I recently reconnected with an old San Francisco friend (who shall be known as Earthwind from this point forth), who relocated to Napa last year. His parents and grandparents both grew up in Napa, and his paternal grandfather was one of the city’s first planners. Earthwind’s father, Bruce, also happens to be a home winemaker, and I was fortunate enough to join the family for the pressing of the grapes this past weekend!
Pressing is only one small part of making wine; the process where juice is extracted from grapes. This can be done with the aid of a mechanical wine press, by hand, or even by feet in the old days. Today most wineries send the grapes through a crusher/destemmer, which removes the individual grape berries from the stems and breaks the skins, releasing some juice, prior to being pressed. Bruce had filled six industrial garbage cans (which he refers to a primary fermentation vessels) with crushed Merlot grapes, grown in a small vineyard between Oak Knoll District and Stag’s Leap District. This amount of grapes produces about 1 ¼ barrel, or 36 cases of Dundee’s Cellar Merlot, named after Earthwind’s childhood dog.
Bruce uses a basket press to hand-press the grapes. You fill the basket up to the top with the grapes, using your fists to press down as you go to make more room. The basket is set on top of a metal plate with a spout, lined up to pour into a rubber container. On top of the basket is a crank, which is supported by wooden blocks. As you crank and the grapes get pressed, the juice drips off into the container. You then transfer the juice into another bucket with a strainer over it to catch any extra skins or stems. Then it is finally transferred to the barrel with a funnel where it goes through the aging process.
Meanwhile, the pressed grapes need to be emptied from the basket and disposed of (or, you can make grappa). The basket is built to split in half, with bindings on the outside, so that you can just remove the bindings and take out the “grape cake.” All the skin residue needs to be removed before putting in the next batch of grapes, and you repeat the cycle until all of the grapes are pressed. After the whole process is done, you wash and scrub all of the containers and basket pieces to decontaminate them from any wine residue so they can be used again next year.
The hand cranking itself is pretty labor-intensive, and requires several people: one or two to hold the basket in place (carefully so you don’t get pinched), and another one or two to pull the crank back and forth until it clicks. I first tried cranking on my own, which was a bit of a core workout! The next couple times I did it was with a partner, which is much easier and faster.
Also on hand were Earthwind’s brother, his brother’s girlfriend, a 6’11” coworker, and a neighbor from across the street. We all tasted the juice as it poured out of the basket, and it was pretty good! I noted some flavors of raspberry on the nose, and red plum on the palate. I can’t wait to taste the final 2013 vintage after it’s bottled in a year, and I’ll gladly go back to help with the final process.
The company was great, and I had so much fun learning about pressing and getting my hands red. My “payment” for the day’s work was a taco lunch and two bottles of the 2012 Dundee’s Cellar. I’ll gladly work for food and wine any day.