Securing the best grapes for home wine makers

By Richard Eber

It takes many skills for a home wine maker to produce a high quality product. Although expertise in processing grapes goes a long way to accomplish this goal, having good fruit to work with is just as important.  Applying the lesson from the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, one cannot weave gold from straw nor is it possible to create a wonderful bottle of wine from sub-standard grapes.

While it is often more convenient for home wine makers to purchase juice from third party suppliers, procuring  grapes directly from growers can prove to be more economical as there is no middle man involved. Putting aside cost considerations, the quality of grapes that can be found on vineyards is often far superior. This can help create an end result all home wine makers’ desire,

 The question is where to find growers who are willing to deal in relatively small volumes (compared to commercial wineries) for individuals who make their own product.  Three hundred pounds is normally the smallest amount that a farmer might be willing to sell. They prefer to deal with wine makers who can buy larger lots.  If there is a problem with purchasing large tonnages, sometimes it is possible for several wine makers to pool their resources to secure their grapes.

One individual who deals with this problem professionally is Michael Parker, whose company sets up picks for home wine makers in local vineyards in California’s Eastern Contra Costa County.  His business contracts with local growers with whom he brings from between 5 to 50 of his clients to harvest their grapes

Parker sells from between 35 to 40 tons a year serving garage wine makers while taking the hassle out dealing with this group by vineyard owners. However, this business model only works in a limited geographical area where there is a lot of acreage.  In most cases those making small lots have to fend for themselves in finding grapes.

For vineyard owners, selling to hobbyists can have advantages as they can charge more than they can at a commercial winery. In certain cases selling small amounts of grapes for cash can have their upside for farmers who historically distain papers work.  It is also common with growers having only a small amount of tonnage needing to sell to small fry buyers because they don’t have enough grapes for commercial wineries to bother with.  Whatever the reasons, sourcing this fruit is a niche kind of activity.

The first thing to be determined is when to make arrangements for purchasing grapes.  Normally the task is accomplished several months prior to harvest.  The reason for this is that growers often sell on a first come, first served basis.  This means by the time the crop is mature; all the grapes are likely to be spoken for.  Also to be considered is that past purchasers often reserve product from year to year leaving growers with less of their crop to sell late in the season.

Finding good sources of grapes, especially for the first time buyer, is where things can get difficult. Web sites of wine growers are a good place to start. Often there are private and County Associations which can be used to find suppliers. Sending emails to individual wineries can also be a useful tool. Even larger operations are sometimes willing to sell excess product, especially in years when the harvest is abundant.

Buyers can zero in on areas that grow their favorite grapes. In my case living near the wine country regions in Northern California, I can look for what I want based on price and variety.  As an example, if one purchases Merlot grapes in Napa, they often cost twice as much as comparable ones in Lodi. Adam Smith’s supply and demand curve applies in purchasing grapes regardless of location. Not everyone has such flexibility depending on where they live or how far they are willing to travel to find desired fruit.

 Also, if one purchases equipment from home brewing/wine stores, they can often pass along names of vineyards to their clients.  If conventional methods don’t work, one can also drive around in wine country and knock on doors to find sellers.  Often times if whom one meets at the vineyard is not in a position to sell, they will recommend a neighbor who can.  Being a hustler in finding grapes is a good attribute.  To borrow a little league baseball axiom, “it just takes one” to find a friendly vineyard who will meet your needs.

The good news is that if things work out, it is likely possible to come back year after year and be able to purchase grapes again.  Getting ones foot in the door is the most difficult challenge that home wine makers face.  Once that connection has been made, the important thing to do is how a home wines maker and their crew conducts themselves while they are at the vineyard.

Once a willing seller has been found a home wine maker needs to know when to show up to pick up their grapes? The simple answer is when the brix reach the optimum point. This varies from around 20 for certain white wines to up to 30 for dessert wines.  It is also important to know what and when chemicals might have been sprayed on the grapes.

Because of this it is a good idea to communicate with the grower in the weeks preceding the pick to keep track of “when the moment is right” to pluck grapes from their vines.  This process is not totally predictable as variances in temperature and weather can change things in a hurry.  Brix levels often change by 1 or 2 in the final week prior to harvest.

As an example a heat wave can bring up the sweetness level faster than anticipated. Conversely, a rain storm or cold weather snap can cause the brix to decrease temporarily.  The important than to remember is that when the grapes are ready, all other plans need to be dropped. Securing product has to be the top priority. Unfortunately, grapes don’t care what day of the week it is, if it is someone’s anniversary, or a party is being planned.  Lacking a social conscience, these critters need to be picked exactly when they are ready.

As a matter of policy it is good idea to bring your own refractometer device to assure the brix level is as advertised. For this task a less expensive hydrometer set-up can also be utilized.  Virtually all reputable vineyards have their own measuring device on hand, but this is not an area where guessing or assuming should apply. Sometimes readings can vary.  If they are way off, it is better walk away and come back later than pick grapes that will translate into less than optimum wine. 

When one is picking up grapes, it is a good idea to leave your watch at home. Delays in being able to pick-up grapes or if one is to do the picking often occurs.  Being relaxed and not worrying about commitments back home make the grape harvest experience more enjoyable for all concerned. If at all possible, it is best to finish the procurement of intended grapes in one day rather than having to go back later to complete this process. If any of your people have time commitments, it is best they make their own transportation arrangements that day.

Some grape growers want to use their own workers at harvest while others like the idea of having buyers perform this function.  Naturally, it costs growers money to pick but often they like to do this as it assures that the job is done right.  It just depends.  Whatever the situation, home wine makers need to flexible to meet the schedules and desires of those they are buying from.

