By Pia Hinckle
COTATI, CA — My mother’s family has been making wine since before she was born. My great-grandfather Giocondo Benedetti, who we called “nonno,” brought winemaking from Convalle, the tiny hilltop village near Lucca, Italy from where he immigrated to California in 1912.
Jeff Libarle, one of my uncles, learned from Nonno and then went on to study viticulture at UC Davis. He took over the family tradition of an annual grape crush. Each year we gather in the field at his home in Cotati, CA (Sonoma County) on the same land where Nonno and his wife Pia raised their three kids, and crush about a ton of grapes to make wine for family and friends.
It’s always in the fall, but the date depends on the grape harvest, which depends on the weather. In other words, we never know until the last minute. This year we got the call on a Wednesday. “The grapes are ready, the crush will be this Saturday,” Jeff said on the phone. Growers and winemakers test the Brix, or sugar content, and pH of the grapes to decide when they are ready for harvest.
The grapes are cut from the vines by hand (or machine) and placed in plastic bins for transport. For many years we cut the grapes ourselves at the Zinfandel vineyard of a family friend, but when they moved away, Jeff had to find other sources. Luckily he has plenty of contacts with growers since he runs Grove Street Wine Brokers, a wine brokerage and winemaking consulting firm in Healdsburg, CA (Sonoma County). He is also a grower himself, with a couple of acres of Pinot Noir planted behind his house, which he bottles under a private label.
There were about 70 of us, extended family and friends, there on a Saturday afternoon in early October. A couple of pickup trucks, their cabs piled high with white plastic bins laden with dark purple grapes, sat in the field. The wooden crush barrel, more than five feet high, was set up with the crusher, a stainless steel auger that removes the stems and crushes the grapes, straddling it.
Red wine is made from fermenting the grapes’ pulp, skins, and juice. (White wine is made by fermenting just the juice, no skins.) As Jeff says, it’s not very complicated: “Crush, ferment, barrel, drink. It’s a lot easier than making beer.”
This year we crushed about a ton of Petite Syrah grapes, from a friend’s Sonoma County vineyard. We start with a quick blessing of the grapes, remembering the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who used to join in the tradition but are no longer with us, and then the crush begins. The bins are emptied into the crusher, which spits crushed grapes into the barrel and stems onto the ground.
Kids love this event. When else do kids—young and old (like middle-aged)—have permission to nail a parent, cousin, sibling, or spouse with a handful of sticky, slimy grape stems? Everyone wears old clothes because the juice stains. Usually the older people, sitting in chairs along the edge of the activity, are spared, but accidents happen. The worst is getting a pile shoved down the back of your shirt (thanks Uncle Marc!). It’s like a food fight where no food gets wasted and you don’t have to clean the floor afterwards.
The crushing of the grapes takes less than an hour. Once the barrel is full of juice, skins, and seeds, Jeff takes a cupful of juice and tests the sugar content to gauge how long they should ferment before the juice is extracted from the crush barrel. When that time comes, a wine press compresses the grape skins to get the last bit of juice out of the barrel. The juice (future wine) is put into smaller barrels in the wine cellar to ferment until it is ready to drink.