Saturday, March 10, 2012

"What's brown and sticky? A stick." - 4 yr old Digby.

To determine whether or not grapes are ready to be picked, a few bunches are picked from a couple different locations within the block. Their total weight is divided by the number of bunches and then they are squished by hand into juice. The baume (sugar/density), pH, and acid levels are all tested from this grape juice to evaluate the development of the ripening grapes. 
When the grapes are ripe, depending on the test mentioned above, the variety, and the weather forecast they are ready to be picked! A lot of the vineyard blocks so far have been mechanically picked during the night when the moonlit air is cool and the machine is able to shine light upon the rows of vines. The importance of the quality of the air temperature is to ensure that the grapes are still cool when they are brought into the winery and they are not over-ripened by the heat of the day. Hand-picking is a much slower process that requires sunlight and more people to expedite the work that could take hours. However, light and visibility are not the only variables that factor into the choice between mechanically picked and hand picked. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. As can be seen in the morning-shot photos below, this block is quite close to the winery so the grapes have less distance to travel after being picked and speed of the mechanical pick means they stay out in the heat.
The machine goes through one row while a tractor in the adjacent row follows with a trail of bins for the grapes to be dumped into off an overhanging conveyor belt. 
Maybe "dump" sounds a bit aggressive.

Me standing above the grapes!

The machine gently vibrates the vines as it passes, dropping everything on the vines into it. "Everything" not only includes the bunches of grapes but also fallen leaves, snapped sticks, yanked twigs, doomed mice, pinched spiders, wangled earwigs, nesting birds, more seized spiders, gathered cockroaches, broken branches, and captured moths. This is called MOG: "material other than grapes." 
All of this is passed onto a conveyor belt that goes over the picked-vines and into the bins following the tracker in the other row. It's quite effective in terms of being faster than hand picking, covering many more rows and collecting more grapes (and MOG). It also requires less labour which is cheaper than paying the hourly rate for the manual labor (my ride up and down the row was free.)
The other option, hand picking, has it's own advantages as the picker goes through each row, vine by vine, and snips off the bunches of grapes from the stem with clippers. Usually you work with another person on the other side so that you can both move down the line, removing grapes on both sides rather than trying to reach through the tangled leafy vines. By hand picking, the picker also does not include (or technically, should not include) big vine stems or leaves, no one is adding mice to the little bins and can cut around bad bunches of grapes. It's laborious and requires swift skills to snip quickly as often the bunches have grown around the vines and finding the stem deserves crafty maneuvering. Hand picking can also be the way to go if the vines are young or if there are obstacles like power lines positioned through a row that the machine can not pass through with it's overhanging conveyor belt.

The buckets are filled down the row until they are filled to the top and pushed to one side so that the tractor with the trailing bins drives along with another person following who dumps the grapes into the bins. Ok, maybe "dumps" is more aggressive here because hand picking is definitely more gentle on the grapes rather than being vibrated off the vine by machine, often causing a bit of squishing or skin tear, which could cause oxidation or not work for "whole-bunch" pressings.
It's hard to see when you can't cut the leaves.
Sometimes down on your knees.
 Sometimes getting up under and in the vines to see.
Sometimes the little bits of dried grass against the shin cause frantic thoughts of spiders.
But always a nice little sugary snack to keep you going.
After the picking is completed, we meet these compiled bins in the winery and then have to sort through the grapes on another conveyor belt to get rid of any MOG. Not every winery does this next step, but we sort through both mechanically and hand picked grapes. The mechanically picked grapes obviously have many more MOG particles, bits and pieces than the hand picked selection and really makes a difference on the scale of fear-factor nervous-anticipation during work. Our job of sorting through the pickings is not only important to prevent the damage a chunky stick could do to the press and other machinery, but the removal of the MOG makes a substantial difference in the quality of the wine you want to make. Every load is different though. Sometimes there are lots of bugs, sometimes there are just lots of leaves. 

One day, as we were sorting through the clusters of Poison Hill Riesling grapes, (one of our favorites out of the 3 of 4 Rieslings of theirs we have tasted) it was particularly full of large sticks, thick twigs, and entire leaves still attached to the branch, yet remarkably lacking a legion of insects.  Reaching into the grape juice to pull out the MOG for a long amount of time quickly covers your fingers and hand in a sugary syrup. (I had hopefully thought the juice would be full of grape antioxidants and act as an anti-wrinkle-grandma-hand-remedy, but instead the constant wetness and stickiness dries out my fingers, causing them to crack. More band-aides.) We were pulling out abounding sticks and twigs whizzing by on the conveyor belt that we couldn't believe the size or amount of, and as I looked down at my hands covered in viscous grape juice with little bits of crushed green grapes sticking to them, I said to Felix, "This is especially sticky today." He laughed and said, "Yeah, in a double meaning of the word."



I get it. 
And I'm even the native English speaker. 

A bit later, in between the sticks, twigs, and branches, we saw only two spiders but both of unbelievable staggering size and astonishing color that I made some sort of squealing noise causing everyone to look at me as I convulsed in absolute sheer horror, waving my soggy hands in disgust as I nearly fell off the box crate. I wanted to puke, then faint, then run away, but could only laugh at myself. 

Two ill-fated birds with their grey feathers drenched and matted also passed by in a heavy-hearted horror. 

Felix goes, "Now you know why Poison Hill tastes so good."

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