Article #4, all the grapes…
The first grapes of the 2022 vintage arrived at Gary Farrell Winery on August 12th, which amounted to nearly 7 tons of Pinot Noir from Starr Ridge Vineyard. Over the coming four weeks, grapes would continue to flow with deliveries nearly every day. The entire cellar staff was surprised by the early August harves
Article #4, all the grapes…
The first grapes of the 2022 vintage arrived at Gary Farrell Winery on August 12th, which amounted to nearly 7 tons of Pinot Noir from Starr Ridge Vineyard. Over the coming four weeks, grapes would continue to flow with deliveries nearly every day. The entire cellar staff was surprised by the early August harvest, which we would soon find, would wrap up more quickly than most years. Following a Champagne toast by our head winemaker, Theresa, the team got busy processing 14 half-ton bins of grapes.
With this exciting start to the 2022 vintage, quite a lot of grapes are coming through this Crush Pad - 471 tons, to be exact. But how much wine will this make? And how many grapes does it actually take to make a bottle of wine?
The easy answer is about 3 pounds of grapes makes a bottle of wine.
From there, things get more complicated. Every grape is different, so it’s hard to give a firm number. There are more than 10,000 different types, or varieties, of wine grapes grown around the world. Each variety has different characteristics that determine how they grow, what weather conditions they thrive in, and how they taste. Some vines produce only a few clusters, while others produce 40 to 50. Clusters can be large - like Cabernet Sauvignon - or small - like Pinot Noir. Some grape varieties are barely bigger than a green pea, while others are as large as a plump cherry. And then there are the farming practices to consider. It is a common belief that the quality of the grape is better when there are fewer clusters on the vine. On the other hand, most grape farmers sell their fruit by the ton. The more tons a farmer produces, the more money they make for the season.
So when it comes to figuring out how many grapes went into your bottle of wine, it’s complicated. While this may be an interesting albeit useless piece of trivia for most wine lovers, it is quite important for the winemaker to know. Each harvest year, or vintage, a winemaker must estimate how many grapes they will receive by weight. This information allows the winemaker to budget what they will be paying the growers and project how much wine they will make. Plus, they must know the volume of juice the grapes will yield, so they can be sure there is enough space in bins, tanks, and barrels for fermentation of the juice into wine.
The bottom line is, while making wine is artistic, there is still quite a bit of science - and math.
To estimate the amount of wine to come from a harvest or how many grapes go into a bottle of wine, we have to take the weight of grapes and convert that to a liquid volume. There’s no exact calculation to do this. But, using counts I have taken in the wineries, reports from farmers and winemakers, and published articles by both the University of California at Davis and Cornell University, we can come up with some averages to help give an idea.
Here are some of the averages I’ve discovered:
4 tons per acre
900 vines per acre
85 grapes per cluster
40 clusters per vine
1/4 pound per cluster
2,000 pounds in a ton
160 gallons from a ton
59 gallons in a barrel
0.2 gallons per bottle
In the vineyard, an acre has about 900 vines, depending on the spacing of the rows. An acre yields an average of 6 tons of grapes. But I’ve found that most commonly, a quality vineyard whose grapes are used for premium-level wines will yield about 4 tons per acre. This is, of course, variable because of the variety of grape vine, the spacing of the vines in the vineyard, and the farming practices. Some vineyards produce 10 or 12 tons per acre, and some, like the renowned Opus One in Napa Valley aim for only one ton per acre. We’ll use four tons for our calculations because we drink premium wines, right?!
There are between 70 and 100 grapes on a typical grape cluster. Let’s split the difference and say 85 grapes per cluster. A typical grape vine will produce about 40 grape clusters. An average cluster weighs anywhere from a quarter to a half of a pound. I like to use 1/4 for my calculations unless I’m specifically talking about a grape variety that produces large clusters. One vine can grow about 10 pounds worth of grapes. A ton is 2,000 pounds, so it takes about 8,000 clusters to make up one ton of picked grapes. This means it takes about 200 vines to grow those 8,000 clusters making up one ton of grapes.
