Let's Talk over Drinks
By Nicholas Adcock, assistant winemaker, and Mike Conte, Cellar Hand
Harvest is an exhilarating time of year. It reminds me of getting geared up for playoffs when you play sports. You know it is going to be hard, but it's invigorating. David Kuhlken, who has been doing this for forever, still gets excited. It's almost like a mythical type event that happens once a year. Year-after-year, you know it is going to be a lot of work, but it is still exciting. We get pumped up for it.
We’re a small winemaking team at Pedernales Cellars with David, Joanna Wilczoch, the winemaker, Nick as assistant winemaker, Mike as cellar hand, and one intern, also named David. We of course must give the intern a nickname, so we don’t confuse him with David Kuhlken. Instead of calling the intern Big Dave, we call him Grande. Typically, the winemaking decisions are made by Joanna and David, and the work carried out by Nick and Mike. During harvest and crush, it is all hands on deck, and everyone shares roles.
This is my first harvest at Pedernales and seventh overall in the wine industry. It is also Mike’s first harvest at Pedernales and third overall. So, we both have some perspective on how this year is like other harvests, and how it is different.
How is This Year Like Any Harvest?
This year, the general process of harvest ran just like any other year. It goes more or less as you would imagine. Grapes picked in the vineyard and then delivered to the winery. The rhythm of picking early in the morning and processing the grapes at night is similar every year.
We get up early to pick grapes before the heat of the day sets in. It’s exhilarating to see the sunrise over our estate vineyard in the Texas Hill Country. We start harvesting earlier in the season in the Hill Country, and a couple of weeks later in the Texas High Plains. There is a crossover time when we are crushing fruit from the Hill Country midday, and then a second wave of High Plains fruit comes in on refrigerated trucks late in the evening. Some nights we end up sleeping in a hammock at the winery because we are working so late at night and need to get back to work first thing in the morning.
Once they arrive on the crush pad behind the winery, we destem the fruit, hand-sort it to remove leaves and bad grapes, lightly crush it and move it to a bin to let the grapes settle and cold soak. Once the grapes are in a bin, fermentation begins.
During fermentation in the bin, yeast produces carbon dioxide, which causes grape solids to rise creating what we call a “cap.” We monitor each bin to make sure the cap is punched down with a big metal tool about twice a day. This keeps the skin and solids in contact with the juice, which helps get the tannins and colors into the wine. It usually takes about a week for primary fermentation to be completed in the bin. After that, we press the fruit and the juice goes either into a tank or a barrel. This is where malolactic—or secondary—fermentation happens and aging begins.
How is This Year's Harvest Different?
What is different this year? We had smaller crops than usual because an early freeze in October 2019 caused significant damage to the vines at some of the biggest vineyards we work with. Not only did we have far fewer grapes, but we also had to source the grapes from many different vineyards. There are a lot of grape varietals, from more growers, and in smaller lots. Rather than processing 40 tons of grapes from 5 different lots, we crushed fewer tons from as many 37 individual lots. Takes just as much time to clean the equipment between each lot for 3 tons as it does for 40 tons.
The upside of this year’s harvest is that the quality of the grapes is really good. And because we didn’t receive a large volume of white grapes, we were able to do much more hands-on work with whole-cluster grapes. This lets us be much more meticulous in sorting the grapes to ensure only the highest quality fruit gets crushed.
The long hours and intense workload build bonds among the winery team. We all pitch in to do what it takes. The owners are extremely hands-on, which inspires us to work hard too. There’s a happy medium between working hard and having fun. We have a great time together and really enjoy each other’s company. There is an old saying that goes, “It takes a lot of beer to make great wine.” We can confirm that this is true.
One challenging and really satisfying thing we do during harvest time is to cook a lot. Instead of relaxing during our lunch break on a hectic day, we make elaborate meals for each other. It’s a great change of pace and a fun way to enjoy each other’s company. We’ve also done some silly stuff. We are in concept phase of designing a crush pad hot tub with bins and a pump. Because it's so hot in Texas, we actually want it to be a cold tub.
While we found ways to enjoy the long hours at work, our significant others didn’t enjoy it quite as much. It was Mike’s future wife’s first harvest, and it was a rude awakening for her to experience the hours that he’s working. It was my girlfriend’s first harvest too, and it has been a little frustrating for her to see my schedule be so crazy.
Now that harvest is behind us, and the wine is aging in tanks and barrels, it’s easy to look back on it with fond memories. Once we get to taste the 2020 vintage, which we expect to be outstanding, we’ll remember this year’s harvest with even more nostalgia.
We can’t wait for you to taste the fruits of our labor.