Harvest time in Napa Valley: Low tech, high art

Road Trip at Home: It takes careful stewardship of grapes from some of the most valuable winemaking land to turn out high-end vintages. CNET's Daniel Terdiman check out the process.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
10 min read
A bin full of grapes that will go into a 2013 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a $150 bottle of wine. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited two high-end wineries to see how the harvest works. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NAPA VALLEY, Calif.--It's 6:45 in the morning, and the crew that's just about to begin working is only picking up from where the overnight team left off.

We're here, deep in some of the most valuable terroir, or vineyard land, on the planet, and for about two days only, it's a race against the clock--actually, the thermometer--to get more than 30 tons of premium grapes off the vines in top condition.

Where I'm standing is in the middle of the Horton block, a 15-acre piece of prime winemaking real estate owned by the Horton family since 1953. But the fruit of this land, the wonderful, rich grapes that will be blended into $150 or $250, wines, is sold almost in its entirety to the adjacent, and world famous, Robert Mondavi winery. To the west of our position in between two sections of the vineyard, the 15-year-old vines are producing the grapes for the $150 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. To the east, the 45-year-old vines bear the grapes for the $250-a-bottle To Kalons Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

I've come here for a Road Trip at Home story looking at how high-end wines are made in 2010. My first stop is here, to see how a large, corporate winery does it, and later in the day, I'll drive a few minutes north on the stunning Highway 29 here to Alpha Omega to see how it works at a boutique operation.

In both cases, the selection of terroir is crucial. For Mondavi, buying grapes from the Hortons means taking advantage of what Alex MacDonald, one of the few family members who's still in the business, says may well be the best terroir in the world. MacDonald is biased, he admits, but he says his family's block, nestled into the side of some gorgeous hills but getting bathed in all-day sun, is of world-class quality because of the age of its vines, the richness of the soil, the great drainage, and the resulting grapes that feature highly concentrated sugars.

The art of making high-end wine (photos)

See all photos

For Alpha Omega, making wine is a time-intensive process that involves gathering grapes from 27 different wineries spread over 90 acres all around Napa Valley, terroir that encompasses just about every kind of vineyard land: in valleys, on hillsides, warmer areas, cooler areas, cabernets, merlots, chardonnays, and so on. The idea, said winemaker and general manager Jean Hoefliger, is that to make the best wines, it's best to be able to choose from the widest variety of spices, and when blending them, being able to find the wine personalities that best complement each other.

And while Mondavi has a long-term relationship with the Horton family for its grapes, Alpha Omega has struck a series of 10- to 15-year leases with the different owners of its vineyards, both to ensure the steady access to those grapes, and to assure the owners that they will get paid each year, regardless of the growing conditions.

"Only over time will you be able to get to know the vineyards," Hoefliger said.

That's clearly not as much of an issue for Alex MacDonald and his brother, who grew up with this land in their family. And they're lucky it's such good terroir, Alex MacDonald said. "I always say, 'You can make great wine out of great fruit, and you can make [bad] wine out of great fruit,'" he said. "'But you can't make great wine out of [bad] fruit.'"

Cool grapes
My arrival at 6:45 a.m. is timed for the beginning of a morning shift at the Horton block. But another crew was in the vineyard from 10 p.m. the night before until about 2 a.m. That crew worked under tractor headlights, yet still were able to wield their cutting knives with amazing skill. And no wonder. These guys are vineyard mercenaries, moving from winery to winery, picking until the grapes are gone, and then moving on.

When the crew begins, I'm in awe. The team moves rapidly up each row (see video below), taking just a second or possibly even less on each bunch of grapes. These guys clearly have done this before, as they are able to cut the grapes and flip them into a yellow bin--known in the industry, according to Hoefliger, as a FYB, or "F*****g yellow bin"--that is used for harvesting high-end grapes because they help protect the fruit against being bruised.