Each ton gives us about 160 gallons of grape juice. A standard wine barrel holds 59 gallons, so one ton of grapes usually gives the winemaker 2.7 barrels of wine. But there are considerations with these averages too. Grapes can be pressed gently or hard, which determines the amount of juice that comes from the ton. And during the process of moving the juice from the press to a tank or barrel, some wine is lost. Have you ever heard of ‘the angel’s share?’ This is the term we use for the small amount of wine that naturally evaporates from a barrel during the aging of wine. So, to be on the safe side, I’d consider two and a half barrels of finished wine per ton of grapes.
At an average of 2.5 barrels of wine per ton and 4 tons per acre, an acre gives us 10 barrels of wine. A standard wine barrel holds 59 gallons, so we're talking about 590 gallons of wine from one acre of vines. A single standard bottle is 750 millimeters, which equals 0.2 gallons. So a barrel holds 24.5 cases of 12 bottles, totaling 2,950 bottles. Each bottle holds 4.5 glasses of 6-ounce pours.
So by these numbers, each vine makes 2.6 bottles or nearly 12 glasses of wine.
Since a barrel gives us 24.6 cases of wine, which is 295 bottles, one ton of grapes equals 61 and a half cases, which is 738 bottles of wine. And one bottle requires about two and a half pounds of grapes to make up the 750 mililiters or 0.2 gallons. Filling a standard wine bottle takes about 10 clusters at 0.25 pounds each, and ten clusters would be about 850 grapes in a bottle - give or take.
Wine websites will quote 400, 600, 800, or even 1,000 grapes go into a bottle. Again, this is very hard to determine! I feel 850 is a good number, even though some grape varieties and farming practices will come up with a lower or higher number. And from my personal experience of making a Texas Montepulciano in 2021, I can say this is a pretty accurate number.
Gary Farrell Winery will ultimately receive 471 tons of grapes in the 2022 vintage. That comes to about 75,360 gallons making up 376,800 bottles or 31,400 cases of wine.
In a previous article, I promised to share the wine books I'm catching up on during this journey. As these first grapes came into the winery, my job would be to sort the clusters. Two more ladies worked alongside me, which are part of a labor service in the area. Later I will touch on wine services in California which are not common in Texas. Anyway, while sorting the grapes, I started an audiobook by Laura Dave, a novel titled Eight Hundred Grapes. Unlike my educational reads, this is a love story set in Sebastopol on a family vineyard. It was accurate regarding the vineyard and wine details, with family drama, love that comes and goes, and a bit of mystery. Overall, an easy listen that took just 8 hours - a full day of sorting grapes. You can download the book here: https://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B00XNHMZKK&source_code=ASSORAP0511160006&share_location=library_overflow
In future articles, I will share some details about the specific varieties we are processing and some differences in making wine in California versus Texas.
Article #3 the 2022 cellar team…
Just the other day I explained what a Crush Pad is. What I failed to mention is, in California the area for processing incoming wine grapes is generally outside. In Texas, the wineries I have worked with all process their fruit inside the winery. During harvest, the heat in the Lone Star State is so intense
Article #3 the 2022 cellar team…
Just the other day I explained what a Crush Pad is. What I failed to mention is, in California the area for processing incoming wine grapes is generally outside. In Texas, the wineries I have worked with all process their fruit inside the winery. During harvest, the heat in the Lone Star State is so intense it can have a negative effect on the fruit while each bin waits its turn for processing. A winery is typically kept at a cool temperature between 50 and 60 degrees so I generally wear a sweatshirt. As I carefully packed for eleven weeks of residence in our RV with limited closet space, I packed more sweatshirts than t-shirts. The Gary Farrell Winery Crush Pad is outside and covered to shield from sun and rain. Nearly all of the wineries I’ve seen in Sonoma and Napa have outdoor Crush Pads. I quickly realized I would never need a sweatshirt on the job, so I’d need to buy more t-shirts right away!
