Living in San Antonio, you are just over an hour away from the heart of the Texas Hill Country AVA (American Viticultural Area). This means there are plenty of opportunities to physically put your hands on a wine vintage. In prior issues I have written a lot about the final product -- about wine. But I have yet to offer an account of what happens at the very moment our grapes begin their journey to the bottle.
Jen Beckman at a harvest
Is it time for lunch yet? I am pretty sure that I have filled, carried and dumped thousands of buckets of grapes. Without question, it was a mistake to snack on some sweet grapes -- my stomach is beginning to protest. Is It possible that the powers of physics are bending reality? It CANNOT be possible that there are nine rows left. Even the tractor seems to sluggishly pull the bins full of grapes between the rows. Feeling exhausted.
The end is in sight and I am considering a new career in beer! I stepped in a large pile of fire ants. I’ve determined that these are the ‘mean drunks’ of nature, wreaking havoc with no remorse. I removed a shoe, soaked myself with the hose, shed several articles of clothing and still suffered more than a dozen bites. Feeling embarrassed.
With great relief, the last of the grape clusters have been secured in picking bins and sent to the winery for destemming and press. Heat stroke is certainly a possibility. I’ve drunk a gallon of water and have yet to urinate in the five hours since I’ve been here. The grapes are beautiful, and the chemistry is textbook perfect, this vintage will literally include my blood, sweat and tears. Feeling grateful.
What do you mean we still have to PROCESS all of the fruit???? Feeling like I need Tequila.
With endless opportunities to attend grape stomp events, the reality is that ‘scheduling’ harvest is a tenuous task at best. We are slaves to the whims of Mother Nature and often find ourselves harvesting grapes after long nights, on the hottest days, or even in conjunction with other scheduled events! The grapes can’t wait. If you choose to accept the challenge of harvesting with a vineyard for a day, make your willingness known to your favorite local vineyards, be prepared to be called to action with little notice, wear comfortable shoes and remember to hydrate! Cheers
Ready, Berry Set….GO!
Harvest occurs roughly a month and a half to two months after veraison, the critical point in physiological maturity when red grapes begin to transition from green to purple and white grapes adopt a golden hue. The timing can vary wildly from one grape variety to another in terms of readiness. The winemaker and viticulturist must make decisions on grape readiness based on many factors. Here are a few of those considerations:
Brix: Brix is the level of measurement of sugar in grapes, indicating the level of ripeness. Most grapes are harvested in the range of 21-28 Brix.
Acid: While the grapes ripen, the sugar level (Brix) rises while the grapes' natural acidity is steadily falling. The extreme heat and combination of hot day/hot night in the Texas climate can be tricky to navigate if the grapes fall out of ‘balance’ with too little acidity. The lift and movement of a wine across the palate is best served by the acidic structure. Grapes that lack acidity produce wines that lack acidity and are perceived as flawed or ‘flabby’.
Weather: Along with the physical ripeness of the grapes, the team must consider what is happening in the surrounding climate. While rain is a much needed commodity during the growing season, it is unwelcome during harvest. The grape clusters are tightly bunched and will hold water that will potentially dilute the grape juice once crushed. The added water will dilute the flavors, acidity and sugar. Too much rain prior to harvest will delay the ripening effect and may cause mold or rot in the vineyard.
When the time comes to harvest the fruit, helpful hands are generally welcomed. While the image of the vineyard is both serene and stately all of the hazards of raw agriculture apply: bees, wasps, snakes, fire ants, heat stroke, dehydration, and so on.
The Diary of Harvest
Saturday, July, 2022- Midnight
Dear Diary, Mother Nature has lost her ever loving mind and started harvest three weeks earlier than expected. We finished an event at the winery late last night and returned home to rest. Harvest begins at 6am. Sleep will not be plentiful, and we are barely ready for the days ahead, but I am excited to see what this vintage brings.
Sunday, July, 2022 - 6:00 AM
The sun is not yet up and the alarm seemed to sound only minutes after laying my head on the pillow. I grabbed my pruning shears, a 5 gallon bucket and headed to the first row of the Roussanne block. Watching a Texas sunrise in the vineyard is an experience comparable to few others. The morning is quiet and the breeze is gentle. Feeling peaceful.
It’s already 95 degrees and we seem to be making great progress -- we are four rows in. When completed, we will have harvested nearly four tons -- one acre consisting of 905 vines. Netting hangs over the vines to protect the clusters from birds. These are carefully pulled over and leaves are thinned to better see the clusters nestled deep within. The clusters are tangled around the wire trellising and may need to be clipped in several places. I am doing my best to treat the berries gently. Feeling energized.
I cut myself with my own pruning shears at the tip of my finger and every time I grab a cluster, the juice stings like fire. The clusters are fighting us every step of the way, and we must immerse ourselves in the trellis to find the bounty. Hope lunch is on the way. Feeling thirsty.
It’s hotter than the center of the sun. We found a bird's nest in the vines, and have tried to relocate the eggs (seems unlikely that this will end well for the birds). I am progressively noticing the sticky layer of grape juice that has found its way from my knuckles to my elbows. And I am not the only one…the wasps have noticed this as well. A hive was found in the center of the block and they seem unhappy to be disturbed. Feeling sticky.
Jennifer Beckmann and her husband John own the Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery in Hemisfair
Diary of a harvest hand
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