Today I'd like to sing the praises of the hand refractometer. It's the simplest viticultural tool to use. Its purpose is testing brix (sugar level) and while it might not be 100% accurate, it's fairly close, and you can perform a quick check as you wander through the vineyard.
The device is like a little telescope with a flat glass space on one end. You lift up a little plastic shield, squirt a few drops juice from a freshly picked grape onto the glass, drop the shield on the juice just like you're preparing a slide for a microscope, and then look through the eyepiece. It will give you a reading that's roughly twice the potential alcohol for finished wine. Tonight's readings were between 10 and 20 brix depending on varietal and the sun exposure of the grape in question. The overall average of the quick sample in the vineyard tonight was 15. We like to get to an average of 23 brix in our region, which will give us 11.5% alcohol. This year, due to the freeze, we have uneven ripeness, so I'll have to pick a number in the middle of a wide range and hope there isn't too much underripe fruit. Had I more vines, I'd drop all the fruit that's lagging right now. I probably should have done it last week. But my test vineyard is only 60 vines divided between four varietals, so I can't afford to drop any more fruit than I already removed in cluster and shoot thinning earlier in the year...I wouldn't end up with any wine. We've had a dry stretch, helping to hold various rots at bay, so maybe I can leave the fruit to hang longer than usual.
Hand refractometers only cost around fifty bucks, and they have heft to them. It feels like a real serious scientific tool in your hand. If you want to feel like one of the big boys, then order one of these gadgets. I like to stroll down the rows and squint into the refractometer and play like I'm a vineyard manager in Napa or Tuscany. Then my neighbor hollers and waves, spoiling the fantasy. It's all a game and I'm a kid, which is a rationale I embrace. Tonight my daughter helped me with the readings...it's so easy she can almost do it all by herself. But then she is brilliant for her age...so much more advanced than other kids.