For wineries throughout the northern hemisphere, it will soon be crush time—the action-packed weeks when grapes are picked and crushed, their juice laid down to ferment into wine. Depending on the region and the weather, crush starts in August and continues into November.
Crush is both the culmination of the growing season and the beginning of a winemaker’s year. “It’s my first chance to interact with the grapes, the first step in a long process,” says Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards, a small winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
When it comes to American wine, the West Coast usually gets all the attention. So it was with great curiosity and interest that I went to visit the Finger Lakes, an up-and-coming region that’s fast-emerging territory for seriously delicious and prizewinning Riesling, as well as Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Last fall, I got to see the 2001 harvest in full swing at Fox Run Vineyards, experiencing firsthand the bustle, hard work, and excitement that typify crush everywhere.
Judging when to pick
Riesling grapes thrive in the Finger Lakes, a cool climate wine-making region. A shorter growing season, less heat, and more humidity pose challenges compared to places like California, Australia, and southern France. First-rate wine is crafted here—but skilled winemaking is crucial. And as the grapes ripen in the early autumn light, every ray of sun matters.
“A ripe grape yields to gentle pressure but springs back slightly,” says Peter Bell, who insists on feeling grapes for ripeness as well as on tasting them.
A refractometer measures sugar level, but it’s just one way to judge ripeness. Bell consults constantly with vineyard manager John Kaiser, squeezing, tasting, chewing, spitting, and watching the weather to figure out just when it’s picking time.
“I don’t know what we’d do without them,” says Bell of his loyal picking crew. Guadalupe Feria and others pick in the early morning, when the grapes are still cool, to preserve flavors. The pickers are meticulous, picking only ripe grapes and leaving less-than-perfect fruit.
Different grape varieties pose different demands: juggling them is one of the biggest challenges of all at crush time. “The pace ramps way up and all of a sudden I have ten things to do at once,” says Bell. In a single morning, he’ll watch newly picked Chardonnay grapes go from the crusher-stemmer and into the press. He’ll punch down newly crushed Pinot Noir (to submerge the grape skins, which ensures even fermentation, concentrated flavor, and intense color). And he’ll taste Gewurztraminer juice fresh off the press (“rich and soft, with an intense burst of ripe flavors and an aroma of rose petals”).
Analyzing, deciding, and acting
Fox Run’s assistant winemaker, Peter Howe, transfers Chardonnay juice from tank to barrel, where the wine will start fermenting in oak. Like cooking, making wine demands knowing your ingredients and making smart choices. Yet, “it’s different from cooking in that I won’t know the outcome for months to come—but that’s part of the fun,” Bell tells me. In the coming months, he’ll be intent on making the wine the best it can be: analyzing, filtering, tasting, blending, bottling, and moving wine from tank to barrel. “A certain amount of crystal-ball gazing is required,” he muses. “I rely on past experience and look forward to the results.”