Crush Season Opens with New Methods and Challenges

By: Cheryl Gray

Annual harvests of wine grapes are already underway, and that means two words are now in motion: crush season.

  Whether in-house winery processing or custom crush and wine production services, crush season 2020 is like no other. While the challenges in each wine region are different, industry experts say that there are universal standards. The checklist includes planning, preparation, equipment maintenance, PPE for workers, supplies, lab testing for grapes, and, this year, health and safety measures that protect against the coronavirus pandemic. Not only is COVID-19 impacting crush season, but unusual weather in some parts of the United States is also affecting grape harvests.  

  For these reasons and more, this year’s crush season demands a new approach. Such is the case in Texas, where Texas Custom Wine Works, located just outside Lubbock, services vineyards across the Lone Star State. Cary Franklin is Vice President. 

  “One thing to note about this year is that we have seen widespread damage across the High Plains of Texas from an early freeze [last] October. Most growers are down 50 to 80% of their average crop. Many plants are completely wiped out and have been cut down and re-planted,” says Franklin. “The Texas wine industry has been forced to become very creative to sell wine during COVID-19 related closures. The loss of sales, combined with a major shortage of wine grapes, is creating a very interesting situation for this harvest and possible effects the industry could see over the next few years.”

  Fruit that survived arrived early this year, says Franklin, some of it as soon as mid-June. The company’s advanced planning and preparation, starting as early as February, is all the more important this crush season. As the fruit ripens, an in-house lab gives growers across Texas an opportunity to test field samples for Brix, pH, TA and seed color. Michael Hellman is Texas Custom Wine Works executive winemaker. 

  “High heat and drought-like conditions this year are causing some very high Brix and early development,” says Hellman. “We are seeing most varieties ripen at the same time. Even some of the reds will be coming in before whites.”

  In addition to standard-issue PPE supplies, such as goggles, raincoats, rubber boots and gloves, Texas Custom Wine Works has incorporated industry-wide COVID-19 protections in its health and safety protocols. Hellman says that other worker protections for entering tanks and press cleaning are standard procedure. 

  “Removing grape skins from a large tank requires tank entry and can release large amounts of CO2 as the skins are removed,” he says. “Our procedures require anyone entering a tank to have proper PPE and an O2 sensor on them with a fan pushing fresh air in the tank before entering.”

  In California’s Sonoma County, the award-winning Rack and Riddle Custom Wine Services begin harvesting the first week of August. The full-service wine production operation is famous for creating sparkling wines using the traditional French process known as Méthode Champenoise. Penelope Gadd-Coster, Executive Director of Winemaking, and a well-respected master of the Méthode Champenoise process, says that planning for crush season happens virtually year-round. 

  “Planning really never ends, as we are evaluating the wines for the blends, evaluating what has worked and what didn’t, upgrading equipment—all working towards the next harvest,” she says.

  Not one to rest on its gold medal wins in international and regional competitions, Gadd-Coster says that Rack and Riddle continually works on ways to make good wine better. Its winemaking team provides a thorough assessment of key fundamentals, such as training and workflow. Consideration of new processes and equipment plays a role in determining what will work towards improving the end product.

  “By May, we are looking at vineyards closely and working with growers,” says Gadd-Coster. “Projects are being evaluated to make sure they will be ready for harvest. About a month before harvest, the meetings become weekly to fine-tune protocols, train teams and check equipment. Then, harvest begins!”

  Key to that harvest is equipment—looking for innovation and keeping existing machinery in shape. Gadd-Coster says both earn equal attention.

  “There seems to always be something we see to make processing more efficient,” she says. “We have a new lees filter and some flotation pumps for this year. Maintenance always wants to check all of your equipment: pumps, crusher, presses, filters, temperature gauges, heating and cooling systems, punch down devices, lab equipment, scale, forklifts, pomace truck—anything mechanical—two to four months ahead of harvest.”   

  No matter the size of the operation, those in the wine industry know to expect the unexpected. Among the largest in the business is Napa Valley’s Trinchero Family Estates, which introduced the world to the first White Zinfandel. Since its founding in 1948, the company has amassed a globally recognized brand portfolio of some fifty wines and spirits. Its harvest begins in early August. Glenn Andrade is Senior Vice President of Winemaking. 

  “We know that preparation for the upcoming harvest starts after the finish of the previous harvest,” Andrade says. “Learning from every step and building onto our knowledge with each passing year is so important. We do extensive recap meetings to determine what our successes were and identify areas where we can make improvements. Hiring staff for harvest is also critical—which we start in January and do through July before harvest. Getting those folks and our regular employees trained on safety is a priority for us. Then, of course, reviewing grapes, barrels and all other harvest ingredients before the fruit starts to come in.”

  Andrade says Trinchero Family Estates has an intensive, year-round equipment maintenance protocol to accommodate its massive operational needs. Its COVID-19 protocols include on-site test kits and a company-instituted emergency response plan. 

  “This year, we’ve added a complete backup team called the Winemaking Response Team, which are individuals within our organization who can be activated if our labor force should be depleted due to COVID-19. This team is being safety trained and trained to jump in with a day’s notice to support harvest activities at any site.”

  In Washington state’s Yakima Valley, Two Mountain Winery begins fruit picking around mid-August, transferring grapes to the winery’s production facility at the beginning of September. Patrick Rawn, General Manager and head of vineyard operations, says that crush season increases the winery and farm labor team by about 30 workers. Equipment maintenance is also a priority.

  “Our primary preparation is ensuring all equipment, both farm and winery, is fully serviced and prepared to operate safely and efficiently. Additionally, any new equipment is installed and operational by [August 1], so any kinks can be worked out, and the team properly trained. We also try to predict what the timing will be so we can be sure our hand labor teams are large enough.  Along with this is training of any additional team members.”

  On the same grape-growing 45th parallel is Black Star Farms. The family-owned winemaking enterprise, located on the Leelanau Peninsula of Northern Michigan, typically begins harvest during the last week of September. Lee Lutes, winemaker and managing member, says that this year’s timetable for the winery could be different. 

  “Harvest typically begins the last week of September with early hybrid white varieties (Cayuga, Frontenac Gris) and fruit for traditional method sparkling wines,” says Lutes. “In a year like this, as we are advanced at this stage, that could move up one week or so. September is the telltale month for our industry, and much will depend on how the weather is during that month. We will be crushing approximately 650 tons of fruit between the two facilities. We farm approximately 175 acres of that, and the balance is purchased from a couple of long-time local growers.”

  Aurora Cellars is also located on Leelanau Peninsula. This full production boutique winery usually begins crush season in late September. Winemaker Drew Perry says that in late August, he spends time with the winery’s vineyard manager, testing fruit in every block twice weekly, charting a trajectory for harvest. As to fundamentals, Perry champions good and constant communication.

  “I begin by looking at what we ideally want to produce and create a master list of all the ingredients I will need to achieve that scenario.”

  Perry says that equipment maintenance occurs a week before the region’s cherry harvest, serving as “spring training” for the grape harvest.

  “Harvest is the most equipment intensive time of year. Much of the equipment we use during harvest is only used for that three-month period,” he says. “The presses, destemmer, crusher, and fruit elevator are our lifeblood this time of year.”

  Crush season 2020 is like no other in recent memory. The combination of a pandemic and adverse weather has affected nearly every facet of the wine industry—from the vineyard to labor to inventory still on hand. The path to recovery, some experts say, includes creative thinking and time-tested perseverance.

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