Buying Fresh Grapes

MM grapes in crates copy

What can feed your ego more than to grow your own grapes, ripen them to perfection, produce your own wine and then slap your own label on the bottle to share with friends and family. Now, that’s a rush. However, it is also a lot of work, requiring dedication to weeding, training, pruning, netting and a constant battle with insects, diseases, wildlife and Mother Nature. Fortunately there is an easier way to make wine from grapes . . . by purchasing fresh grapes. The aura of growing your own grapes may fade quickly when you compare it to the ease of purchasing. Think of all the extra time you will have to pursue other interests — like perfecting your winemaking skills. I have done it both ways for several years and, for me, there is no contest.

If you are lucky enough to live on the West Coast of the United States, near a winegrowing region, getting grapes is relatively easy. However, living on the East Coast — or anywhere that is not near an established viticultural area — does not mean you cannot get quality wine grapes. Shipping fresh grapes to the East to home winemakers was very popular during Prohibition, though very limited by variety. Since that time, servicing the hobby winemaking industry has expanded significantly by variety and to many major urban areas of the country. Regional markets or railheads frequently are home to dealers of produce and in particular, fresh grapes. These major dealers will frequently wholesale their grapes to other more local purveyors and provide local retail sales to home winemakers as well. If you live on or near the East Coast, you are probably within a reasonable drive of such a dealer. In this article, I will review the keys to success when buying grapes shipped from a distant location.

From Vineyard to Market

Grapes make their way to local purveyors in several ways, depending on the source. Most grapes intended for home winemakers will be packaged in 36-lb. boxes, sometimes referred to as cases. Grapes originating from South America and Italy are packed in 18- and 22-lb. (8.1- and 10-kg) boxes respectively. Some dealers can provide grapes in ¼ and ½ ton bins, usually intended for serious hobbyists and commercial wineries. (A word of caution with delicate grape varieties, the larger bins will contain some crushed fruit at the bottom due to the heavier weight of the package). If you choose to obtain your grapes in such larger packs, make sure you have a way of handling them once you get them home. Some dealers can also provide local home delivery services. Indeed, the larger purveyors can arrange for direct drop shipments to relatively remote locations throughout the country, provided the quantities are large enough to warrant the added costs.

Traditionally, shipping boxes have been made of wood slats although more recently plastic boxes are favored. Each box will have a packer or growers label on at least one end. This label will identify the grape variety, number of pounds, and name and address of the packer or grower. Some of the labels will have registered trademarked names, such as Valley Beauty, Smiling Baby, etc. It is suggested that the grapes in those boxes are sourced from the same area year after year by the same packer. If you are pleased with those grapes, you may want to make repeat purchases. Boxes labeled with the growers label contain grapes from a particular vineyard or perhaps even a particular area within a vineyard. Each vintage year, the grapes from the same vineyard will be so labeled.

Premium grapes are normally harvested starting either at night or early in the morning before the daytime temperature gets too high. They are field packed in shipping containers (normally 36 lbs./16 kg), consolidated by dealer, gassed with sulfites, quick chilled to 34 °F (1.1 °C), and shipped directly to a specific purveyor, sometimes arriving on the East Coast in as little as three days. This is a grower to dealer direct shipment and normally limited to very premium grapes. Other non or less-premium grapes may be harvested and quickly transferred to local packing facilities where they are chilled and processed and subsequently consolidated by grape variety to await sales and shipment to dealers, arriving possibly weeks after harvest. This process is fairly common and would represent a grower to consolidator to shipper to dealer transaction.

Regardless of the transfer method, once grapes arrive at your purveyor, he or she should be able to assure you, if asked, that the “cold chain” has been maintained at 34 °F (1.1 °C) from harvest until you load the grapes into your vehicle. Be cautious of seasonal dealers who do not have proper cold storage facilities to protect the grapes until you get them. Arrange to pick up your grapes as quickly as possible, if this is the case.

Once the grapes arrive, your local dealer may be able to advise you on your grape purchase specifications, i.e., sugar content (in °Brix), total acidity and pH. Keep in mind that we are dealing with natural products and as such the numbers can and will vary box to box. A purveyor’s readings should be used only as a guide. Once you crush and destem your grapes, stir the must and take your own readings. These are the only numbers you should rely on. Remember to adjust the readings for temperature since the must will most likely still be in the 40–50s °F (4.4–10 °C).

