Road Trip at Home: A look at the wine-making process at both a large winery and a boutique label at their annual harvests.
The first-year barrels
NAPA VALLEY, Calif.--Up here in wine country, as the days get shorter, it can only mean one thing: harvest. Sure enough, all across this beautiful, rich, and lush vineyard-covered region, wineries big and small are bringing in the grapes, and getting ready to bottle their 2010 vintages.
That's why CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman headed up to this sun-soaked area about an hour north of San Francisco--to see how harvest works at both a high-end major label (Robert Mondavi Winery), and a well-regarded boutique winery (Alpha Omega). And while their practices are quite similar, there are also some significant differences.
This is the first-year barrels room at the Robert Mondavi Winery's To Kalon Cellar, where thousands of cases' worth of $150-a-bottle Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve come after sitting for about 45 days in fermentation tanks. The wine will stay in these barrels for a year, after which the winemakers will taste each barrel and then make blending decisions that will determine which wine goes into the second-year barrels.
Each barrel in the first-year room is made from brand-new French oak and costs $1,600.
These grapes, in the private Horton family-owned To Kalon vineyard, adjacent to the Robert Mondavi Winery, will be blended into the $150-a-bottle Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Some of the vines are as much as 45 years old. The family has sold nearly all its grapes to Mondavi since 1953.
Harvest workers--hired by a vineyard management company--work quickly and efficiently, cutting the bunches of grapes with a single motion, and dumping them in yellow bins that are designed to keep the grapes from being crushed.
Crews worked most of the night during the two-day harvest of the Horton vineyard, sometimes working under floodlights, and other times under the lights of tractor headlights. Only the crew that began work at about 7 in the morning worked with natural light. The goal was to get all the grapes in before the day got hot, to ensure that the grapes themselves are brought in cool.
Windmills like this one are used to help keep grapes in the vineyards from freezing. When the temperature hits 32 degrees, the windmills activate automatically, blowing air on the vines, and hopefully keeping the grapes above freezing.
After being harvested, the FYBs full of grapes are stacked and put on the back of flatbed trucks like this one, and are then taken to a nearby weighing station. The Horton family is paid for its grapes by the ton.
Grapes meant for the high-end Robert Mondavi Reserve labels end up in these giant fermentation tanks, where they are kept for about 45 days. They then are moved on to barrels in the first-year barrel room.
The grapes are dumped onto a conveyor belt, which brings them to workers at this sorting table. The workers move as quickly as they can, getting rid of grapes that are malformed, too small, or which are otherwise unsuitable. They also remove much of the leftover plant matter.
These custom-made tanks can hold between 10,000 and 15,000 tons of grapes, and will hold them for about 45 days of fermentation. The tanks were brought to the winery in 2000, and if they are properly maintained, they can last indefinitely.
After a year in the first set of barrels, the wine is then tested by the winemakers, who will make blending decisions to determine which wine goes into these second-year barrels. The wine will sit in these barrels for a second full year.
Because a fair amount of red wine tends to spill from the barrels' mouths over the course of a year, the Mondavi winery orders special barrels that are painted with red wine so that they continue to look clean and new, even after being spilled on many times.
This is a barrel from the Alpha Omega winery, in Napa Valley's town of Rutherford, Calif. Like at the Mondavi winery, wine tends to spill onto the barrels. But because these are not painted, the wine creates a gradual stain on the oak.
At the Alpha Omega winery, winemaker and general manager Jean Hoefliger demonstrates the process of "punching" down red wine grapes. Because carbon dioxide pushes the skins of the grapes toward the top of the barrels, it is required that as many as four or five times a day, workers must use a special tool to push them back down again.