Crush Season: When Timing is Everything, Experience Matters

staff crushing grapes

By: Cheryl Gray   

Inside every grape is the flavor upon which crush season depends. Capturing that flavor is a skill that every vineyard around the world strives to master. 

  From traditional methods to the latest technology, wineries have a singular goal in mind: extracting the very best from a grape crop nurtured during the past year. 

  The Pellenc Group is a global manufacturer of equipment and tools used in viticulture. Its subsidiary in the United States, Pellenc America, is headquartered in Santa Rosa, California. The company’s technologically advanced products make it a leader in the industry and help wineries get the most from their grape crops. 

  One of Pellenc’s innovations is Smart Glass, a connected sensor used to transfer wine, automatically shutting off when complete. The Smart Glass receives information either from a remote control or Pellenc’s pump pilot module and alerts the operator whenever there is a change in the liquid. Applications include not only liquid transfer but also blending, cold settling and gas detection. Smart Glass touts cost-effectiveness in that it improves productivity by facilitating automated transfers, freeing up workers to do other tasks. It also promotes reduced water consumption and wine loss. The product’s year-round multiple applications, including water flushing and flotations, also help save time and money. 

  Another time-saving product from Pellenc is Smart Oak, is an automated tool with a user-friendly interface. Instead of the weeks it normally takes to complete oaking, Smart Oak is designed to reduce that to just a few days. The system includes a soaking vat, pump and built-in sensors, the latter of which manages the speed, control and successful repetition of the entire oaking process. Smart Oak allows wineries to use wood chips, staves and blocks to achieve the finished wine product. It also eliminates the need to purchase and store barrels. 

  Pellenc’s Flash Détente is a two-step thermodynamic process that reduces fermentation time from two weeks to three days and increases yield by 3 to 4%. The first step heats grapes, juice, wine or lees to 170 F, allowing wineries to eliminate pyrazine and any green pepper taste while achieving enhanced color extraction. The grapes are then pushed into a vacuum chamber, where the water inside the fruit quickly turns to steam, instantly blasting the skin, which releases tannins and anthocyanins.  

  Finally, the Pellenc Smoke Taint Mitigation protocol is a combination of Flash Détente operations and enzymatic macerations. Combining the two gives wineries the ability to treat tainted berries before fermentation without stripping the finished wines of their character and flavors. 

Facing Challenges 

  While new technology is helping wineries reduce costs and maximize crop yields for crush season, the deadly coronavirus and lingering drought continue to be tough challenges even for the most experienced winemakers. 

  Just ask Penelope Gadd-Coster, the award-winning winemaking consultant for Rack and Riddle Custom Wine Services in Sonoma County, California. She said that many of the safety steps Rack and Riddle put in place last year to protect against COVID-19 remain. 

  “Well, just when we thought we might be over masks, they are back! Many things will be similar to last year: masks indoors, visitors will need to be masked, still need an appointment for meetings, Zoom will still reign as the communication tool.” 

  These are just a few of the strategies that Rack & Riddle has deployed to operate safely during the pandemic. With the tonnage of grapes it processes each year, the company has incorporated technology to accommodate some of its workloads.  

  “Rack & Riddle has invested in some automation that is allowing us to keep steady staffing. For example, tirage bins are filled by robots. This was a task that was done by seasonal workers in the past,” said Gadd-Coster. 

  As for the drought plaguing California and elsewhere, Gadd-Coster told The Grapevine Magazine that growers are being forced to take drastic measures to conserve water for this year’s crush season. 

  “The drought is a bigger change as Healdsburg is having to drop [usage] by 40%. Businesses are having to come up with ways to make this happen as well. For the vineyards, [it’s] either recycled water or no water for vines unless the growers filled reservoirs before the restrictions. Many thought that harvest would be early due to the drought, but it is actually coming later than average in many areas.” 

  Other grape-growing regions, including the Pacific Northwest, have also suffered from extreme heat. Richard Hoff, Director of Viticulture for the renowned Mercer Ranches in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, said that the high temperatures have impacted their crush season schedule.  

  “As far as harvest impacts, due to the 110 F, 115 F  heatwave we had, grapes are ripening quickly, and we expect a somewhat early harvest.” 

  Gadd-Coster added that supplies and equipment are harder to come by as the businesses that provide them are tackling some of the same obstacles as their vineyard and winery clients. 

  “Equipment and supplies are taking longer. That still hasn’t changed much yet. And some things are just not available–long wait times. This was the case with some of our winemaking additives, some packaging items.” 

  John Derrick is Vice President of Vineyards for Mercer Ranches. He says there has been significant lag time for other pieces that are critical to a successful crush season. 

  “The supply chain for parts is just as bad for grape equipment and supplies. Finding and hiring new employees is definitely a big struggle this year. We are lucky in that we utilize H2A and do not foresee any people issues at this time.” 

  The H2A program allows American companies that meet strict regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Many crush seasons depend upon these workers. However, some wineries are increasingly looking to technology to replace manual labor for specific tasks. 

  Sorting fruit is one of those jobs where technology can step in to help maximize results. John Felice, Vineyard & Winery Equipment & Product Specialist for Pellenc, points to the manufacturer’s Vision Optical Sorter as a solution.  

  “The Vision-2 features the best optical eye in the industry combined with the best software to produce the highest level of quality consistently throughout the harvest. The cleated belt holds the fruit from moving around and allows the Vision-2’s optical system to determine what it keeps and what it rejects. You can set the Vision-2 to keep or remove raisins and remove fruit that does not meet a certain size or color level. With today’s labor shortage, the Vision-2 will control up to six other machines on the receiving and sorting line. This level of automation allows you to run the optical line with one to two people.”  

Developing a Crush Pad 

  Equipment and supplies for crush pads are critical components for a successful crush season.  Experts say that coordinating with knowledgeable companies makes a big difference for wineries developing a crush pad. 

  The Vinter’s Vault helps wineries of all sizes solve the dilemma of exactly how to execute a crush pad. With two locations in Paso Robles and Temecula, California, and a third in Texas, the company’s reach is global, including clients located throughout the U.S. and in Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, China, Nova Scotia and Indonesia. The Vinter’s Vault works with several manufacturers to provide wineries with equipment such as destemmers, presses, tanks, lift conveyors, sorting and vibrating tables. Ryan Horn is the company’s President. 

  “We do full crush pad set-ups and often help clients with their designs. We commonly do full design layouts for new and expanding wineries where we can design and plot the flow of work for their view and to fit their needs, desires and location,” said Horn. “For crush pad equipment, we are most known for the Athena Presses, which are very state-of-the-art central membrane presses that are faster, more gentle and more efficient than any press on the market. Our IMMA crush pad equipment is also well known.” 

  Pellenc also deploys a design and sales team to work with wineries worldwide to develop crush pads, including wineries in California, Texas, the eastern United States, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa. Felice said that Pellenc is there from beginning to end.  

  “Pellenc design engineers and salespeople will work with the winery team to gather the necessary information and put a proposal together with CAD drawings to meet the demands      of the winery with throughput and efficiency in mind.” 

  Companies that provide equipment and supplies for crush season agree that there is no cookie-cutter approach to servicing their vineyard and winery clients. Among other things, 24/7 service and technical support are high on the list of reputable firms. Experts say those are the companies that understand that fruit won’t wait. 

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