Custom Crush Host & Guest

Photo of winery building with grape crushing equipment and people using bins to put grapes on crushing equipment

By: Thomas J. Payette, Winemaking Consultant

Having been on both sides of custom crush not only as a winemaker as a host winery but also as a winemaking client in another’s winery I feel especially adapted to help people with custom crush endeavors.  Making sure your grapes and wine get the excellent treatment they deserve is always the top consideration.  You want to make excellent wine, without winemaking flaw, as a bottom line.

Choosing Your Custom Crush Partner

  Make sure to choose a custom crush winemaking facility that is adapted to your size and style.  If you care for the products that winery makes that is a key asset that you can hopefully build on but it is not a given your wines will be as clean and assertive as the winery making your wines.  Research the winery you plan to be involved with and make sure they are the correct fit.  Research their sanitation and explore if brettanomyces could be a long term issue, especially if making reds and moving the bulk wine back to your facility.

Discuss How Far to Go

  Discuss with the winery how much of the process you plan to have done at their facility.  Will they just crush and ship? Will they crush, ferment, press and ship?  Will they crush, ferment, press, age, bottle and ship?  What should the label say?  What should they expect from you?  If you are building a new winery building are there contingencies’ for a construction delay on your end?  There are many ways to configure what your needs are and the winery should have some idea of how long you plan to stay and what their role is in your vision.

Communication

  Now we can see communication is already a huge part of this relationship.  Beyond how long you will stay at the winery leads into division of responsibilities.  Who will decide the yeast, enzyme, nutrient, style, maceration, whole cluster press, crush and press, etc?  Will tanks be available?   Should you bring your own tanks and barrels to the winery to be helpful?  What can the winery supply to you in the way of fermentation capacity and how soon will the wine get into your barrels so the production path is clear for their grapes and wines?  Map out a process with the winemaker and/or GM to make sure a plan is in place.

Priority

  Every harvest comes with new challenges.  Often winemakers are already stressed with their own fruit and winemaking demands only to find owners and GM’s piling more on them with custom crush.  Make sure the winemaking team really wants you there and that they will treat your fruit with the same respect as their own.  Is the winemaker being compensated extra for your presence?  Should they be?  Are they happy you are “on board” or is this process a thorn in their side?  Are you just in their way? This is hugely important to your success as a client in their cellar and what are your buffers or remedies if you find your expectations are not being met?  This happens and you need expertise to know when things are not just right.

Expertise

  Make sure you have expertise on hand to help coax your winemaking process along.  Make sure a detailed plan has been placed, on paper, for the resident winemaker to follow.  Make sure the plan has the flexibility needed to shift to address the potential abnormalities every harvest has.  This ability to make decisions on the fly will be imperative to your overall wine quality success.  Not knowing the ins and outs can lead you subject to agreeing to things you may not have agreed to and having the wines suffer in the process.  Make sure you don’t become “second fiddle” for the cost of a “front row seat”.

Being a Priority

  Keeping yourself in the forefront will be a delicate balance.  Harvest has everyone under stress and that starts to show quickly in the game.  Make sure level heads approach reactionary winemakers with compromise and offering solutions.  It will help the stress level of the onsite winemaker remain low and you will gain respect.  This will typically pay off later when you do need a little something extra from the winemaking team.  They will respectfully step forward and help on the back end.  Show that you understand the shoes they are in and that you are not only present to help them navigate the waters, with them, but ready to look after your wines, too. 

How to get the Best

  Getting the best is by getting along.Communication is the key.  If your fruit is being delayed from the 10:00am delivery slot originally planned – place the quick call to the proper winemaking team person and let them know calmly. 

Chances are something else has shifted that day already and the team easily navigates this new slot.  It always works out well beyond any planning but if the team is veteran – they have seen it all and will refocus their energy to a more immediate task that may have been slated for later that day.  This same approach goes for all during the year.  Plan and communicate.

Flexibility

  The above has certainly addressed the issue of flexibility.  This is farming at crush.  Harvesters break down, picking crews get out of sequence, lug deliveries may have been delayed or any other host of things could happen.  Many situations are out of your control so plan for the worst and accept a good day.  They happen more frequently than this article might suggest.

Good….Great Relationships

  Keep a great relationship, even at your own expense, while having wine made in another’s facility.  That doesn’t mean you need to role over and accept poor treatment of your fruit and wines but rather go the extra mile to have the winemaking crew want to help you.  Help them when possible on a task they are working on if the winery environment allows it.  If you can help them clear a path to work with your fruit – they will respect that.

Doing Work Yourself

  Will you be able to do work yourself on their premise and in their facility?  This can be key from crushing fruit to racking tanks and barrels or filtering wine.  If things are being slow to get done ask if you can come in and do the work yourself provided you have the knowledge and skills.  Some wineries will allow this and in some cases it is the best solution for on site quality control.  Will the custom crush winery assign their top personnel on your lots or will they focus on theirs?  Human nature comes into play here and you need to protect your investment.  If late Friday work orders delivered to a non veteran winemaking staff should become the norm for what needs to be done to your wines – this should sound alarm bells to you.

Lab Testing

  Will the custom crush winery supply lab numbers to you?  Do you trust their lab numbers, expertise and how will you know if the numbers are trust worthy?  The difference in a pH reading of 3.88 and 3.76 could have a huge influence on how you may want to handle that wine.  Make sure to use outside labs to help validate the internal numbers being supplied to you.  It is great insurance for your wines and you soon know how reliable the internal winery numbers are and how often you need to seek outside numbers.

Record Keeping

  How much access will you have in the record keeping?  Will the custom crush winery hold those records close to their chest or is it an open book?  Do they keep as detailed records as you hope to see?  Address this before becoming a client of theirs.  Is it up to them to keep track of blends or yourself?  Perhaps it is best to run the records parallel so you can confirm your confidence in what you receive.  It will help in any case especially in the event of a computer crash or other catastrophic events.

Sanitation

  When courting a winery, as a potential custom crush facility, make sure you are happy with what you see in terms of sanitation.  Don’t expect that the overall sanitation regime will change once you “get married”.  Look at the process and procedures that each winery might have in place to understand how they clean certain segments of the winery.  If you plan to move the wines in bulk to your facility be careful not to contaminate your brand new winery with spoilage microbes that could affect your wine styles for years if not forever.

Summary

  Make sure to look out for number one when looking to do custom crush.  Many honorable facilities exist but be on your toes to make sure you know when things are not headed in the proper direction for your wines.  Make sure you are getting your monies worth and that the wines you intend to craft are indeed shaping up in the proper fashion.

•    Know what your goals are and express them.

•    Explore the winery that will best fit the goals.

•    Make business arrangements to achieve the goals.

•    Communicate throughout all the winemaking process.

•    Have a commanding presence while remaining flexible.

  A big thanks to Rombauer, Laird, Braman, Prince Michel and numerous other wineries for allowing me custom crush access and experience.

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