Once you arrive at the dealer’s premises, ask to be shown the grape varieties you are planning to purchase. You should view grapes from several growers/packers. Look at the grapes in the boxes. Look for signs of quality, i.e., firm berries, good coloration, chilled temperatures, clean packaging, no mold or mildew, minimal raisining, few or no leaves and twigs, etc. There should be little or preferably no MOG (Material Other than Grapes). Since the boxes must contain at least 36 lbs. (16 kg), occasionally box lids crush some berries near the top, causing mold to appear. Such damaged berries (and possible resulting mold) should be discarded before starting the winemaking process. Conditions such as that are usually rare in premium priced grapes.

Much to the chagrin of dealers, some of the old timers often sample individual berries to determine ripeness by taste sweetness. I caution you against this; all it tells you is the berry you ate was sweet or not. One berry will not indicate the final readings of the box. If you participate in such tastings, please limit your appetite!

The real measure of overall quality is when the box is crushed and a sample of the mixed must is taken. Please recognize still that grapes are natural agricultural products and as such the sugar, acid, and pH will vary from box to box. Hence the importance of taking your final readings on the entire crushed batch and making appropriate adjustments.

Pricing of the grapes is driven by a number of factors. Obvious criteria include grape variety, grape quality, growingAVA, grower reputation, packaging and transportation. Also impacting pricing is storage and refrigeration, transportation costs, shipping expediency, currency fluctuations for foreign sources, packaging, dealer services and technical knowledge.

The Good Grape Grocer

A dealers’ reputation and transparency are key factors; you should feel, first, comfortable making the purchase and asking whatever you need to know about the grapes, and second, confident that you are getting exactly what was described to you. This is especially true if you are making a distant grape purchase, sight unseen. They should provide you with the grape quality you desire and a demonstrated ability for timely delivery of your choice of grapes. A quality purveyor should be able to tell you with certainty who the grape grower was, their location within an AVA, length of transportation time, and other pertinent information. Some purveyors have developed direct relationships with growers and may even own vineyards. These are the dealers you want to search out for fruits (and subsequent wine) that will make you proud. With such relationships, you can be advised of ripening conditions, including sugars, acid and pH readings even prior to the harvest. It will also behoove you to develop a good relationship with your local purveyor; being on a first name basis would be great. A smile and a word of appreciation for his or her efforts to get you quality grapes go a long way. Also, as a hint, please do not ever suggest to your dealer that his “bad” grapes caused your poor wine. Look the grapes over before you buy them; if you are not happy, do not make the purchase! You have a major impact on the final quality of your wine.

Since there are two annual grape harvesting and winemaking periods, your grape purveyor may have grapes available twice a year. The northern hemisphere, i.e., North America and Europe, harvests in September through November. The Southern Hemisphere, i.e., South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, harvests in April and May.

Keep in mind that grapes arrive over a period of time, depending on grape maturity dates, harvest dates, consolidation dates, etc. If you plan on purchasing several varieties, they may not all be available at the same time. Contact the purveyor early for probable due dates and plan around them with some flexibility as to your start of fermentation.

Grape Varieties

Grapes grow in many locations covering the whole range of temperatures, from the very warm Central Valley of California to the cool vineyards to the north. Grapes from the warmer south, for example, will usually reflect lower grades and pricing. Grapes from the cooler northern areas will often reflect more premium prices. (These geographical generalities of course will be just the opposite for grapes sourced for the Southern Hemisphere, such as Argentina or Chile, where the cooler temperatures are to the south). Within all growing areas and even AVAs, there are better and super premium growers, with commensurate pricing. As an example compare Cabernet Sauvignon pricing for grapes from the southern regions to Napa growers. Certain varietals will do better in some areas and develop commensurate reputations.

A Gewürztraminer from Washington State will likely produce a more complex wine than one grown in the south. Overly ripe fruit (with high Brix and associated difficult pH and TA values) from the south will present far more of a winemaking challenge than one grown in a cooler region (with more moderate specifications). A major factor even in the normally warmer zones is the altitude of the vineyard; higher altitudes will generally be cooler and may very well produce higher quality grapes. Grapes from the northern regions of the West Coast tend to be difficult to find in 36-lb. (16-kg) boxes; the fruit is frequently delivered directly to commercial wineries throughout the region by truckloads.

