As mentioned previously, our first shipment of grapes this fall was accompanied by our new 12hl (317 gal) press, affectionately known as the Beast. Well, last week we let her loose. She is more than double the capacity of our old press, and with the ability to be programmed, the operator is now free to press more grapes, rather than buttons. Pressing grapes is actually a complex, multi-step process. It must be done very slowly, building up pressure gradually so that juice extraction is maximized. With each stage of the pressing, there is an interval of relief to allow juice to flow through open channels in the pomace. Without this, the channels would close and much of the juice would be trapped in pockets. Our current process builds up hydraulic pressure in 10 bar increments (one bar equals one atmosphere, or 14.7 psi). We go up to about 90 bar this way. This is actually the pressure of the hydraulic fluid, not that on the pomace, which tops out at around 4.5 bar.
The first step is to bleed juice from the tanks beginning the day before, so that when the door is opened, there is not a gushing flood. The wet pomace is then shoveled out of the tank into half-ton bins that can be moved by pallet jack to the loading dock. The empty press basket is removed from the press by forklift and placed just below the loading dock to be filled. After pressing is complete, the process is reversed: the dry “cake” is removed from the basket and shoveled for a third time into composting bins. The pressed wine is divided into two parts: light press and hard press. Usually, only the light press is aged in oak barrels. If you look in our barrel cellar, most of the wine from each vineyard is marked as “FR” for free run (the wine which freely flows out of the fermenter during the bleed) and “LP” for light press. The hard press is stored in stainless steel kegs and used for a variety of purposes.
Use of the Press Wine
As you might expect, the press wine is rich, dense and as Robert Parker might say, “backward”. It lacks the aromatic complexity of the free run and is fairly harsh and unbalanced all by itself. It is also slightly sweeter than the free run. Some of the sugars locked up in the pulp are released by pressing, and often the press wine will resume alcoholic fermentation until this residual sugar is consumed. The dried pomace has some alcohol left in it as well: this can be distilled into Grappa or the french l’eau de vie de marc most notably. As our wines are aged in oak, they are constantly evolving. Our head winemaker, David Lecomte, monitors each wine assiduously in barrel right up to bottling. Sometimes press wine is added to the free run if he wants to add a bit more depth or structure. Various combinations are tried until his palate is satisfied with the final result. Care must be exercised because adding too much of the press wine could produce harsh tannins and reduce acidity. This is where a winemaker’s talents play a critical role. Only after many years of experience can a winemaker taste a immature barrel sample and know what needs to be done in order to achieve a final result that is worthy.
Check out the gallery below for illustrations of the various steps mentioned above:
Close to one-quarter of our entire fall harvest arrived last Saturday. Needless to say, it was a long day for us, but it was also filled with high expectations. We were not disappointed. The grapes arrived in top condition ready to fill our hungry tanks. In the Pinot Noir department, we received grapes from the Bien Nacido vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley and the Bacigalupi vineyards in the Russian River. Petite Syrah and Zinfandel arrived from Lodi as well.
Assistant Winemaker Bill Anton delivered pallet after pallet of grapes to the loading dock where Sikou Nakate and his trusty pallet jack were waiting to lift and pull each one-ton stack to the loading station. In the case of the Petite Syrah, whose clusters tend to run somewhat large compared to other varieties, the stems had to be snipped into smaller pieces so that they would go through the destemmer properly. Working in shifts, the sorting table was kept busy all day long, with only short interruptions in order to move from one tank to the next. Purple hands and sticky fingers were in abundance.
With our second crush of the season now finished, three-quarters of our fermenters are already full. It is now up to the hard-working yeast cells to transform all that sugary must into wine. We tend to them day and night making sure they complete their important task on schedule. This means regular pump overs, punch downs and temperature regulation. Our lab technicians are busy monitoring the progress and if all goes well, we will start to press and barrel down during the next two weeks. As you can see, timing will be very important so that tanks are available for more crop as it comes in. We are excited about breaking in our new press that will make this process more manageable. Stay tuned for updates.
Last Saturday we had one of our largest crushes ever — 20 tons of grapes! Thanks to our dedicated members, staff and friends, it was processed in record time without a hitch. In fact, they managed to sort the grapes with such precision and care that David’s high standards of winemaking were held in the highest regard. In the time lapse video below, you will see most of the day’s effort compressed into two and a half minutes.
As August draws to a close here at City Winery, word is arriving that our fall crop is going to be extraordinary this year. The growing season in California has been nearly ideal so we are expecting to have our fermenters filled to capacity in the next few weeks. Crushing up to one hundred tons of grapes takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears so we reach out to many of our staff, members and friends to pitch in. In other words: ALL HANDS ON DECK!
The work itself is quite exhilarating for those who appreciate the art of winemaking. Seeing the freshly picked grapes as they arrive opens a new window into the enjoyment of wine. Suddenly you make a direct connection between these luscious, aromatic fruit and the flavors that make wine such a distinct and delightful experience. Tasting a Pinot Noir grape and comparing that to a fresh Cabernet Sauvignon grape immediately reveals the source of their differences. The Pinot Noir’s bracing acidity and crispness contrasts with the thicker-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon grape that is rich and chewy.
