The art of making high-end wine (photos)

Road Trip at Home: A look at the wine-making process at both a large winery and a boutique label at their annual harvests.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
1 of 27 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

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.

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The grapes

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.
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Cutting the grapes

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.

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Down the rows

A look down one of the rows of the Horton-owned area of the To Kalon vineyards.
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FYBs on the ground

In Napa Valley, these yellow bins, which vineyard workers throw their grapes into, are called, among other things, FYBs, or "f*****g yellow bins."
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Bin of grapes

An FYB full of grapes that will be used to make the 2010 vintage Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.
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Horton West-South

Stacks of FYBs full of grapes from the Horton family-owned vineyard are shrink-wrapped and readied for being trucked to the adjacent Robert Mondavi Winery, where they will be processed.
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Mondavi entrance

The famous and iconic entrance to the Robert Mondavi Winery, in Oakville, Calif.
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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.
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Weighing the grapes

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.
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Robert Mondavi vineyard

A look out at the beautiful vineyard at the Robert Mondavi Winery.
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The big tanks

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.
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Sorting table

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.
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Grapes on the table

Bunches of grapes slide down the belt toward the sorting table.
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Up the conveyor belt

After going through the sorting table, these grapes are sent up a conveyor belt, where they are then dropped into a de-stemming machine.
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The stems

A box full of stems.
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Tops of the tanks

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.
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Into the tanks

After going through the sorting table and de-stemming, the grapes are shed of any that are too small, and are then fed into the fermentation tanks.
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Second year barrels

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.
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Barrel with red

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.
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Alpha Omega naturally red

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.
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FYBs and fermentation tanks

Stacks of grape-filled FYBs sit in front of the Alpha Omega winery's steel fermentation tanks.
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Grinding the grapes

At the end of the sorting table at the Alpha Omega winery, the grapes go through this machine, which crushes them on their way toward the fermentation tanks.
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White grapes presser

This giant machine, the Sutter EPC-50, at the Alpha Omega winery, is designed to press white grapes.
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Punching grapes down

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.
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Fermenting grapes

A look inside one of the fermentation barrels at the Alpha Omega winery.
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Grapes rising

Hoefliger demonstrates how the carbon dioxide from the crushed grapes pushes the skins up and over the tops of the barrels, where they are fermenting.

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