Handling That First Crush

Closeup of wine grapes being dumped from a truck into crusher

By: Tracey L. Kelley

The anticipation of your first wine crush is a different kind of love story. Waiting for this moment to come to fruition requires years of planning, plotting and production. If you’re a grape grower, your pulse quickens with vérasion as the potential presents itself. If you’re a winemaker relying on partnerships to provide you with grapes, the sweat on your brow is both excitement and a little anxiety until you know everything is just right.

  How can you speedily process grapes while enjoying the journey of this process? Choose the right equipment, craft a solid contingency plan and ask the right people for help. Every year provides a chance to reassess, but in most cases, each crush will be better than the last when you know what works for you.

What Crushing Process Works Best for You?

  In some business plans, scaling your equipment to a larger level at startup is often the recommendation so you’re prepared for projected growth. However, if your winery goals require you to stay small, at least until expansion possibilities solidify by demand and profitability, there’s no need to have volunteers for foot treading or hand-cranking grapes—unless that’s part of your marketing and promotions efforts, of course.

  Many small and mid-sized producers benefit from automation. Leo Birdsall is the inventor and owner of FASTRAK Cider Press, based in Springfield, Oregon. He developed a press powered by an air compressor that handles destemmed or shredded fruit. He said he got the idea from talking with producers at trade shows who wanted a motorized method for crush with a lower price point. The automation also helps reduce labor.

  “You can have one person operating the destemmer, feeding the clusters into it. Then another person can collect the pomace in a bag and put it on the press. Once the press is activated, it takes 2.3 seconds to get about three–to–four gallons of juice,” Birdsall told The Grapevine Magazine. Depending on your flavor profiles, you choose how much pomace set aside and add to the juice during fermentation.

  The average price of mechanized destemmer crusher is approximately $3,800–$5,500, especially if you want features such as variable speed control and hookups for must pumps. A wine bladder press is often two times that amount. If your operation is processing about one ton of grapes at a time, as an example, averaging 120–150 gallons of wine per ton—or roughly 60–65 cases of wine—it’s easy to see why even a small automated system makes a speedy difference during crush season.

  FASTRAK retails for $2,500, so paired with a hand-powered or motorized destemmer with an estimated price of $350 might be a more comfortable entry point for some small producers.

  Other producers may find high-quality destemmer crushers at auction, then learn how to rebuild and repair the equipment and save costs that way. Michael and Kelly Amigoni own Amigoni Urban Winery in Kansas City, Missouri. Winemaker Michael specializes in dry wines crafted from Barbera, Cinsaut, Sangiovese and Tempranillo grapes. Although the couple once had a vineyard, Amigoni now receives 70–90 tons of whole clusters from their partner growers in Lodi, California. They crush, press, ferment, barrel-age and bottle at their winery in the revitalized Stockyard District of Kansas City’s West Bottoms neighborhood.

  Amigoni’s initial production started with 300 cases. Twelve years later, the winery produces more than 4,000 cases a year of award-winning cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, chardonnay and viognier.

  “We have a rebuilt French crusher destemmer that we bought at auction, and we rebuilt the motors—one that propels the destemmer, and one that propels the crusher rollers. We tore the guts out and rebuilt it all,” Amigoni said. With this machine, he can crush about three tons in an hour.

  Machines with gentle overlapping lobe roller crushers continue to be the most prominent choice for small–to–mid-sized producers. Ultimately, a winemaker has to choose a machine that allows for more control over color and tannin. Equipment with variable speeds might enhance the process not only for production but also final quality.

Get Your Equipment and

Supplies in Order

  On average, you have a day—maybe two—to crush grapes. Checking all equipment now is critical to ensure efficient process flow. Inspect, repair and prep:

•    Destemmer, crusher, press, pumps, bladders and hoses—make sure to only use food-grade grease, paint, and cleansers for oiling, metal coating and sterilization. Check seals, bearings, paddles, clamps and hose integrity. You’ll also need a special bladder cleanser. Double-check that you have all the necessary lubricants

•    Buckets, bins, hold tanks, must chillers, fermenters and barrels—pressure wash as needed and sterilize. Check tank fittings and valves.

•    Crush pad and winery—fill cracks and low spots, sanitize for mold and other foreign material.

•    Forklift—even if it’s a rental, run the machine a few days before crush and check the operation. You’ll also probably need extra gas canisters, so call the gas company and have them on hand.

