To most people, winemaking sounds like it must be fun. Brent Helleckson agrees, but he also knows it’s a lot of work. “Winemaking is mostly cleaning. If you start with good grapes and keep everything clean, the wine will very nearly make itself.” Good wine, he explained, involves the manipulation of innumerable variables—the type of yeast used, the amount of sur lie aging (the aging of wine on spent yeast cells and grape solids), aeration during racking, and even the particular forest the oak barrel staves came from, to name a few.

Cleaning

Still, cleaning is a big, and crucially important, part of the process. “The simple act of moving wine from one tank to another entails rinsing the receiving tank with water, scrubbing out any deposits with washing soda, cleaning the entire tank with sodium percarbonate, rinsing with citric acid, then sanitizing with potassium metabisulfite.” The process is repeated with the original tank and the pumps and hoses after each use and again before disassembly and storage. Then, just to be on the safe side, the cellar itself is cleaned twice a year from top to bottom.

Tending The Vines

As labor-intensive as that may sound, the real work is tending to the vines—before, during and after the growing season. This begins with under-row tillage in late March to aerate the soil and stifle weed growth, a task that is repeated in May, and again in late July or early August. Fertilizer that has been composted from manure obtained from local farms in February is applied in April and, if necessary, again in November. The vines will require two or more applications of sulfur and potassium bicarbonate for mildew control, and foliar nutrients if leaf samples taken in June indicate a deficiency.

Critter Control

There are also animals to contend with. A year-round elk, deer and bear fence must be maintained to protect the fragile vines from the ravages of large quadrupeds. And once the grapes begin to mature, an electric fence designed to discourage raccoons is strung, while bird netting is draped over the entire vineyard until the grapes are harvested.

It’s the plants themselves, however, that require the most attention. Pruning of the entire vineyard begins in April and carries over into May, after which Brent and Karen mow between the rows to chop up the prunings. This improves cold-air drainage, which minimizes the potential for frost damage.

In June the real work begins. The vines must be suckered, and weeds pulled from around the plants, chores that often require Brent and Karen to bring in extra help. They then work their way through the entire vineyard, removing non-productive shoots from the trellis wire and repositioning the remaining shoots for maximum exposure, a process they may repeat again in July. In late summer, as the grapes start to ripen, they may need to thin the crop to improve the quality of the remaining grapes and hasten maturity.

Harvest

Early fall marks the beginning of a labor-intensive harvest and requires the help of an outside crew. Grapes to be used in dry wines are harvested in early fall. Late-harvest grapes are left to sweeten on the vine until November, which often means there will be snow on the ground when they are picked. Add to this all the other work required and you’ll begin to appreciate what it takes to run a winery and vineyard.

Brent, like every other winemaker he knows, still finds time to experiment with new techniques, fine-tuning the countless variables he has to work with, in hopes of producing a distinctive new product. And why not? As any winemaker will tell you, a vineyard is only as good as the wine it produces, and Stone Cottage Cellars has produced some award winners.

If interested in making your own wine at home, get a free catalog from: E.C. Kraus Home Winemaking, Box 7850-NP, Independence, MO 64054 or visit ECKraus.com/offers/np.asp

 

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This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.