Finding Amazing Grapes!

The harvest came a little late that year.

Having fully prepared myself by washing the equipment, buying additives and laying plastic sheeting all over the basement floor, I found myself glancing anxiously at the calendar as September drew to a close. Still no call from Fidel at the Denver produce market. Still no sign of the grapes. Since the normal arrival date was around September 20, I began to remember news stories about cool weather and rain in California.

Fidel called in the second week of October. The grapes would be in by Thursday, he reported. I felt a surge of excitement as I readied myself for the exhausting, but rewarding work of the crush. I barely noticed the ominous weather forecast of an Arctic front making an early assault on the Colorado mountains I call home.

The grapes and the horizontal snow, borne on fifty mile an hour winds from the northwest, arrived at my home at 8,650 feet elevation at basically the same moment.

Ah, the romance of winemaking! One imagines baskets of freshly-picked grapes at peak ripeness arriving in the hazy autumn glow. As bees buzz merrily about, the ancient process of winemaking begins among the beauty of the changing leaves and the last warmth of the harvest season.

Instead, I fired up the crusher under a hastily-erected tarp that lasted about two boxes of grapes before the wind removed it. Realizing that speed was more important than niceties, I dumped box after box of grapes into the crusher, racing into the cellar with buckets of must, pouring them into assorted primaries, returning to refill them as the wind and snow howled around me.

Some months later, when the new wines were fermented and resting in barrels, friends were escorted to the cellar for a first taste of the fruits of my labor. The wines were coming along beautifully, despite their rather grueling birth, and all marveled at how this could be. “It’s just a miracle of nature,” I opined, “and all I do is nudge it along.” I figured there was no point in detailing the twelve hours of wet, frigid work that had been required as the first “nudge.” That, after all, is the price one pays for being an enthusiastic home winemaker — and the results can be the best wines one will ever make.

There’s no doubt about it: You can make great wine from kits and concentrates all year round, but for a home hobbyist, making wine from fresh grapes is the pinnacle of the pastime. So where do you get the grapes?

Fortunately, there are several sources of wine grapes available to the home winemaker. You won’t find Chateau Lafite advertising spare grapes for sale, and most premium vineyards have contracts with commercial wineries that claim every row of vines. But there are still ways to obtain grapes that range from fairly ordinary to surprisingly outstanding.

Carefully made, with the greater attentiveness possible to the home enthusiast working with smaller batches, home-fermented fresh-grape wines can be every bit as good, and often better, than many commercial wines. Happily, despite ever-increasing grape prices, the cost of producing your own grape wines remains a small fraction of the price of buying comparable commercial ones. This is especially true if you ignore the value of your labor. I can certainly say that the year I had to crush in a blizzard, the wines were the most expensive I ever made!

One caveat for the prospective grape winemaker is to plan ahead and be sure you are available when the grapes arrive. While a little cold storage doesn’t seem to hurt them much, and in occasional bizarre cases may improve the grapes, one must begin processing them when they arrive, and continue until the crushed or pressed grapes are safely ensconced in fermenters. Depending on the amount of wine you are making, this will mean a few long sessions when you first crush and later press. The can of concentrate will wait until you open it; the lugs of Zinfandel will mold while you go fishing.

Finding a Source

Let’s start with the obvious: The best way to get grapes is to find a vineyard within driving distance that will sell some to you. This is a hit-or-miss proposition and will involve plenty of phone calls. If you live near Napa or another high-profile grape-growing region, you might be surrounded by vineyards that are fully contracted to commercial operations, with not a grape to spare. If you live somewhere with a low-key winery scene, the pickings might be easier. Either way, you’ll need to find a grower to take pity on a home winemaker who only wants a few hundred pounds. Quick etiquette tip: If you do get permission to harvest a row, it’s bad manners to pluck the finest fruit and leave the mediocre grapes behind on the vine.

