Winemaker Confession: I Don’t Wash my Grapes (but neither does anyone else I know)
This last week there was a major internet flap when mom and blogger Claire Gross posted a blog on Babble.com that she bathed her three-month-old son Charlie maybe once every week or so. “Yep, total confession time,” Claire writes. ” I really don’t bathe my baby.” This blog post prompted an online firestorm of negativity wherein parents around the globe heaped on criticism upon criticism, accusing her of neglecting her child at worst and losing valuable maternal bonding time at best. In further media interviews after the story went viral Ms. Gross has revealed her pediatrician advised her that her second child’s delicate skin was drying out too much due to daily bathing so she scaled it down a notch and found a happy balance that worked for them.
So yes, total confession time. I really don’t wash my grapes. And well, neither does any winemaker I know or have worked with in the decade and a half I’ve been making wine. This sometimes comes as a surprise to a public accustomed to salad spinners, special vegetable-washing soap and double and triple-washed and cellophane-bagged spinach in the supermarket. On numerous occasions giving winery tours, I’ll grab a handful of grapes from the picking bins as my group of visitors watches the grapes poised over the destemmer. I’ll pop a delicious Pinot Noir berry in my mouth and offer the cluster around, only to hear, “Oh…..don’t you wash them first?”
Nope. We don’t.
Nowhere in my winemaking education, formal or on-the-job, across the state of California and over two continents, was I shown that washing grapes before fermentation was necessary.
The reality is that “No human pathogen can survive in wine,” as one of my favorite UC Davis professors, Dr. Linda Bisson used to tell us in the first-year winemaking class. Because of the high acidity (low pH) and high alcohol levels in a typical wine, no bacteria or virus that could infect a person (like a cold or flu bug, or even worse) can survive in that environment. This is part of the reason why, for the ancient Romans, Greeks and many other societies, wine was used to help treat wounds and was considered a medicine. Even though wine microbes like Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae are happy in that kind of harsh environment, bugs that live in the human body are not.
Winemakers also know what was sprayed (or in most cases, not sprayed, as grapes are a low-input crop compared to others) in the vineyard during the growing year. In fact, residual fungicides or other chemicals disrupt a healthy fermentation, which is why winegrape growers are more limited than other fruit and vegetable growers in what they may use in a vineyard and why we ask our growers (or do it ourselves, if we are the grower) to provide meticulous records of anything applied.
Are there sometimes mites, dust and bugs from the vineyard? Sure. Once I even spent an hour rescuing a dozen little green frogs from a bin of grapes as they went across the sorting table (no idea how they got there, must have been hanging out on the vine for some reason). But most importantly, there are also valuable indigenous yeast and bacteria cells that can help contribute to a healthy and more interesting fermentation and eventually, wine. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, Modesto to Mendocino, grapes get picked, come into the winery, get crushed and become wine, without a grape-washing step involved*.
I really never gave it much thought before, but I suppose we could add grape-washing to our litany of winemaking steps. Some might welcome it as a way to make squeaky-clean wine that they could market as “Triple Washed!” Some would no doubt decry it as yet one more unnatural and non-traditional winemaking “intervention”. It would undoubtedly be a waste of precious water and depending on residual levels, might dilute the wine. Every day we are learning more and more about the microbial world within and around us and its valuable contribution to our health and well-being. Why wash off microbes that might be beneficial in fermentation, or at least benign? The dust that comes in on the grapes settles down to the bottom of the fermenter and gets racked off and left behind anyway.
To side with Claire Gross, I really don’t bathe my baby much either (Bryce is now almost eight months old). He has dry skin and as per his pediatrician we find a once-a-week dunk works just fine for us, thanks very much. So here’s to the great unwashed! Winemaking, like parenting, is an ancient, and yes sometimes dirty, art.
*If someone does wash their grapes first, contact me! I’d be curious to do a follow-up blog post!
Alison loves answering questions about the weird in wine and published the WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007. Interact with us at Garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards and on Facebook!