During the first few days working at the winery focused on cleaning equipment and preparing the facility for the grapes which would soon be delivered. This thorough scouring involves climbing inside large tanks and on top of huge equipment. It helps to be a bit limber (I should have done pre-harvest yoga to prepare). And it takes water. A lot of water. Most wineries work from a water well and not public water provided by the city. This is often due to the logistics of the location of the winery, but it’s also because it’s not good for the wines to have the chlorine and other additives that are in the public water system. Like Texas, much of California is in a drought, so water usage is discussed quite a bit. While pulling from the private well doesn’t immediately affect water availability for public utilities, it is still a draw on the aquifers that all of the water we use comes from. I certainly don’t want to get into politics or environmental issues, I’m just noting that winemaking requires a large amount of water, both for sanitation and for production.
In the winery, the regular cellar staff consists of a team of five: head winemaker, associate winemaker, cellar master, oenologist, and vineyard liaison. For the harvest season, anywhere from six to eight interns are brought on to help from late July through the end of October. Of course, the staff needed for producing a vintage is dependent on the amount of incoming fruit and how much wine will be made. We would be receiving around 466 tons of grapes and producing an estimated 27,000 cases of wine in this vintage. I am one of seven interns on hand this year.
At home in Texas, we often refer to harvest as the time when grapes are picked and wines are made. It isn’t exclusive to the actual harvest in the vineyard but refers to the season as a whole. In California, they mainly refer to this season as crush or the vintage. So a harvest hand may refer to someone who is working in the field to pick grapes or to someone working in the winery to help process the grapes. We also hear the term intern quite often, but this can make people think it’s an unpaid position for which college credit is received. While that is sometimes the case, most often a student who receives school credit for working at a winery is also paid and will be referred to as an intern. What those of us who are beyond (way beyond) our college years and working as a temporary employee at a winery during the harvest season? We are most accurately referred to as a cellar rat. This just means we are folks who run around here and there within the cellar and Crush Pad to get things done as we are instructed. And cellar rat can be a full time and permanent position in a winery, if the work load needs the help. Pay is generally between $18 and $26 an hour and it is typical to be paid overtime, or time-and-a-half, for working over eight hours in a day or over 40 hours in a week. It is common for the hours to be long, with 10 to 12 working hours in a day. And we can work six to seven days in a row before having a day off for rest. The money may be good for the two to three months of vintage production, but being a cellar rat isn’t for the faint of heart!
Let me tell you a bit about the crew this year. If you already know me, you know I’m a Texan, nearly 50, retired, and writing a book about my journey to learn to make wine. I have experience as an airplane pilot, in healthcare, as a Sommelier, as an entrepreneur, and as a writer. As you may expect, the rest of the team are all much younger than me. A late twenties Santa Rosa local is a wine lover that left her finance job to explore other career options. A gal from Oregon just finished college with a degree in chemistry and is curious if working for a winery will use her chemistry knowledge while also being fun and interesting. A young man from Germany is a firefighter, in school for winemaking, and works with his family in their small winery. A young man from Italy is in school for winemaking and his family has a large winery near Venice. Then there is a guy and a gal who are twenty-year-old French students attending an agriculture and engineering school, and they are required to do an internship every year. They chose three months at this California winery as a way to see part of America as well as to see if winemaking is a good fit for their futures. We are a group of people who vary in our love of wine, experience in the workplace, and intentions for our futures.
As you might expect, these differences in ages, cultures, and experiences create challenges for the regular winery staff. There are a variety of personalities, language barriers, and different work ethics. I can only imagine the strain the regular staff feels each year when bringing on a new crew. So any winery bringing on temporary help for the harvest season should seriously consider the management of the crew and how it will affect the regular employees.
