As we all go into celebrating Labor Day this coming weekend, we pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of workers here in the United States. So, it is fitting that we take time to acknowledge all the labor that goes into making a bottle of wine.
Many large-volume wine producers most likely use equipment like vine hedgers to trim the excess growth off their vines, and machine harvesters to bring in their crops. If they are big enough, they may have an expensive optical sorter that is programmed to get rid of individual grapes that don’t make a certain standard of size or color. For many small-to-medium wineries, work is all done by hand, and the job is quite labor-intensive and consists of many tasks.
Early in the year, vineyard staff will go and prune the vines by cutting off much of the leftover growth from the previous season, while leaving the foundation for what will be this year’s growth. Depending on the region, this can possibly be occurring when the temperatures are near or below freezing.
As the vineyard nears bud break, the time when the little buds on the canes open revealing the growth that contains grapes, leaves, and tendrils, vineyard staff are keeping very close tabs on the outside temperature. If the buds open and a frost arrives, the growth could be burned off and much of the harvest can be lost. This is the time of the year when wineries are walking on pins and needles. If needed, frost remediation may need to occur, via wind machines that pull warmer air down to the vines, heaters pulled by tractors, smug pots (flames lit in various spots between the rows, helicopters flying over, thereby moving the cold air, and overhead sprinklers. Overhead sprinklers spray water on the vineyard and a layer of ice will form. Science has proven that the act of freezing water gives off a bit of heat, which sounds counterintuitive, but its very helpful. The layer of ice will keep the vines and buds at about 31 to 32 degrees F, which is above the temperature when damage occurs.
Once the grapes, leaves, and tendrils emerge from the buds, then flowering and fruit set will occur. The next laborious task is canopy management. The vineyard workers will push the tendrils between the guide wires to get everything its proper alignment, so that the leaf growth provides shade to the clusters from the top. This will keep the sun, at strongest of the day, from burning the grapes.
Depending on how the quality of how well the fruit set was, the staff continues the canopy management tasks and may cut off clusters that didn’t pollinate quite right, or ones that don’t look as good as others. This allows more of the energy of the vine to be directed at the better of the clusters. Along with that, hedging will occur, and this is the act taking off the excess grape leaves and tendrils. This will allow the setting or rising sun to help ripen the grapes; allows for air flow through the vines, which helps reduce the risk of mold, and mildews; and again, cuts back on growth so that the vine will send energy to and allow more energy to focus on the clusters themselves.
Somewhere during this period, the vineyard manager will probably do a nutrient analysis of the vines. Soil, leaf blade, or petiole (the stem part that is attached to a leaf blade) samples may be sent off for testing. This testing can be performed during the blooming period or at veraison, when the grapes change color. This gives a good idea of the health of the vine and lets the vineyard manager know that that they may have to provide nutrients to the vineyard. Often nutrients are provided by spraying.
Speaking of spraying, above we mentioned hedging the vines to get air through to avoid molds and mildews. Often—especially in a climate like Virginia—spraying to avoid mold, mildews, and fungus are used, especially if the area has been experiencing a lot of rain and/or high humidity. It takes labor to monitor the health of the vineyard and look for signs of this. The number of times the vines gets sprayed each year varies greatly, depending on the weather. Depending on the winery, spraying may be performed to keep weed growth down under the vines.
Earlier we mentioned removing clusters that didn’t pollenate well. Often some wineries (and even those that machine hedge and machine harvest) will go out and reduce the number of clusters on the vine. The goal of this cluster thinning is to up the quality of the fruit that remains on the vine.
The next task is to monitor the dropping acidity levels and rising sugar levels, along with the phenolic ripeness of the grapes. These checks will let the vineyard staff know when to harvest the various varieties. The staff will be monitoring the weather, too, to make sure they can pick the grapes before any heavy rains come in that might dilute them.
From firsthand knowledge, I have harvested grapes many times and it is not easy work. It is physically demanding—especially rough on knees and backs—and puts you at the risk of getting stung by various bugs that are willing to fight you for the sweet grape juice. Often, when harvest starts, the temperatures are fairly high, so the goal is to harvest early in the day when the grapes are cooler and don’t start self-fermenting in the lugs (baskets that you collect the grapes in). The grapes will be moved into the winery as soon as possible and put in cold storage prior to sorting and subsequent processing.
Sorting grapes usually involves having four or more people on the two sides of a vibrating table where the grapes or clusters come sliding past. By hand, the staff removed MOG (matter other than grapes) which includes leaves, bugs, twigs, stems (where not whole clusters) and under-formed grapes. Yes, I have performed this task, and it involves standing for long periods of time with your hands in very cold grapes picking living and non-living things out.
I’ve gone on and on, and think I’ll stop here. From this point on it’s the acts taken to make the wine, though the decisions made out in the vineyard have already made a big impact on what the wine can and will be.
When we raise a glass on Labor Day, think of all the labor that went into making the wine that is in that glass. I try to remember to say a “thank you” in my head to all those involved in maintaining the vineyards. Cheers!