More American winemakers are hand-pruning, hand-harvesting, and foot-stomping in their quest for wine greatness. Here's why they think the old ways are the best.
As winemaking technology becomes increasingly advanced, with smartphone-operated fermentation tanks and computerized bottling lines, more US producers are taking a tactile approach—by literally using their hands. “It’s the only way we can ensure that our wine expresses the grapes and vineyards in the greatest possible manner,” says Anna Schafer of àMaurice in Washington state. There’s a range of commitment to the handmade: Some producers simply focus on harvesting grapes by hand rather than with machines, while a few go so far as to hand-bottle. Ironically, one of the most important aspects of hands-on winemaking is knowing when not to intervene—to be hands-off.
Even the most hands-on producers have welcomed machine-operated bottling lines into their repertoire—but not Erin Nuccio at Evesham Wood in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He still uses a 1986 manual machine, corking six bottles at a time, 300 cases a day, 10,000 cases a year.
Beauty of Imperfection
When Napa Valley winemaker Andy Erickson recently took over at Mayacamas Vineyards, a winery that hasn’t changed much since the 1960s, he agreed to try out a state-of-the-art mechanical sorting system that is calibrated to select the best grapes, discarding any that are too small or dried out. But when Erickson saw the machine sitting on the crush pad, he realized it didn’t belong there: The off-kilter grapes were important to the wine’s character. So he held on to his old, battered three-person hand-sorting table. “We want to embrace the wabi-sabi, the imperfect nature, of the wines and not narrow the focus too much,” he says. The only grapes that don’t make the cut are ones that are diseased, moldy or otherwise bad.
Five Ways to Be Hands-On
1. Pruning: Pulling leaves off vines to let more sunlight reach grapes and removing clusters that have been affected by mold are tasks best done by hand.
2. Tasting: One way to check the ripeness of grapes is to measure their sugar content, using a device called a refractometer. But many winemakers like to get in the vineyards and actually taste the berries, chewing on the seeds. If the seeds are crunchy and brown, the grapes are ripe; if soft and green, they’re not.
3. Picking: Harvesting acres and acres of grapes by hand requires substantial manpower, but it also allows pickers to immediately assess the quality of the grapes. Some producers are so vigilant, they’ll pick the same rows more than once, giving not-quite-ready grapes a chance to ripen up.
4. Sorting: Manual sorting lets a winemaker select only the best fruit, getting rid of any rotten, underripe or overripe grapes, leaves and vineyard friends like spiders and caterpillars.
5. Crushing: Some winemakers, like Tracey and Jared Brandt of California’s Donkey & Goat winery, climb into their vats to squish grapes with their feet. Less pressure on the grapes means less-harsh tannins in the wine.
Wines to Try
The bottles here, from California and Oregon, show the winemakers’ careful touch.
2013 Birichino Malvasia Bianca ($16)
Winemakers Alex Krause and John Locke buy handpicked fruit from 10 different growers and vineyards in California’s Monterey region to make compelling wines like this beautifully perfumed white.
2013 AHA Bebame Red ($20)
To keep this Cabernet Franc tasting perfectly fresh, consulting winemaker Steve Edmunds sources hand-harvested fruit from higher, cooler elevations in the Sierra Foothills.
2013 Big Table Farm Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($42)
Brian Marcy and Clare Carver plow their vineyards with two horses, Huston and Hummer. Carver even draws the labels for their bottles of focused, spiced Pinot Noir.