Sometimes, the so-called “second crop” bunches that are not already picked may be available for a bargain price. These will not make the best wine, but can produce quite good wine indeed. One should be prepared to pay a premium over what commercial wineries pay to buy from a vineyard, but the resulting wine will still be far less costly than commercial. Besides getting on the phone, other ways to find a vineyard willing to sell direct include talking to winemakers at wineries, driving around asking, or inquiring of a grape broker. I might interject that you will never appreciate a glass of wine more (and the labor that goes into it), and have more compassion for migrant field workers, until you have picked a few rows of grapes yourself. Your chiropractor will love you!

If you strike out, don’t worry. Most home winemakers get their fruit from other sources, including home winemaking shops, large produce markets and fruit wholesalers. In these cases, the grapes arrive by refrigerated truck and you go pick them up. You can also order fresh grapes by mail. Most of these grapes are grown in California, which means you’ll be getting some classic v. vinifera varietals.

During Prohibition, the California grape industry survived by several methods, but the preeminent one was shipping grapes east to home winemakers and surreptitious bootleg wineries. (Even during Prohibition, it was legal to make a small quantity of wine at home.) Interestingly, this was how the brothers Gallo got their start.

As a result, there are a number of long-standing wine-grape shipping firms in the state — mostly centered around a region called Lodi. Smack on the Santa Fe railroad line and 10 miles from the island port at Stockton, Lodi was perfectly situated to ship grapes during Prohibition. These days, it remains “shipping central” for the winegrape industry. Lodi has some 80,000 acres in grape production, more than Napa and Sonoma combined. Although most of the fruit goes to commercial wineries, both nearby and around North America, an estimated two percent of the crop — perhaps 10,000 tons a year — gets trucked around North American for home winemakers and other small-lot consumers. If you’re a home winemaker who uses fresh grapes, odds are they’ve come from Lodi or elsewhere in the Central Valley.

Some home winemaking supply shops organize sales of California grapes, normally for only a modest margin over the wholesale price, as a service to their clientele. On rare occasions, they are even able to forge a direct link to a vineyard, with resultant improved quality.

To cite just one example among many, a homebrew and winemaking shop called Bacchus and Barleycorn in Shawnee, Kansas (a Kansas City suburb), gets a truckload of fresh grapes from Lodi every harvest. Last year, owner Alberta Rager worked with several produce brokers to buy 2.5 tons of grapes and 200 gallons of field-crushed juice. The shipment included varietals ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to French Colombard, Sangiovese and Carignane. A 36-pound lug of grapes cost between $31 and $49; a six-gallon pail of juice ranged from $50 to $75. “Customers have to order in advance, usually in July,” says Rager. “I have a pretty good idea what I’ll be able to get, but availability can change at the last minute. A winery may increase its order and snap up a particular varietal!” Rager will crush and destem the grapes for her customers, and also provides readings on specific gravity, Brix, pH and total acidity.

Another source for ordering Lodi grapes is a large produce market or wholesaler. Many have been doing this for years, or can be persuaded to “piggyback” a grape shipment with other produce. In isolated areas, even supermarkets sometimes are willing to help you get grapes in whatever part of the country you live.

In Denver, near where I live, most of the big fruit wholesalers have warehouses west of Coors Field, around Denargo Street. That’s what we call “the produce market,” and it’s easy to find likely sources by looking up “fruits and vegetables – wholesale” in the phone book. By way of example, a Denver company called Federal Fruit and Produce special-ordered 10 pallets of California wine grapes last fall (that’s 1,620 pounds). “People reserve their grapes at least a month before the harvest,” says account rep Tim Ray. “We won’t buy winegrapes unless they’re bought in advance. When they arrive, we call our customers and they pick ‘em up. It’s a courtesy, really. We’ve been doing it a long time.”

An increasingly seen source for fresh grapes besides Lodi is Washington state. Various home winemaking shops may be able to source fruit from the Yakima Valley, generally for rather higher prices than Lodi. Those interested in the “Big Four” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc) should definitely try to find someone who is selling Washington grapes.

Of course, the Valhalla for winemakers must be grapes from Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties. Some winemaking clubs and supply shops can be found that order a large enough quantity from a grape broker (such as Bartolucci Brothers in St. Helena) that a separate truck is arranged for shipment, or at least part of one. I worked for a shop once that sold as many as three semi-trailer loads of Zinfandel each fall. Beyond such sources, which must be sought out by telephone or visiting several stores, there is little chance to lay one’s hands on these premium grapes. “I used to get grapes from Prospero’s, a big produce outfit in Pleasantville, New York,” says home winemaker Carmen Spagnola. “In 1997, Prospero’s had Cab and Merlot from Napa. I paid a 50 percent premium, but the acid and sugar levels were perfect, proving that geography and climate are important. That was a very good year.”

Placing the Order

So your search of produce markets, home winemaking suppliers, brokers, vineyardists or a combination of them has yielded you a way to get your hands on some fresh wine grapes for this harvest. The next questions are how many to order, about what to expect to pay, and what varieties are the best choices.

As a rule of thumb, if fresh grapes are used, one will get at least a five-gallon carboy of wine from about 100 pounds of grapes. In practice, there will be more (sometimes a couple of gallons) initially, but after racking and clarifying, at least five gallons (two cases plus some glasses for the bottler) will result. Some sources sell by exact weight, others by the pound, but in standard “lug” box weights (usually 36 pounds).

Prices for agricultural products vary highly year to year, and from region to region. Shipping, of course, adds to this. It is true that most fresh grapes available to home winemakers have almost doubled in price over the last ten years. Nonetheless, when you don’t have to pay the winery’s labor costs, label expenses, legal fees, advertising budget, and the winemaker’s ego, you can still make a good bottle of red wine from Lodi for about $2.50. Washington State grapes will be more expensive, especially the more demanded varieties, and North Coast California grapes the dearest of all. This said, it is likely that the most you will pay for the grapes will be about $6 a bottle, and this is the upper end; a more conventional figure would be $2.50-$4 to make wine like those you buy for $10-35 or more.

As an example, in 1999, Lodi Zinfandel grapes laid in to a Denver, Colorado produce market for an alltime high of $27 per 36-pound lug box. For Washington grapes, prices may be higher, up to $1 per pound delivered. The same applies to North Coast grapes. If you live in an area where grapes are grown, and where the growers are not prone to overcharge for ego-driven reasons, the price may be somewhat lower.

Which varieties are selected depend on two factors: your personal taste in wine (why make a wine you won’t want to drink?), and what region the grapes are coming from. If you are buying directly in a viticultural area, you can depend on the recommendations of local winemakers and the vineyard owner, in most cases. While it would be impossible to give an encyclopedic discussion of all the regions and varieties, the following recommendations are based on years of trial and error.

In general, Lodi is a good source of red grapes, which ripen more fully and can tolerate heat better. The region is well-known for hot days and cool nights, when breezes arrive direct from the Pacific. Lodi also has an historic reputation for Zinfandel. When good, Lodi Zin is powerful, high alcohol, intensely-flavored red wine that also matures fairly quickly and is the peer of many North Coast Zinfandels. When it comes to whites, Lodi’s Chardonnay tends to be fuller-bodied and fruity; it lends itself to the typical “California” style Chard.

Another good Lodi varietal is Petite Syrah, which also makes a heavier, darker red that can stand alone, or is useful in deepening the color of Zinfandel. There are also various Rhone Valley-styled varietals which can be used to develop your own blended red. It is possible to make a wine like a southern Rhone such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas from the likes of Petite Syrah, Carignane, Grenache, and Zinfandel. There is another varietal that is believed to have come from Spain called Valdepenas (Tempranillo) which is useful in such blends. Blending is one of the real skills in winemaking, and working with these grapes can be challenging and rewarding.

If Washington or California’s North Coast are your source, there are a few options besides the “Big 4” mentioned above. In California, these would be Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc and maybe Pinot Noir (if you’re very, very lucky) for reds, and Gewürztraminer and Semillon for whites. Washington can produce very good Riesling and Gewurztraminer for whites, and a sort of offbeat red called Lemberger, which makes a nicely spicy, lighter red in the Beaujolais style.