But the real miracle is to witness the transformation from juice to wine. The combination of crushed grapes and juice, known as the must, begins it’s metamorphosis as a beautifully sweet and intensely flavored mixture. As the yeasts begin their work, the sugars are replaced with a complex variety of compounds that add a wide range of new tastes and aromas. Gradually the must becomes more wine-like over the roughly two-week fermentation process. During this period, the must is tasted and analyzed twice a day in our lab. Adjustments are made in order to insure the best possible outcome.
The preparations for the crush are moving into high gear. The fermenters need to be thoroughly inspected and cleaned, as do all the conveyors, destemming machine and sorting tables. Pumps, hoses and fittings are being put in order for managing the must. New barrels are being acquired and must be tested for leaks and other imperfections. Existing barrels are undergoing a thorough inspection, then washed and set in racks for receiving new wine. Our basket press will be taken out of storage and similarly prepped. Once a crush begins, there are no timeouts, so everything must be in near perfect working order. In the event of an equipment failure, we review our backup procedures. As they say, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” is the order of the day.
The winery is a hub of great activity and anticipation as we strive to improve every aspect of vinification each harvest. David Lecomte, our head winemaker, is never satisfied with just maintaining the status quo, no matter how diligent. We have been upgrading and intensifying our laboratory analyses with new staff and protocols. This will allow David to prevent or more quickly correct any must issues before they cause a wine fault. A week ago we received a new bottling machine that will allow us to substantially increase our capacity. This is important for the harvest because it will free up barrels and rack space as the aged wine can be put into bottles more quickly.
September marks a new beginning for City Winery with its sister facility in Chicago now open and ready for its first harvest. Together we watch the ripening grapes in California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere with renewed excitement. With our combined knowledge and experience, this fall offers us an opportunity to make the best City Winery vintage yet.
Last week, Kosher Assistant Winemaker Yanky Drew and his helper Chananya Zirkind were busy overseeing the harvesting and pressing of Chardonnay grapes sourced from North Fork, Long Island, to be used in making a sparkling wine.
I spoke with Yanky to better understand the ins and outs of kosher winemaking and the specifics of the harvesting, pressing and racking processes in particular. Check out the video embedded above for a look at the process, and then read on for details about each step.
The Two Tenets of Kosher Winemaking
Kosher Assistant Winemaker Yanky Drew prepares to rack the kosher wine.
Yanky explained that there are two main tenets when making kosher wine:
- The wine must only be handled by an observant Jew.
- The ingredients used in making the wine (such as yeast and fining agents) must be kosher.
These two principles are the foundation of all kosher winemaking and guide how Yanky and his team operate when producing wine with City Winery.
Cleaning the Press
Yanky and Chananya spent three hours cleaning the press in preparation for the grapes. They used a tweezer-like tool to individually pick out all of the seeds and skin from a previous pressing session. The press has to be completely clean of other fruit that may not be kosher. After all of the fruit was removed, the duo powerwashed the press for good measure.
In general, the rule regarding equipment and vessels used in kosher winemaking is that if it is to be used for storage, it must be kosher, but if it is used for anything but storage (such as transportation), it just needs to be completely clean.
For example, hoses used for moving wine from one vessel to another do not need to be kosher — they must only be clean. However, a tank for aging wine must be a designated kosher vessel.
Picking the Grapes
Grapes used for kosher winemaking can be picked by anyone, and the vineyards do not have to follow any kosher procedures. The only considerations are how old the vines are and what other foods are grown in the area.
Vines must be at least three years of age, and the grapes must not be grown in the same field as other fruits or vegetables. Yanky made sure of this when he visited the vineyard, located in North Fork, Long Island.
Furthermore, if any machinery is used — such as a forklift — it must be operated by an observant Jew. In this case, Yanky manned the forklift.
Pressing the Grapes
This time around, Yanky and Chananya pressed Chardonnay grapes for a sparkling wine.
In maintaining kosher standards, only observant Jews are able to handle the product. Along with keeping kosher standards in the pressing process, though, general winemaking procedures must also be followed in order to produce a high-quality wine. For this press, the team needed to follow sparkling wine pressing protocols, which call for a light, delicate press with many cycles, whether kosher or not.
Racking the Grapes
Racking is the process of carefully moving wine from one place to another.
When a wine is pressed, the first racking occurs when the pressed juice is transported to vessels. Sometimes this happens within a winery, but in this case, it happened at an off-site facility in Long Island. In this case, the wine was racked directly into vessels pre-loaded in Yanky’s van. (Check it out in the video above; it’s quite a site!)
Yanky’s vessels for transportation were all designated kosher. He used two 60-gallon drums, one 15-gallon keg and one 5-gallon glass carboy.
“Kosher Tape” Seals the Deal
“Kosher tape” seals a power switch during a racking, so that only Yanky can turn it off.
To make sure that only observant Jews have access to the kosher wine, Yanky uses “kosher tape” — which is distributed by the Orthodox Union, the supervising agency that oversees the procedures for creating kosher wine — to seal all storage vats, taps and valves. This ensures that only he touches the wine, as a tampered seal will prove otherwise.
Yanky also uses the tape to seal off power switches during racking when a pump is necessary. Only he can turn off the power to the pump.
Kosher winemaking may seem like a mystery for those not well-versed in kashrus, the set of Jewish dietary laws. So, let us know in the comments if you have questions about kosher wines.