Though it's already October, the days here are still steamy, and that's why the crews have been working overnight, and in the dawn hours: this ensures that all the grapes are brought in while at the right temperature. "We want the fruit to come in cold," said Graem MacDonald, 26, one of the Horton family brothers who runs the Horton block. "We don't want to pick at one in the afternoon when it's 100 degrees." That's because, he said, the sugars in cool grapes are better protected than those that are picked warm.

According to Alex MacDonald, 24, one reason the crew is working so fast is that they are trying to show their mettle to a competing group toiling in the next rows. "We've got the other crew in, so they like to compete with each other," MacDonald said.

But of course, the pickers also get paid by weight, not by time, so the faster they can pick, the more money they'll make.

And though the Horton block is relatively small, it's still vital for the family to hire vineyard managers and the crews they bring with them to ensure that the grapes come in quickly. "If it was just me and my brother," said Alex MacDonald, "we'd be here for a week and a half."

The Horton block tends to turn out about 30 tons of grapes each year, or about 1,000 cases worth, which makes up about a tenth of the 10,000 or so cases of Robert Mondavi Reserve produced annually.

Over at Alpha Omega, the 27 different sources end up accounting for about 10,000 cases--numbers that might sound large until Hoefliger mentions that his three closest winery neighbors generate 3.1 million, 1.2 million, and 90,000 cases a year, respectively.

And while there's clearly a goal of maximizing the amount of fruit that's grown on each acre of land, Alex MacDonald said that's only true to a point. The consensus in the industry, he said, is that if the land is producing more than four tons an acre, the fruit won't be very good because, essentially, it's spread too thin.

But one thing that the MacDonald brothers and Hoefliger have in common is that despite the labels that will end up on the their wines, they are all, essentially, small winemakers, and get to enjoy the attendant benefits.

"By focusing on 15 acres, my brother and I can walk the vineyard [ourselves]," Alex MacDonald said. "If something's not working, we'll just fix it."

He said that by being able to tend to the entire vineyard, he and his brother can regularly make sure that the irrigation system is working properly, that all the vines are healthy, and they can do necessary tractor work such as "disking the soil." "The difference is just focus," he said, "just being able to care about the [little] details."

For Hoefliger, working small means that winemaking is what he clearly wants it to be: an art. And that means that most of the choices he and his partners make in making Alpha Omega wines will err on the side of a smaller business rather than the big operation that so many wineries seem intent on.

"If you reproduce any art in massive amounts," Hoefliger said, "it becomes manufacturing. It's not art anymore."

Of course, that doesn't mean the company isn't interested in growth. The giant Mondavi operation--which includes large numbers of vineyards and many different labels--has been turning out wine for decades, but Alpha Omega produced its first bottles in 2000. Yet while it owned just three barrels for winemaking in its earliest days, it now has about 350.

Still, at the size that Alpha Omega is today, Hoefliger said, he can still take the time to go regularly to each of his 27 small vineyards to check on things. He decides it's time to harvest, he explained, by tasting the grapes. It's all basically a seat-of-the-pants operation. "I base every decision [on] instinct," Hoefliger said proudly. "I probably only use 5 percent of what I learned in [viticulture] school."

Sorting and fermenting
It's now well after dawn, and Graem MacDonald is standing alongside pallets full of FYBs stacked two across, three wide, and eight high. He's wrapped plastic around each pallet-full to keep them stable on the truck, which will then go to a weighing station at the nearby Robert Mondavi winery. This morning's haul comes in at about 11,000 pounds of fruit, Alex MacDonald tells me after the weighing.

The next stop for the grapes is the sorting table, where a group of six men and women swiftly sort (see video below) them as they come down a conveyor belt, picking out leaves and other extraneous matter, and trying to leave just good, plump berries (as each individual grape is known).

Many wineries don't have the resources to hand-sort all the grapes, but for these high-end Mondavi wines, it's crucial.