Like most businesses these days, the vineyards and wineries in California struggle to fill positions, and that includes the temporary help needed during crush. Our producers in Texas need help during harvest as well. As I’ve asked around both California and Texas, I’ve learned a bit about hiring. One of the best resources for filling a winery job is online. There are social media groups for winemakers where positions are posted, such as the FaceBook group Travelling Winemakers – Living the Dream!! (Yes, I can see there’s an extra L in there, it’s their error, not mine). There are winemaking organizations with online postings which are typically free for members and at a low cost to non-members. At home, look into Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, Texas Hill Country Wineries, and in Sonoma, there is Sonoma County Vintner’s, and Russian River Valley Winegrowers as examples. It’s also a good idea to contact schools that offer winemaking and viticulture programs. Most have an online bulletin board for students and alumni. Be sure to look outside your area and include trade schools and junior colleges. And remember, those who are on a track to study wine as a Sommelier may also be interested in gaining experience in the cellar to better understand wine and help them with making sales. Consider reaching out to all of the winemakers you know personally in all regions of the world. Let them know you are looking. You never know who may be able to direct prospects to you. And finally, don’t discount putting out a note to your mailing list and club members. You may be surprised by the number of wine lovers who would be interested in getting behind the scenes for a couple of months.
While I’m not certain the schools in Europe are seeking out Texas as a destination to encourage their students to intern for winemaking, it can’t hurt to notify them of openings. You could be surprised! Remember that folks who are coming from out of the country probably won’t have a car upon their arrival and may need help with getting from the airport to your winery. There is a shortage of rental cars right now, so that can create a complication if it continues. In the U.S., it’s not typical to provide housing for temporary help, but this perk can definitely help put your winery above others if you have a room, house, apartment, or RV to offer. Also, remember that advance notice is needed when you look overseas because of the travel logistics.
Some of my vineyard friends in the Hill Country have had success with asking wine club members to come help harvest. You may be surprised, but this is something quite a few folks enjoy doing to be a part of the vintage of a winery they love. This is usually restricted to help within the vineyard with picking grapes. What I see most often in California is opening up the first harvest day as a celebratory event where club members and local wine enthusiasts are invited to participate in picking grapes. Most wineries actually charge the customer for the privilege to pick that morning. They provide breakfast, bottled waters, lunch, a t-shirt, a bottle or two of wine, and a motivational talk by the owner or winemaker, and some charge as much as $175 per person. I don’t know of any of our Texas wineries doing this as an event the consumer pays for, but it is intended to have a marketing and customer relations benefit, in addition to providing help in the vineyard and a bit of income. Beyond that first pick of the season, future picks are usually done during the night, with skilled labor, usually starting at 8 or 9 p.m. and extending into the wee hours of the morning.
It doesn’t seem to be common to advertise to consumers the need for cellar help during harvest. Many of our wine-loving customers want to get a peak behind the scenes. Aside from me, the other two Americans on our crush team were not specifically looking to work in a winery but had heard about the temporary job openings through the grapevine – pardon the pun!
As a wine lover, you may be interested in volunteering to help during harvest, either in the vineyard or in the winery. This is certainly the best way to understand the intricacies of wine. But consider this your warning! Winemaking is hard work. It’s hot, dirty, very wet, and requires being on your feet for hours on end with a bit of physical activity that leads to muscle aches and requires good shoes. You’ll work long hours, leave with stained clothes, and have little time with your family and friends during the six to eight weeks that make up the bulk of the harvest season. On the upside, you gain knowledge and a great sense of pride when you are a part of making the wines in a certain year.
If you don’t want to go all in but still want to gain a sense of what it is like during crush, look for a winery in your area that offers a winery tour during harvest season. I’ve only come across a few in California who offer these tours, including Gary Farrell. Those who offer the tours are charging anywhere from $55 to $150, and of course, provide wine for you to enjoy during the tour and complete a standard tasting afterward. I hope to see our Texas wineries offering these informative peeks behind the scenes to see where the magic happens.
Whether you’re a winemaker, a winery owner, or simply a wine lover, there’s nothing like the excitement of the crush. Embrace it.
Article #2 the drive to Sonoma…
When we hit the road to head west on this adventure, we planned on a three-day drive to cover the 1,773 miles from Fredericksburg, Texas to Cloverdale, California. We have a motorhome that we have used for travel and even lived in for nearly a year when building our last home. My Tesla cannot be towed behind
Article #2 the drive to Sonoma…
When we hit the road to head west on this adventure, we planned on a three-day drive to cover the 1,773 miles from Fredericksburg, Texas to Cloverdale, California. We have a motorhome that we have used for travel and even lived in for nearly a year when building our last home. My Tesla cannot be towed behind the coach, and with the high gas prices, the electric vehicle would be cost-effective while we’re in California. So, we were set for Benjy to drive the RV and I would drive the Tesla. Our furbaby, Bentley the Bernedoodle, would choose who he would ride along with (he’s spoiled like that).
