Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
I learned a new phrase the other day when I was visiting Palisade for the Colorado Mountain Winefest. If you haven’t been, this three-day event features seminars, tastings and activities designed to celebrate the harvest. In that time you can lose yourself in discovering new wines, or spend your days learning.
“We’re in crush,” were the words that changed my day. Technically, the phrase means grapes are in harvest and brought to the wineries for preparation of fermentation. Yet the simple words mean so much more: a moment each fall when time seems to still, when the daily grind is set aside in favor of focus on turning vines into wine.
I’m a winemaker and, along with my husband, brother, sister-in-law, and friends, have delved deeper into the culture of the grape each year. Armed with a book and the courage born of ignorance, we’ve turned out 14 types of wine, one vinegar, and a spectacularly spoiled science experiment. Each year, we bravely try again.
We’re in the middle of crush right now in Colorado, a delicate time for grapes. For such a tough plant, it’s a princess when it comes to its fruit: too much sun, not enough sun, mildew, rain, frost, these are all conditions the clusters won’t tolerate. Each one has the power to affect the vintage for good or for bad.
But ripeness isn’t just sugar, it’s also a balance of acid, plus subtle flavors that come with warm days and cool nights. The longer the clusters spend on the vine – known as hang time – the greater the complexity of the fruit.
This season, winemakers have been anticipating the ripening of the clusters, which has teased us with a slow-rapid-slow pace. We’ve been on alert and suffering delays or sudden deliveries for weeks, seesawing between idleness and panic. Schedules are cleared for delivery, then filled when harvest is delayed, then worked around to accommodate the grapes.
The crazed uncertainty has become a staple of fall for me, and I feared it was simply due to a novice’s inability to select and schedule delivery of grapes. Until the phrase “we’re in crush,” was uttered by Horst Caspari, our state viticulturist, as an explanation for an insane day he spent travelling to and from Fort Collins – 12 hours round-trip – for a two-hour meeting.
With these words, the clouds of craziness in my mind parted, and realization dawned: this isn’t insanity, it’s part of winemaking. What’s more, I reasoned, the phrase could be used to explain away all sorts of distracted behavior, lack of commitment to meetings, or adherence to schedules.
“I’m in crush,” carries a romantic mystery that keeps non-winemakers at bay, who universally think I dress up like Lucille Ball, strip off my shoes, and stomp around a giant, grape-filled vat. As appealing as that sounds, the reality is less cinematic: modern equipment churns the berries, crushing them into pulp that slides into buckets. At that time, yeast is added to begin fermentation.
From there, turning the grapes into a drinkable wine is up to the vintner. Colorado boasts some of the finest grape growing areas in the United States, with two American Viticultural Areas (called AVA’s, federally-designated grape growing region with unique characteristics) in the Grand Valley and West Elks, along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, syrah, Riesling, and other well-known varietals are grown in these regions.
With good grapes, great wine will follow but not everyone has the talent to produce a fine vintage. Try a few of the wines from the pros – the wineries that have popped up across the state. You’ll find a beverage to suit your taste, and when you feel stressed, stop, hoist a glass and toast “to the crush!”