Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
September 24, 2008
Day dawns on a September morning in the Napa Valley. The men responsible for getting the grapes out of the fields and, eventually, the wine into your glass, are gathering.
Despite the early hour the excitement is palpable as the group of 20 or so workers, all young, all Latino and all uniquely qualified to perform the highly specialized, back-breaking work that a harvest requires, prepare to charge the vines. “This is the most exciting time of year,” says Ron Rosenbrand, vineyard manager at Spring Mountain Vineyard. “We’ve worked all year for this and now is the time when we start to see the fruits of our labor.”
Harvest season in the Napa Valley is both a laborious and intoxicating time for those whose passions and livelihoods lie in making wine. It is a time when the workers get little sleep and make a big chunk of their yearly wages. It is a time when the winemakers get a taste and a feel for the new vintage. It is a time when the marketing and promotion people begin to start crunching numbers based on the size of the harvest, hoping to get a handle on next year’s bottom line. And increasingly it also has become a time when tourists flock to the Valley to get an up-close-and-personal look at this critical step in the winemaking process.
The implications of a successful harvest spread wide and far, and affect many a fortune, but it all begins in the cold morning light in the vineyard.
At Spring Mountain the harvest season began on Sept. 1 as the ripest of the Sauvignon Blanc grapes were picked. The crew, which on a busy day consists of 16 actual pickers, a pair of “leaf monitors” and two tractor drivers, head out in unison. The tractors carry half-ton macro-bins to the base of a vineyard. The pickers, carrying sharp, curved knives, a sharpening stone and a plastic bin, or pan, head into the rows of vines. In groups of usually four pickers per row they begin, with surgical precision, to cut the clusters of grapes.
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Here, time is money and the pickers work at a truly amazing speed. As each grape pan is filled to capacity at around 35 pounds, the picker will hoist the pan onto a shoulder, literally run to the tractor and empty into the macro-bin. There the leaf monitors will sort through the clusters, picking out any leaves, excess dirt, or bad grapes that are immediately apparent. This is just the first of a number of checks for imperfections in the harvest.
There are mechanical harvesters, but the topography of Spring Mountain Vineyard is so steep, ranging from gentle 10 percent slopes to downright intimidating 52 percent mountainsides, that all the work is done by hand.
“I wouldn’t last 10 minutes,” says Rosenbrand with admiration for the workers. “These are very, very hard-working people and their efforts are vital to making the wines.”
Spring Mountain Vineyard winemaker Jac Cole agrees.
“Way too much emphasis is placed on the winemaker when people talk about wine,” he says. “This is like a team sport, it’s not like tennis. It takes a well-coordinated effort by many people, beginning in the vineyard, to make great wine.”
As the crews pick and sort, Rosenbrand, Cole and Assistant Winemaker Leigh Meyering walk the 135 separate blocks of grapes that are planted on Spring Mountain’s 226 acres. Each day they pick random grapes from the vines, crush them between their fingers, and chew the skins, looking for signs that a block is ready for harvest. “We taste and we talk about when it’s time to pick. About 80 percent of the time the three of us will be in consensus. But the great thing about having three of us is that, well, there is always a majority.”
There are other factors that go into the decision as well. Rosenbrand has a wealth of historical information on the vineyards to give the trio an idea of when individual blocks have been picked in the past. And then there is chemistry. Each day, random samples of 100 to 150 berries from the different blocks are picked, crushed and tested for sugar content (also referred to as brix) in a refractometer, total acidity and pH levels.
The history and the numbers may be helpful as indicators, but the ultimate decision comes down to what happens in Jac, Ron and Leigh’s collective mouths. “We make all of our harvest decisions in the vineyard,” Jac says emphatically.
So far this year that means that the Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinot Noir have been picked and are currently fermenting. The Merlot began to get work on Sept. 23 and the Syrah looks like it will be ready this week. Next up, the bulk of Spring Mountain’s prodigious output of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Despite a heat wave that brought four days of 100-degree temperatures during September, both Jac and Ron are optimistic that this vintage will be solid. It is now up to the workers, those who toil each day, first in the dark and then in the hot sun, to get the crops in quickly and efficiently at just the right moment.
They are the front line and, in many ways, the most important part of the wine industry.