Buying the Whole Crop
My backyard hobby vineyard occupies about 1/3 of an acre and contains 250 vines, half Chardonnay and half Pinot Noir. With a fairly normal yield of three tons per acre in my cool-climate Petaluma Gap location, I get about one ton of grapes every vintage. That makes plenty of wine for household drinking, but having only two kinds of wine (well, three if you count my saignée rosé of Pinot Noir) would be too boring. So just about every year I buy some grapes somewhere and make something else. Usually not the same thing two years in a row, though.
Over the decade-plus that I have been making wine, I have purchased grapes several different ways. Living here in Sonoma County allows good access to grapes for the home winemaker. Some purchases need planning and organization, while others may be spur of the moment deals. My first purchase, several years ago, was one with some planning. Bob Bennett, a local leader among home winemakers and past president of the Garage Enologists of North County (GENCO) grows grapes on several acres between Windsor and Healdsburg. He has a half dozen or so varieties growing there and sells home winemaker quantities of his ripe grapes by advance arrangement. I bought about 600 lbs. of his Sangiovese one year and made a delicious hectoliter-barrelfull of that wine.
At my store, The Beverage People, we also have a "store project" wine most years. We purchase some grapes from a commercial grower and share them among the staff. Everybody gets to try making wine from the same lot and we compare results the following year. We usually take between a half-ton and a full ton for those projects, so sometimes the grapes are delivered directly to the store in half-ton bins. That was the case with this year's project, a Pinot Gris grown by Balletto Vineyards. The driver pulled up in a flatbed truck and we used our little forklift to take off the two bins. We pitchforked grapes into our smaller personal bins and went home to crush and press.
Some years, the project is not so convenient. Several times, we have gone out to the Clarksburg district along the Sacramento River to source Chenin Blanc. One year, a picking crew was available and they picked directly into our 32-gallon bins. Most years, though, we show up with picking shears in hand and spend a day harvesting the grapes ourselves. The vineyards out there are mostly mechanically harvested, so they usually let us take our grapes the day before they plan a night harvest.
This year, we did something a bit different. Through a friend-of-a-friend, I learned of a hobby vineyard owner in the Sonoma Valley who did not plan to make wine this year. The owner, Juan, usually makes his own wine, with my friend's associate, Larry. This year, though, Juan and his wife want to go on vacation in October. No way to make wine at home when you do that! So he was looking for a buyer for the entire crop. They usually harvest about a ton, more or less equally divided between Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Juan also grows a lesser amount of Malbec. That's more grapes than I wanted, but I thought some friends and coworkers might join me. I made an appointment to see the vineyard back in August and drove out to take a look. The vineyard is beautiful and perfectly maintained. Just finishing veraison, the grapes looked good and well worth negotiating for. We settled on a price to sell the entire crop to me and my friends.
Juan's Cabernet at veraison.
Juan kept me updated with weekly vineyard Brix and pH readings. Since my store is closed on Sunday, that's the best day of the week for a picking project. We narrowed harvest down to September 21 or September 28, then a few days of warm weather pushed toward the earlier harvest date. Nine of us arrived at Juan's house at 8:00 a.m. on the 21st. While Juan picked the small lot of Malbec (he knew which vines were which!), the rest of us started picking Cabernet into his set of 30-lb. field lugs. My wife Marty assisted Larry with weighing each bin on the tailgate of a pickup truck and then distributing the grapes according to what each participant had requested in advance. After the cab, we went on to the Syrah. The entire crop was harvested by 11:00 a.m..
We spent three hours harvesting the grapes. It'll take much longer enjoying them.
Totaling up the weights, we found some minor adjustments were needed. The Cabernet came in heavy, with nearly 1,500 lbs. picked. The Syrah, though, was light at about 800. Some of the group reduced their Syrah allotment and bumped up their Cabernet take to balance the job. I spoke for the entire 200 lbs. of Malbec — more than I had expected from the "few vines" of that variety on the property!
To ease the crushing burden, we divided the load. Four people went with their grapes to the home of my business partner, Nancy Vineyard. The other four came back to my house. At each location, over 1,000 lbs. was put through a crusher/destemmer and people took their prepared must home. Everything was cleaned up and put away by 2:00 p.m.! Our tired (and dirty) crew members went home to relax and contemplate abundant good red Sonoma wine by next year. We had a fun and successful exercise at "buying the whole crop."