The warm days of summer might be over but it’s the middle of grape harvest and for wine lovers that means the chance to go back to camp. Some local wineries offer harvest immersions also known as “Crush Camps” which are half day stints to several day excursions offering hands on winemaking. The serious wine camper might start very early in the morning to pick grapes alongside day laborers who have been working since 2 am. If you are not that committed, you can start the process, as I did, once the fruit has arrived at the winery. I went to "day camp" at Crushpad in Sonoma, a custom crush facility where I have been making wine for nearly a year. My first task was to remove leaves, rocks and bad grapes from freshly picked Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir clusters. A conveyer belt then dropped the grapes into a giant destemmer. I am afraid I let a few unwanted items go by in my effort to learn the task.
Nearby the destemmer, red grapes were fermenting in open plastic bins. I had heard the term, "punch down," but never knew exactly what it meant. Well, nothing like actually doing a task to get a first hand understanding. A punch down is where you punch the cap of a fermenting batch of grapes to pull the color and flavors out, move yeasts back down into the wine must, and prevent potential bacteria from growing on the exposed top layer. These grapes had already sat in a cold soak for four to five days, a process where winemakers gauge sugar and future alcohol levels. After the cold room, the white grapes head to a big press and are crushed into juice before fermentation. Red grapes are a little more complicated. To put it simply, they are first fermented with the skins on then pressed and the juice goes through a secondary fermentation before going into barrels to age.
My fellow campers, about half a dozen, and I were constantly washing our hands. Turns out the inside of a winery needs to be about as sterile as a hospital. Pesky yeasts will attach to your hands, clothes and other instruments and you don’t want those yeasts getting into a different wine batch with a different formula.
Before I could even break into a sweat, Crushpad’s Stu Ake, who was a great camp counselor, took us on a tour of the rest of the wine making process. This included several levels of fermentation, aging and barrel tasting. We tasted a Napa Valley Zinfandel from Howell Mountain that, I was told, needed six more months of aging. It was bursting with tannins.
I did a half day crush camp but if you want to check out one for yourself, consider that many wineries offer their wine club members harvest experiences. Meantime, here are a few suggestions from day camps to expensive, fantasy crush camps. If you have a recommendation, let us know!
- Sterling Vineyards
- St Supery Harvest Experience
- Schramsberg -- A multi-day, hands on, sparkling wine immersion.
- Sonoma County Grape Camp -- A fantasy grape camp. Several wineries get together and participate in a three day, high end, harvest immersion.
And I leave you with this, what I thought of the entire day at crush camp: