I have to say that one of my current (it is always changing) bucket list items is to work a vendage (harvest) in Burgundy. This year I thought of (too late) contacting geographically closer vineyards like ones on the Leelanau Peninsula or on the Niagara Penisula but never got around to it. However, when I saw that City Winery Chicago needed help for their current Crush (harvest and sorting of the grapes) I thought, hey, its right in the city, what an opportunity to be a part of the process of making wine right in Chicago. Below is a brief recap of the morning.
Robert Kowal, the head winemaker in Chicago, gave a brief introduction to the lay of the floor, the machines and most important, the red “stop” buttons in case of emergency. Robert offered earplugs, that we could listen to music, he warned that it would get a bit noisy and could get a bit monotonous. Little did we realize that the morning would speed by as we (most of us all newbies) focused on the grapes moving down the line. Assistant winemaker Caroline Schrader would be behind the pallet truck all day moving the trays of grapes onto the sorting table. The grapes had arrived this very morning at 6am from a refrigerated truck driven during the last few days straight from the vineyard in Mendocina, Ca. The grapes weren’t frozen but they were very cold to the touch.
These pictures show us trying to sort out the leaves, brown stems and other assorted MOG (materials other than grapes). Our hands got stickier and stickier as the morning progressed and the floor got wetter and wetter. The video below gives you the full flavor of the sounds of the morning.
The minute the sorting tray started to speed up we felt like we were in the middle of the I Love Lucy Chocolate Factory scene. If you have never seen the episode or heard of I Love Lucy here it is. Fortunately, the speed of the table was always within reason and we had plenty of hands to help sort the grapes. But it was interesting to see how different trays had different characteristics, some had more leaves than others, the grapes were larger on some trays than others, which gave us a little hint of the different spots in the vineyard where the grapes were picked.
Here is what our MOG bucket looked like. From the table, the grapes went up a conveyer belt into the destemmer and from there dropping into a must pump where they were sucked up into a tube and moved into the tanks. The winemakers were great “macguyvers” at figuring out how to make equipment work that wasn’t necessarily made to work together. I think “macguyvering” is a winemaking necessity.
The grapes we sorted were petit verdot, generally used as a blending grape for their color and used in Bordeaux blends. We sorted about 9 tons of grapes during the morning which will eventually turn into about 1200 gallons of wine. The grapes will stay in the tanks to ferment over the course of 2-3 weeks and then age in barrel at City Winery. City Winery has a separate space next door to their event space where the barrels are kept. Then in about a year the wine will be blended into their house, “West Loop Red” 2017 vintage or bottled separately or put into a different blend.
It was great to see that all the people that were around the sorting table either worked at restaurants, for City Winery, were wine store owners or passionate wine students.
This was a fantastic wine experience to have and gave all of us insights as to more things to think about (or not) when tasting a glass of wine, the taste of leaves versus stems, raisined grapes versus other diseases in the grapes or just an appreciation of all the work that goes into a beautiful glass of wine.