Tin Barn Vineyards | Amy Tsaykel

Punchdown: Mixing It Up

In Uncategorized on 10/20/2009 at 4:22 pm

Now in the throes of harvest season, winemaker Mike Lancaster is constantly in the cellar. Lately I’ve noticed he’ll leave in the morning and return a couple of times throughout the course of a day. Gracious, I thought. Is he making wine or nursing a newborn in the ICU? What could require such constant attention?

“Punchdown,” he explained. 

Oh. I had no idea what that meant.

I’d witnessed a bit of the winemaking process firsthand.  For starters, I knew that it was nothing like this:

I’d first observed the Pinot Noir crush. Then, when the Syrah grapes came in from Coryelle Fields in northern Sonoma County, I’d stood with Mike and his business partner, Gray Fowler, as several tons of ripe fruit were squeezed to a beautiful, smoky-sweet pulp. But that was just the beginning.

Syrah crush: view from up above

Syrah crush: view from up above

Juice is funneled from the crusher into a vat.

Juice is funneled from the crusher into a vat.

What next? Punchdown.

During its first 3 weeks, the must, or freshly pressed juice, already begins to ferment. The winemaker adds yeast and nutrients to kick that fermentation into high gear. Meanwhile, a mass of grape skins, stems, and seeds float to the top, forming a cap.

The cap looks pretty and bright,  its fruit bobbing skin-to-skin as if in a cranberry bog. But the cap also hogs all the yumminess–color, flavor, the tannins, and more.  How does all that goodness make its way into the rest of the juice? Punchdown.

Simply put, the winemaker has to mix things up every once and a while–usually 3 or 4 times a day. This is called punchdown, and accomplishes the following:

  • Prevents bacteria from building up
  • Helps with the extraction of color
  • Coaxes out the phenolics, which enhance flavor

For large batches of must, winemakers use a large mechanical arm to do the mixing–because, frankly, even Lucy’s “paddle” feet couldn’t hack the job.  Recently I gave punchdown a shot myself.

This is me "driving" the mechanical arm.

This is me "driving" the mechanical arm.

For smaller batches of wine, winemakers achieve punchdown by using a tool that looks like a giant potato masher. Tin Barn does a fairly low production of Syrah, so Mike used that batch to show me how manual punchdown is done. The must was gorgeous and fragrant beneath the cap.

Manual punchdown of Syrah grapes

Manual punchdown of Syrah grapes

As Mike stood on the edge of the vat leaning into the motion, I couldn’t help but wonder if he didn’t ever slip and have an inadvertent “Lucy” grape-stomping moment of his own. Don’t even ask, Amy, I told myself, and promptly refocused on the matter at hand….

As I write, Mike and the cellar intern, Creighton, have wrapped up this initial stage and proceeded to “dig out” the fermentation tank. Ever seen a digout? I hadn’t either. Stay tuned and I’ll give you the dish …

  1. Hey Amy, it’s John from Loxton. I dropped in early one Saturday morning. I just found your blog and I’m catching up on it. Great work. I love how you are capturing the process.

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