•    Refractometer—use distilled water to recalibrate it to ensure proper brix reading levels.

•    Brooms, mops and other cleaning supplies—have two or three sets so workers don’t have to wait to use them.

•    Hot and cold water options—you’ll need to check your microwave or kettle to make sure they’re working to warm up water for optimal yeast temperature. Check all nozzles, faucets, and sprayers.

•    First aid kit—plan for every medical emergency, from a minor bee sting to a slip and fall, and stock accordingly.

  Amigoni is a careful planner. This technique, he said, helped reduce the pressure of crush. His checklist is quite extensive, and he adheres to it. “I used to panic before harvest,” he said. “Now, I don’t. I’ve seen it all over the years, and realize preparation is everything.”

  Proper gear such as boots, raincoats, and pop-up tents, Amigoni said, make it easier to crush outside. Have a few extra sets of gloves, safety glasses, and masks beyond the number of workers you’re expecting to prepare for any contingencies or additional people stopping by to watch the process.

  “Make sure you have enough covers for open bins and tanks, too—even heavy-duty cardboard is fine. I get extra cardboard from a local brewery. Also, be sure you have enough tape. You never have enough tape,” he said. “If it’s windy or there’s a hose problem or whatever, tape solves a lot of problems.”

  Order about 10% more cleaning and lab supplies than you think you might need—many will keep for a full year. For example, Amigoni said, get a few extra packets of the highest-grade yeast to have on hand.

  “You order yeast according to your variety, but there are times when you have high brix, and normal yeast will die at 16, and maybe you had something come in at 28 or 30 brix,” he said. “Make sure you have high-quality yeast that will go to 17, just one or two packets sitting by, because if you need to have yeast overnighted, it’ll cost a lot more.”

  “Additionally, if you’re doing a cold soak technique, make sure you’ve lined up your dry ice. If you’re using a jacketed tank or chiller, have plenty of glycol available in case there’s a leak or if you need to add some to get down to a certain temperature.”

  Like many winemakers creating different styles, Amigoni has a staggered crush season: a hurry and wait on each varietal’s arrival over the course of a few weeks. He’s learned proper preparation before each crush is essential. “If you’re not prepared, you’ll implode. You have to be precise. I’ve seen times when we’ve spilled things or hit things because we’re in a hurry. This rushing causes a ripple effect, and it’s detrimental to your whole operation. Preparation helps the whole process run more smoothly.”

Create an Environment of Joyful Work

  Crushing is often at its best when it’s done “in kind,” Amigoni told The Grapevine Magazine. “Along with a couple of regular workers, we also have quite a few people—typically 12 people—who volunteer. We have some people who come back each year, and actually, have a waiting list of others wanting to help. They get paid ‘in kind,’—kind words, kind people and a kind smile when you say ‘here, take this home’ as you hand them a bottle of wine.”

  However, he recommends being discerning with who does what. “My biggest challenge is sorting through people and putting them on the right task. Only certain people go on the crusher, for example, or only a couple of people can operate the forklift. Maybe others are marking bins, or putting together little buckets of stuff for me, taping stuff. They like helping, and everyone has a purpose.”

  His advice for getting through your first crush, and others, is threefold:

1.   Pace yourself. “You’ll have a tendency to think ‘I need to do everything at once!’ and rush through everything. Most of the time, though, grapes can sit for a day or so.”

2.   Take the proper amount of breaks. “You might want to push through the whole day—12 hours or more without any breaks—but it’s better to tell your crew to stop, have no equipment running and sit down. Have burgers or pizza or whatever and talk for a while. Your productivity goes through the roof afterward. I used to have a bad habit of not stopping—it took me a long time to find the value in that. It’s not right to push everyone so hard. So make a point to say, ‘Okay, that’s a half-ton done. Here’s your next one waiting when we come back. Now let’s all sit down and eat.’ You can time it—a half hour or so to rehydrate, eat and relax. It may take some volunteers a little longer to get up than others, but they’ll get up to speed eventually.”

3.   Always remember to have fun. “People say, ‘What do you think about your job?’ and I say, ‘I don’t have a job.’ In the early years, yeah, it seemed like a little more of a struggle, especially when I wasn’t prepared. You’ll run into a sweet spot eventually—your budget will increase, you’ll get better equipment and continue to keep yourself motivated.”