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Under the Sorting Hat

Brian Gurnham Chief Cork Officer

This past weekend I had the opportunity to both expand my wine experience as well as have a lot of fun meeting new people.  The venue was Galer Estate Vineyards in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and the function was the annual sorting of the harvest.  Now when I volunteered some time ago to help out, I wasn't exactly sure of the job prerequisites.  After all, sorting to me conjured up visions of the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter fame.  I would carefully examine grapes and determine whether they were destined to be for wine labelled as Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin.  Little did I know that “sorting” grapes involves little or no actual sorting.  Rather, a more precise description might be something like a “remove all the excess crap” table.  And boy there can be a wide variety of crap. 

We were

Lug of Cabernet Franc
Lug of Cabernet Franc
sorting a beautiful looking crop of Cabernet Franc Grapes.  Galer's 2014 Cab Franc harvest was significantly diminished from prior years, but the small grapes were loaded with intense flavors.  The grapes emerged onto the sorting table from the destemmer (a mechanical device that removes most of the stems), looking like a sea of small wild blueberries.  It was explained to me that my job was to remove MOG – code acronym for “material other than grapes”.  I was trained and ready for any MOG that came my way.  Most obvious were small pieces of remaining stems – easy enough to grab and toss.  Then there were unripe grapes – clearly different both in size and color, being a rose color rather than a rich blueberry.  Unripe grapes add unwanted acidity and lack complete phenolic development so they were summarily tossed from the sorting table as well.  Then it got to be a bit more exciting, enter the small critter category – technically identified as any of a class (Insecta) of arthropods with well-defined head, thorax, and abdomen, only three pairs of legs, and typically one or two pairs of wings – and better known as bugs! 

I quickly learned that all bugs are not created equal when it comes to the sorting table.  The most prevalent, being the fall season and surrounded by brightly colored and sugar laden fruit, were bees.  It seems that between picking the grapes, and placing them into lugs (containers) for transport to the winery, many a bee decides to indulge during the ride.  After the trauma of the destemmer they look like cheap drunks, lying amongst the grapes.  Not being wild about the idea of being stung, I watched with short lived fascination as Brad, one of the founders, would gently pick up a yellow jacket, allow it to become upright and place it to the side of the table.  “Bee Karma” he called it, explaining (which I later confirmed), that if you want to avoid being stung, you should not be aggressive toward the bee.  Unfortunately Brad's Karma ran out, and within minutes he was nursing a sting unceremoniously planted on his index finger.  So much for Karma.  Next came an assortment of very small spiders, earwigs, sow bugs and other unwanted bugs, all easy enough to pick and toss.  All was going well until Brad, with a distinct sense of urgency, directed the destemmer to be stopped.  “Stink bug” he alerted those of us at the table. 

Sorting table in action
Sorting table in action
Sure enough it took me a minute, but the distinct malodor of a stink bug (a Brown Marmorated Stink Bug to be precise), was in the air.  With a look of William the Conqueror, Brad quickly identified the offending critter on the table and insured its total destruction.  Why all the drama?  Well upon further research, I found that just 10 stink bugs crushed into one ton of grapes can ruin a wine.  After all, “notes of stinkbug” is hardly label material.  The process resumed, and soon the group was performing our assigned task with speed and precision.

By the end of my shift I felt confident that my efforts, coupled with the other five people at the table, had made at least a small contribution to the quality of Galer's 2014 Cabernet Franc.  What I learned from this experience was how much unwanted non-grape material can go into the fermenter with the fruit if the winemaker chooses to skip the manual sorting process, and how much better the resulting wine is by keeping most of it out.  After all, the better the ingredients, the better the finished product. 

If you have a small family run winery near you, stop in and ask about helping out during harvest.  You will undoubtedly learn something, meet some enjoyable people, and develop a greater appreciation for the work that goes into making a fine wine.

The finished product
The finished product

Galer Estate Vineyard and Winery
700 Folly Hill Road
Kennett Square PA.
Brad and Lele Galer Founders
Virginia Smith Mitchell Winemaker

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