While in the midst of harvest (and all the craziness that comes with it), I thought I’d take a week to remind people about proper cleaning techniques, improving sanitation, and why these two operations are essential for wineries.

I know many of you are ready to close this page now, but WAIT!

I have heard many excuses for short cutting on cleaning over the years.  Do any of the following sound familiar?

  1. There is not enough time in the day to properly sanitize.
  2. There are not enough employees to do all the work to properly clean. 
  3. Cleaning would take all night to complete properly.
  4. It’s not necessary to clean/sanitize with wine.
  5. The wine will sell anyway.
  6. Cleaning and sanitizing does not actually improve wine quality.
  7. Sanitation is not really important.
  8. Proper cleaning does not increase the price in which the wine can be sold.

If you or any of your employees have used at least one of these statements in the past, you could be suffering from poor cleaning and sanitation practices!

In all seriousness, having good cleaning and sanitation procedures can actually save the winery time and money in the long run.

In the height of harvest, I’m sure this is a tough sell.  But let’s consider some of these practical cleaning and sanitation suggestions for small, commercial wineries.

On the same page with cleaning vs. sanitizing

Let’s start with a review of definitions, as it can get very confusing.  Below are some general definitions taken from a series of sources (Fugelsang and Edwards 2007, Iland et al. 2007, Iland et al. 2012, Solis et al. 2013) to explain the differences between cleaning, sanitation, and sterilization.

  1. Cleaning – the physical removal of dirt, debris or unwanted material (solid or liquid) from a surface
  2. Sanitizing – a 99.9% (3 log) reduction of microorganisms
  3. Sterilizing – the complete removal or inactivation of microorganisms

The wine industry is primarily focused on cleaning and sanitation protocols, as there are not many sterile practices utilized in winery operations (unless you are one of the lucky few wineries bottling aseptically).  Even if processors are using sterile filtration to remove yeast and bacteria from the wine, once the wine exits the filter, it comes in contact with equipment that is only sanitized (hopefully!).

Additionally, wine bottles or packages are not sterile when being filled.  Even new bottles can contain yeast or bacteria that can potentially contaminate a finished wine.  Hopefully, proper sulfur dioxide levels should keep this microorganisms at bay.

For all of these reasons, as the wine has the opportunity to come in contact with existing microflora on processing equipment, wine is bottled in a sanitized environment.

Remember proper sanitation is primarily having good cleaning protocols.  Cleaning should always precede sanitation. Failure to physically remove all of the debris from equipment, results in an inability to properly conduct sanitation procedures.

There are several different detergents (cleaners) and sanitizers that wineries can use effectively.  Example sanitizers include quarternary ammonium compounds (QUATS), peroxyacetic acid, chlorine dioxide, hot water, and steam.  Additionally, wineries can find use in an acidulated (citric acid) sulfur dioxide mixture.  However, all sanitizers should be selected specifically for the job at hand (Iland et al., 2012) with consideration towards the microbes that one is trying to avoid.

Most commercial wineries can really focus on improving cleaning practices to provide a step in the right direction towards improving quality and sanitation practices inside the winery.

If you think you may need some help in obtaining winery sanitation basics, please refer to this Northern Grapes Webinar by Randy Worobo on YouTube.  Or check out this PodCast by Hans Walter-Peterson and Chris Gerling from Cornell: Winery Sanitation Presspad Podcast, which focuses on preparation for harvest and including sanitation in that prep.

Cleaning harvesting equipment

While this is usually one of the places winemakers feel most complacent about, I would argue that this can be one of the most important places to take care in your cleaning and sanitation practices.

