Hey ya’ll! Because we’re right smack in the middle of harvest and I’m now a month into my harvest internship at our winery, I think I’ll dedicate this blog post to what I’ve learned thus far from my time spent “working harvest”.
To give context, yes, I’ve worked though quite a few harvests before. This is my 5th vintage at Lieb, and prior to Lieb, I spent 2 years working for another small winery on the North Fork. From my post in the tasting room or at the office, I saw the grapes being picked out in the vineyard and shuttled over in bins to the winery. I even picked a few bins myself, with the help of my golden retriever and two young daughters (who arguably ate more than they picked). I was present at the winery for intake – when the grapes are brought in – and watched them being pressed and eventually pumped into tanks where they would settle. I watched fermentations, even videoed a few, and tasted the wines from the tank during their varying stages of completion. I had access and observed what I could.
Over the years, I also tagged along for tours of our winery too many times to count. When a prominent writer or buyer requests a tour, I accompany them over to the winery and listen intently as Russell, our winemaker, explains over and over in detail the phases of winemaking and the role each piece of equipment plays in the process. I even chime in on these tours with little facts and tidbits I’ve picked up from Russell, on a previous tours or though my formal wine studies.
I thought I knew what went on at the winery. I thought I knew about winemaking. I didn’t.
You see, with winemaking, there’s a remarkable difference between watching and doing. That statement’s applicable to most trades, I know. But what’s been so eye-opening to me is just how physical winemaking is during harvest. There’s SO MUCH to do. It’s long days and a lot of hard, physical labor. It’s not romantic. It’s not relaxed. It’s tense and hurried. It’s a checklist of never-ending tasks that needed to be completed quickly and accurately – at the risk of irreversibly screwing up or even losing entire batches of wine.
As a harvest intern, I’m no longer watching – I’m doing. I’m getting in there, getting wet, cleaning, scrubbing, moving hoses and filling tanks. And it’s harder than I thought it’d be. I was sore and cold after last week’s full day and even broke my cardinal rule and drank a diet Coke (soda, ew!) during my lunch break to re-energize – GIMME THE CAFFEINE. I’ve gained tremendous respect for Russell and our cellar hands who do this work every day. It’s tough stuff. And dammit, I can’t wait to do it all over again this week.
As for what I’ve learned, so far I’ve covered off on the following areas at the winery and I’ll offer my key take-away from each.
Holy chemistry. I spent a good 4 hours with our winery’s lab director a few weeks ago as he explained all of the daily analyses he conducts to determine the chemical compositions of every grape, juice and wine sample in the building. Having little to no recollection of high school chemistry (tied with physics for my least favorite subject), I feel confident that I retained about 4% of what he told me. That roughly equates to now knowing which pieces of lab equipment are used for each of the different analyses – brix (sugar), alcohol, acidity, PH, etc. My key learning here is despite how “state of the art” our lab looks, some of the tests are really quite … basic. The apparatus used to test alcohol in our lab, for example, is called an ebulliomter. It measures alcohol content based on the difference in boiling points between water and wine and literally looks like it’s from the 1800’s. It’s small and tarnished metal and requires lighting a burner with an actual cigarette lighter. If you’re ever in a wine lab, ask them to see their ebulliometer. Guaranteed you’ll be like, THAT’S IT??? That’s how you arrived at the 12.5% ABV on our Chard? Mind blown.
I HAD ZERO CLUE HOW COMPLICATED THIS PROCESS IS. By definition, racking is simple. It’s moving wine from one barrel or tank into another barrel or tank with the purpose of leaving any sediment (or “lees”) behind. In practical terms, it’s NOT simple. I spent my very first morning at the winery helping one of our cellar hands rack Chardonnay juice (pre-fermentation) from two tanks inside the winery into one larger tank outside. It took us 3 1/2 hours to do just that. Move wine. So many hoses, fittings, gaskets and clamps, a pump, walkie-talkies (I was proud of myself for resisting the urge to call out “breaker breaker 1-9” on repeat), double and tripping checking the lines and connections, and then finally gradually filling to an exact spot in the new tank so as avoid any oxidation. It was a whole complicated thing with ample room for human error – leaks, spills, bad connections, wine running the wrong way. My learning here? Respect the racking. It may be one of a hundred+ steps in the winemaking process but it’s a big one. Cellar hands, you guys know your sh*t.
