The Crush

One winemaker's journey from vine to bottle

By Rachel Ritchie
Photographs by Stuart Mullenberg

In wine country, harvest season begins long before grapes ripen to a vivid, sweetly aromatic shade of blue. It begins with relationships. “I have to cultivate those far in advance,” explains Brianne Day, the industrious 35-year-old behind Day Wines. After eight years of traveling the wine regions of the world and working harvest seasons in Argentina, New Zealand, France, and the Willamette Valley, the Oregon native was finally ready to make her own wine in 2012—but she didn’t have any land. And she didn’t want any. So like many other young, determined winemakers, she cobbled her dream together by building strong relationships—buying grapes from long-admired sustainable vineyards and renting winery space from former mentors, all while paying her bills with shifts at Grochau Cellars and a gig as the Northwest sales manager for a French barrel producer. Between 2012 and 2014, Day Wines grew from 125 cases annually to 1,300, earning rave reviews for its polished blends along the way. We tagged along for the 2013 harvest to capture that elusive combination of farming, science, intuition, faith, and community that creates magic in a bottle.

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For her 2013 vintage, Day purchased seven tons of fruit from Jim Fischer of Crowley Station Vineyards in the Eola Hills. She spent a summer in the vineyards, watching the grapes closely as they matured to véraison (the onset of ripening), before a storm in the forecast threatened to complicate the pick date. “You have to plan three to seven days in advance to schedule a crew, which means you have to anticipate where the fruit will be in a week,” says Day. “We had to rush to pick before the storm hit, and I’m so happy we did.”

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When picking day arrives, crews armed with shears and buckets bob and weave through the vines, dumping full loads of grapes into bins at the end of each row as a foreman looks on. “They totally book it, because they get paid by the bucket,” Day says. “And between working with great vineyards and conscientious picking crews, I have very little sorting to do.”

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When the picking bins are full, they are immediately transferred to the barn to keep them out of the sun—too much heat can make grapes mushy, trigger bacterial problems, and kick-start premature fermentation. Once picking is finished, Day (right) and her crew load the bins onto a handsome 1940s Ford that ferries them over to her rented winery space in McMinnville. At the winery, each bin is carefully weighed before the fruit is processed—Day buys fruit by the ton, and it’s up to her to ensure that she gets her money’s worth.

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Dominio IV has been operating in McMinnville since 2002. Though a handful of small producers like Day rent space in the 6,000-square-foot winery, it’s not a “custom crush” facility like Dundee’s NW Wine Company or Portland’s SE Wine Collective.

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When the fruit arrives, it’s transferred with a forklift onto a bin-dumper, which slowly loads the grapes onto a sorting table. There, Day and her team carefully scan for unripe fruit, rotten fruit, mold, leaves, and anything else you wouldn’t want in your wine. “I usually invite however many friends will come and hang out,” says Day. “It’s nice to have four pairs of hands on the table—and some of that is moral support.”

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At the end of a sorting line is a destemmer, which knocks berries off of the stems before they arrive in stackable fermenting bins, each of which holds 1.5 tons of fruit. Fermentation can last anywhere from seven days to three weeks, depending on the varietal—and countless other subtle factors. During this time, Day tastes the juice every day to check on the shift in sugars. When there’s no sugar left in the juice, she’ll leave it in with the skins for another couple of days until the flavors level out and stop showing signs of improvement.

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When the fruit is going through fermentation, the yeast is converting sugar into alcohol—and a byproduct of that crucial process is carbon dioxide, which pushes all the skins to the top of the fermenting bin, creating a kind of “cap.” The cap, however, tends to dry out, harden, and trap heat beneath it. Each fermenter has its own personality, and it’s the winemaker’s job to tend those quirks, monitoring its heat and rerouting oxygen to the yeast so it can continue to do its job. Some use heavy stirring tools; some use pumps. Day prefers to stomp. “You can feel the grapes and where the cold and hot pockets are, and mix it really well,” she says. “And I’m right in the juice, so I become really familiar with the smells—if anything is off, I’m going to notice it right away.”

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Once fermentation is complete, the wine is separated into two different categories. First, the “free-run” juice is pumped out, either directly into barrels or, if necessary, to spend some time in settling tanks. The remaining seeds and skins are then dumped into a press, which forces the juice out of a bladder at the bottom. Toward the end of this press cycle, Day tastes the wine constantly. “When the skins and seeds are done,” she says, “it’s dramatically noticeable and really bitter. You don’t want that in your pinot noir.” Day then keeps her press wine separate from the free-run, and most often uses the press wine to top off her barrels as the contents evaporate.

Once it lands in the barrels, wine goes through numerous important transitions. Most important is malolactic fermentation, in which the grapes’ sharper, tart-tasting malic acid is converted into softer, rounder lactic acid. Meanwhile, the sediment in the wine clarifies as oxygen is slowly absorbed through the porous wooden barrels, allowing the wine to mature as the flavors open up.

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Day barreled her 2012 Crowley Station Vineyards pinot noir for 10 months, and decided to sell the retail bottles with a black wax seal. “I took cases home in my Subaru, up two flights of stairs to my non-air-conditioned apartment in Northwest Portland, and waxed them all by hand at my stove,” she says. In 2013, she upped her production from two tons to seven—and decided to forgo the wax.

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Slide Show: Behind the scenes photos of Brianne Day's wine country harvest