  1. There is a lot of effort that goes into the growing season in order to adequately ripen wine grapes for many sensory nuances.  Additionally, the vineyard is the source of many microorganisms that enter the crush pad and cellar.  [For those that use mechanical harvesters, do not forget cleaning and sanitation of this vital piece of equipment (Pregler 2011).]  Giving the grapes a clean surface to encounter upon entering the winery ensures that all of that hard work is truly appreciated and preserved from the start of fermentation.
  2. Without proper cleaning and sanitation practices, you are likely increasing the microbial populations of your wine before it even gets a chance to ferment.  Think about it.  After crushing/destemming a lot of rotting Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, or botrysized Riesling, how many people spray down the equipment (lightly) and move onto crushing the next lot of fruit even if the second lot is cleaner than the first?  Sometimes, the order of grape crushing cannot be avoided.  But how it is handled upon receiving can be altered.  If this is the case for your winery, and you are avoiding good cleaning and sanitation steps in between lots of fruit, you are cross contaminating your juice with, not only yeast and bacteria present in the rotted fruit, but also residual enzymes, proteins, and other by products that can alter wine chemistry in the clean fruit that follows.  Think about the potential production problems this can cause later on down the road: laccase browning, acetic acid development, off-flavor development, etc.  If such problems arise, it can cause labor and financial investment at a later time.
  3. Residual foodstuffs (e.g., old grape skins, rice hulls, pulp) can contribute to off flavors within the finished wine.  Recent research has shown that there is potential for aromatically-intense varieties (i.e., Niagara, Concord, or Noiret) to leach their flavor compounds into more neutral varieties through absorption and diffusion of equipment-based plastic components that come in contact with the juice and wine (Smith 2014).  It is also possible for alien material (i.e., green matter, old rice hulls, and stuck fruit) to contribute to flavors in the final product that may be undesirable or challenging to fix.
  4. Remember that rice hulls are a pressing aid primarily used for A) hard-to-press varieties to increase yield or B) bulk operations in which pressing time is of the essence.  Previous studies, such as the one found here, have shown a detriment in flavor and quality of wines pressed with rice hulls for certain varieties.  Additionally, rice hulls can be difficult to remove from the wine press and create potential microbial infection sites for later grapes/juice/wine.  It is recommended that the use of rice hulls be on aromatically intense or difficult-to-press varieties (e.g., many native varieties).  Use of rice hulls in grapes that have a lot of rot will not only help increase yield of the fruit, but also increase extraction and retention of rot byproducts, which can contribute to off-flavor development.
  5. Proper cleaning can help maintain your equipment longer.  Over time, plant material can slowly degrade equipment.  Doing a little scrubbing and properly sanitizing repeatedly can help keep your equipment in relatively good condition.  Additionally, the longer debris is left on equipment, the harder it is to remove.

Figure 1: Preparing a small solution of acidulate sulfur dioxide to sanitize processing equipment before crushing/destemming and pressing operations. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

Figure 1: Preparing a small solution of acidulate sulfur dioxide to sanitize processing equipment before crushing/destemming and pressing operations. Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

Properly maintaining harvest equipment also leads a good example for all of the other equipment in the winery.

Tanks, Barrels and Bottles

These are places in the cellar where it can get easy to take short cuts as opposed to properly cleaning or sanitizing equipment.

These are places in the cellar where it can get easy to take short cuts as opposed to properly cleaning or sanitizing equipment.

  1. Remember that tartrate build up in tanks and barrels can make it difficult to properly sanitize the covered portion of the tank/barrel.  Make sure to first dissolve large tartrate deposits with hot water before going through a cleaning and sanitation cycle.  Without dissolving tartrates, the equipment is not going to get properly cleaned or sanitized.
  2. When getting ready to fill a tank, remember to run a sanitizer through the tank first to minimize microbial populations on the interior surfaces that come in contact with the wine.  This helps ensure varietal flavor nuance and minimizes the risk for spoilage.  [Note: Some sanitizers are no-rinse sanitizers and do not require a rinse after the sanitation chemical is applied.  Other sanitizers may require a rinse following application.  Always check the directions pertaining to your sanitizer carefully before use to ensure it is being used properly for best efficacy, and always use proper protective clothing when handling sanitizer agents.]
  3. Minimize harboring sites for insects and microbes within the cellar are a practice that can be done at the end of every shift.  During harvest, one big problem I see is dripping, dried juice or wine on the exterior of tanks or fermentation bins.  While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, it’s an attractive site for fruit flies, which also makes them attractive deposits for spoilage yeast and bacteria.  The objective of removing these places of dried juice/wine is to minimize insect infestation in the winery and avoid potential contamination of clean wines.
  4. Barrels need cleaned prior to sanitation regimes like other pieces of equipment.  Many barrel cleaning systems are automatic and can be an efficient way to clean the interior of barrels.
  5. Barrels are porous and have a lot of grooves inside of them, which can make it difficult to properly clean and sanitize.  It is important to note that due to the nature of the barrel, it cannot be sanitized in a way that a stainless steel tank can be sanitized.  However, there are many different cleaning and sanitation options for barrels out there, some of which are explored in this Appellation Cornell newsletter from 2013.  This study evaluated natural barrel microflora (yeast, including Zygosaccharomyces and Brettanomyces) before and after a sanitation regime was conducted.
  6. Sulfur wicks are a good way to treat the interior surface of the barrel, but this practice does not penetrate into the interior of the wooden staves (Iland et al. 2007).  Also, ensure that the wick is not submerged below any left over water at the bottom of the barrel, as it may extinguish the wick (Iland et al. 2007).  Make sure the bung is tightly sealed for best efficacy of a sulfur wick (Rieger 2015).
  7. Bottling lines are not immune to cleaning.  In the food industry, it is commonly noted that most contamination comes from the environment in which the food is processed.  This can happen in wine processing, as well.  Dust on the bottling line can harbor yeast and bacteria that can be disturbed or moved into the air during large movements, like when bottling a finished wine.  Keeping the bottling line clean is a good way to help minimize contamination during bottling operations.

