Determining Harvest Readiness in Wine Grapes at Unionville
I am packing up and getting ready to escape the office for a great yoga class. I’ve been looking forward to the class since Monday.
It’s only Wednesday. Hump Day. The Wednesday before our Annual Fall Harvest Festival. There is plenty to do - 5 pm and the vineyard crew is just starting to press the Riesling grapes they’d been harvesting all day.
So...close... I’ve got my yoga mat in my car. I’m ready to go. I’m almost there...
And Cam stops me.
Dang. So close.
“Wanna go sample grapes?”
He’s got his vineyard hat on, and his dog Rocky is at his heels. There is really no way I can say no.
Such a beautiful afternoon. A bit warm, but comfortable. I love fall. The leaves are changing color, and it’s so quiet and peaceful out here I easily forget I’m in New Jersey.
We walk through a break in the treeline, up the hill, to our Top Vineyard. The Riesling and Chardonnay have all been picked, though there are some now-very-sweet grapes still hanging on the vines.
We continue, back to the red grapes. Back here, thanks to New Jersey Agricultural Extension and Rutgers University, we have a new weather station. The station sends data to NEWA, the Network for Environment and Weather Applications, housed at Cornell Universty. Cornell and Rutgers University scientists explore the data and use patterns to advise growers like us on when to expect diseases and insects. As growers, we use the scientists’ research results and our very own vineyard data to help manage pests and also to predict growth and maturation during the growing season. The more we know, the better farmers we are.
Moving towards the grapes, we begin to take samples. Taste, you know, is of primary importance! These grapes are just delicious.
The main reason we are up here is to take samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon and of the Chambourcin. Cam hands me a ziploc bag and sets down some ground rules
Then, he sends me off.
Well, now! This seems to me to be quite a big responsibility. He’s going to use my sample to determine whether or not to harvest and to see how far along these grapes are.
Pretty big deal.
I walk down rows of Cabernet and he takes Chambourcin.
We meet at the end.
“Did I not get enough?” We each half-filled our Ziploc baggies, but he’s also holding a cluster of dark, plump Chambourcin grapes.
“My daughter loves these.”
The Chambourcin grapes, compared to the Cabernet, are huge, nearly double the size, and very very red.
We walk down the hill, Cam’s dog running out ahead, and bring the samples back to the lab.
There, we “smoosh” the grapes (smoosh is a technical term, you see). Cam measures the sugars and acidity for each juice. He doesn’t tell me anything. Not before I taste.
I taste the two juices, almost like I would taste wine, noting the flavors and where on the palette I taste them. The Cabernet has great blueberry notes, with a bit of green apple tartness. The Chambourcin starts off blueberry - then, bam!, overwhelmingly green apple.
The big reveal: The acidity of the Chambourcin juice is much higher than that of the Cabernet, and neither is ready to be harvested.
The tastes of the grapes and of the juice tell Cam everything. The numbers he gets from the lab tests only back up what he knows from tasting alone.
I miss my yoga class. I’ll make it to another one. Harvest is just a crazy wonderful time of year. I don’t want to miss it.
~Stacy, Operations Coordinator & Wine Geek
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Desk or vineyard? This is the question I asked myself when making the leap of faith to leave my corporate life behind to pursue my passion for wine. After working in the medical communications space for 10 years, 2022 was the year of epiphany. It may sound old fashion, but I did have a major realization in the beginning of the new year that I was not meant to work behind a desk and chug along doing work that I was no longer passionate about.
My first notion of my interest of wine came during my frequent business trips to Boston about 4 years ago. For the first time I was immersing myself in the world of wine through client dinners, networking events and a lot of self-exploring through Beantown. During this time was my first encounter with sommeliers and wine experts. I was fascinated and intrigued by the expertise knowledge of wine, wine making and learning about the intricacies that goes into producing a bottle of wine. At this moment, I thought about how amazing it was to witness such passion for the craft of wine.
I enrolled in an online sommelier level one course at the Wine School of Philadelphia and began studying and reading everything I could about wine. This is where my 2nd major epiphany happened – I asked myself, the question that I stated in the beginning “desk or vineyard?”
This is the question that started the major stepping stone to my journey. I no longer wanted my wine passion to be in the background – I wanted to be 100% committed and both feet in. Unionville Vineyards was the first winery that popped into my head when I thought about making my “9:00- 5:00” switch. I attended a wedding at Unionville the year prior and loved the atmosphere, the wine and the people. The position that I applied to was half farm work half hospitality. I was instantly attracted to the idea of being out in the field to where it all begins in wine making. Thoughts of my “office” transforming into the beautiful vineyard was something I desired. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Unionville has multiple vineyard sites with the Coventry site located within Coventry Farm in Princeton being my favorite (love the views there!) Working at the different sites allows you to see how the different micro climates, soil and land impact the vines and fruit cluster growth. Also working in the field to me was the perfect learning opportunity to understand the craft of wine making soup to nuts. Being surrounded by vines that produced grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay was eye opening to me. I was so used to seeing the finished product of these grape varietals in their bottled form, but actually being able to perform farming techniques on the vines starts to create another level of perspective and appreciation for wine.
One of my favorite farming tasks to perform in the field on the vines is leaf pulling. Leaf pulling is when you remove leaves from around the fruit clusters. The rule of thumb is to remove leaves that are across and below from the fruit cluster. Removing the leaves creates oxygen flow, openness for pesticides to be sprayed and exposes the fruit to more sunlight. I enjoy seeing the satisfying result of a perfectly balanced vine with the right number of leaves removed. Working in the field creates a huge bond between you and your other field peers. You become a family unit and learn how to work together and communicate as a team. To me, this is a very important factor for having a successful vineyard. My experience with people at Unionville in general has been amazing. You have the opportunity to interact with people from all different backgrounds (teachers, college, corporate, etc.) which makes for some great conversations and comradery.
To anyone reading this, do not be afraid to follow your passion and take a chance on doing what you want to ensure your happiness. It was scary to make such a drastic shift from corporate to farm work, especially since the two are extremely opposite ends of the spectrum, but I have no regrets and I am happy with where my career and focus is going.
My name is Rachael White, and I am the new vineyard manager at Unionville Vineyards. I am thrilled to be part of the team and produce exceptional grapes for exquisite wine. I’m eager to begin this role and I wanted to introduce myself to share a little of my background.
I became interested in grape production right out of high school while working at my local research and extension center with the viticulture team. Little did I know when I started that viticulture would become my passion and career going forward. I got to work with industry famous people like Dr. Tony Wolf and Dr. Cain Hickey and interact with growers that were more than happy to share their joys and dismays about farming grapes. I fell in love with the seasonality and the fact I could always be outside! With a newfound purpose, I attended my first semester at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2013 and immediately focused my degree on wine grape production. I took every wine and vineyard related course offered at the time and enjoyed other horticulture courses along the way. I studied
abroad in Cortona, Italy where I learned old world wine tradition and began refining my palate.
I finished my Bachelor of Science degree in December of 2016 and looked to gain more knowledge from elsewhere in the world. I decided to work a vintage in the southern hemisphere and set my eyes on New Zealand. In March of 2017, I started work at a contract winery in the Marlborough region that produced Sauvignon Blanc, but also small batches of Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. I worked on the “Red Team," and processed mostly Pinot Noir
in small orders for clients.