Most people I know make fun of me for doing it, but my favorite job at harvest is final tidying in the vineyards. I overhear winemakers bragging about the number of people on their sorting teams, but I find growing and picking great fruit works for me. Here is a cluster before and after my tidying:
I actually removed very little. The “lavender” colored berries are sunburned; once skins are sunburned, they never fully ripen. In 2010, a winemaker friend taught me to leave them in place until the last day–this is a cluster with not quite enough shade, so clipping the sunburned berries too early would just expose the next layer. Experience teaches that grapes don’t have to look pretty to taste great, but sunburn and raisins are just not delicious. I prefer looking for sunburn/raisins in the field vs. sorting at the winery: you don’t have to look very hard–it’s on the exposed fruit!
I once said I would never pay for berry sorting at the winery; it just seemed ridiculous–and expensive. I remember a debate with Aaron, where I proclaimed, “I bet the 1961 Cheval Blanc didn’t involve berry sorting,” to which he responded, “no, but you can be sure the 2009 did.” In a difficult vintage, I learned the value of sorting lines, and I freely admit that no matter how perfect the fruit comes in, a de-stemmer does some damage and sends bits of stems into the tank (what we call “jacks”) unless you’ve got friends, or a hired team, picking them out. This photo is the extraordinary sorting line at Alpha Omega, which follows a “shaker table” that drops out the tiny green undeveloped berries (“shotberries”) and bits of leaves and stems.
With the bumper crop and shortage of tank space this year, I produced at two different wineries. And I have to say I believe there’s a difference between the wines fermented with and without jacks and shot-berries removed. I didn’t even take a photo of the sorting line at Terra Valentine because it worried me: a two-inch deep layer of crushed fruit that includes all the bits of leaves, shotberries and stems, the majority of which go right into the tank. But this opinion is highly controversial. A thirty-year veteran of the business who consults for Virage and produces great wine at Terra Valentine laughs at me and says it makes no difference at all–he loves to tell me how they made great wines in Napa Valley in the 1980’s dumping 2-1/2Ton bins directly into the tanks.
Gotta love this business – plenty of room for debate. My opinion on sorting seems to fall between the two extremes. When I build my own winery, I know exactly what equipment I want. But my $8 thinning shears will likely remain the most valuable sorting tool.