Photo courtesy of Virginia Wine

By Julianne Winkler Smith

As the fog lifts over the rolling hills and the rising sun steadily illuminates row by row of grapevines, there’s a distinct peace in the thick Virginia air. But, like the calm before the storm, a time of frenzy is swelling just below the surface. The crush is coming.

Any winemaker will tell you the same thing: From meticulously tending the vines to adhering the distinctively branded label, the entire process is a labor of love. The majority of the growing season is slow and steady—part obsessive control, part providence. But for a few weeks (or months, depending on the grapes and acreage), the pace of vineyard activity is dialed up to an 11 on a one-to-10 scale. It’s crunch time. Well, it’s crush time.

“Harvest is the best time of year,” explains Virginia winemaker Brian Roeder, owner of Barrel Oak Winery (BOW) in Delaplane. “It’s what makes winemaking special.” This year marks the 13th harvest for Barrel Oak, and with 30 acres of vineyards, their crush rolls from mid-August to mid-November. “It’s high-energy and thoroughly exhausting,” he says. “The grapes call the shots, so every season is completely unique.”

Crush time extends from the time the pickers go out until the juice is in the tanks or barrels. Suzanne Lawson, owner of MountainRose Vineyard in Wise, agrees that crush is the best word for harvest. “There’s a crush of grapes, but also a crush for time, energy—everything.” There is so much to do, and everything must be done in just the right order. And, although experience helps, there are very long days and nights. “It’s like raising your kids,” Lawson says. “It’s exciting, stressful, exhilarating. But once they’re out, it’s a relief!”

MountainRose Winery

Nate Walsh, a career winegrower who began his journey at Horton Vineyards and founded his own Walsh Family Wine in 2014, points out that although the pressure is high, it’s all worth it. “Not only is it so crucially important in terms of the weather, and our picking and winemaking decisions, but it’s just so much fun,” Walsh says. “The smells of fresh juice and of fermentation are a true joy. The work is hard but pleasant. And there is a great sense of community and mutual excitement … with all the wineries in the area.”

Timing is Everything

The crush officially begins at the pick. But how do growers know when it’s time? “It’s part science, part art,” says Roeder. “The birds actually start to come and take the fruit about two weeks before the grapes are ready to be harvested.” Once the birds begin to feast, netting goes up—otherwise, up to one-third of the crop could be lost.

In addition to watching nature’s signaling, the grape’s chemistry reveals readiness through both its sugar and pH levels. Winemakers can always add either, but the ideal is to allow the grapes to reach a balance in the vineyard, so careful measurements are sampled throughout the vineyard to determine go time. “If we’ve done our job all summer,” Roeder continues, “the grapes are healthy, full, and amazingly sweet—their juice is unlike anything you’d find at the grocery store.” Is your mouth watering yet?

From Vine to Barrel

When the moment is right and harvesting begins, it’s relentless. Like many vineyards in our state, both Barrel Oak Winery and MountainRose Vineyard crews handpick their grapes. “We assess each pod for ripeness, bird damage, etc., so we ensure the highest quality of grapes.” explains Lawson. Weather can also decide the exact timing of the harvest, and every vineyard goes all out to finish before a predicted storm system may roll in.

Once they’re picked, the grapes immediately begin to decline—so begins the “rush” in “crush.” For Roeder’s crew, the key is to get the grapes out of the vineyard and into the refrigerator. “Even after just 12 hours, the grapes break down and the bugs ascend,” he says. “Moreover, we chill the fruit for at least 12 hours in our process because crushing cold grapes releases a nicer flavor.”

But, depending on whether a white or red wine is being produced, the grape’s journey hits a fork in the road once it comes off the vine. After picking (and perhaps refrigerating), the white grape clusters go right into a crusher-destemmer machine, so the stem, seeds, and skin are removed to leave just the juice. These grapes can also go directly into the press. Either way, whites are a fast turn from vine to vat. “Gravity does a lot of the work at this point by pulling down the solids and bugs,” Roeder says. “We move the juice from one tank to another a few times, leaving behind the solids, then it’s time to add yeast and start fermentation.”

Photo courtesy of Virginia Wine

The red grapes, however, need a little more time and attention before the crush process is complete. At BOW, the crew painstakingly removes all the stems and leaves from the grapes by hand. “Any greens change the taste of the wine,” Roeder says, “so we believe this is the best practice.” Once in the tank, the grape juice goes into action.

Red grape juice starts out clear, so the skins help it acquire both color and tannin. “The reds sit with the skins and seeds for 7-10 days,” Lawson explains. Once yeast is added, and the fermentation begins, the resulting CO2, heat, and alcohol floats the skin to the top of the vats, creating a mat or cap. Winemakers must push through (or crush!) this mat several times a day, every day, until the win is ready to be pressed and barreled. (This process could be up to three weeks, depending on the wine and the winemaker.)

Only once the wine—red, white, or rosé—is safe and sound in the barrels or tanks for its appropriate aging, can the crews exhale the collective breath they’d been holding for weeks. “Every year brings a completely different harvest,” Lawson says. “So, despite the careful science of it all, we have learned to always expect the unexpected. But that just adds to the excitement of the crush.”

Once the work is complete, there’s at least a little breathing time to enjoy the beauty of the process and the surroundings says, Nate Walsh of Walsh Family Wine. “In Virginia, it’s unquestionably the most beautiful time of year, especially as we get into October and see the leaves start changing colors. The evenings are cooler. Everybody’s so excited for those first days of crisp, jacket weather. That’s just about the time we get the last of the fruit picked and into the cellar. The vines—and the crew—can take a break, and we can begin the process of getting wines ready for our customers.”

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