Wine grapes can grow in Nevada – trust me – I saw them. I'm a student intern at the University of Nevada, Reno's Desert Farming Initiative focusing on perennial crops. I've been working with Riesling grapes as well as apple varieties that are found throughout Northern Nevada. My first wine crush started when Jill Moe called me and asked if I wanted to drive to Las Vegas for some grapes to make a couple of wines for the university.
On July 25th, Mike Steedman the co-owner of Nevada Sunset Winery and I left Reno at 4:30 am in a U-haul to pick up a ton and a half of wine grapes from the UNR extension vineyard in Las Vegas - an assortment of red and white varieties including Tempranillo, Syrah, and Carignan for the reds, and Colombard and Italia for the whites. The Extension service has several vineyards at their facility, including a research plot sponsored by UC Davis. I really enjoyed getting to see some of the differences in the ways they plotted their lots and how big some of the varietals trunks are! After loading the grapes into the rented U-haul and picking up the dry ice to keep the grapes cool for the drive home, we had one of the most beautiful drives I have had through my home state. We arrived back in Reno and stored the grapes and set them up to stay cool for two days after which they would be crushed and destemmed.
The crusher is approximately the size and shape of a Shetland pony, the only difference is its metal and can crush and destem you as if you are a grape. After setting up a bin for the juice and other tannin-containing components, such as skins, seeds and some tiny stems. We grabbed pitchforks and started shoveling clusters into the top of the machine – where a screw moved them into the bottom of the machine to separate the vines and let the crushed berries fall down and be pushed by another screw out the back into a bin. We added metabisulfite to kill off any wild yeast on the grapes that could start fermentation early, and added a glycol plate to chill the heterogenous goop and get ready to add winemakers’ yeast to start a controlled fermentation.
After proper fermentation, the next step is pressing. Pressing is the process where the skins are separated from the wine. The presser is a rubber bladder that fills with water encased by a steel cylinder with tiny holes to allow juice through and keeping the solids stuck between a rubber bladder and a hard place. Rough fabric is lined on the inside to keep seeds and other smaller components from getting out of or stuck in the steel cylinder and another on the outside catching sediment and preventing spraying from the high pressures inside the drum. Pressing the whites went smoothly - the juice is now in a steel tank relaxing while its natural beauty evolves. The reds on the other hand had to deal with my stupidity before they could be pressed. I basically turned the presser into a hydraulic bomb when I mixed up my water input and shut off the valve…. Mike and I stood no chance against the tower of water that shot out the top of the press. After the refreshing shower, I cleaned up the olympic swimming pool I had spilled on the cellar floor and the reds were pressed and placed into a steel tank to wait before being moved into an oak barrel to undergo malolactic fermentation. In malolactic fermentation, a bacteria is inoculated into the wine and takes malic acid which is tart and relatively more acidic and converts it into lactic acid the same compound that makes you sore after a workout and gives yogurt and cheese their creamy texture.
In summary, my first crush was an atypical experience from what you may picture if someone told you they worked a winegrape crush. I didn't pick the grapes I worked with, but learned a lot from the dedicated grape growers and winemakers in Nevada. Fourteen hours and 900 miles of driving for a ton and a half of grapes. Another week and a half to strip down the berries and unlock their hidden flavors. Then concentrating them down and manipulating them into a drink I know any Nevadan of age would be proud to stain their lips with, Desert Ambrosia, made from 100% Nevada grapes.
Big thank yous to the Desert farming Initiative and Extension Services, CABNR, and Nevada Sunset Winery for the opportunity to craft an elegant expression of Nevada's unique terroir and agriculture.
Peters, B., 2022, Making Desert Ambrosia: An Atypical Crush, Desert Farming Initiative - University of Nevada, Reno
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