CORTEZ, Colo. - Sunflowers, beans and wheat may be the most recognized crops in Montezuma County, but deep within the walls of McElmo Canyon the focus of fall is the grape.
September and October were busy months for grape growers in the county as the temperatures cooled and harvest began. Overall, the results were more than satisfactory.
"The quality seemed to be very good this year," said Joe Buckel, winemaker at Sutcliffe Vineyards. "Last year we harvested about 10 tons of grapes, this year about 15."
McElmo resident Bob Schuster, who grows grapes for Sutcliffe, also had a successful year, harvesting 13 acres of grapes.
"It was a good crop," Schuster said.
The harvest of wine grapes relies both on science and feel, Buckel and Schuster said.
"We use three laboratory type numbers," Buckel said, explaining how growers determine when to harvest. "One is brix, a measure of sugar content. One is pH and the other is TA, acidity. We use those three number to give us an idea of a window of when to pick."
Winemakers also have their own internal guide of what constitute "good numbers."
"You don't pick before 24 brix," Schuster said. "We pick around 26. That level is very critical. Table grapes have brix of 14 and you have to get the wine grapes quite a bit higher."
When the numbers are adequate, growers rely on their senses to determine whether or not to harvest.
"We go out into the field and make sure the flavor is there," Buckel said. "There are physiological characteristics we look for. The seeds will be brown, the skins turning to a brown, woody color. Tasting the grapes."
Once it is determined grapes are ready for harvest, crews move quickly to get the work done. Much of grape harvest relies on the weather, as warmer temperatures and precipitation will shorten the window to harvest.
"Your window could be four or five days, it could be three or four," Schuster said. "You don't know."
"You are pretty much at the mercy of the grapes," Buckel said. "Any legitimate crew will tell you that."
As harvest begins in earnest, the work in McElmo Canyon is done the old fashioned way - by hand.
"I set buckets out and they (the laborers) fill the buckets out by going down the rows," Schuster said. "One man goes through and picks up the buckets. They weigh about thirty pounds when they are full."
Full buckets are emptied into bins, which weigh roughly 800 pounds when full. The bins are loaded onto trailers and transported to the winery.
Harvest days are long, labor-intensive and unpredictable.
"When harvest is happening we work anywhere from 10-14 hours a day," Buckel said.
Harvested grapes means the work has only just begun for the winemaker.
"We like to bring the grapes in and process them immediately," Buckel said.
The processing procedure involves different steps depending on the type of grape.
Red grapes are put into a de-stemmer, where the stem is removed and the individual grapes, skin and all, are placed in a vat to begin fermentation. White grapes may or may not be de-stemmed and are immediately crushed to produce juice. The juice sits for twenty-four hours and then is placed in barrels, according to Buckel.
Sutcliffe finished the final pressing for the season in late October, which allowed him a moment to breathe.
"Everything is through the fermentation and we have everything in barrels," Buckel said. "I'm very happy about that because I don't have to go in every day and baby-sit everything."
Work on a vineyard doesn't stop when harvest is complete. Schuster spends the winter preparing the vines for the next season.
"We spend three months in the winter pruning (the vines)," he said. "It is a lot of labor. I hope to get up to 40 or 50 tons a year when we get everything going."