Harvest is slowly (really slowly) ticking along here at Briarwood Vineyards, as the weather has been warm but relatively mild overall, keeping the grapes ripening slowly and evenly. We picked our Viognier on Sunday night, beginning at about 3am (I guess that is Monday morning) and finishing around sunrise. As is typical of the nights in Paso Robles, temperatures we in the low 50's and by the time we got the fruit into the press at the winery, the juice came out a chilly 52F. The fruit was pressed and the beautiful pale straw colored juice was placed into a tank for chilling before it goes into barrel this afternoon and begins fermentation.
People often ask me why we pick our fruit at night, wondering if we do it simply because we like to torture ourselves and our vineyard workers, or if there is indeed some method to the madness. There are actually a number of reasons why picking at night is a preferred method, so I'll outline a few of them below:
1) Lower Microbial Risk - Picking at night brings the fruit into the winery cold, which means that any microbial or oxidation risk is vastly reduced. Think of what happens to fruit left on the counter vs. that left in the fridge. We are trying to preserve the full integrity of the fruit and its flavors, so cold fruit is critical.This is important for both red and white grapes, but especially important for whites. We try to avoid oxidation of the juice of white grapes, which can damage the delicate aromatic compounds.
2) Physical Integrity - The colder the fruit is, the less the skins break when going through the processing equipment (see the clusters on the sorting table above) We try to maintain whole berries during fermentations, and cold fruit makes this possible. When warm fruit comes into the winery, it often comes out of the equipment a juicy, sloppy mess. Not good.
3) Cold Soaking - Prior to the beginning of fermentation in red wines, we often like to allow our fruit to soak on the skins for a period of time before we inoculate with yeast. This improves color and the extraction of flavors. To do this, it's very important that the fruit is cold before it goes into the fermentors. If the fruit was warm, the native yeasts on the skins of the fruit would initiate fermentation right away and produce flavors we don't care for in our wines.
4) Weather - It's much nicer to be picking in the cool of the night than during the heat of the day! Spending hours on a tractor and doing tough manual labor is simply more pleasant when it's cool outside. In addition, it prevents bug activity (yellow jackets are a menace!) and minimizes dust.
So while we do value our sleep, we also know that during this time of year it's all about the wine and all about quality, so we will gladly sacrifice sleep to ensure we get our fruit off the vine in A+ condition.