Zen Crush

by Jim Law

In August I take off my grower’s cap and put on my winemaker’s hat. I’ve been flat out in the vineyard since March, basically ignoring the cellar. August is the time to dust off the crush equipment and make the repairs that should have been done over the winter. Crush is a time of great anticipation, a time I truly love. One singular task of turning grapes into wine. In the 23 years that I have been making wine in the Eastern US, the most important evolution of my techniques and philosophies revolves around crush. Every vintage reaffirms the enormous impact of decisions during the fall. It defines the wines. The majority of the winemaking decisions are made before fermentation begins.

I think that in my early years I took the word ‘crush’ too literally, both on a physical and emotional level. Crush is a violent word. I have learned that the best wines come from gentle extraction. Crush is a tense word. I have learned that I make my best wines when I am relaxed and clear headed.

I have a strong desire to improve the quality of my wines. All my ‘quality bottlenecks’ kept pointing to crush. Like most wineries I have kept a library of past vintages going back to 1987. When I taste these older wines there is often an awkward rusticity in their finishes. My wines are slowly gaining more finesse, primarily due to gentler extraction of wine and juice from the grapes.

This vintage will be the inaugural year for a new crush facility here at Linden. It has taken a long time for me to convince myself to invest this kind of money into a facility that will be used two months out of the year. My staff refers to it as my playground. In a sense they are correct, not only will it allow for more gentle extraction, but it will also give me space and facilities to organize and reduce stress. My new facility incorporates refrigeration to chill white grapes, sorting tables to remove rot or underripe grapes, gravity flow to eliminate any pumping and therefor shearing of skins and seeds, and sorting reds again after destemming to remove a greater percentage of stem fragments (jacks).

The winery is now organized to crush small lots. Our average lot size is now less than 2 tons, whereas previously it was closer to 6 tons. This evolution reflects an increased understanding of differences in ripening, flavors, and quality in the vineyard. We continue to focus more on picking by soil, vine age, clone, aspect and even visual ripeness (making several picking passes). Free run and press juice and wine are kept separate. Lot sizes decrease respectively. The winemaking accommodates.

The difference between East Coast and West Coast harvest strategies is rain. Rain is the biggest stress factor during harvest. As I get more vintages under my belt with the same vines, I intuitively know "when to hold them and when to fold them". Variety, soil type, vine age, forecasted intensity and length of rainfall are all taken into account. I have found that small lot, methodical picking strategies can spread out the rain risk. Having refrigeration and a roof over the crush facility also helps.

In the past, there was often stress and tension between grower, winery, and pickers because of how we were set up for compensation. With my growers I now have per acre contracts (paying a flat fee for an acre of grapes rather than by the ton). If I decide to risk hanging the fruit at the expense of crop loss to weather or predation, I suffer the consequences, not the grower. I also dictate crop levels, which are usually lower than most growers would find acceptable. We now pay our pickers by the hour, which slows them down so that they can sort out bad fruit without financial penalty.

Exhausted winemakers start taking short cuts. In order to be more efficient with labor I have designed an automatic lug washer and "gravity flow" pomace removal. Hosing down lugs and shoveling pomace is a waste of strong backs. I take on an intern every fall who is trained in the intricacies of cleaning presses and tanks. I learned years ago that most well meaning, casual volunteers add to my stress level.

Slowly and methodically I make changes that help me make better wines. It is a long and wonderful journey.