The annual grape crush at UC Davis’ campus winery kicked off early Thursday morning, weeks before most winemaking students are scheduled to return for classes.
This summer’s drought and high temperatures moved up the harvest and crush seasons for many area wineries, said UC Davis winemaker and facility manager Chik Brenneman, as he directed his student employees to shovel newly harvested chardonnay grapes onto a conveyer belt. The belt carried the grapes into a machine that broke their skins and removed their stems. What remained of the fruit was then pumped into a machine and pressed into juice.
Brenneman said he isn’t concerned about how the early crush will affect the quality of his wine; he is concerned that it will affect his students’ education.
Because of the higher-than-usual temperatures in Northern California this summer, grapes in the UC Davis campus vineyard ripened quickly and white grapes in particular had to be harvested to stop them from becoming too sweet. The problem is that fall classes don’t start for another five weeks, a start that was pushed back to accommodate the Jewish High Holy Days.
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That means the grape juice used in winemaking classes will be sitting around longer than usual.
“My stress is, making it so that this fruit can last for class,” Brenneman said. “The project that we’re doing today is we’re juicing the chardonnay, because it is ready. Then we’ll put that juice into cold storage and hold that for class.”
Brenneman stood in front of futuristic-looking vats in the LEED Platinum Teaching and Research Winery, part of UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. The institute offers degrees in the study of grape agriculture and winemaking.
The research winery was constructed in 2011 and, according to Brenneman, is equipped to process 60 to 100 tons of grapes. Some of these grapes are used for research projects that study industry issues such as the effects of mechanical harvesting vs. hand harvesting, but he estimates that about half of the grapes are used to teach students about winemaking.
“Our goal is to provide a training center and to give students practical knowledge, to be able to understand processes to go on in their careers and make good wine. Because, of course, if we’re not making good wine, why bother?” said Brenneman.
UC Davis faculty member and wine chemist Anita Oberholster had more to say about the drought, although she admitted it’s hard to know its immediate effects. As an assistant cooperative extension specialist, she researches sustainability and climate change in the context of winemaking, and shares her research with area wineries.
“It’s more applied research, things that you can directly see their application in the industry,” she said. “And if there is a new problem on the horizon, I will many times be asked to kind of bridge the issue into a new research project.”
According to Oberholster, this year’s drought will not necessarily affect the quality of 2014 wines – many wineries have secondary sources of water such as wells and didn’t have to use less of it this season. But she said the drought has made wineries more conscious of their water usage.
“Everybody wanted to know ... am I putting too much water on? Can I do with less water?” said Oberholster. “Because there’s this thing hanging over their shoulders, that their water may be cut off. They’re not sure if they have enough water for the year.”
Brenneman and Paul Green, assistant winemaker at UC Davis, see challenges such as drought as teaching moments for students, not obstacles to winemaking.
“This department likes being known for making winemakers, not wine,” said Green. “A lot of the class is set up for failure so that (students) can understand and see the things that can go wrong on a small scale, instead of in your 10,000-gallon tank or multiple 10,000-gallon tanks.”
Student employee Katie Wayman was helping with the grape crush and didn’t seem at all concerned about the drought and early harvest – she was just happy to be working in the winery.
“This is my first harvest that I’m working,” she said. “It’s really nice that I get to work here and kind of see a little bit of what the industry is really like, because I’ve never really worked in it before.”
Wayman is entering her fourth year of UC Davis’ undergraduate viticulture and enology program. She didn’t have any experience working in a vineyard or winery before coming to UC Davis.
“I happened to see this as a major and I was like, ‘That’s the coolest thing that I’ve ever seen!’ And so I decided to apply and when I got accepted, that’s when I decided that this is really what I want to do,” Wayman said.