Archive for the ‘Harvest’ Category
Monday, April 8th, 2013
by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
As I write this, the day after the latest jobless report came out, I could not help but think that we are facing a long term jobs problem. The economy produced only 88,000 new jobs last month, which is pretty disappointing when the “experts” were predicting something closer to 200,000. I have no doubt that, on a month-to-month basis, this jobs report is more reflective of the events of the day, things such as the sequestration.
But, while each month is something of a blip, I think this jobs report is taking place against a backdrop which represents a sea change in our labor force which is not going to reverse itself.
If you just focus in on the grape growing business (the business I am most familiar with), you will see that, as conservative a business as we are, the changes over the last decades have been huge. Perhaps most obvious is harvest. While it is still common to see hordes of workers go out into the field at harvest time with knives in hand, it is becoming more and more common to see a tractor driver and a mechanical harvester perform the same work.
So what took tens or hundreds of workers is now done by a number of workers you can count on one hand. Not only that, in many ways the mechanical harvester does a better job. You can argue both sides of this, but the bottom line is that unless hand harvesting is clearly superior (which it is not), the economies of mechanical harvesting will overwhelm any effort to perpetuate hand harvesting (except in the most artisan of artisan vineyards).
While harvesting presents the most obvious, “in-your-face”, example of mechanical replacing human labor, it is just that, the most obvious, but hardly the only, mechanization in the vineyard. Take pruning for example. I think it is only the dyed in the wool nature of our business that has perpetuated hand pruning. In Australia, where the human workforce to tend to the vineyards is lacking, they have managed to mechanize this, along with many other, vineyard tasks. Minimal pruning, which involves creating a hedge with a mechanical trimmer, works very well in many, if not most, vineyards. It particularly lends itself to very vigorous vines better than the “normal” hand pruning. However resistant to change our industry might be, the inexorable demand for more efficiency is going to greatly reduce the amount of human labor necessary to tend the vine.
But what holds true in the vineyard holds even more true in other industries that are more cutting edge. I hope that with the recovery taking place, we find ourselves in a situation approaching full employment. But we are paddling upstream. As workers without specialized skills become less and less able to hold their own against mechanization, each recovery following a recession is probably going to exhibit less and less opportunity for those of only average abilities. Business is becoming more and more efficient, which is a good thing. Right now, we are producing more than we were pre- recession, but with fewer employed. Increasingly large portions for labor force are becoming irrelevant.
What to make of this? You can certainly view this as a kind of utopia, a world where we are released from the burden of mindless physical labor. Machines, fairly stupid at the moment, but destined to be replaced by more and more intelligent robots, will be able to do much of what people have done since the dawn of human time.
This utopia is a wonderful thought. But it’s not happening. Those possessed of the intelligence and skills to succeed in our hyper technical economy are doing extremely well. Those lacking those skills struggle. With them, this revolution in the means of production is not freeing them from the burdens of mindless labor, but relegating them to the unemployment line. As the demand for unskilled workers declines, while their numbers remain steady, or even increase, the law of supply and demand tells us that what they can demand for their labors will decline as well. Anyone who doesn’t like it is welcome to leave, as there are many more than willing to take his place. The cost of many things will plummet as the labor necessary to produce them is replaced by a machine working for pennies instead of dollars. For those with secure employment, this is great. For those without the skills to obtain a good job, it’s hard to see how things aren’t going to go from bad to worse. Are we going to end up being a society that looks a whole lot more like the one Marx predicted than we would have ever imagined?
In the past, at least in the long term, the advance in technology has resulted in development of new types of jobs sufficient to keep the labor force fully employed, or at least within shouting distance of it. I have my doubts that this is going to continue to be the case. I hope I am wrong, but at this point the development of technology to replace relatively unskilled workers is taking place at a breakneck pace. I doubt that the expanding economy, the thought that a rising tide raises all boats, can overcome the sharp decline in the need for relatively unskilled labor.
