Before We Pick: Harvest Prep at Sheldrake Point
We are just weeks away from the beginning of harvest, and bottling season wraps up this week. You might envision the Sheldrake Point winemakers, Dave Breeden and me, spending these last days of summer with our feet up and sipping the literal fruits of our labors. However, harvest prep for the winemakers at Sheldrake Point is anything but leisure time! There is a lot of heavy lifting and elbow grease involved before a single grape is picked.
Harvest Prep: Heavy Lifting
The first thing we do is get all of our big equipment out of storage from down at the dairy barn. The elevator, crusher/de-stemmer, and sump are used only when the fruit comes in; we move it all down the hill with a forklift to store over the winter away from the snow and sun. Now we have to move it back to the crush pad, a flat cement surface with a drain, located just outside of the winery’s overhead door.
The next step is making sure that all of our equipment is in working order BEFORE we need to use it! This includes testing our chilling system to the tanks, which needs to chill to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less. We will get some help from our vineyard/winery guru, Kim White, and harvest intern, Patrick Commane, a viticulture student at Cornell. The whole system gets a once-over to fix hoses and check for overall work-readiness.
Harvest Prep: Getting Spic ‘n Span
With the scrub brushes comes the elbow grease, because harvest prep means deep cleaning.
A common winery expression is: “Over 50% of winemaking is cleaning.” Any equipment that is used daily is also cleaned daily, to remove sugars and residues to keep the machinery functioning smoothly and to discourage the attraction of fruit flies. But, again, harvest prep means a whole new level of clean.
We have 38 tanks we use for winemaking, and all of them are about to get spic n’ span.
Chemically speaking, I’ll make 50 gallons of a base solution that will circulate through the entire tank system. While we have to use a base strong enough that I need goggles and gloves, we do limit the environmental impact by adding citric acid to neutralize the solution to make it safe before draining. We finish cleaning the tank system by rinsing with citric acid water, then plain water.
Science of Cleaning
Working with alcohol does mean there is less opportunity for unwanted bacterial growth. Most of the bacteria that we fight in the winery do not come in contact with our wine and are in the form of slimy surface yeasts. They love to grow in wet areas, in particular, anywhere that water condensation collects at the base of our tanks. Fortunately it is very slow-growing, and some scrubbing of the drains, walls, and floors gets rid of it.
Even though cleaning can be painfully boring work, it is critical to making our award-winning wine. Here’s why:
Microbiological activity. If we are not thorough about cleaning, then the perfect environment can develop for unwanted yeast cells to grow inside the tanks. The wine can spoil, or these unwelcome microbes can affect the flavor of the wine.
If not outright ruining the wine, it may not be as good of a wine as it should have been. As a winemaker, I do not want to taste a 15 year old vintage and think that had I just scrubbed harder, the wine could be perfect!
The good kind of funk
Cleaning season may be less glamorous than harvest. However, thanks to the help from Patrick and Kim—and my cleaning mixtape of R&B, punk rock, and funk—we’ll be right on schedule to get everything clean, just in time for it to get really dirty again!