Five minutes in and I’m already sorting through grapes. Rick, Alejandra and Arcelia work quickly beside me as my hands struggle to de-stem the grapes at their pace. Art continues to pour in grapes from above, which separate from one another as they filter down to us. A smiling Victor inspects the grapes at the end of the conveyer belt as they fall into a giant bin. “Look at these,” he shouts, “they’re beautiful!”
September in Walla Walla brings with it the annual wine crush, the process of converting the grapes, which have been ripening all summer, into the first stages of wine. For wineries like ours, it means a few days of all-hands-on-deck, long-hour stints. Prior to 2012, Walla Faces outsourced their grapes for the crush. In the past few years, however, we have begun crushing the grapes ourselves. With more control over the crushing process, we have experienced better results. As a new member of the wine industry, I’m eager to learn how it all works.
Today’s grapes come from Two Blondes Vineyard in Zillah, Washington. Owner and co-winemaker Rick Johnson tells me, Two Blondes is overseen by our consulting winemaker, Chris Camarda. Rick and Victor De La Luz set out to pick up the grapes yesterday afternoon, arriving back to Walla Walla late into the evening. Despite the minimal sleep, they are now hard at work in making sure the crush runs smoothly.
Merlot is up first. To begin, the grapes are run through a destemmer that separates the grapes from the stems. The destemmer then drops the grapes onto a vibrating conveyer belt, from which four workers remove any remaining stems, leaves, and undesirable grapes before the grapes fall into a bin. When the bin is half-full, Victor mixes in Di-ammonium Phosphate and what winemakers call “Superfood”—essentially, nutrients. This process is repeated when the bin becomes fully filled. These additions, Victor tells me, ensure that the nutrient content of the grapes remains sufficient when it comes time for the fermentation. The next step is a new one for us, started only last year: the grapes are left to sit in a cold environment for five days. This hands-off approach allows the grapes to begin breaking down by themselves, producing what Victor describes as softer, more elegant tannins. From there, yeast is added and the temperature is raised, beginning the fermentation process. Fermentation lasts for two weeks before the liquid is transferred to oak barrels to age for twenty to twenty-two months. The liquid, now a more complex and finished wine, is then bottled and, I was intrigued to learn, allowed to sit another year before it is sold.
Throughout today’s process, Victor is rushing around the facilities, operating the forklift for a minute before grabbing the Superfood for the grapes, then hopping back on the forklift to switch out the grapes. It’s hard work for our co-winemaker, yet he maintains a grin and a positive attitude throughout it all. Rick, conversely, works methodically to de-stem the grapes, and exchanges thoughtful dialogue with Victor about the quality of the fruit, the plan for the next few days, and what can be done differently next year. It’s clear that the many years he spent studying architecture help determine his approach to wine: Rick is in many ways our viticulture architect, thoughtfully making decisions about how to extract the most flavor from the grapes, how to protect the grapes from the sweltering heat we experienced this summer, and much more.
We sort through all the Merlot grapes before moving on to Cabernet Franc. During the next week or so, we’ll crush the grapes from our own Estate vineyard. These grapes are picked later than most in Walla Walla due to the relatively high elevation of the vineyard, which give our wines a unique taste and aroma.
By the time I leave to bike home, I’m equally exhausted and thrilled. The crush is a pivotal Walla Walla experience that I am glad I could experience. I just wish I didn’t have to wait over a year to taste the wine I helped make.