NORMAN — Sharon Minor is one of a large group of friends and strangers who gather every year to help Tom and Jann Knotts harvest their grapes. The Knotts are the proprietors of Redbud Ridge Vineyard & Winery, located in southeast Norman.
Minor was a stranger who happened past the vineyard and decided to stop. By the time she left that day, she had volunteered to help with the next harvest. She’s been helping for six years now and has long since become a friend.
“I’m a veteran now,” she said.
Minor said after the netting is removed from the grapes, the volunteer crew uses clippers to cut the stems on clusters of deep purple grapes. The clusters go into a bucket and periodically someone comes around in a cart pulling a wagon and trades empty buckets for full ones.
On this sunny day, the harvest at Redbud feels more like a community picnic than a work session. The volunteer crew is fed a buffet-style breakfast in the shade of the trees that abut the vineyard.
A few of the harvesters are longtime friends. Others, like Minor, just thought it would be fun to harvest grapes. Tom Knotts said some come once out of curiosity. Many, however, return year after year. Each leaves with a bottle of Redbud, made in Oklahoma, wine.
Grape growing is an avocation that connects growers to the rhythm of the seasons. When the grapes reach vraison — that time when they change from green to red — the vines are covered with netting.
“Mother Nature shows up when you have something sweet,” Knotts said.
Birds, turkey, deer, possum and raccoons are among the wild creatures that would love to feast on the tasty fruit as it ripens on the vine. Critters are not the only concern. This year, the harvest yielded about half a normal crop because of late freezes.
“I didn’t do a hard count, a cluster count,” Knotts said, as he looked at the growing mound of crushed grapes in the harvest bin.
He said the late freeze means fewer berries and fewer clusters. The rain this year neither helped nor hurt the harvest but did save some water.
“This year I never turned the irrigation on,” he said.
His drip irrigation system conserves water and is very efficient, however.
“The real problem in this area of Oklahoma and Texas is we don’t have cool nights,” Knotts said.
The grapes on the vine continue to metabolize sugar longer in the heat which means a slower ripening process.
“You want grapes to have a certain sugar content and maturity,” he said.
When the grapes are close to maturity, Knotts emails his volunteers. Harvest is set at maturity.
“Or when OU doesn’t have a home football game,” Knotts said. “Or when the cosmos comes together and there’s a late game, an away game or no game — no game is best.”
The buckets of freshly picked grapes are dumped into the crusher and destemmer which, yes, crushes the grapes and removes the bulk of the stems.
The crushed grapes stay in the harvest bin for four to six weeks to ferment. Fermentation is a chemical process that causes the fibrous materials — grape skins, seeds and small pieces of stem — to rise and form a cap on top of the juice.
Knotts goes in and pushes that cap down several times a day. Using his bare hands allows him to feel for hot spots and manage the temperature through mixing to keep it homogenous. The air conditioner in the winery cools the room to 64 degrees.
“The fermentation is around 80 degrees,” Knotts said.
Pressing the cap down into the juice also releases sugars and creates a surge of fermentation.
“I have to manage that in order to keep it from escaping,” he said.
If he doesn’t manage it, the fermenting grapes bubble over and out of the bin, losing precious juices.
“Then I become the mopper,” he said.
When the initial fermentation process is complete, the harvest goes into the wine press. The young wine is pressed into a bucket then poured into a stainless steel tank.
Four to six months later it’s pumped into another tank. The wine is allowed to settle and the pump extracts the wine from the top, leaving the sediment at the bottom. This process is repeated every few months. The clarification process takes about two years.
Toasted oak chips are added to the wine to yield a flavor profile once only gained by storage in barrels.
Knotts said this year’s harvest will likely produce about 70 gallons or 350 bottles of wine. He’ll probably blend this group with another, larger batch of wine.
“This is a diminished crop,” he said. “If that’s all I’ve got, that’s a pretty light harvest due to the freezes.”
Knotts will blend and taste small quantities of a wine before bottling. That’s where the art of wine making comes to the fore.
This week, Knotts said Redbud Ridge Vineyard & Winery had a label approved for a new wine. A portion of the sales from that wine, Think Pink, will support local organizations fighting breast cancer. Think Pink is a Provence style rosé and will be sold out of the winery to tourists and visitors.