Small Steps That a Commercial Winery Can Take to Improve Cleaning and Sanitation

Being a smaller or boutique sized winery can definitely have its advantages in the cleaning and sanitation world.  It’s easy to get creative in terms of improving efficiency, use of, and efficacy of cleaning and sanitation practices.  Below are some practical solutions for wineries struggling to incorporate cleaning and sanitation practices in the winery.

Use brushes, like Perfex brushes, to properly scrub equipment during cleaning operations.  These are especially helpful when getting that pesky debris off of processing equipment.

Color code brushes or cleaning materials to emphasize their use and make it easier on your employees.  By keeping the necessary supplies handy and easy to use, efficiency is likely to improve, which can actually help improve the quality of cleaning operations.  Typically, white brushes are reserved for food-contact surfaces (the part of the equipment that actually comes in touch with food) during sanitation steps.  Yellow brushes can be used for environmental cleaning (non-food-contact surfaces like the exterior of tanks).  Other colors can be purchased for additional specific purposes: detergent only, sanitizer only, etc. Keep the brushes handy during all processing operations.

Figure 2: Perfex Brushes that are great for cleaning and minimize bacteria retention.

Figure 2: Perfex Brushes that are great for cleaning and minimize bacteria retention.

There is a great article from Food Engineering on the power of color coordination in the food industry, which you can read here.

Consider keeping your cleaning and sanitation system on wheels.  While in Oregon, I found it clever how larger wineries kept their fittings on mobile units to aid in availability, cleaning, and organization (Figure 3).  While this concept may be helpful to some wineries, I think it can also be applied to cleaning materials.  Keeping cleaning materials isolated to a mobile until allows for quick use and organization throughout the entire production facility and minimizes needless travel time to walk back and forth towards where supplies may be kept.  Examples, below, for how to improve mobility of your cleaning supplies are given in Figure 4.

Figure 3: Mobile unit for holding cellar fittings is a great idea for easy organization, cleaning, storage, and use of fittings throughout a cellar. (Looking at mobile stand from the top) Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

Figure 3: Mobile unit for holding cellar fittings is a great idea for easy organization, cleaning, storage, and use of fittings throughout a cellar. (Looking at mobile stand from the top) Photo by: Denise M. Gardner

 

Figure 4: Utility carts like this plastic one from School Outfitters or the metal one from Grainger can be easy additions to hold necessary cleaning supplies like citric acid/sulfur dioxide and pH strips, as well as hang spray bottles or hold gloves for cleaning. Carts can be easily moved and stored in the cellar for convenience.

Figure 4: Utility carts like this plastic one from School Outfitters or the metal one from Grainger can be easy additions to hold necessary cleaning supplies like citric acid/sulfur dioxide and pH strips, as well as hang spray bottles or hold gloves for cleaning. Carts can be easily moved and stored in the cellar for convenience.

You do not need to use fancy (or expensive!) cleaners or sanitizers all of the time in the winery.  For quick clean ups, use warm water mixed with potassium carbonate to get stuck or sticky material off of equipment.  Use with caution as it can get slippery!

Follow a potassium carbonate rinse with a warm water rinse to remove the solution from equipment and environmental surfaces.

Acidulated sulfur dioxide (Figure 5) can act as a quick sanitizer as well, and is easy to make up and use in the winery.  Plus, citric acid, sulfur dioxide, and water are found in wine and will not have an effect on wine quality or flavor.

Figure 5: Keeping acidulated sulfur dioxide handy can be a quick sanitation solution during processing days. Photo by: Dr. Rob Crassweller

Figure 5: Keeping acidulated sulfur dioxide handy can be a quick sanitation solution during processing days. Photo by: Dr. Rob Crassweller

Finally, I always recommend wineries keep a supply of 70% ethanol in a spray bottle handy for quick cleaning solutions.  Ethanol can be used to clean up small spills, quickly rinse sampling valves before and after sampling, or act as an exterior sanitizer towards things like wine thieves, sampling pipettes, and lab benches where one is running analysis.  This is an easy chemical to keep on a mobile cart or scattered throughout the winery.  However, be sure to purchase food grade ethanol from a chemical supplier and dilute down to ~70% with non-chlorinated water.

Cleaning up at the end of a processing day makes the start up for the next processing day a lot easier.  If the equipment is clean to start, then all you have to do is run a quick sanitizer through the equipment before the start of processing operations.

Use hot water to rinse your equipment and make sure your hose has good pressure.  Cold water is definitely energy efficient, however, hot water can help remove a lot of debris quicker and make any potential scrubbing easier.  Be cautious of the metal on equipment heating up with use of hot water.  Also, increasing hose pressure can help dislodge any debris from equipment, which can save time during cleaning operations.

On large processing days (those days when 3 or 4 varieties are being crushed at the winery), designate the day to processing and wait until the next day to complete other operations that can be delayed.  Now, some flexibility needs to be made for things like punch downs or pump overs.  However, teamwork is key: punch down time can be reduced if there is more than one punch down tool available for employees to use.  Juice analysis (pH, TA, Brix, and YAN) is time sensitive, because if the juice starts going through spontaneous fermentation, the results of these chemical indices will change.  However, obtaining all of the juice samples from all lots of incoming fruit before starting analysis can save your employees time and avoid splitting up duties during a processing day.  With 3 employees, one person could run analyses while the remaining 2 finish cleaning up at the end of a processing day.  Reserve racking or moving wines for days when a little less is going on in the cellar unless it is absolutely necessary to open up space in tanks for incoming fruit.

Minimize barrel-to-barrel or tank-to-tank contamination by having small sanitation vessels/buckets (filled with sanitizer) handy and isolated for cleaning/sanitation use.  Use a bucket filled with acidulated sulfur dioxide solution to submerge (and fill) your wine thief in prior and after each barrel sample.  For smaller samples, consider using one-time-use or disposable pipettes (Figure 6).  If you have a 70% ethanol solution in a spray bottle, the metal fittings at the end of hoses can be quickly sprayed in between barrels when transferring barreled wine into a tank or transferring wine from a tank into barrels to help minimize cross contamination (Illand et al. 2007).

Figure 6: Serological or disposable pipettes are a great way to avoid cross contamination when smaller samples are needed. Photos from BioVentures.

Figure 6: Serological or disposable pipettes are a great way to avoid cross contamination when smaller samples are needed. Photos from BioVentures.

Check to see how clean your equipment is with quick testing strips like Pro-Clean Protein Residual testing strip by Hygiena.  These testing strips are a good indicator on how well your cellar crew is cleaning equipment.  The problem with protein test strips, like the one shown, is that it will detect all organic matter (Iland et al., 2007).  It does not represent live or viable microorganisms; there are rapid tests available that may be more representative of microorganism populations.

The video below indicates the ease in which these are to use:

Other options include luminometers like Hygiena’s SystemSURE Plus or 3M Clean-Trace (Rieger 2015), which are also non-specific, but can indicate the cleanliness of a contact surface that is swabbed properly.

While cleaning and sanitation may seem arduous, most wine quality problems I encounter – including funky off-flavors that are challenging to identify, presence of VA, large quantities of wine affected by cork taint, and lack of varietal character – could be primarily avoided with more routine and better cleaning operations.  Improving cleaning and sanitation operations can be a step in the right direction for wineries to improve quality associated with their business.

Resources

Iland, P., N. Bruer, A. Ewart, A. Markides, and J. Sitters. 2012. Monitoring the winemaking process from grapes to wine: techniques and concepts. 2ndEd. Patrick Iland Wine Promotions Pty Ltd. Campbelltown, Australia. ISBN: 978-0-9581605-6-8.

Iland, P., P. Grbin, M. Grinbergs, L. Schmidtke, and A. Soden. 2007. Microbiological analysis of grapes and wine: techniques and concepts. Patrick Iland Wine Promotions Pty Ltd. Campbelltown, Australia. ISBN: 978-0-9581605-3-7.

Pregler, B. Nov 2011. Industry Roundtable: Cellar Sanitation. Wine Business Monthly.

Rieger, T. Oct 2015. Microbial Monitoring and Winery Sanitation Practices for Quality Control. Wine Business Monthly.

Smith, JC. 2014. Investigating the Inadvertent Transfer of Vitis labrusca Associated Odors to Vitis vinifera Wines. Retrieved from Electronic Theses and Dissertations for Graduate School: Penn State: https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/catalog/23501.

Solis, M.L.A.A., C. Gerling, and R. Worobo. 2013. Sanitation of Wine Cooperage using Five Different Treatment Methods: an In Vivo Study. Appellation Cornell. 2013-3.