While Petite Syrah and Zinfandel can have some bunch rot problems in shipping, with modern refrigerated trucking and relatively fast shipping times, this problem has been mitigated quite a bit. If the grapes receive a good chilling before shipment, they will arrive in surprisingly good condition. In some cases, you may have to pick out the odd bunch here and there, but a little mold will not appreciably affect the finished wine.

One risk that the home winemaker assumes in all of this is that the grapes, once they arrive, are not as ripe as hoped for, or have other problems. It is often impossible to return them, and one must make do. Sugar can be added, but the flavors will not have the same ripeness. This also challenges the blending skills of the winemaker, and is as close to really having to deal with vintage variation as most of us will ever come. Similarly, high acid musts may be encountered, requiring amelioration, mandating malolactic fermentation, requiring the use of a yeast like 71B that reduces acidity, or eventual use of a proprietary product like Acidex. If the grapes are truly hideous, by all means try to refuse them. In most cases, however, the grapes will be within adequate parameters to make wine with little or no adjustment.

They’re Here!

As noted above, when the grapes arrive, it is best to process them immediately. Once the reds are stemmed (or not), crushed, and sulfited if desired, and the whites are crushed and the juice pressed and sulfited if desired, the basic steps in winemaking are the same as for any wines.

Red grapes are generally stemmed and crushed, although those without a stemmer-crusher may opt for leaving in the all the stems or fishing part of them out, and stomping the grapes or otherwise beating them into submission. Advanced winemakers may try carbonic maceration and not crush the grapes, but most people will want to crush most of them. This provides enough juice to get fermentation going, and the heat of fermentation will help break the rest of the grapes open.

Sulfiting reds at crush is controversial. Some grapes are sulfured before shipping to reduce mold. Also, those planning malolactic fermentation later will want to avoid or use only a little sulfite (say, 15-20 ppm). The must will, assuming the grapes came in by refrigerated truck and are promptly processed, be rather cold. Suspending buckets of hot water in the must, wrapping heating pads or electric blankets around the fermenters, or fabricating a drapeau with plastic hose to circulate hot water will all help raise the temperature to about 60 degrees F. before yeast addition. The heat of fermentation will then take over, with the ideal range being about 85 overall, with a brief spike in the cap of 90. If the must becomes too hot, it could stop fermenting, so be prepared to cool it if needed, for example with a suspended bucket of ice and water. Be sure to break up and stir the cap of skins at least twice daily. Fermentation can be done to dryness on the skins, which facilitates the addition of the new direct addition ML cultures at pressing.

Whites are usually crushed without stemming, to create channels in the press for juice to flow out, and sulfited to about 30 ppm to avoid oxidation. Again, if ML is sought, reduce the sulfite to 20 ppm or so; the daring may use none. The cooler temperature of the must is desirable for whites, so temperature correction should not be needed unless the must becomes too warm (over 65) during fermentation. White musts will generally do best with a little yeast nutrient added.

After crushing and pressing, hydrometer readings and acid titration will enable you to adjust sugar and acid as needed. It is best to err slightly on the side of conservatism in adjustments, since the batch may read differently after it macerates for a few days. When the readings look good and the temperature is right, yeast may be added and the process will begin within a few days or less.

At this point you have found, researched, selected, ordered, paid for, received, and processed your grapes. Monitoring the fermentation, pressing, clarification, aging, and bottling all await, but after the hectic hours spent getting the whole thing going, the time has arrived to pour a glass of last year’s best. Forget the howling winds and snow, the beestings, or whatever else went awry during the crush, adjust your beret, and drink a toast to having participated fully in the age-old mystery of winemaking. Using fresh grapes, you have given yourself a chance to make the best wines of your life, and the future looks bright indeed.

In 1978, Jim Drevescraft founded Colorado Mountain Vineyards, the first commercial winery in the state. He has written for Decanter and Vintage magazines and edited a how-to book on winemaking. He is a frequent contributor to WineMaker magazine.