By Brittany Rice, Director of Winemaking, Sunstone Winery
November 18, 2020
Being a winemaker for the past twenty years, Harvest 2020 in my view can be labeled as the toughest “Harvest Bootcamp” as it was the best workout and lack of sleep you would ever have experienced. That is why we all love it. The challenge is what we winemakers enjoy as it’s a huge accomplishment in the end. We make the toughest winemaking situations and impossible moments into incredible wines and great stories.
This harvest was the busiest year of our winemaking at Sunstone, as well as the most complicated and quickest harvest, in our 30-year existence as wine growers and artisan producers. On top of that, we had additional complexities of COVID-19 to deal with. Fortunately, we were spared from wildfires that sadly burned through vineyards in other wine regions.
Sunstone’s Production department has the most loyal, motivated, and hardworking team I have worked with in a very long time. We have a team of six: Director of Winemaking- Brittany; Assistant Winemaker- Jon; Cellar Master- Jose; Assistant Cellar Master-Lupe; and the Cellar Assistants Maricela and Mike. Even through “COVID-19 2020” we completely knocked it out as an entire team and made some of the most elegantly crafted wines even with these mysterious roadblocks mother nature tossed our way, as we experienced during the duration. This year’s harvest kicked off on August 30th and went through October 14th.
Before I get to all the details of harvest, please enjoy this brief video of some of the action across all the vineyards we harvested from!
As a Director of Winemaking, you are responsible for supporting, coordinating, and motivating your team by managing the entire operation “vineyard to bottle” and every single anomaly that comes your direction, as well as “hospitality to wine education”. There are many different goal lines to continuously operate the flow, so you are usually planning multiple months ahead as well as offering a hand in whatever capacity it takes to make a difference in the process for the staff in and around the flow.
After a year of planning and implementing each harvest to bottle protocol, the feeling of jumping in and joining the team to work side by side with them is the best part of the process, as you discover new tactics and views from each other which empowers the team to be open to future changes in adapting upcoming technology, tactics and products into the flow of the winemaking strategies.
Sometimes you get thrown into one meticulous and repetitive stage for days and some days you are constantly thrown into multiple challenges, moment to moment. During harvest your vineyard team and equipment plus maintenance contacts are on speed dial or a text away as they are the ones to help the most if you need fruit, a change in delivery, or an emergency fix on your wine press that magically just stops during the height of the harvest (true story!). They are truly your best friends, and extraordinarily talented in farming and engineering.
Some days I had dreams I was still adding yeast and nutrients into bins and tanks and then I would get to work and continue. I felt like a machine. I think everyone does during this time because you get in a rhythm and it’s really repetitive but there are always surprises to be aware of. Timing is so crucial in winemaking for many reasons from the weather to the movement of wine.
Even with only 17 varietals we ended up with 53 wines we can then look forward to blending according to focus on quality, clones, vineyard, American Viticulture Area and most important the labels that we produce for consistency of Sunstone’s style and elegance.
Between the six of us, we worked 10-14 hours per day, seven days per week, for five weeks bringing in 249 tons of grapes, comprised of 17 different varietals, from 16 different vineyards! When you count separate lots, these 16 vineyards actually break down to 53 different wines due to separation of grape to vineyard, tier and fermenting separate from the final blend which takes place later in the year in between bottlings. That means in the next year and a half we are moving 40,900 gallons of wine multiple times before we filter, and bottle, on top of the vintage prior. A winemaker’s job is ongoing. Some people think it mellows after harvest, but in reality it is a year-round endeavor and we rarely get caught up. It’s what keeps us on our toes.
Our harvest tonnage came in so quickly. I was able to coordinate nine vineyard deliveries during our largest delivery in a three-day span, during which our team crushed 100 tons, which kind of blew my mind on the orientation of how each varietal came in so sporadically and not in the normal ascending order. During these three days we received Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Marsanne and Chardonnay. Each varietal was harvested from multiple vineyard blocks and various clones which were all segregated into different vats to go through fermentation. At this point we had all tanks and bins at full capacity. As we were processing the fruit coming in, the other team members were continuously punching down and pumping over bins, filling wine barrels, checking off the protocol lists.
From the trucks, tractors and ATVs waiting in line to drop off fruit one after another, we were able to crush and press really never seeming to let up as all the equipment and team involved were in constant operation and were simultaneously flowing through every inch of the process and utilizing all the tactics and protocols in the process, on top of having the forklift, cellar pumps, press and crusher in operation. We kept feeling like it was a never-ending cyclone of not knowing what day it was and, in our minds, we were all wondering “Will this ever calm down so we can take a deep breath?”
We kept ourselves motivated as the fruit bins piled high, adding to our plate while trying to make space for wine already processed and create time to put it into barrel for aging.
This all seems glorious compared to the vicious bees, wasps and pests that we worked around all day long. Not only humans are interested in the grapes, sweetness of juice and dry wines. So are all the active species around our beautiful vineyard. We learn so much about our outdoors during harvest as we get so many visitors from the nature world. My “favorite” was being grazed by an insect- or creature as I should say- that was at least four inches long that buzzed by my ear. I later learned it was a “tarantula wasp hornet” that has a deadly sting as they sting tarantulas to kill, as they lay eggs and bury underground. Hearing this made my skin crawl!
In addition to our own production team, it is important to call out all of the additional folks that don’t always get noticed. We want to gracefully thank Ivan Belfy and Carlos of Buona Terra Farming as well as the rest of the vineyard hands on their team for taking great care of the Sunstone vineyard, and the vineyard teams from the 15 non-Sunstone vineyards that helped us night and day for six weeks to bring in all the fruit that Mother Nature had a tough time balancing. She left it to the winegrowers and winemakers as a challenge to scurry and figure out how to manage to pick in half the time and allow time for balancing each drop of wine so that they could be enjoyed in the future bottles to come. All the teams did us a solid by hand picking every cluster from sunrise to sunset due to our drastic unusual daily heat spikes that were not expected as a norm. But as we all know…2020 is complicated.
Rejuvenation is next. Upcoming changes will be with chemistry from soil, vine, grapes to weather. Normally, in a harvest year we deal with a small spike of heat prior to harvest then frost if it comes on early as it did in Harvest 2019. After Harvest 2019 we bottled every other month tp until August, on top of the entire year of winemaking priorities.
It’s purely the passion and challenge that drives the team to work together to evolve to make wine better in every aspect of the flow of winemaking from vineyard to bottle. It’s never one hand that proves the making of the true nature of the grapes you make into wine. As a wine drinker please note that it took many hands to create the bottles of wines you enjoy. Please remember there are farmers and winemakers that put their efforts and love into helping Sunstone Winery put a smile on your face as you enjoy each sip of wine. Not to mention our amazing staff that offers a whole new experience in our tasting rooms and events as they are the best trained teams from being wine educators, hospitality experts, event providers. When you step foot inside our courtyard and tasting room you will feel the vibes from the entire property and its family.
We look forward to showcasing our 2020 wines to you in the coming years. In the meantime, we wish you a great holiday season!