"I may be getting too old for this shit." Carl evoked Danny Glover's iconic Lethal Weapon line when I asked him how punch-downs have been going. The guy is only fifty, but he definitely has noticed how much different this daily harvest ritual feels now, when compared to his first harvest at Allegro twenty years ago.
Our cellar master Darcy sent me these pix of Carl mid-punch-down, over a fermentation bin full of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It certainly is impressive to see a 6'4" person putting his full power into this task, while positioned in the carbon dioxide airspace over the red grapes. It takes quite a lot of force to break up the cap of grape skins, seeds, and stems which forms at the top of red grape fermentations, especially early in the fermentation process.
Punch-downs ("pigéage," in France) are a ritual performed on red fermentation bins three or four times daily during the two weeks of fermentation. When you multiply that across a dozen bins, it's quite a task. Breaking up the cap allows the juice to re-integrate with its former grape-mates. Since it is contact with skins and stems which brings the juice its color, tannins, and body, it's an essential part of Allegro's winemaking process for its dry red wines.
For years, Carl has used a homemade tool which he calls "Bigfoot" (below on the right, in Darcy's photo) when doing punch-downs. Made of stainless steel, that tool itself weighs about the same as a case of wine: nearly forty pounds. This year, they have created a much lighter version ("Littlefoot"), which is probably only five pounds.
Harvest is the busiest time of the winery year, and that means "all hands (and feet) on deck." Carl takes on this physical task to keep himself humbled by his aging process (just kidding), but also so that he has a better sense of the year's fruit. Punching down the reds means that all of his senses are attuned to the grapes' qualities: how they look, feel, smell. The more reduced, earthy style of the resulting wines is also what he looks for as a winemaker.
Late-season grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon (coming in as we speak) have the toughest skins, so this tasking is far from over. This old guy will be continuing to do the punch-downs until the last pressing, mid-November, when he'll pause for exactly one short moment before diving into the next task.
Cheers to the 2020 vintage!