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A Winemaker's Journal


By Elias Fernandez

My three boys persuaded me to take them to see a new release at a local theater, a wildly-paced action movie for kids. As the credits rolled at the end, I was surprised (not for the first time) at the enormous number of people who assisted in making a rather simple-looking film.

It reminded me of how many people it takes to create a bottle of wine. Winemakers and cellar workers are often seen as the primary force behind wine production.

Unfortunately this perception leaves out the first-line winemaking team – the vineyard crew. These are the men and women who, on a day to day basis, perform meticulous vineyard care and ensure that at harvest we’ve got loads of beautiful clusters to crush.

Their year starts in mid-January when many of these skilled artisans return from a hiatus with their families in Mexico. In the first wet, chilly months of the year we start balancing the vines, similar to the way a gardener cares for roses, by pruning away all the growth except for a few select canes, called the fruiting wood. Later the shoots from these canes are trained to grow within the trellis system.

As a boy, I worked with my father in vineyards during winter months, clearing icicles off the trellis wires as I pruned the vines in the pre-dawn chill. It was tough work, but it’s absolutely crucial to the success of the wine.

During the later part of spring and early summer, these workers balance the vines in other ways. One method is called “leafing.” In truth this should be called “de-leafing,” since we’re strategically removing leaves so that the fruit receives filtered light. Too much sunlight can burn grapes, too little will contribute to underdeveloped fruit characters at harvest time. Finding the right balance of light improves the chemistry of the grape bringing balance to acidity, tannins and flavor.

Another key to making wine in the vineyard is called “green harvesting.” In this technique, several weeks prior to harvest, the vineyard crew cuts away clusters, partial clusters and even pulls individual grapes that are not developing properly. This lowers the tonnage of what we eventually harvest, but goes a long way toward ensuring that the wine will be rich and lush.

By harvest, this crew knows the vineyard very well and can bring in the fruit that’s reached the apex of ripeness. As with pruning, leafing, and green harvesting, picking is both a skill and an art. Believe me, it’s hot, rugged work done at a ruthless pace. We are absolutely reliant on the skillful judgment of these seasoned pickers.

When the vineyard crew has done their work well, the result is wine that achieves its best – a rich mouthfeel, concentrated flavors, rich color, everything a wine should be.

The old maxim in the wine business is that a great wine comes from a great vineyard. But a great vineyard doesn’t make itself. It is cultivated with enormous care and skill. And most of it is done in Spanish.