it which pulls off the stems and breaks the berries. Gramercy (who processes all their wine at the Waters facility) does a lot of whole cluster work, so they forgo the crusher-destemmer and do foot stomping. For the small amount of white wine we made, from here the grapes go straight to the press without any maceration. The reds need to ferment on their skins since that where the tannins and color come from.

Fermentation bins on the floor. They’re sized (1.5-2.5 tons) so that you can move them with a forklift or pallet jack.

Fermentation Management

Second, we have to  manage the ferment. Since I’m working in a fairly conventional (modern) winery, the wines are dosed with granular SO2 dissolved in a small amount of water, which kills any native yeasts on the grapes. Jamie doesn’t do a “cold soak” pre-fermentation to increase tannin and color extraction, so we “pitch” with an inoculum of cultured lab yeasts into the must (juice, skins, and seeds), which generally starts the fermentation. Yeasts produce heat as a bi-product of fermentation, and cooler, slower ferments are more desirable for increasing aromatic complexity in wines. A few of our wines have ripped through their fermentation in as few as four days, but most have taken 10-14 days. They come in at around 24 brix (a measurement for sugar) and the yeast will eat between 1 and 3 brix a day, ideally maintaining temperatures of 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. We have several tanks  jacketed with glycol to regulate fermentation temperatures, which is pretty cool.

A 5-ton “hot tub” fermenter. The dimples on the bottom are for the glycol jacket.

One of the principle threats to the red wine during this time is the development of acetobacter, leading to volatile acidity (nail-polish or vinegar smells) in the final wine. The skins and juice are not a homogeneous mixture during fermentation because the CO2 bubbling off the ferment causes the skins to rise to the top, forming a dry-ish cap over the fermenter. Acetobacter thrives on dry grape skins. The remedy for this is that you have to either pump juice over the top of the skins or punch them down into the fermenting proto-wine. We don’t do much pumping over here. Both these processes oxygenate the must, helping to make for a happier fermentation

After a whole night of CO2 compressing the cap, especially early in the fermentation, punchdowns can be very hard work. Punchdowns are accomplished with a stainless steel pole with a square, perforated plate affixed to the end of the pole at a 90-degree angle. Sometimes the caps are so firm that I could put my entire weight on the handle and it wouldn’t budge. The work is pretty brutal on your shoulders, triceps, forearms, and more generally the entire upper body, especially when you have to do it twice a day on 20 or so bins. Great to know I didn’t have to get a gym membership.

A punchdown tool. It’s about 5 feet tall. This end goes in the grapes.

We take readings on the fermentations for temperature and sugar levels daily, but other than that and the punchdowns, the fermentations pretty much handle themselves.  We do some enzymatic additions, which I’m opposed to on principle, but it’s not my wine and I certainly don’t understand enough to know why we’re doing it (or not). One of the most curious parts of this process is managing the YAN on the fermentation, or yeast-available nitrogen.

I don’t understand this entirely yet, and it’s a new concept that I’m trying to really grok. Yeast need nitrogen to complete fermentation, but if the must doesn’t contain enough nitrogen, you can have a stressed fermentation which will lead to reduction; hydrogen sulfide is produced and you get aromas of gunpowder, swamp gas, or onion, which aren’t exactly desirable. The yeast can’t pull nitrogen out of the air. They don’t have lungs. You have to give it to them in a form they can metabolize. In this case, that’s diammonium phosphate, or DAP. We get fruit from one vineyard that always has very low YAN levels, and so Jamie says that DAP is necessary, but I’d like to look into the science on this in greater detail.

Pressing and racking to barrel

Once the ferment finishes we inoculate for malolactic fermentation. This will reduce the overall acid and change the type of acid in the wine. Un-maloed tank press samples are like cartoon versions of wine. The acid is beyond ripping and the wine has this almost neon-candied sour-straw quality about it. This would worry me, except for the fact that I know that Jamie’s wines have restraint and class, and that in time these qualities mellow out and it begins to taste more like, well, wine.

The free-run juice is pumped out of the fermenter bins via a screened pump housing which we call the “torpedo” for obvious morphological reasons. This prevents large solids like seeds, skins, and stems from getting into the wine we’re transferring into 3-5 year-old barrels. Now the dry-ish skins go into the press and we pump the air bladder up to 1 bar, reaping the rewards in the press pan. The free-run (from the torpedo) and press juice are barreled separately. Gramercy does an additional step of settling press wine and free-run in empty fermenter bins for a day before they go into barrel. We simply go straight to barrel. Jamie also ferments his whites on the gross lees (particulate solids), preferring not to cold settle his wines before fermentation.  I haven’t asked him why he does this, but I will…

The Torpedo. The top end connects to the pump, the perforated bottom goes into the must, screening out skins and seeds.

Then we wait 10 months or so and perform all the steps I detailed here and here.

Some other interesting occurrences:

1. I fell in a fermenter with all my clothes on while doing a punchdown. Very sticky and yeasty. I can’t recommend it.

2. I am the lord of the fruit flies.

3. They have underground, late-night dance parties in Walla Walla in basements beneath vegan restaurants.

4. I am continually reminded that are many Americas. This is easy to forget when you’re in New York, or anywhere for too long.

5. We might not have fruit in until early November. Not because we’re making 30+ brix wines, but because it’s going to take them that long just to get to where we usually pick. A very strange vintage here in Washington.

About Morgan

Liquid enthusiast. Sommelier and wine communicator living and working in New York City.
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