My guess is that the average reader of this post has an IQ of 120 or higher. But for every 120, there is an 80. These “80’s” shouldn’t just be fodder for the more well-to-do, for those more fortunate when they were passing out genes. The vast majority of these “80’s” are decent, law-abiding, hard-working people. They deserve better than to have to live on the table scraps of the more fortunate.
So we have two alternative visions of the future. In one, the utopian one, we all are free to spend more time doing what we want, as opposed to having to produce what we need to live. The second alternative is a darker one. Those who have the good fortune to possess those skills that machines do not may well live in that utopia. But for those who lack those skills, is their future going to be a miserly existence on the edges of society?
Monday, October 15th, 2012
by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
One of the most important decisions that a grapegrower or winemaker has to make is when to bring in the harvest. That decision in theory is pretty much the same as when the grapes are ripe. In practice, it’s not quite so simple.
Of course, the grapes being ripe is a pretty important aspect of the decision. In the best of cases, the grapes are pretty much getting there right about now. But what is “ripe”? Ripeness is different things to different people. There’s certainly a point where everyone would agree the grapes aren’t ripe yet, and a point where everyone would agree they are overripe. But there’s quite a bit of time in between where opinions vary quite a bit. I’ll return to this point in a minute.
Personally, when I’m deciding whether to harvest or not, I look primarily to the physiological ripeness of the grapes. I take a berry sample, put the grapes in a zip lock bag, crush them, and then see what I have. I do do a couple of pretty basic tests. I check the Brix and the pH. The Brix can’t be too low—ditto for the pH. But in most years (last year being something of an exception), these parameters are rarely a big problem, at least here in California (though pH being too high, i.e., the acids are too low, is more often a problem than the Brix being too low).
Then I move on to judging the grapes themselves. I take a look at the juice in my zip lock bag. Is it a pale pink with a green tinge (definitely indicative of underripeness), or a dark pink, or even red (indicative of ripeness)? I pay a lot of attention to seed color. I want most of my seeds to be tan to brown. Some yellow is okay. I don’t what to see a whole lot of green (indicative of underripeness which will yield hard closed tannins). Is the grape pulp still sticking to the seeds? If so, the grapes are probably not ripe, though this isn’t necessarily always the case. The grape skins can be fairly firm (not ripe yet), or soft. In Syrah, the skins often develop a kind of dimpling when ripe, though that’s not the case with most varieties.
After I’ve looked for those things, I taste the grapes. Are there a lot of green flavors? If so, they aren’t ripe. Are there a lot of cherry flavors? That’s a pretty good indication of ripeness. Prune or raisins? That’s getting overripe. Definitely time to bring them in.
Many of the flavors that develop in the wine aren’t evident in the grapes, so I don’t really expect them to taste anything like the wine. But I definitely do not want to taste any greenness.
Now if it’s late September or October and you’ve gotten the grapes to where they are ripe, then it’s easy—go ahead and pick them. Sometimes you need to wait a few days if the winery isn’t able to accept the grapes, but that’s usually not that big of a problem.
But suppose it’s late October and the grapes aren’t as ripe as you’d like. You have a decision to make. Do you bring them in or not?
This decision can be difficult depending on the weather. If you’re looking at rain in the forecast, and you’re dealing with a variety susceptible to botrytis, then you have to decide whether to risk damaging the fruit in order to get some number of days of extra ripening. Those days may not be that big a deal since the grapes aren’t ripening very fast in late October anyway. Even so, we usually err on the side of leaving them hang a little longer, even if the improvement may be modest. The converse situation can present itself earlier in the season if your grapes are already showing signs of stress and dehydration, and there’s a heat wave on the horizon. It’s no fun to decide to wait another week or two, only to have your crop crash and burn on you.
There are other situations that can force you to make a difficult decision. Suppose the Brix is getting high and the pH is showing a sharp decline in acidity, but the physiological factors aren’t where you want them? I really don’t get too caught up with Brix levels, but if the pH is getting high, I really don’t want to leave the grapes out there too long for the acidity to get even lower. True, you can add acid in the winery, but other things being equal, I’d much rather have grapes with good acidity from the get-go.
