Willamette Valley Pinot noir is almost always harvested by hand. Why?
Each year when harvest approaches, from the slopes of Parrett Mountain to the foothills of Junction City, winegrowers are tackling the same perennial question: when to pick?
Often, weather will dictate a picking schedule, with drier pockets preferred over the potential disease and dilution that can come from wet days. Winemaking style, wine type and access to labor are all major considerations.
With Pinot noir, a variety notorious for its finicky nature and thin-skinned build, picking by hand is most popular. Mechanical harvesters continue to evolve technologically, but most growers agree that the equipment is either too hard on the grapes or built for a production scale way beyond what they’re operating within.
“Above all we are looking for flavor and phenolic maturity,” says Ariel Eberle, winemaker at Yamhill Valley Vineyards. The latter is a broad array of chemical compounds like tannins and flavonols that combine to create the flavor, mouthfeel and color of the wine. Leading up to harvest and as the first fruit comes in, vintners will test juice to get a better snapshot of the fruit’s chemistry. Good old fashioned experience can be equally important, informing opinions with instinct and intuition.
“Time spent in the vineyard is key to making the picking calls as it gives a visual of where the vines are in their life cycle and tells a story about the coming days,” she says.
Eberle says her estate fruit tends to tell her it's ripe when it shows a subtle black tea flavor via the skins. She acknowledges the importance of finding balance between Brix and acidity, especially with finished wine in mind, but says those numbers are less vital to her ultimate determination.
“Flavor, which is arguably the most important but also difficult to use in isolation, is the most ethereal and subjective factor,” says winemaker Tracy Kendall of Nicolas-Jay. She too supports frequent vineyard walks to become familiar with the fruit before it enters the winery, looking out for indications like changing leaf colors.
“Logistics are always going to be a part of our decision-making because there’s only so much you can pick in a day,” she admits. Even the biggest producers, she notes, are ultimately limited by manpower. When everybody is picking at once, which is so often the case in the Valley, the overlap can lead to delays due to picking crew unavailability.
Pattie Bjornson of her eponymous Eola-Amity Hills vineyard notes that winemaking differences in red wines versus white wines play a role, too. “With whites, it’s almost entirely about the numbers,” she says. “With reds, Pinot Noir especially, 99 percent of the wine’s flavor is coming from the skins.” She adds that the seeds will begin to brown as harvest approaches.
She hunts for fully mature clusters while scouting her vineyard rows, keeping in mind that a shifty spring bloom—caused by rain or temperature fluctuations—can lead to uneven ripening within the clusters. Bjornson does some whole-cluster wines, meaning the stems ferment with the berries. This means she is also looking for fully developed stems that have lignified and turned from green to brown.
Picking approaches, it seems, are about as varied as resulting Willamette Valley wines. It’s one more ball in the juggling act that is harvest-time winemaking.