Growing & Winemaking


It's OK to Plan: Preparing for Harvest

June 2016
by Andy Starr
Planning in advance of harvest
Hiring staff and ordering equipment and supplies well in advance of harvest can make the busy season (seen here at Herzog Wine Cellars) go more smoothly.

Well, it’s June at the winery, which means you are probably getting ready to bottle some wines, finalize grape contracts and squeeze in a vacation before the madness of harvest begins. June is also an ideal time to plan for harvest. For many winemakers, planning for harvest means the following:

a. Spend a few hours online researching your vacation, checking out hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, best places to fish, etc.

b. Walk through each of the vineyards that supply your winery. The typical two-hour visit is split into 30 minutes walking through the vineyard and actually assessing the vines and 90 minutes listening to the vineyard manager complain about how tough grapegrowing is this year, because it’s about the worst year he/she has ever seen for (insert vineyard malady or climate attribute here).

c. Make an unfounded tonnage estimate.

d. Remember that just as last harvest ended, you and your cellar crew made a “to-do list” for next year, vowing that 2016 would not be a repeat of “the great 2015 train wreck.” There was a list of spare parts needed, equipment that required major servicing, winery layout changes for better material flow and supplies that need to be ordered a lot earlier than you did.

e. Unfortunately, you pinned the to-do list to a corkboard, which has since been taken down. You now spend a few hours looking for it. You ask the cellar crew if they remember where it may have gone.

f. You give up on finding the to-do list. Rationalize to yourself that it’s not really that important. 2016 won’t be like 2015 because, well, just because.

g. Go back to planning your vacation.

The above scenario may be exaggerated, but having been a winemaker for small wineries and observing many winery operations, my sense is that winemakers spend a lot of time in the vineyard, but not quite enough time getting the winery ready. Harvest is crazy busy, which is why getting ready for it is so critical. One stuck thermostat can prevent a tank from chilling and cause an overnight fermentation spike to 95° F, with serious wine quality implications. Veteran winery operations managers know this, so they test and clean every tank thermostat prior to harvest.

What do “the pros” do? I interviewed three veteran winemakers about preparing for harvest, inquiring about planning tools, preventive maintenance schedules, staffing, ordering supplies, equipment and barrels, plus forecasting tank usage.

Continuity at Groth
Eric Fidel is the assistant winemaker for Groth Vineyards and Winery, a 1,200-ton operation based in the Napa Valley appellation of Oakville. Fidel has been part of the Groth team since 1998, and he has made wine since 1983. He and the Groth production team have been planning for harvest together for 15 years. Groth places high value on its employees, and the winery is rewarded with continuity in the planning process, avoiding harvest problems and ensuring wine quality.

1. Planning tools: Fidel pointed out that there “are no magic planning tools to get ready for harvest.” Projections are based on vineyard/crop estimates provided by vineyard manager Ben Benson. “We refer to our Vintrace database for types of yeast used, dosage rates, total amounts of cellar and fermentation products, etc., used for any particular vintage.”

2. Equipment preparation: The Groth team understands that every piece of equipment must be ready for harvest, but that doesn’t mean they do the actual work themselves. Their core competency is making great wine, not replacing press bladders. Some servicing they do themselves, but more technically complex items like presses and refrigeration systems are handled by experts.

a. Fruit handling: Groth staff will lube and tighten the shaker table and the sorting belts. Immediately after harvest, their Pellenc grape sorter is thoroughly broken down, followed by detailed cleaning, lubrication, small parts replacement, belts and rollers. Spare parts to replace those likely to break are kept on hand.

b. Presses: Groth has two Diemme presses that Collopack thoroughly services annually. They check chains, motors, solenoids, door seals, and pneumatics, and they replace worn parts or bladders if needed. Their pre-harvest service request is made in early March. Groth also does a pre-harvest test on the float switches that reside in the press must pans, as a faulty float switch can cause a huge loss of juice or added juice aeration.

c. Pumps: Groth services their pumps in-house, performing oil changes and replacing worn parts. All seals on positive displacement pumps are replaced with new seals as a matter of pre-harvest preventative maintenance. Since the winery uses cable remotes to regulate pump speed, those too are checked for proper operation. Groth keeps many pump spare parts on hand.

d. Forklifts: Toyota Material Handling services quarterly the two electric lifts that Groth owns and rents them two propane lifts with bin dumpers for harvest. Renting frees up capital for other needs.

e. Refrigeration: Another area trusted entirely to the experts. Lewis Mechanical Services has a service contract and does a major system check prior to harvest.

f. Other items: Groth will test their lees filters prior to crush.

3. Barrels: Ordering for early August delivery leaves cellar staff with time to prep, log 700 new barrels into Vintrace, apply barcodes and perform leak testing. The leak test entails putting 5 gallons of hot water in a barrel, setting the barrel on one head for one hour, then flipping it onto the other head for one hour. The barrel “passes” the leak test if it shows a partial vacuum seal after this time.

4. Winemaking supplies: Groth has no long lead time items, and the winery generally orders all processing aids, yeast and fruit acids around three weeks prior to harvest. They will sometimes make use of a vendor’s “early bird” discounts.

5. Staffing: Groth brings in four interns each year, starting the hiring process in March. Interns start two to four weeks prior to harvest, so there is sufficient time for safety training (respirator use, chemical use, confined space entry, etc.) and job training.

