What’s Wine Harvest Really Like? Q&A with an industry insider

From fruit flies to fermentation, a wine industry insider shares with us what wine grape harvest looks like from the inside.

Will Thompson shares his perspective on wine harvest. A graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s highly acclaimed oenology and viticulture program and Whitman College grad, Will is coming up on his third harvest season. He began at Bergevin Lane Winery in 2016 and last year was a harvest intern at Dusted Valley Vintners. After a stint at Burwood Brewing Company, he currently works full-time as the production assistant at Corliss.

How long does harvest last?
In Washington, the first fruit will come through the doors anywhere from the end of August (in early seasons) but more typically in early September. The last fruit will come by the end of October until early-mid November depending on vineyard site, grape varietal, rain, or deep freeze. But once the last grapes are in, there is still a few weeks of fermenting, pressing, barreling, etc. so Thanksgiving is usually the goal for "ending" harvest.

How long are the work days/weeks?
It is pretty variable from winery to winery, especially when it comes to interns due to overtime rules and crew sizes, but in my experience 60 - 70 hours a week is pretty typical for an intern, with potential for more or less depending on how the season is going. For example, a big rain event may come and winemakers will decide to pick early...one could be in for a long week at that point. It is pretty reasonable to expect at least 10-hour days/six days a week.

How do winemakers determine when the grapes are ready for harvest?
I suppose "enological ripeness" is a good term. There are a few markers pretty typical for tracking harvest. The first is Brix, which is a metric for estimating yeast-fermentable sugar content and therefore potential alcohol. Another is TA, or titratable acidity, which gives a decent snapshot of acidity which may or may not be retained in the final wine. However, taste is very important in determining things such as seed ripeness and skin thickness for tannin and structure. It’s all well and good, but sometimes Mother Nature throws a curveball and you have to just pick it.

How soon after harvesting the grapes does the winemaking process begin?
If you consider the choice of hand harvesting or machine harvesting winemaking, then before harvest. But the actual process of beginning fermentation starts as soon as the grapes cross the threshold. Decisions on destemming, sorting, pressing, you name, it all affect the outcome of the wine. Whether ferment starts immediately or in a few days/weeks, the lots are being monitored and assessed daily.

What is the least enjoyable and/or most challenging aspect of harvest?
Towards the end the hours can start to drag on your mind and body, but fruit flies are definitely the worst. At the end of the day, the grapes are agricultural products and fruit flies are very small. No facility I've seen is immune and if they are, they are probably lying. You just try and rage-smash as many as you can.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of harvest?
In my opinion, the comradery is the most enjoyable aspect. Hours are long and physical but you really get to know people when they are tired and want to chat while filling the umpteenth barrel of the day. The winery also smells pretty awesome when there are ferments happening.

Thanks Will!

For your insider's peek of wine harvest join us for a traditional wine stomp at Canoe Ridge Winery during our Walla Walla Stomp Weekend Sept 21-23.

Viator