When we hit the road to head west on this adventure, we planned on a three-day drive to cover the 1,773 miles from Fredericksburg, Texas to Cloverdale, California. We have a motorhome that we have used for travel and even lived in for nearly a year when building our last home. My Tesla cannot be towed behind the coach, and with the high gas prices, the electric vehicle would be cost-effective while we’re in California. So, we were set for Benjy to drive the RV and I would drive the Tesla. Our furbaby, Bentley the Bernedoodle, would choose who he would ride along with (he’s spoiled like that).
The drive was fairly uneventful and went smoothly. There ended up being an issue with the toilet in the RV which we discovered on our first overnight stay in El Paso. Luckily, we found a repair shop in Tucson to help the next day. We encountered a flash flood on the far western edge of Arizona, and I had one scare in central California when a charging station for my car was closed down and I had to sweat it out to get to the next station. All in all, a pretty easy drive for us both. Benjy had a long audiobook about golf, and I was listening to the mystery series by Ellen Crosby about murders in a Virginia vineyard. The first book in the series is titled The Merlot Murders and I would recommend it for lovers of wine and mysteries.
It ends up that most RV parks in California only allow a couple of weeks and it was hard to find a spot for us to stay the full nine weeks. The one we booked is located far north in the region near the little town of Cloverdale. It’s about 40 minutes from the winery. We arrived as planned with time to set up the motorhome and get comfortable in the area. We found a nice grocer, learned about the weekly summer music events in the small towns of the area and may have fit in a wine tasting (or seven!).
On August 8th, I joined the four-cellar staff and six interns who would make up the team for the 2022 vintage at Gary Farrell. After new hire paperwork and safety training, the rest of the day was focused on cleaning and sterilizing equipment in preparation for the first grapes of the season.
So, what exactly is a Crush Pad? The term Crush Pad refers to the area of a winery where grapes are delivered, and the process begins to turn the fruit into wine. The name comes from years past when the winery staff would actually crush the grapes, usually by stomping the berries with bare feet. While some wineries may still use the old fashion crush methods, today, many wineries use technology rather than heels and toes. The equipment could be a press that squashes a whole cluster of grapes to seep the juice out. Or it could be a destemming machine that takes each grape berry off the rachis, which is the stem system that runs through the cluster of grapes.
The wine world loves our traditions so we still use the phrase Crush Pad to refer to the area where winemaking equipment is set up for the beginning steps of winemaking, whether it is with our feet or with modern technology.
A Crush Pad needs to be a durable area protected from inclement weather and easy to clean. Heavy machinery needs to have room to be moved around. Water and good drainage are imperative for cleanliness because winemaking is a messy business. For much of the year the area is generally well organized and basically vacant. In fact, if you’ve visited the production area of a winery, you’ve probably walked right through the Crush Pad and not even realized it. It’s just during the harvest season that big equipment and plenty of people are moving around and making things happen.
Here at Gary Farrell, the space is maybe 60 feet wide by about 100 feet long. It’s an extension of the outdoor area that houses eight large stainless steel wine tanks used for blending or aging wines. The area is covered to protect the equipment from rain, although this has been a drought year, so mainly it is protecting us from the sun. In this space we have access to five water hoses, a system of three drains, plus three forklifts, two conveyor belts to move the grapes, a de-stemmer, and two grape presses. You’ll find space for the bins of grapes to be unloaded, stacked, and secured out of the sun. Each bin holds half a ton of grapes, and these come directly from the vineyard full of freshly picked fruit.
It may be hard to visualize what happens on the Crush Pad, but let me try to paint a picture… A forklift will raise a bin of grapes and tilt so that the grapes begin to topple out onto a conveyor belt. This track system carries the clusters up 20 feet to an elevated sorting table which is a level conveyor belt of about eight feet in length. Two or three people will stand at this table and sort through the clusters of grapes, removing any leaves, debris such as sticks, or clusters that are less than ideal because they are underripe or overripe. At the end of this belt, the good clusters are dropped into a hopper that pulls each cluster through the destemming machine. The rachis, or grape stem system, shoots out one side of the machine while the grape berries drop out the bottom onto a vibrating table. Here, a final set of eyes will pick out any last unwanted berries before the best grapes are dropped into a clean bin. A forklift hoists the bin of good grapes and wheels it into the winery to dump it into a large stainless-steel tank.
This is just the beginning of the magic that happens to make simple grapes into delicious wines.
It takes about two hours for six people to clean all of this equipment with hot water and set it up perfectly to start the process again the next day. Each morning before the process begins again, the equipment has to be checked and cleaned with hot water again. Whether there is one ton of grapes being delivered, or 12 tons, the setup and cleanup times are the same! So far this harvest season, our busiest days have included 30 tons of grapes delivered in one morning. This much fruit makes for a long day! But I do it because I enjoy being involved in a vintage and knowing I had a hand (literally) in the fruit that becomes wines I like to drink.