Of upmost importance is when the home wine maker and their friends step forth on a vineyard, they should consider being able to do this to be the equivalent of entering your bosses house. Being able to set foot on their property is a privilege and honor; not a right. Being on a farm is hardly like being a guest at a debutante ball but courtesy should prevail at all times, especially on the first visit to a vineyard.

Most of the time small vineyards will allow buyers to pick their own.  In such cases they usually will provide bins that hold anywhere from 25 to 35 lbs of grapes. Normally, they will either weigh one bin and approximate the final total or have a large scale available to weigh the entire lot.

If one brings their own pickers, it is important that restroom facilities be agreed upon between the home wine makers picking grapes and their hosts. Discussing this beforehand does not offend anyone as it is part of the process

If the group that accompanies the wine maker is to do the picking, it is best to bring their own equipment and supplies.  This means having at the ready implements (rose clippers are fine) and a supply of bottled water to have on hand for those toiling in the vineyards.  Since these volunteers are not hourly employees, a full day’s work should not be expected.  4 hours with breaks is plenty of time in the fields, especially for city dwellers.

It should always be remembered that much like Tom Sawyer trying to make white washing fences fun, overworking the help should be avoiding at all times. Spending a day in the picturesque setting of a vineyard should always be enjoyable and not be a stressful pastime.

 If  children are to be included in this activity, one should check first with the owner of the property to see if they are welcome,  Kids in general love hanging out on a farm as they can run around and frolic (with parental supervision) in  an agricultural environment they seldom experience where they live.

When amateur pickers get involved with the process of picking grapes, it is a necessity to do a tutorial on the proper way to cut the vines.  Of great importance is picking all the bunches that are on the plants.  Sometimes this can be a complicated task when there are rotten, raisoney or green ones that are not suitable for making wine   if there is bad fruit on the vines, it is normally the custom to prune them off when picking

Even if the grapes that are to be harvested look obvious, it is always best check with the vineyard owner to know what their expectations are for how they want their plants left when the picking is completed.  Often times less attractive grapes that have been under stress make better wine than perfectly formed bunches.

Nothing will lose good will gained in harvesting grapes than not properly utilizing all usable products.  We don’t want a “Frugal Fred” situation where these gentlemen cherry picked what he thought were perfect bunches while at the same time dropping fruit that he did not think was worthy. 

It is also important for pickers to operate in designated rows and not move around to where picking might seem easier. When the job of picking is completed, it is always a good idea to check through where the help has been working to make sure they did not leave any bottles or garbage behind. Vineyard owners don’t want to be on liter patrol for people they allow to be on their land.

When picking grapes on hot summer days, it is best to start early in the morning and aim to finish by lunch time.  Historically, when voluntary pickers put in 4 hours and stop to eat and partake in a couple of adult beverages, their motivation for picking is shot for the day.

Providing lunch for the crew is an important part of process and contributes to overall enjoyment.  This is especially important if one wants to engage friends in doing   grape picking more than once.  Pot lucks or having the host wine maker provide the food and drinks is essential.  Often times, these lunches become more festive on repeat trips to wine country.

It is not a bad policy to invite the vineyard owner to partake when appropriate. The bonding that often ensues when people break bread is not only enjoyable, but can also be a foundation for future trips to purchase grapes. Bringing vino made in previous years is always appreciated by all concerned. It is not unusual for vineyard owners to contribute wine that was made on their property to the festivities.

When it is time to pay for grapes, cash is always appreciated. Checks are also welcomed by some sellers.  Such matters should be settled prior to coming up and harvesting the grapes.

If the grapes are too crushed at home, thick plastic liners are essential for the bottom of what is normally a pick-up truck or van.  Regular cars don’t work very well for picking up large lots of product.

Sometimes vineyard owners will provide equipment to crush grapes on their premises gratis or for a small fee.  If the job is done there, home wine makers should have sufficient clean plastic garbage cans (I prefer Rubbermaid as they never leak)   on hand to carry the must back home.   It is also convenient to have small five gallon buckets handy to transfer product from the crusher to the garbage can on the truck bed.  Depending on the size of the container, weights of over 200 lbs are not uncommon.

 Another essential for transport home is to have a small supply of meta-bisulfate  on hand to put a couple of table spoons in each container to kill bad yeast prior to introducing specialized ones the following day.  The reason for this is that there can be damage done to the must if it ferments too much on the trip back to the home wine making operation.  Each of the garbage cans (fomenters) should be covered and taped shut in transit to avoid spillage.

When one unloads where the wine is to be made ramps should be available so the heavy garbage cans can roll from the truck bed to the ground.  A 2x6x8 foot piece of lumber works pretty well for this task. Having a few helpers to assist with this task is also advisable.

The last tip for home wine makers who procure their own grapes is to make sure everyone has a good time.  When people argue and are at each other’s throats, it is never a good thing.  More often than not, happy folks make the best tasting wine.

What to bring for Harvesting wine:

Rose clippers to cut vines

1 5 gallon pail per person (min) Sulfites, Brix measuring device, fermentors,

If crushing on site, plastic liners for tail gate

Gloves, hat, insect repellent, bottled water, toilet paper, food and snacks

Richard Eber studied journalism at the University of Oregon. He writes about politics, culture, education restaurants, and was former city and sports editor of UCSB Daily. Richard is president of Amerasa Rapid Transit, a specialized freight forwarder.

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