The drive was fairly uneventful and went smoothly. There ended up being an issue with the toilet in the RV which we discovered on our first overnight stay in El Paso. Luckily, we found a repair shop in Tucson to help the next day. We encountered a flash flood on the far western edge of Arizona, and I had one scare in central California when a charging station for my car was closed down and I had to sweat it out to get to the next station. All in all, a pretty easy drive for us both. Benjy had a long audiobook about golf, and I was listening to the mystery series by Ellen Crosby about murders in a Virginia vineyard. The first book in the series is titled The Merlot Murders and I would recommend it for lovers of wine and mysteries. (In fact, over the course of this trip, I would listened to 6 of the books in this series, so if you like a light hearted mystery with a bit of wine mixed in, look it up!)
It ends up that most RV parks in California only allow a couple of weeks and it was hard to find a spot for us to stay the full nine weeks. The one we booked is located far north in the region near the little town of Cloverdale. It’s about 40 minutes from the winery. We arrived as planned with time to set up the motorhome and get comfortable in the area. We found a nice grocer, learned about the weekly summer music events in the small towns of the area and may have fit in a wine tasting (or seven!).
On August 8th, I joined the four-cellar staff and six interns who would make up the team for the 2022 vintage at Gary Farrell. After new hire paperwork and safety training, the rest of the day was focused on cleaning and sterilizing equipment in preparation for the first grapes of the season.
So, what exactly is a Crush Pad? The term Crush Pad refers to the area of a winery where grapes are delivered, and the process begins to turn the fruit into wine. The name comes from years past when the winery staff would actually crush the grapes, usually by stomping the berries with bare feet. While some wineries may still use the old fashion crush methods, today, many wineries use technology rather than heels and toes. The equipment could be a press that squashes a whole cluster of grapes to seep the juice out. Or it could be a destemming machine that takes each grape berry off the rachis, which is the stem system that runs through the cluster of grapes.
The wine world loves our traditions so we still use the phrase Crush Pad to refer to the area where winemaking equipment is set up for the beginning steps of winemaking, whether it is with our feet or with modern technology.
A Crush Pad needs to be a durable area protected from inclement weather and easy to clean. Heavy machinery needs to have room to be moved around. Water and good drainage are imperative for cleanliness because winemaking is a messy business. For much of the year the area is generally well organized and basically vacant. In fact, if you’ve visited the production area of a winery, you’ve probably walked right through the Crush Pad and not even realized it. It’s just during the harvest season that big equipment and plenty of people are moving around and making things happen.
Here at Gary Farrell, the space is maybe 60 feet wide by about 100 feet long. It’s an extension of the outdoor area that houses eight large stainless steel wine tanks used for blending or aging wines. The area is covered to protect the equipment from rain, although this has been a drought year, so mainly it is protecting us from the sun. In this space we have access to five water hoses, a system of three drains, plus three forklifts, two conveyor belts to move the grapes, a de-stemmer, and two grape presses. You’ll find space for the bins of grapes to be unloaded, stacked, and secured out of the sun. Each bin holds half a ton of grapes, and these come directly from the vineyard full of freshly picked fruit.
It may be hard to visualize what happens on the Crush Pad, but let me try to paint a picture… A forklift will raise a bin of grapes and tilt so that the grapes begin to topple out onto a conveyor belt. This track system carries the clusters up 20 feet to an elevated sorting table which is a level conveyor belt of about eight feet in length. Two or three people will stand at this table and sort through the clusters of grapes, removing any leaves, debris such as sticks, or clusters that are less than ideal because they are underripe or overripe. At the end of this belt, the good clusters are dropped into a hopper that pulls each cluster through the destemming machine. The rachis, or grape stem system, shoots out one side of the machine while the grape berries drop out the bottom onto a vibrating table. Here, a final set of eyes will pick out any last unwanted berries before the best grapes are dropped into a clean bin. A forklift hoists the bin of good grapes and wheels it into the winery to dump it into a large stainless-steel tank.
