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September 7, 2015

Spotlight on KORBEL Harvest

A vineyard featuring vines of purple grapes is shown awash in sunlight.

When you pop open a bottle of sparkling KORBEL California Champagne, it may be easy to forget how much effort is needed to create such an effervescent product. Yet many hours and the work of many hands go into creating the millions of bubbles that you enjoy so much. That is especially true at harvest time.

This year’s harvest began July 28, said Paul Ahvenainen, director of winemaking at Korbel Champagne Cellars. Harvest traditionally starts in mid-August and lasts six to eight weeks, though he noted that harvest dates have been getting earlier over the past decade.

Many factors determine when the harvest begins, including analysis of the grapes and their sugar and acidity measurements. “As we get close, we go out into the vineyard and taste the fruit” to make sure it’s ready, Ahvenainen added.

During the three- to four-week peak of the harvest, work begins at 2 a.m., when the first shift begins, and goes until 10 p.m., when the second shift ends. However, when the workers are really busy, it’s not uncommon for the second shift to still be pressing grapes when the first shift reports to work in the middle of the night.

Ahvenainen, who began working at Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1985, said that in some ways, the harvest hasn’t changed much over the decades. Roughly half of the harvesting is still done by hand. The greatest difference has come with the processing technology in the winery, he said. While the current technology is actually slower than the equipment used decades ago, it produces higher yields and is more efficient.

Harvest workweeks typically run Monday to Saturday. Korbel tries to give workers Sunday off so that they can spend time with their families, but sometimes outside forces – such as the weather – make it necessary to work seven days a week.

As Ahvenainen explained, unpredictability is part of the nature of agriculture and, therefore, the harvest. For example, during one day early in this year’s harvest, a nearby traffic accident delayed delivery of the grapes, throwing the day’s schedule out of whack. But it’s that unpredictability and the challenges it brings that he finds so rewarding about the harvest.

“Even after 30 years, I still get excited about harvest,” Ahvenainen said, adding that he will know it’s time to get out of the winemaking business when he no longer feels that sense of anticipation. “So far, it hasn’t happened.”

This year’s harvest is projected to be 12,700 tons, which is a little lighter than the normal harvest of around 14,000 tons. But the quality of this year’s yield should make up for the lighter load, Ahvenainen said.

“It looks like it’s going to be a good year,” he added. “The quality of the fruit looks astonishingly good.”

Toast Life