Russell likes to say that “90% of winemaking is sanitization,” and now I believe him. I had been anticipating “sanitation day” since I started. Everyone warned me about how much it would suck so I was determined to prove to them and myself that I could handle it. Whelp, it was last week. As soon as I got in, Russell handed me a list of 6 stainless steel tanks that needed to be sanitized. The first few weren’t bad – just a little slimy residue on the walls and no tartrates (little crystals deposits that are a natural byproduct of wine). More hoses, hot water, soda ash and citric acid pumped through a piece of equipment called a Gamajet (that’s apparently $5,000 to replace – WHY DID THEY EVEN LET ME HOLD IT?) that evenly spayed the water around the tank, and we were all set. The 4th tank, not so lucky. It was a red wine fermenter tank that had tartrates all over the top and hidden behind a tube in the tank that the Gamajet couldn’t reach. So, I was sent it. If you’re claustrophic, cleaning tanks is not for you. I got in by laying down and crawling through the front manhole, and once in used only a flashlight to see. I got wet, scrubbed until my arms were sore and then sprayed more water and scrubbed again. After about an hour, I passed inspection and hopped out proudly. I sanitized my first tank. Initiation complete. Oh and key learning? That was ONE tank. There are 144 tanks at our winery that each need to be cleaned multiple times per week during harvest. Sanitation is in fact 90% of winemaking.
This one was fun! The crush pad is where all of the harvest magic happens. Grapes enter either via truck (when hand-picked into bins) or tractor (when machine picked into gondolas). They get weighed, and then they’re either destemmed and crushed or dropped straight into the press for what’s called “whole-cluster pressing.” On my crush pad day, I helped man one of the presses and cleaned the press pan in between grape loads. I also learned two important things: 1) warm temperatures are the enemy of winemaking because they promote oxidization. As such, once our grapes are crushed, we send them through a cooling system called a glycol chiller to bring their temperature down and prevent oxidization while they’re being pressed. We’re the only winery on Long Island that has a glycol chiller, so that’s pretty cool. And 2) how hard you press your grapes affects the composition of the juice and ultimately the wine. Employing multiple “press fractions” allows you to separate out juice that was softly pressed from juice that was pressed using more pressure. The lightly pressed juice typically has higher acidity while the harder pressed juice is higher in phenolics such as pigments and tannins. Some winemakers press all the juice as hard as possible and use it all. More quality-minded winemakers separate out (and often sell) their “hard press” juice. My key learning here is that Russell is a winemaker that does the latter. Bye bye, hard press!
Last week I learned how yeast is added to just pressed and racked juice in order to stimulate fermentation, a process called inoculation. I knew that we inoculated our juice with cultured (commercial) yeasts but I had ZERO clue how that happened. Like, what does yeast even look like? Is it liquid? Powder? Does it smell like bread? How do you get it in the juice?? Answers: It looks like tiny, wormy, cream-colored grains (smaller than cous-cous). It comes in powdered form but you add warm liquid to it to “wake it up.” It smells like sour, musky bread. And you add it to the wine by mixing it with water in large, sanitized buckets and then slowing adding juice samples to the bucket (to bring the temperature of it within 10 degrees of the juice temp) before you dump it into the top of the tank. Apparently a few years back one of our cellar hands was adding hot water to the yeasts by mistake and killing them. Our fermentations were getting “stuck” and no one knew why. Yeasts don’t like large temperature variations. Key learning? Coddle your yeast.
I’m not sure what week 6 has in store for me. I don’t ask Russell ahead time because it’s fun to be surprised. Maybe something in the barrel room? Or with sparkling wine production? Or perhaps some “punch downs” since we’ve just started to pick our red grapes for red wine? Whatever it is, I know I’ll learn more about the topic in one day than in 6 months of studying for my sommelier certification or 7 years of working in the industry. And if it gives insight into all of the work and decisions that go into the bottles of Lieb wines that you drink, then I’m happy to share my learnings with you. It doesn’t get more “behind the scenes” than this.
(me with a sample of mid-fermentation Pinot Blanc)
General Manager & Certified Sommelier
Sign up for email updates and get 10% Off your first online order.