Some very mundane but important factors can force your hand. The availability of picking crews is one. Usually this isn’t a problem, but when it is, it’s not like you can pick without a crew. So you may be forced to pick a little earlier or later than you’d really like.
Finally, I’m going to get back to what is “ripe”. Some winemakers want a wine with bracing acidity and bright fruit. I certainly fall into this category when it comes to Montepulciano. If that’s what you want, then your definition of “ripe” is going to be earlier than a winemaker who is after opulent, rich fruit (even if there’s some prune and raisin flavors). Those two winemakers could differ by a week or two in when the grapes are “ripe”, and the wine they will produce from the same vineyard, picked at different times, will be vastly different.
Monday, August 6th, 2012
by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
Three things came together this last week in a way that, no doubt, was coincidental, but in an eerie sort of way left me “shaking my head”.
First, I just got through reading Richard Clarke’s Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It. I can only describe the specter of Cyber War as chilling. To summarize a fairly long book: America is the most vulnerable nation in the world to an attack by hackers seeking to disrupt or destroy many of our most critical institutions. The security we have in place to defend against such an attack is woefully inadequate—hackers who attempt to infiltrate the computer systems of many American industries find they can do it with ease. The only thing that kept them from wreaking havoc was their decision not to. A foreign attacker, obviously, would be a whole different can of words. And, finally, what are we doing about this dire state of affairs? Nothing. Between those that resist any effort to “regulate” industry, and those concerned with the potential “privacy” concerns of the government getting involved in prescribing minimal levels of security, the government is at gridlock.
Shortly after I finished this book, two news stories hit the wires. First, Congress rejected an effort to enact a relatively weak cyber security bill. Perhaps that it came somewhat close to passing the Senate is some cause for optimism that going forward things will change for the better, but I’m not banking on it.
The second story was the massive power outage in India. Basically, a tenth of the world’s population had to get by without power. This outage seems to result from India’s fairly primitive power grid. But much the same thing could occur here through a cyber-compromised power grid.
Our power grids are, from generation plants to switching stations to overall balancing of the power going into and out of the grid, controlled by software. That’s hardly surprising, and in and of itself hardly a cause for concern. But that software is largely tied to the Internet, meaning that hackers can obtain access to it without great difficulty. Add to that the fact that the security measures that should be protecting that software are largely non-existent. And add to that the fact that the power grid is a finely tuned instrument that can be easily thrown off kilter if everything isn’t precisely managed.
So I got to thinking, what would be the effect on the wine industry in the event that a cyber attack brought down the power grid? There’s a lot more damage that cyber attacks against different institutions (government, financial, transportation, etc.) could inflict on the wine business, but the electric grid, both because it’s so vulnerable, and the effects could be so calamitous, is worthy of special note.
So let’s suppose that someone is able to bring down the power grid for the western states for four or five days. That would certainly be bad for the wine industry (not to mention everyone else), but just how bad?
A starting point would be to indentify where we use electricity. The answer is “everywhere”. Two obvious examples are the pumps that irrigate our fields, and the cooling that is so necessary for our wineries. Certainly, when the outage occurs would matter a great deal. Worse case scenario would be during harvest and fermentation. I can’t think of anything worse than grapes sitting on the crush pad without any electricity to run the crusher/destemmer, presses, and pumps that are required to get the grapes converted into must and moved to tank. Almost as bad would be an outage that hit while the grapes were fermenting. Without any way to cool down the fermentation, fermentation temperatures would take off. For many wines this would be disastrous.
Or suppose it’s time to press off, only the presses have no power, and the pumps to get the must to the press won’t work. Probably a few days delay wouldn’t be the end of the world, but at some point the effect is going to be significant. Of course, the fact that you can’t move the wine means there’s no place for new grapes to come to, so they have to wait in the field until the outage is over. Which I guess would be somewhat okay, since the trucks, tractors, etc. that would be needed to harvest the grapes would have no way to function (the gasoline pumps that fill their tanks are electrically powered).
Even if it weren’t harvest time, the effect could be devastating. If it occurred during a heat wave, the cooling upon which we depend would be unavailable. Again, four or five days without cooling probably wouldn’t be devastating, at least most times of the year, and for most wines, but it wouldn’t be a good thing either.
Other things would be affected, but would not be nearly as calamitous. We depend on electricity to power our irrigation systems. But barring a stroke of unusually bad luck, five days without irrigation shouldn’t be a major problem. If our tractors were out of gasoline, and so unable to spray for 5 days, the effect probably wouldn’t be disastrous, though certainly it would be disruptive.
If your wine is in a refrigerated freight car that’s put out of service during the outage, and if it’s the middle of August, your wine could be cooked. But this is probably a fairly small part of your production, so it’s bearable.
Now add to the effect of loss of the power grid all the other potential disruptions. Suppose the financial system is compromised, so that you can’t access your money to pay your bills? The list goes on and on. In the end, we’d survive, find ways to adapt to the crisis. But it wouldn’t be a pretty picture.
And, I would have to say, the wine business is far less vulnerable to a cyber attack than many other industries.
I would hope we wake up and take some steps to mitigate the effects of a cyber attack. But at this point, it seems like nothing is going to really happen until we get a wake-up call in the worst way possible.
Monday, July 9th, 2012
This may be something of an esoteric subject, but it’s an important one for anyone growing grapevines, and it’s one that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves, even though it’s pretty basic.
When you leave a bud on the vine at pruning time, that bud will generate a shoot. Most shoots have two grape clusters. So each bud you leave on the vine should produce two clusters. This isn’t always going to be exactly the case, but for present purposes it’s close enough.
In deciding how many buds to leave on the vine, the main consideration should be to end up with a “balanced” vine. Each vine grows vegetative growth (i.e., leaves and shoots) and fruit. Too much vegetative growth in relation to the amount of fruit results in “undercropping”. Undercropping is bad because you tend to get a canopy that is dense and shades the fruit and the inner canopy. Aside from the poor effect this has on the amount of sun getting to the leaves and fruit, it has other unwelcome effects. The density of the canopy can make it difficult for sprays to get into the inner parts of the canopy. Undercropping also results in the vegetative growth continuing longer into the growing season than it should. Normally, the vine transitions from sending its resources to the vegetative parts (leaves and shoots) to ripening the fruit around the time of veraison. If there’s a shortage of crop, the vine will tend to continue to grow leaves and shoots later into the season, resulting in less time devoted to ripening the fruit.
The vine is limited in the amount of fruit it will produce by the number of buds. The converse is not true—i.e., the vine has no automatic way of limiting the amount of vegetative growth. The only way that the vine’s vegetative growth is limited is by there being enough fruit to draw the vine’s resources away from leaf growth.
The opposite of “undercropping” is “overcropping”, where there’s too much fruit for the amount of leaves and shoots. Overcropping results in higher yields, but at the sacrifice of grape quality because there is not enough in the way of leaves to obtain flavor-full grapes.
My rule of thumb is that a vine is balanced when the shoots are 4-5 feet long. If shorter, the vine is overcropped; if longer, undercropped.
Since each additional bud left on the vine results in more fruit, and vice versa, one can in theory leave more buds on the vine and get more fruit. So if you have an undercropped vine (too much vegetative growth), you can try to add more fruit at pruning time by leaving more buds.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to leave more buds once you’ve established a vine. In a common cordon system, pruning positions are left from a cane from last season. While each pruning position can have, in theory, any number of buds left, two is the most common number. You can leave three to increase the number of buds, but this often results in the top two buds growing out, but the bottom one not. So you end up with two shoots even though you left three buds. This has the undesired effect that the pruning position tends to grow higher into the canopy. This isn’t a disaster, but other things being equal is something to be avoided.
Alternatively, you can leave one bud instead of two if your vine last year was overcropped. This is not such a bad thing to do, but it will certainly lower your yield. In Napa, because of its higher grape prices, you can probably leave one bud and still have a viable crop. But in most areas of the State, prices probably won’t support the yield you would obtain from leaving just one bud.
If you need more buds and you have the room and money, you can split your canopy. So where you had one fruiting zone, you now have two, with twice the number of buds. This is a good way to deal with undercropping, and opens up the canopy to boot. Unfortunately, the costs of splitting a canopy are significant.
Another way to deal with the problem of undercropping is minimal pruning, a system that creates a hedge-like canopy with a very large number of buds. The vine tends to self-establish the proper amount of vegetative growth in relation to fruit in a vigorous site. This system is widely used in Australia, though has been slow to be adopted here, really for no good reason. I have a small vineyard at my house which was much too vigorous, and I was able to much improve the quality and quantity of fruit by converting to minimal pruning. It’s really a very good system for sites with excessive vigor, which is a common situation through California.
The object of winegrape farming should be to produce grapes that are packed with flavor and color, while being balanced in other ways (i.e., neither too little or too much acidity). In order to accomplish that, you need a balanced vine. A balanced wine is one where neither vegetative growth or fruit crowd out the growth of the other. And essential to that balance is that the vine have the right number of buds, which in turn results in the right amount of grape clusters.
Unfortunately, the idea has taken hold that lower yields give better quality. While this is half true (if the vine is overcropped lower yields will give better quality), it is only half true. With a balanced vine one should leave well enough alone, even if it’s producing a prodigious amount of fruit. If the vine is undercropped, it’s nuts to reduce its fruit even more. You’re just going from moderate to severe undercropping. You end up with lower fruit quality, and lower quantity as well. Yet the erroneous concept that lowering yields always improves quality is, sadly, widely believed, and certainly does more harm than good.
Monday, June 4th, 2012
Last week, I discussed what can be done by the winemaker to affect the alcohol level in the finished wine. But that begs the question whether the winemaker should try to lower the alcohol level in his wines. At the very high end (grapes with very high sugar levels), the winemaker runs the risk of a stuck fermentation (one that doesn’t’ complete and leaves residual sugar in the wine). I don’t think very many winemakers would start a fermentation with a high likelihood it will stick, so pretty much all winemakers will water down to the extent they think necessary to avoid a stuck fermentation.
But a fermentation sticks because the yeast die off due to high alcohol levels. As yeasts have been developed that are tolerant of higher and higher alcohol levels, it has become possible to ferment wines to very high alcohol levels without the problem of the fermentation sticking. However, the winemaker may not like other features of these high-alcohol tolerant yeasts, so would prefer to use a less alcohol tolerant yeast. If so, then watering down high Brix musts is a necessity.
But even putting aside issues of stuck fermentations, it is an open question whether winemakers should seek any particular alcohol level, or range of levels. I personally don’t believe that alcohol level standing alone is much of an indicator of a wine’s quality. I’ve had plenty of high alcohol wines that were well balanced, and plenty of lower alcohol wines that were not. I think most people would have a pretty hard time guessing with any accuracy the alcohol level of a wine just from tasting it.
Even if you grant that, as a general rule, higher alcohol wines are going to correlate with riper, richer flavors (which is probably the case), clearly you have a tradeoff. If you like those riper richer flavors, then you’re probably going to tend to like higher alcohol wines.
And, finally, alcohol itself contributes to the sensual expression of a wine. Alcohol tends to lend viscosity to the wine, and imparts a flavor akin to sweetness. So you if tend to like those attributes in a wine, you’ll gravitate towards higher alcohol wines. Conversely, if you like a drier style, lower alcohol wines will probably be your preference.
I do have to admit a bias in favor of lower alcohol wines on one score. I like to drink wine and not get plastered. Obviously, the higher the alcohol level of the wine, the less of it you can drink and stay more or less sober. That’s one reason I like German Rieslings so much—their low alcohol levels mean you can drink more without feeling the effects.
But I count myself among winemakers who tend toward the more opulent, fruitier, style of wine. So higher alcohol levels come with that territory, and I am willing to pay the price in terms of alcohol level to gain the flavor profile I want. The big qualification is that the wine must remain balanced, which is more difficult to achieve in a very high alcohol wine. But, bottom line, I put how good the wine tastes ahead of any consideration of alcohol level in making my wines.