What’s the Crush?

“Most wineries now use huge mechanical harvesters that straddle the vines and gently shake the grapes off onto a conveyor belt leading to a gondola that follows along in the next row. A machine can harvest in one hour what a crew of four

Ah, the life of a winery owner. What could be better than spending your days sipping wine and chatting with guests, while overlooking a sparkling Finger Lake? Next you’re jetting off to some international wine competition, rubbing elbows with the industry elite while graciously acknowledging your recent awards. In reality, it’s a tough, tough job. Especially when it’s time to “crush.”

When September rolls around, winery owners get down and dirty. Like major league baseball coaches contemplating a call to the bullpen, they pace the vine rows taking samples to determine when to start picking. They check the rising sugar content with a refractometer, but the most sophisticated measurement is still taken with the tongue. They track evolving fruit flavors until experience tells them it’s time to pick. Then out goes the call: “Time to crush!”

Although many Finger Lakes vineyards still pick by hand, most now use huge, mechanical harvesters designed by Cornell University research engineers in the 1970s. These giant machines straddle the vines and knock the grapes off onto a conveyor belt and then over to a gondola that follows along in the next row. A machine can harvest in one hour what a crew of four hand pickers might do in day. The choice between options depends upon quantity and variety of specific grapes, as well as personal preference.

As soon as the redolent bins and baskets of grapes arrive at the winery, the winemaker’s adrenaline starts pumping, and it’s a good thing. It will carry him or her through weeks of exhausting work when long days can extend into half the night. Today’s vigilant owners inspect nearly every bin as it is delivered, knowing their reputation and their future depend on the quality of those clusters.

Gone are the days of stomping grapes by foot. Instead, grapes are separated from their stems in whirling, perforated drums called destemmer/crushers. The result is a mush of juice and skins that are directed to one of two routes: for white wines, the juice goes directly to press; for red wines, the juice and skins ferment together in vats before going to the wine press (the wine’s red color comes from the skins).

The next time you’re sipping that great bottle of Finger Lakes wine on the deck overlooking the lake, remember and appreciate your winemaker’s experience and effort that put the best of the Finger Lakes into your glass!

Special thanks to Richard Figiel.


by Kristian S. Reynolds
Kristian S. Reynolds is a professional photographer and writer, specializing in travel and tourism photos of the Finger Lakes region. His two coffee table books, Finger Lakes Panoramas and Wine Tour of the Finger Lakes (written by Grady Wells), continue to be local favorites. (www.kristianreynolds.com)