After being hand-sorted, the grapes go up another conveyor belt, a bunch at a time, and drop into a machine that automatically sorts out the stems from the berries. It's some kind of magic, but it works: out of one end of the machine comes the grapes, and out of the other and into a big bin on the floor, comes all the stems, with no grapes in sight.

And then it's into one of 56 huge (10- to 15-ton capacity) oak fermentation barrels for the grapes. According to Quinn Roberts, a master cooper at Mondavi, the barrels are vital to the process because they don't impart any flavor to the grapes, but they do let in oxygen. The grapes will sit here and ferment for around 45 days. The crews can fill four of these tanks in a single day.

These barrels are beautiful to look at and are a stunning aesthetic feature of the room--Mondavi takes tours through here. But they're only in use for a small part of the year, Roberts explains. The rest of the year, they sit mainly empty, though it is vital that Roberts keep them hydrated. To do so, he fills them with two inches of water that is absorbed and conducted upwards through "capillaries" in the wood. They are then dried with fans mounted on top.

After the 45 days or so of fermentation, the wine is then moved into what are known as the first-year barrels, in, yes, the first-year barrel room. These, too, are gorgeous, and for each harvest, all entirely brand new. And expensive. Each of the French oak first-year barrels costs $1,600, and is stained with red wine around its middle so that wine that inevitably leaks from the mouth of the barrel blends right in.

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. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

A year from now, the winemakers will taste the wine from each of these barrels, looking to choose which will be blended with other wines before being put into the second-year barrels, and the second-year room.

This is a three-year process, and at each step, the number of barrels gets smaller, as the weak wine is culled. That means Mondavi has just put its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves on sale.

Over at Alpha Omega, the post-harvest process is very much the same as at Mondavi. The grapes are brought into the winery and are then hand-sorted at a table, in this case by 15 men and women. It's a triple-sorting process, Hoefliger explains, ensuring that every single berry is chosen by hand. The crew can process about half a ton of grapes per hour, he says, while many wineries that use automated systems can handle between 6 and 15 tons an hour.

At Alpha Omega, half of the grapes go into 1,500-gallon (5-ton) stainless steel tanks, and the other half go straight into similar first-year barrels as at Mondavi. Each of the tanks will hold the wine from a different one of Alpha Omega's vineyards, or at least part of a vineyard. Hoefliger said that this part of the process is hugely capital-intensive, as each barrel costs $1,000, and the winery must start over each year.

The idea here is to end up with a variety of flavors, and to impart "ageability" to the wine, Hoefliger explains--which makes it more stable, and "makes bridges between the tannins, the color, and the aromatics."

Hoefliger is very interested in the natural yeasts from the grapes--which transforms their sugars into alcohol. And each grape has as many as seven different yeasts, he said, providing for a diverse, and terroir-specific set of flavors and characteristics.

Alpha Omega maintains at least 250 different barrels of wine, and Hoefliger said he tastes each one every single day, looking to make decisions about the flavors of all of them--and ensuring that the final blends at the end of the 24-month fermentation process are precisely what he wants.

But during that period, constant vigilance is required. As many as four or five times a day someone must open the barrels or the tanks, and "punch down" the grapes, which are emitting carbon dioxide that is pushing the skins upward. Opening one of the barrels reveals that the skins quickly push up over the top, and they must be punched down for several minutes each time. Wine is clearly a living thing.

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. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The wine in the Alpha Omega tanks ferments for 90 days, after which all the juice is drained out, and the skins are pressed. The skins are then used as fertilizer and nutrients in the vineyards, and the juice is all put in barrels.

For Hoefliger, the process is as much a part of his life as anything else. In an e-mail to me before my visit, he told me he hoped I would see how much he loves his life. His enjoyment of the entire process, no matter how time-consuming, was in fact very evident.

And the goal? To make great wine, and to always be looking to do better than last time.

"When people ask me what my favorite vintage is," Hoefliger said, "I always say, 'The next one,' because it's the only one that has the potential of being perfect."