Harvest is a feverish, high-energy time in the vineyard and winery. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing seven months of nature’s miracle growth transition from vine to wine. “Team Canada’s”* 10 days of working the Paso Robles, California harvest with winemaker, Paul Hinschberger and vineyard manager, Patrick Hamilton were not only rich in curriculum, but they were fun. SO. MUCH. FUN.
I suppose I could tell you all the things I learned working harvest at Rangeland, but a visual diary of our curriculum provides a better synopsis of the amazing real world instruction and on-the-job learning.
In the Vineyard
Pinch me again… this is where we work?
It’s 7:30 in the morning and Paul is doing a competitive check. I like him already.
Vineyard manager, Patrick Hamilton, is responsible for keeping the vineyard in top form and harvest is the culmination of his season’s hard work. We’ll be berry sampling and determining the picking schedule for the remaining blocks of Rangeland’s 40 acres of fruit. It may look utterly bucolic, but our job is to haul our pail – and butts – up and down these hills (ok, rows) in 80+ degree heat (drama queen). Our mission? To ensure a broad, representative sample of grapes is collected from a broad representative sample of rows and a broad, representative sample of exposures.
Don’t worry, says Patrick. With this species of tarantula, if they bite, it’s not fatal.
Where’s the anti-venom kit?
Squishing half a pail of berries – over and over again – makes you wasp bait. BUT, you do this, without complaining (!!), so you can “bag” grapes and analyze acid and sugar levels in the lab. The DMA meter will give us an accurate reading on brix, but I like to taste while I pick and then again when I squish, to see how closely my palate aligns with the meter readings. The goal at harvest is to strike a balance between a berry’s flavour development and its physiological ripeness. Grapes may have high sugar levels and taste sweet, but the skins, seeds and stems also need to be fully ripe to be in balance. For a seasoned winemaker like Paul, the decision to pick often comes down to qualitative measures like how the grapes and seeds taste in the vineyard and the colour of the skins, seeds and vines.
We drop some green fruit and clear laterals on the north side and in water runoff locations to allow sun and airflow into the canopy. Cluster management in the final days before picking is a delicate balancing act. With southern exposures, the goal is to ensure the grapes don’t get sunburned and a generous canopy is critical for sheltering the berries. With northern exposures, the row is often shaded until later in the day, so pulling laterals – extra canopy – helps let sunlight in, better enhancing the row’s sun exposure. Bottom line? Mother Nature doesn’t always play fair and there is a high level of variability in rows and blocks. Spot picking is often required to ensure evenly ripe berries.
Better to catch the Praying Mantis in the field than on the sorting table – thx Patrick!
This is what hard work looks like, folks!! 4 rows = 1 bin = 1/2 a ton of picking prowess. Go *Team Canada!
Apparently the cows equate Patrick’s white pick-up truck with the gift of hay. The cloud of dust in the distant hills signals the herd of cattle, stampeding our way. (The city girls are lovin’ this.)
In the Winery
Rangeland uses the gravity-flow facilities at Denner Vineyards for winemaking. Paul was the assistant winemaker here before he moved to Rangeland. Denner’s 2008 Dirt Worshipper – btw- was voted the 11th best wine in the world in the 2011 Wine Spectator list of top wines.
The forklift tips the half-ton bins with yesterday’s pick into the hopper. Grape clusters are sorted and then fed through the destemmer – a brilliant device that gently crushes and rotates the grape cluster through a cylinder with a million…ok, a lot of holes in it. Paddles knock the ripe berries off the stems, which are then fed into a waiting bin.
All wineries de-stem but not all wineries hand-sort. No question, the best wine is hand cleaned on the sorting table so you’re not drinking earwigs, millipedes, centipedes, lady-bugs, spiders, botrytis, leaves and raisins in your wine. Just another difference between industrial wine and small production wine-making.
Destemmed grapes vibrate along a perforated, sloping steel plate, which filters out smaller imperfect berries and bits of stem. We’re there to catch any final errant berries, bugs or vegetation that you wouldn’t want to drink. You’re welcome!
Lyndsay has worked eight Paso harvests at wineries big and small, and these days she divides her time between Rangeland and a couple of neighbouring wineries (including Saxum (ahem) and Thacher).
She thinks the odd green grape adds character. I’m on her side. Don’t tell Paul.
Lest you think this is fun & games, or a photo op, we are in fact, working the cap the old-fashioned way. A Pigeage à Pied is done during the cold soaking (a pre-fermentation process to extract pigments) and fermentation stage to aerate and punch-down the cap of grape skins being pushed to the surface by the CO2 below. “Treading grapes by foot” helps extract the colour, flavour, and tannin from the fermenting juice. During my 2016 harvest at Greystone in New Zealand, we’d walk a plank (think: balance beam) into the centre of the tank and then do punch-downs with a plunger. It’s a miracle I didn’t plunge headfirst into the grape bath! Needless to say – I prefer stomps!
Sir Paul (taskmaster!!!) likes his bins (that held yesterday’s pick) REALLY REALLY clean (I’m a mother…I get clean), so we pressure wash the bins and then wipe them dry. Thank you to whomever thought this was a good picture. You know who you are.
Rangeland co-owner, Lisa Foshay, is a bit of a legend in Paso country. Beyond the outstanding wine, grass-fed beef and lamb that the Foshay family produces at Adelaida Springs Ranch, Lisa makes a chocolate chip cookie that is to die for. Her secret sauce: adding a little Skor magic to the mix. Twice, she dropped by the winery with lunch fixins and these fresh-from-the-oven gems.
Paul is measuring brix and alcohol levels as the yeast do their job on the Grenache and Merlot picked earlier in September. He’s employing a matrix approach to the ferments as he compares indigenous yeast and curated yeast, low barrel char to medium char, stainless vs. neutral barrels. The wine is hazy from the lees but the evolution to wine is nearly complete. Tasting these early wines and comparing the fermentation variables is fantastic curriculum!!!
Once the grape must (skins and juice) is “dry” and all sugar converted to alcohol, it’s time to pour off the “free run” juice and press the grapes. Free run is the high quality juice that’s been gently extracted through cold soak maceration, fermentation and punch-downs and winemakers will often separate this juice from “the pressings”.
Next up: we press-off the skins on the mechanical press to extract the remaining wine. The press gently squeezes the wine out of the “must” solids and into the pan below. Gentle is the operative word, given that pressing skins and seeds, also adds tannin to the “press juice”.
The wine in the pan is then pumped into a barrel for secondary fermentation and maturation.
The barrels are washed with hot water to swell the staves and tighten and seal the wood. The barrels are then “rolled” to get the water out of the head, and hoisted onto the barrel racks. We transfer the wine from the fermentation bins into barrel – using our cell phone lights (the high tech part) to assess “fill” level – and then quietly put the 2017 vintage to sleep.
We filled a couple of barrels. Paul filled 82. Just sayin!
So there you have it. Two weeks in the life of a Rangeland intern. Between the vineyard and winery curriculum, I learned a lot. Most people have no idea the work that goes into making a bottle of wine. We pop the cork – perhaps turn the screw cap – and pour.
I know differently….
There were a lot of people responsible for making the ‘Educating Team Canada’ magic happen. Huge thanks go to Paul, Patrick and Laird and Lisa Foshay for providing an amazing real-world learning environment and sharing their spectacular Rangeland classroom with us.
Cheers to the #2017 vintage!
*We – aka Team Canada: Lynne Robson (left), Cathy Doyle (centre), and me, Debbie Gordon