What winemakers don’t tell about their craft

The role of winemaker is romanticized. It conjures up images of daily wine tastings, schmoozing with VIPs and tranquil vineyards. But the truth is that winemakers deal with a lot of variables and uncertainty to produce the wine in your glass.

So, let’s talk about what winemakers don’t tell us about making wine!

The Type of Winery Defines Your Role

First of all, winemaking is not a one size fits all profession. The type of winery has a lot to do with the job.

  1. Estate Winery: Wines made only with grapes from vineyards owned by the winery. Production of wine takes place entirely on the winery’s property.
  2. Winery Cooperative: Local growers sell their grapes to a regional winery. Then the winery produces, markets and sells the wine. These are common in regions with smaller vineyard sizes and lower wine prices.

So now that we know about where a winemaker might work, let’s start from the beginning.

Harvest

Harvest is the busiest season in the winery for everyone, not just the winemaker. Literally tons of grapes arrive for processing daily. Then the winemaking begins. So let’s peek behind the curtain of a winery’s most exciting time of year.

There is no secret formula for harvest. Deciding when to pick the grapes is one of the winemaker’s most important decisions. Pick too early and acidity might be too high, sugars not high enough and tannins too green. Pick too late and you’ll have the opposite problems.

All winemakers have a different approach for making the picking decision. Some rely on science, others rely on their senses, and some rely on both.

At an estate winery, for example, winemakers have the luxury to walk the vineyards every day leading up to harvest. They look at, touch, and taste the grapes while considering the following:

  • How tough or thick are the skins?
  • Are the seeds green (indicating unripe fruit) or brown?
  • Do the grapes taste tart or sweet?
  • Do the grapes taste good?

Doing this every day offers a frame of reference to make a more educated picking decision. Analysis on the brix, pH and total acidity of the grapes provides data for this decision.

At a cooperative winery, on the other hand, growers harvest their grapes once they meet rules set by the winery. For example, growers follow phytosanitary requirements (measurements including sweetness level and acidity level) from the cooperative. How well the growers meet the parameters determines how much they get paid for their crops.

But when the grapes arrive, the work’s just begun.

Logistics

So, the grapes arrive at the winery, now what does a winemaker do? Depending on the grapes, their quality and the wine style, they have some decisions to make.

  • Figure out how to prep the grapes for winemaking.
  • Find the right fermentation vessel.
  • Choose the aging vessel.

Organization before harvest is important for smooth processing when harvest is in full swing.

For example, a winemaker may use concrete or cement tanks, terracotta amphorae or neutral barrels to preserve freshness in the wine.

A boutique estate winery may process 250 tons in an entire vintage. But a large winery processes that amount of fruit in one day. This requires a high level of logistical organization. But no matter how airtight your plan is, you’ve got to make a decision eventually.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Besides producing wine, winemakers make a lot of decisions. There’s a need to respond to changing variables from vineyard to bottle. Tasting and smelling the wine throughout fermentation and aging is crucial. This allows winemakers to track the progress of the wine.

Of course, there are plenty of other considerations often made by winemakers.

Beyond Harvest

Most physical winemaking occurs during the 2-3 months of harvest. But winemakers are busy throughout the year. What do they do outside of harvest? Here are some examples:

  • Ensure wines complete malolactic fermentation.
  • Determine final blends with wine blending trials.
  • Bottle wines.
  • Vineyard management (pruning, vine training, canopy management, etc.)
  • Operations work and travel to sell your wines.

Being a winemaker is a gratifying and exciting job. But the work it requires takes both resilience, strategy and planning. It’s not a job for people who don’t like to work!

One thing is for sure, working hard does make you thirsty!

Cheers!

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