Beyond Selling Grapes

Full service dealers will also offer some preliminary winemaking services such as crushing, destemming, sulfiting, pressing, as well as providing sugar, acid, pH and possibly YAN analysis for your grapes. You may have to provide your own containers for transporting the must home or you may purchase them at the facility. This service allows you to make wine without a large capital outlay for a crusher/destemmer and wine press.

Of tremendous benefit to the home winemaker is to locate a dealer that has on-site technical support for making wine. The support should cover all aspects of winemaking, including the latest developments in yeast selections, additives such as nutrients, tannins, fining agents, etc. Some purveyors will even offer classes for novice winemakers.

Before embarking on your grape-purchasing venture, decide on the quantity and type of wine you wish to produce. For example, are you looking for a low cost drinkable wine destined for rapid consumption, or are you planning for a specific varietal, high quality, complex wine that will tantalize your taste buds for years to come? These two extremes, and everything in between, should drive your grape purchasing decisions. Also recognize that regardless of the sourcing of the grapes, a good quality wine can be produced, provided you start with sound, appropriately ripened grapes. Palate interest and wine complexity may, however, be different depending on the starting quality of the grapes. It is that difference that distinguishes a more interesting and enjoyable wine from one that is merely quaffable.

Next, break the thought process down incrementally, first to white or red, and then work on the varietal or varietals. Once those decisions are made it becomes a search for the best quality grape your budget will tolerate. Note that the home winemaking industry focuses its products (yeasts, additives, etc.) on 5-gallon (19-L) batches. A rule of thumb suggests about 15 lbs. of fresh grapes for each gallon of finished wine (1.8 kg/L). So if you decide to make 5 gallons (19 L) of wine, two 36-lb. (16 kg) boxes of grapes will just about do it. (Plan on adding a pectic enzyme at crush to maximize your juice extraction). For example, let’s decide on a Gewürztraminer and a Zinfandel. Since the Gewürztraminer prefers a colder climate we should investigate grapes from Washington, Oregon, or the northern counties of California. For the Zinfandel we would look for a moderate climate such as Lodi, Suisun Valley, Amador and Mendocino counties. Compare the varietal pricing and berry condition for each region for your decision point.

As you make your varietal decisions, consider some basics relative to color, texture, and nose of the final product. Alicante grapes became very popular with early immigrant families due to its relative low cost, inky color, and frequent high sugar content. Despite its lack of complexity as a wine, it still worked itself into family recipes. These recipes survive today in many families. However, Malbec grapes will provide similar color and will give a more interesting, complex taste. Remember also, aroma, the portion of smell that is attributed to the grape variety, can be accentuated by selecting an aromatic grape, such as Gewürztraminer or Traminette. Bouquet, the part of smell that is attributed to fermentation and aging, will be influenced by your selection of yeasts, nutrient and other additives during fermentation. Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel will normally produce a heavier bodied, rounder wine than, for example, a Sangiovese, or a Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Viognier will be heavier, more viscous, than a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Gris.

There are several alternatives to making wines from fresh grapes. You may also purchase fresh juice, frozen juice, or frozen musts. The shipping process to your local purveyor is the same as for fresh grapes except for the temperatures, which are kept at 30 °F (-1.1 °C) for the juices. Your local dealer may also have facilities on site to produce frozen crushed and destemmed grapes. All these products are packed in 5- or 6-gallon (19- or 23-L) plastic containers suitable for primary fermentation. This saves a lot of work, not to mention the capital expenditures of equipment. With such products, you may select your grapes and possibly witness the operation.

So, when buying wine grapes grown elsewhere, be sure to find a reputable dealer. (Ask at your home winemaking shop or local winemaking club for other’s experiences with regional merchants.) Be sure the grapes have remained cold (34 °F/1.1 °C) in transit and inspect them to ensure they are sound before you purchase. Over time you will learn to distinguish problem amounts of mold, MOG or other indicators of poorly-handled grapes from the minor imperfections (such as the occasional raisin) that are inevitable in any natural product. And finally, record the source of your grapes so you can find the same grower or packer next year if you liked their product. And of course, once you’ve got your grapes purchased — turn them into wine!