All month long, we are paying homage to the mighty grape. Grab a glass and join us as we Wine Down.
Grape stomping is the stick shift of the wine world: Sure, a machine could easily do all the work, but that's not nearly as fun.
But unlike driving a car, using one's feet to crush grapes has been around for thousands of years. True winos are familiar with this age-old practice, known as pigeage, which means "punching down" grape skins. As the grapes ferment in their juices, carbon dioxide forms during the process and causes solids to float to the top, which have to be pushed down again. Aside from small places that likely exist deep in Spain and Portugal, industrialized machines have largely taken over for regulation and efficiency, as well as less labor costs.
Despite this modernization, it's become standard practice for wineries to have fall festivals that bring back grape stomping. Some turn it into a competition, while others are more about the experience than a sellable product, like Benmarl Winery's annual celebration in the Hudson Valley. When asked, the employees don't hesitate to explain that the grape by-products from the event get turned into fertilizer and that, frankly, it's just for fun. "It's like jumping in the ocean," one explains. "You think it's going to be gross, but then you realize it's awesome."
This fall tradition is more Instagram culture than viticulture, but you'll see little fault in that when you're ankle-deep in sweet, squishy Concords, basking in seemingly endless views of the Hudson Valley around you.
To most Internet-age wine drinkers, grape stomping is synonymous with a now-viral video of one reporter's unfortunate mishap. "Grape Lady Falls!" has nearly 18 million views on YouTube, and “what happened to the grape lady” is a shockingly prolific Google search. Before the fall heard round the world Internet, Lucille Ball was traipsing on grapes in an episode of I Love Lucy—on one condition from the California winery that donated the grapes: The script had to explicitly say wine isn't actually made this way anymore.
But that's not entirely true: Some wineries are still practicing the art of grape stomping, and to find them, you'll have to head to Brooklyn. Red Hook Winery, located along the western coast of the outer borough, uses the foot-stomping method on a handful of its wines, like aged reds from "enigmatic cult hero" and "risk-loving winemaker" Abe Schoener. Red Hook Winery shop foreman Colin Alevras explains this style is only for skin-on varietals, as you wouldn't use the process for wines that are just juice.
The obvious question remains: Why? If a machine can do the work for you and churn out consistently good results, what's the point of jumping around in a barrel of grapes? For these wines, it's about having as natural of a process as can be. And according to Alevras, the foot is actually the perfect natural machine for crushing grapes. The pressure from human force is gentle enough so that the seeds won't break, which can release an unideal astringent taste into the wine. And, Alevras explains, a human has the intuitive control over when to stop.
Deeper into the borough, a Flatbush wineshop has recently taken up the practice as well. Little Mo Wine & Spirits invited guests to stomp grapes and make wine in recent celebration of its one-year anniversary. The shop sent out word via Facebook that it would be stomping 120 pounds’ worth of grapes right on the sidewalk of its Nostrand Avenue spot. And it’s not just a facade: The fruits of the day's labor went into making Cuvée de Nostrand, with the help of a nearby home-brew shop.
Little Mo owner Mark Schwartz assuaged our germaphobic nerves by explaining "there will be booties," but you're more likely to get stung by a rogue bee than you are to spread bacteria during the grape-stomping process. According to Alevras, stomping grapes with your feet is perfectly sanitary, thanks to the delicate balance of acid, sugar and alcohol that prohibits human pathogens from surviving in wine. And, no: "It doesn't taste like foot," he assures.
Some sources say this practice should be outlawed, but others defend it to the end, like winemaker Gary Robinson's Left Bend Winery in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. The winery began stomping grapes by foot in 2011 after the winemaker at Mount Eden Vineyards in Saratoga encouraged him to "just hop in" one day. "Our toes got freezing cold, but it was fun,” Robinson says. “Needless to say, we loved the result,"—an intensely bold Syrah that "stood out" from the others. "The foot crushing gets the fermentation going quicker and adds to the intensity."
Alevras also cites cold temperatures as a reason they don't start all their wines this way: "You're half submerged in 40-degree grapes, so you have to run in place fast—your toes go numb." But beyond the added value of grape stomping, Alevras says, "We just like doing it." And that seems as good enough a reason as any.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.