In late summer, there is a moment in vineyards known as "veraison," which translates roughly as "moment of truth." It is the moment when grapes begin to turn from hard, green beads into sweet, plump fruit. From that moment until harvest the vineyards are at their most vulnerable. The hazards of the early season--heavy rains, late frosts--are minor compared to the dangers that haunt the last few weeks of vintage. Hordes of deer and birds descending on tender fruit can wipe out an entire harvest in a few days. Late season heat ripens grapes too quickly, robbing them of flavor. A lack of heat delays harvest into late fall, when freezing nights can turn grapes into tasteless mush. Late season rains swell grapes with water, breaking the skins and infecting entire clusters with mold.
During these last few weeks of summer, winemakers are in the vineyards, looking at the clusters, crushing grapes between their fingers, tasting the fruit. The winemaker's phone rings unanswered, mail piles up in messy stacks, and deadlines are missed. In the winery itself, cellarmen spend weeks draining barrels and tanks of previous vintages, bottling and labeling wine and shipping it out, cleaning tanks, barrels and equipment. Like the unveiling of a statue, cloth covers are pulled off the crusher and the press, and the huge machines are rolled outside, cleaned, and tested. Truck-size scales are pulled out of storage, assembled and calibrated to receive incoming fruit.
But to those of us who have been through this before, these busy weeks seem quiet, sounds seem muted. The vineyards are full and leafy, and heavy with fruit. Vines sag over their trellis systems and trail on the ground. Heat waves dance over the vines and an occasional breeze lifts the aluminum strips which are meant to frighten birds. In the winery itself, empty tanks stand with their doors hanging open. Barrels are turned upside down in their racks and the whole winery has a strangely hollow feeling.
Like survivors of a storm who smell another forming, we move through our preparations quickly with our minds focused on the horizon of late summer, waiting as the rising sugars and flavor of the vineyard slowly escalate--because all of this activity is only preparation for the season we call "crush."
"Crush" is winery slang for the harvest season, for more than one reason. Although some grapes are indeed crushed (some are pressed--a big difference to winemakers) the long hours, tedious, mind-numbing work and the crises of harvest are another reason for the name. Here in the central coast of California, most of the winemakers are still very much involved in actual production. During the harvest season, which is usually early September to late October, you can find winemakers working with their cellarmen, inside tanks, shoveling grape skins, driving forklifts, and tasting the incoming fruit. In spite of the physical demands of the season, there is a magical, energizing quality about it. As one young winemaker put it, "I live for crush. As far as I'm concerned, the rest of the year is just preparation for this."
Cellarmen work late into the night. Steam rising from bins of warm fruit mingles with exhaust from the forklifts, creating eerie clouds under halogen lamps. Pallets of imported beer are parked in the cellar for thirsty workers. And then there are the crises of crush: truck-trailers full of fruit tipped over, doors torn off tanks by moving forklifts, overflowing tanks, full barrels dropped off forklifts--wine literally flowing everywhere.
The hours are long and brutal, and the stakes are high. Incoming fruit must be processed while it is still fresh and cool. Some of the grapes will be turned away for lack of quality; other loads will be high quality but perhaps low on tonnage, leaving the winemaker wondering how he will make up the difference.
Many of the decisions regarding winemaking techniques have been made ahead of time, but this is the moment of truth, too-late-to-turn-back, and frenetic winery activity takes on the feel of high stakes poker. As fast as one lot is crushed, put into fermenters and inoculated with yeast, more fruit comes in. Fermenting lots must be babysat, kept at the right temperature, tested for dryness, moved into barrels. Fermenting wine must also be pumped over, or at some wineries, punched down, much like punching down rising dough. Grape skins float to the top in a fermenter, creating a sticky cap at least a foot thick, every inch of which must be patiently pressed down into the wine with a tool that looks like a hoe. Tanks, bins and barrels are constantly being cleaned; the hoses run nonstop and so do the winery workers.
Exhausted cellarmen will go home for a few hours of sleep, and dream about falling into the press, dying comfortably on a soft bed of sticky grapes, or being locked inside a tank, hammering for rescue...
But nothing can exhaust the thread of excitement. From dormancy through pruning, pollination, fruit set, veraison, picking--after all the planning, the new barrels, the new storage areas, the promises, the contracts--this is "crush."