This is just the beginning of the magic that happens to make simple grapes into delicious wines.
It takes about two hours for six people to clean all of this equipment with hot water and set it up perfectly to start the process again the next day. Each morning before the process begins again, the equipment has to be checked and cleaned with hot water again. Whether there is one ton of grapes being delivered, or 12 tons, the setup and cleanup times are the same! So far this harvest season, our busiest days have included 30 tons of grapes delivered in one morning. This much fruit makes for a long day! But I do it because I enjoy being involved in a vintage and knowing I had a hand (literally) in the fruit that becomes wines I like to drink.
Article #1 as the journey begins…
Just how did a girl from the Texas Hill Country end up in Sonoma County to work on the Crush Pad of a well-known and top-rated winery? The short story is, that after spending the past year studying and learning how to make wine, it was time to dig even deeper by working a harvest in California. I just coul
Article #1 as the journey begins…
Just how did a girl from the Texas Hill Country end up in Sonoma County to work on the Crush Pad of a well-known and top-rated winery? The short story is, that after spending the past year studying and learning how to make wine, it was time to dig even deeper by working a harvest in California. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work the 2022 vintage at Gary Farrell Winery in the Russian River Valley.
But what could I expect to learn there that I wouldn’t get from another vintage in Texas? I really had to consider the pros and cons to be sure this would be beneficial. Changing our address to California for a few months would be a move that likely would cost more than the salary I would make on the job. So why would I do it?
Well, because I can. I mean, my hubby and I are approaching 50. We don’t have kids. We’ve sold our businesses. So, we have the flexibility to make a temporary move for the purpose of learning about a bigger scale of winemaking. And what a great chance to see harvest in a different, more widely known wine region.
In Texas, I’ve spent time over the past three years doing a little work with three different winemakers. I’ll take a minute here to give a shout-out and HUGE thanks to Jesse Villarreal with Whisper Path Cellars, Michael Barton with Hilmy Cellars, and Michael Bilger with Adega Vinho for being patient teachers and mentors to me. These talented and passionate producers are making what most would consider a very small amount of wine – from 800 cases annually, moving up to 3,200 and about 5,700 cases. A case holds 12 bottles, so at the largest scale I’ve worked with, we’re talking about 68,400 bottles of wine. That sounds like quite a bit – and it is, in Texas. But in California, a boutique winery like Gary Farrell in Sonoma County is producing 27,000 cases. That’s 324,000 bottles of wine being made from just this year’s harvest. This is a completely different scale than what I’ve come to know. And this isn’t even considered a big winery by California standards!
Other than just ‘because I can,’ why would I take on this challenge? The small wineries I know as the norm in Texas show the hands-on style of winemaking that I value and would want to do myself. At the same time, I’m still learning. And maybe the best way to know if I’m doing things well is to know how others are doing it. I have made a few wines of my own, but don’t have my own wine label, and I’m not sure I want my own winery. I’m taking time until the end of this year, to determine what my next path is. What I do know is by knowing how wine is made, I savor every sip. This is an appreciation I wish more people could have. An appreciation I don’t want to take for granted. And that’s why I keep digging deeper into winemaking.
I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity in Sonoma. This meant I needed to have a serious talk with my husband. From there, I just needed a few days to figure out the logistics of getting there and staying for nine weeks. Next, I had to break the news to my Texas winemaker friend and employer just a couple of months before harvest. He’s a lover of good Chardonnay and is making some in the Lone Star State, so he understood my desire to jump on the chance to gain this experience with Sonoma Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With my husband’s encouragement and our dog who always loves a road trip, I was set to pack up and drive west.
The possibilities are limitless when I consider what I can learn during these short months in Sonoma County. I want to explore what makes wines from this region great, to learn how the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes differ from what is popular in Texas, to dig deeper into winemaking topics such as pH and acidity, and even touch on philosophies from winemakers and winery owners I meet along the way. If you’d like a peek behind the curtain to see how wine is made, I hope you’ll follow along on this leg of my journey.
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