Don't know the difference between Brix and Brie? Think "must" is an offensive odor? Prefer Welches' grape juice over this year's Beaujolais? Good news. Now is the time when all aspiring oenophiles can take a crash course in wines, thanks to this year's upcoming grape harvest.
North County and Temecula Valley wineries will begin harvesting any day and are inviting average Joes to come, look, taste and sometimes even work during the frenzy of grape picking and crushing.
Wine from North County and Temecula was once considered an interesting novelty. No more. Some wineries are producing wines of distinction--medal winners in such prestigious contests as the Orange County Fair, considered a major test among wine competitions.
But, before wine can be smelled, swilled and slurped in a taste test, it has to be plucked from vines in the form of grapes. That's where some of the most crucial moments in wine making take place. If the chemistry inside the grapes isn't right, the wine won't be right.
Wine makers test for two main traits. First, there is the Brix, or sugars in the grapes. Brix (pronounced "bricks") is measured in degrees. For example, Chardonnay grapes are harvested at about 23 degrees Brix, said Callaway's wine maker Dwayne Helmuth. Generally, the riper the grapes, the higher the sugar content.
Secondly, growers test for the pH, the degree of acidity, so that the grapes will yield wine without bitter taste.
When the time is right, work crews enter the fields and pick or cut bunches of grapes from the vines. These are placed in a gondola, a large metal container that holds about 2 tons of grapes. Once full, the gondola is towed to the winery and its contents are dumped into a giant hopper.
The hopper sends the grapes into the stemmer, where the berries are separated from their stems. Once separated, the grapes fall between two rubber rollers, like an old-style laundry wringer, where the skins are broken. At this point the mixture of skin, juice and other material is called must.
The must is pumped into a dejuicer, sort of a large colander, that allows the juice to drain away from the rest of the must. The resulting free run juice is pumped into the winery where it is allowed to settle and cool overnight before beginning fermentation. At Callaway, the whole process from hopper to winery lasts about seven minutes.
Traditionally, the grape harvest is met with all kinds of celebrations. This year will be no different. Wineries are planning a variety of events, and nearly all welcome public viewing of their harvest activities. Some wineries use grape juice extracted from distant locales, so, if viewing the harvesting process is a must, call the winery you plan to visit.
Here is a list of wineries and harvest activities being staged in the North County and Temecula Valley during the next two months.
Phil and Carol Baily run this winery by themselves, so they are unable to hold large events. Still, they do manage to offer tastings of fermenting juice during the harvest. The winery is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for free tasting.
36150 Pauba Road, Temecula.
This is San Diego's oldest winery, but most of its land has been sold off to developers. All that remains is a processing plant where contracted grapes are turned into wine. The public is not invited to see the crush, since most of it takes place about 5 in the morning.
13330 Paseo del Verano Norte, Rancho Bernardo.
Now owned by liquor giant Hiram Walker, Callaway is the largest winery in the region, with a production of more than 200,000 cases yearly. Helmuth expects the harvest to begin about Aug. 20 and last three weeks. Grapes will be harvested every day except Sunday. Tastings cost $2 and include three wines and a souvenir glass. Tours run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The annual Callaway Harvest Picnic is this Saturday, but reservations are hard to come by.
32720 Rancho California Road, Temecula.
Vince and Audrey Cilurzo are becoming known for throwing a good party. Last year they hosted a harvest festival that was so successful they expanded it to two days. This year, the event will be held from noon to 6 p.m. Sept. 29 and 30. Adults will pay $40, children $15. Admission includes finger foods, tastings, entertainment and even a grape stomp, an old method for extracting juice that hasn't been used for years.
Wine tours are free. During the harvest, the public will be able to see crushing. The interested can even volunteer to help in the winery.
41220 Calle Contento, Temecula.
CLOS DU MURIEL
Wine maker Tom di Bello will host a grape stomp during a festival in mid-to-late September. According to di Bello, Clos du Muriel is undergoing some major upgrading that people can see during a free tasting and tour. During harvest season, the public will be able to watch the crush. Di Bello is also planning weekend barbecues.
40620 Calle Contento, Temecula.