The Crush, August 2020

Vermouth making has become an annual tradition for my friend Sam and me. Once we had harvested the grapes that he and his team spent all year growing, it was my responsibility to turn them into wine, vermouth’s base ingredient.

The first step in making wine is wresting the juice from the grapes. Last year, I first ran the grapes through a destemmer-crusher (removing the stems and bursting open most of the grapes), crushed the grapes further by pressing down on them with my hands and arms, and then expressed the juice by hand from a nylon mesh bag, wringing 5 gallons of juice from 100 pounds of grapes. I chose to change a few things for year’s crush: I wanted to extract more juice with less physical effort, and my budget for the project could stretch to rent one item of equipment.

Gretel begins stomping the chardonnay

Gretel, my partner’s grandmother and friend of the farm where these grapes were grown, was aghast that we didn’t stomp the grapes with our feet last year. She piqued my interest by encouraging us to step right up and stomp those grapes this time around, and golly was she right. Physically satisfying and remarkably efficient , crushing the grapes by foot was both fun and effective. We shared in the joy of making wine as a community, each taking a turn. Crushing the grapes in whole clusters by foot required much less effort because one’s full body weight crushed the grapes (rather than drawing on upper body strength to crush by hand), and one’s feet are sensitive enough to feel for uncrushed grapes – we could sense where we needed to crush further just by intuition and sensation.

Leaving the stems intact for the crushing and pressing phases influences the taste of the juice and eventual wine, making it greener, grassier, and potentially more brash. I liked this aroma in the juice and think it will lend a distinctive character to this year’s vermouth.

I set aside 4 gallons of crushed grapes – juice, stems, seeds, skins, and all – to attempt my first batch of wild fermented wine (more on this here!). The majority of the grapes would be pressed, and their juice inoculated with lab-grown yeast for a conventional home winemaking process.

To make our conventional batch of wine, the juice we released by crushing the grapes needed to be separated from the skins, pulp, and seeds (which would be discarded). This was achieved through the use of the unappetizingly-named bladder press, rented from a home winemaking store. The bladder press is a 40 liter metal basket with a cylindrical rubber container (the bladder) in the center – this bladder is filled with water from a garden hose, inflating and pressing the crushed grapes against the walls of the basket. The juice runs down the sides of the press and drips into a container set below the spout.

Just beginning to fill up the bladder press, and collecting the ‘free-run’ juice in this white bowl. We would eventually fill the basket (clear the stems off of the top), and seal the basket with a metal top. The red cylinder in the center of the basket is the ‘bladder’ for which this press is named. It fills up with water when connected to the garden hose, expanding and pressing the grapes against the sides of the press. The juice presses out the sides, drips into the rim, and is poured out the spout into our bowl.

I packed up all the crushed grapes in the basket and collected the juice that fell from the press before I had even hooked it up to the hose, collecting 4.5 gallons of what is called “free-run” juice (because it ‘freely ran’ from the press before the pressure was applied). After filling the bladder and engaging the press to 2 bar of pressure on the press’ gauge, I collected another 2 gallons of juice – this is the “press-run,” and it was much darker in color than the free-run. I kept these two separate so we could see how far in the winemaking process I could taste the difference between the two runs.

This is the bladder press ‘after’ photo.
After the bladder press had expressed all the juice, we opened the top and saw
the pomace (skin, seeds, and pulp) squished against the basket.

As I evaluate this method and ruminate about what choices I’ll make for next year’s harvest, I’ve got a few ideas bubbling. Gretel’s commitment to stomping was on point: crushing whole clusters of grapes by foot in a collective grape stomp was maximally efficient (and joyous). I don’t think I’ll rent the bladder press next year – it was expensive ($75 per day) and quite a bit of work to fill, operate, and (especially) clean; and after all that the majority of the juice we collected was free-run anyway. Next year, I plan to stomp whole clusters and then strain the juice (free-run style) through a massive sieve over a 5 gallon bucket. I believe this method (stomp, free run, and some light pressing in the sieve) will produce a large volume of juice at the lowest cost and with far less effort.

Between the three batches (free-run, press-run, and wild ferment), we got about 10 gallons of wine from about 125 pounds of grapes. That’s a lot of wine-to-be! Next up in the wine-making process is fermentation – where the magic happens on a microbial scale.

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