Fidel notes that as wine production increased, collecting and spreading pomace got to be a big job. Now a local waste-disposal company manages pomace removal, leaving a 20-yard dumpster for pomace and organic waste composting. Finally, he reminds us that regardless of planning, “We always forget something, but a lot less frequently.”

Turning the equipment on at Herzog Wine Cellars
Joe Hurliman is the winemaker for Herzog Wine Cellars in Ventura, Calif., making wines under the Herzog, Baron Herzog, Jeunesse and Weinstock labels. He has 30 years of experience in the wine industry—18 of those years at Herzog. His mantra is: “Turn everything on before you use it for real.” He advises others to lay out their equipment prior to harvest as a full line, as though they were crushing grapes. It will help winemakers to see what is broken or missing. Sort of like a training camp.

1. Planning tools: Hurliman makes use of three integrated planning spreadsheets. One is focused on grape tonnages, the second on bottling projections and a third on harvest supplies. They also have a pre-harvest checklist that includes minutiae such as counting and testing flashlights.

2. Daily and weekly production plans: During harvest, Hurliman will assemble a complete production plan for the next day. He notes it “allows the crew to understand what the day will bring and what the priorities are as things change.” Similarly, at the end of the week, the assistant winemaker working with Hurliman produces the next week’s harvest plan laid out day by day. Starting with a weekly plan provides visibility to everyone and allows for better discussions about wine capacity.

3. Equipment preparation for harvest:
a. Delta destemmer and Defranceschi conveyor are serviced internally.

b. Presses: In June, their vendor services both Diemme presses from top to bottom.

c. Pumps: The Ragazzini Peristaltic must pump as well as wine transfer pumps are opened up and serviced internally.

d. Other cellar equipment: Herzog’s Della Toffola cross-flow filter as well as every valve, must line, hose and pumpover device are checked and turned on prior to harvest (and cleaned once more). This process starts at the end of July.

e. Utilities: Boilers, refrigeration and air compressors are serviced multiple times per year by equipment providers. Same for forklifts.

4. Supplies: Hurliman starts the ordering process early, giving vendors an estimate of harvest needs in January, and has everything completely tied up by June. The winery uses some infrequently produced yeast strains and stays in close contact with the yeast supplier. They will even order an extra year’s yeast supply if needed.

5. Barrels: All barrels are ordered in March, and white wine barrels are delivered at the end of July; some reds arrive at the end of August, others in January.

6. Staffing: Like Groth, Herzog tries to have harvest staff onboard one month prior to crush. They can help do pre-harvest cleaning and sanitation as well as safety training.

Planning allows Hurliman to worry less during harvest. He notes that “planning and experience give you confidence that there may be ways around a production problem.” Finally, he offers some useful if only tangentially related advice: “Never hook a hose to a tank until you have physically opened the top. Never rely on a pressure valve.” And, “When offloading a flatbed truck, balance the offload from side to side.”

A consulting winemaker’s perspective
Bryan Avila owns Winecraft and is the consulting winemaker for several Napa Valley boutique wineries. He consults internationally in challenging appellations such as Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico, Yeongdong in South Korea, and Vietnam. He has made wine for 16 years and was the principal winemaking instructor at Napa Valley College.

Avila sees planning for harvest as a four-step process:

1. Forecast: You have a sales forecast that drives a comprehensive planning spreadsheet with varietals, tonnages, rough harvest dates, etc. Make sure that required tonnage = owned + contracted tonnage.

2. Wine style: Avila says, “Your wine styles will dictate how you will use your facility.” Incorporate them into production planning. For example, if a wine style requires extended maceration time or cold fermentation temperature, your tanks will turn more slowly during harvest. So you may need more tanks, access to plenty of T-Bins, or a relationship with a good custom-crush facility that allows you to manage peak tank usage. Another example: Barrel-fermented Chardonnay means your barrels must be in-house and ready to use earlier than if you are only barrel aging.

3. Equipment prep: “Once you have tonnage and wine styles, then check that you have the correct process equipment and that it is ready to go.” For this reason, Avila has his clients’ wines made at Laird Family Estate, where they have superior equipment like Bucher XP 150 and Puleo SF45 presses, a Defranceschi optical sorter and a P&L Specialties shaker table. He also stresses preventative maintenance. “If you can’t get your press professionally serviced, make sure press membranes are disassem bled, cleaned and free of cracks,” noting that this should already have been part of the post-harvest protocol. He has even seen power cords that were chewed up by rodents during the winter.

4. Staffing: If you want the best college interns, you should start hiring in April by placing ads and contacting enology schools. He noted that some wineries start as early as November.

In addition, Avila makes these suggestions:

Grape deliveries: Make it clear with your growers who is responsible for delivery. You want to avoid this scenario: “The grapes are here, where’s your truck?”

Bottling planning: Not everything that happens during harvest is about winemaking. You may have a January bottling, so blending and other planning needs to happen as well as keeping an eye on aging wines from previous vintages.

My closing thought: Create and execute your harvest plan. Not only will your crush operations run more smoothly, knowing you’ve planned well will let you enjoy your well-researched summer vacation that much more.

Andy Starr, founder of StarrGreen (starr­, is an entrepreneur, marketing manager and winemaker who provides strategy, management and business development consulting services. A resident of Napa Valley, Calif., he holds a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science from the University of California, Davis, and an MBA from UCLA. He lectures about the importance of business plans at Napa Valley College.

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