Anatomy of a winemaker

By Posted on Mar 29 2015 | By

Note: This article was published with the numerals superimposed over each piece of equipment shown in the photograph at the bottom of the story.  Most of the equipment is self-evident but item #1 is the small instrument on top of the front right wine barrel. Item #2 is barely visible peeking out of the red-colored cylinder sitting on the small stainless steel tank to the right of the winemaker.

High & low tech gear employed in ancient art 

Wine GlassRarely does a wine drinker reflect on how fresh grapes evolve into a pleasurable bottle of wine. Or, who the magician is that makes it happen. We are simply too focused on the wine itself.

But without skilled alchemists working in Fauquier County wine cellars, locally made wines would not grace our dining tables.

There are more than 30 winemakers in the county domiciled in 23 different wineries. Let’s sneak down in the cellar and see how they do it.

#1  Refractometer: $40
This instrument is used to measure the Brix—or percent of sugar—in a grape. One Brix equals about one percent sugar. In the vineyard, a few drops of squeezed grape juice are placed on its glass plate and then observed through the eyepiece to determine the amount of sugar therein. Harvest decisions are largely based on achieving a certain percentage of sugar in the fruit. In Virginia, it’s typically between 21 and 25 Brix.

#2  Hydrometer: $30
A simple but critical device that monitors the rate of fermentation and alcohol levels in wine. It allows winemakers to figure the specific gravity of wine (the relative “weight” of liquid compared to plain water). Most wines are vinified to dryness (no sugar) and the tool is used to determine when that goal is achieved.

#3  Wine thief: $70
A simple hand vacuum that is inserted into a barrel to exact a sample of wine. The thumb is placed on an opening at the top of the thief to create a vacuum and remove a few ounces of the nectar. The device has been in use for centuries.

#4  Oak Barrel: $500 to $1,200
A hollow, cylindrical vessel made of oak staves and bound by metal hoops. It is an integral part of the production of fine wine, both whites and reds. The inside of a barrel is “toasted” to enhance the wine with an array of subtle flavors and aromas. Barrels are from France (most expensive), Hungary and America (often using Virginia White Oak). The ideal size of a barrel is 60 gallons and holds 300 bottles of  wine.

#5  Stainless steel tank: $4,000 to $60,000
An important innovation dating to the 1960s that permits the fermentation and aging of wine in a temperature controlled environment. The tanks are particularly useful in white wine production that benefit from fermentation in the 50 to 60 degree range to enhance aroma and flavor. Tanks used locally range in size from a few hundred gallons to over 1,000. By comparison, tanks used in large California wineries can exceed 200,000 gallons.

#6 Pump: $4,000
Pumps are the work horse of a wine cellar. They are used to transfer wines from and between barrels and tanks in a process called “racking”. The process draws off wine from its “lees” (sediment of spent yeast cells and other detritus) to clean, empty tanks or barrels. Racking is ongoing until the day of bottling.

#7  Hoses: $4 a foot
Used in concert with pumps, hoses are everywhere present on the floor of a winery. Large and a bit unwieldy, they are the arterial system through which flows all wine in a cellar.

#8 Wine glass: $5 and up
The ubiquitous wine glass is the vessel of choice for all wine evaluation. It is fitting that from birth to consumption the wine glass plays a pivotal role in the production of wine and its enjoyment.


Sharon Roeder

Sharon Roeder

Sharon Roeder is the winemaker at Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane. Roeder shares winemaking responsibilities with Rick Tagg. Their collaborative efforts produce 9,000 cases of wine a year. Yep, that’s 108,000 bottles.

“We pour our heart and soul into every bottle and the reward is in the faces of the people who enjoy the fruit—literally—of our labor,” said Roeder.


Published in the 2015 Spring edition of inFauquier magazine.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES