In part 1 of this series, we wrote about harvest time in the Santa Barbara wine country and the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association Celebration of Harvest. After enjoying the harvest festival that Saturday afternoon, we decided to see what was happening during harvest time out in the wine country. So, we made the short drive over to Los Olivos. We stopped at a lavender farm, but we’ll write about that in part 3 of this series. We arrived at Beckmen Vineyards, a small estate winery, just in time to find their harvest activities in full swing.
Beckmen practices biodynamic farming. Looking out across Beckmen’s vineyards, we could see the green protective netting they put in place towards the end of the grape-growing season to protect the very ripe grapes from birds who would prefer to pick the grapes a little early. After all, you don’t want to invest a whole season growing your grapes, just to have some birds decimate your valuable crop.
The winemaker monitors the ripening grapes regularly and measures their sugar, acid, pH and taste. When the grapes are deemed ready (or if the grapes are almost ready but bad weather that could damage the crop is forecast), the winemaker gives the order to harvest the grapes. As a technical matter, the harvest is simply the removal of the grapes from the vines. This can be done by using a harvesting machine or manually. At Beckmen, as with almost all premium wine producers, the harvesting is done by hand. This enables experienced harvest workers to inspect the grape clusters for quality, to handle the grapes more carefully and to avoid harvesting extraneous material (such as leaves, rocks, metal, bird nests and other animal debris) along with the grapes. It also avoids prolonged oxidation of the grape juice that occurs when a mechanical harvester crushes some of the grapes long before they get back to the winery production site. Manual harvesting is more expensive, but it yields a much higher quality grape juice.
Once the grape clusters are cut from their vines, the harvest is technically completed. Yet, there is a lot of processing activity that must begin immediately. We were fortunate to be at Beckmen as they processed some of their red wine grapes in their destemmer, so we can describe that process in some detail. The grape clusters are rushed over to the winery production site and sorted to separate out any clusters with rot or other defects that weren’t identified during the harvest. The good clusters are then dumped into the destemming machine, which separates most of the stem material from the juicy grapes.
The grape leaves, stems, skins and seeds all contain tannins, which contribute vegetal flavors and aromas and also give wine (typically red wine) that dry, astringent sensation that can make you pucker when you drink the wine. By removing most of the leaf and stem material from the grapes prior to crushing the grapes, the winemaker limits the amount of tannins in the resulting juice. Tannins from the grape seeds are harsher than those from the grape skins, so winemakers often take great care to crush the grapes in a way that minimizes the amount of grape seed material that get crushed into the juice, resulting in a wine with smoother tannins.
Tannins help to break down fat, which is why tannic red wines are often a good complement to foods containing fat (such as steak). Tannins also promote the ageing of wine. Over time, the tannins decompose and the wine mellows. If a wine is too tannic, the winemaker may blend it with less tannic wines in order to produce a wine that is easier to drink at an early age.
The juice may be fermented and aged in barrels prior to bottling. Aging in oak barrels can accentuate the tannins in the wine and adds various flavors to the wine. After a long day of harvesting (or in our case, watching the harvest), it’s time to move on to the tasting room to enjoy what’s left of earlier years’ wine production. Beckmen has a airy and inviting tasting room and a range of really excellent wines. They specialize in Rhone varietals (such as Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Rose, Marsanne and Mourvedre) as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. We signed up for one regular tasting and one reserve tasting, which enabled us to sample a wide range of their wines and compare pairs of wines made from the same grape varietal.
From there, we drove through the Santa Barbara wine country and stopped in the city of Santa Barbara for dinner before making the longer drive back to Los Angeles. If you’ve never been to the wine country during harvest time, you owe it to yourself to make a point of doing it sometime. Harvest is a time when the mantra “work hard, play hard” is in the air and everyone wants to celebrate.
October 27, 2008 at 12:59 am
JackiesBaskets.com Gift Baskets - Tracking Orders said:
[…] Santa Barbara Harvest (part 2) […]
Great, informative article. You really broke down the process so a newby to the wine world like me could understand it. Great photos, too. Thanks!
Wine Imbiber » Santa Barbara Harvest (part 3) said:
[…] month, we wanted to see more of what was going on elsewhere in the Santa Barbara countryside. In part 2 of this series, we described the activities taking place at a local vineyard and winery. The Santa […]