WineInk: Let’s drink to the hardworking people

The fields are alive tonight

Kelly J. Hayes

At 2 a.m. on Aug. 3, the sparkling wine house of Chandon California began to pick the first grapes of the 2021 Napa Valley harvest.

Chandon’s head winemaker, Pauline Lhote, had deemed that the time was right. That the sugar levels of the Chardonnay grapes that would be used in the production of the sparkling wines were ready. And with that call, the harvest teams headed into the vineyards and began the magical harvest season on Chandon’s Yountville estate. It was reported that 32 tons, enough to produce around 2,000 cases of wine, was picked in the darkness.

Each day since that initial pick, the vineyards of Napa have been humming with activity as different varieties of grapes reach ripeness and winemakers alert their teams of pickers that the time is nearly right to drop the clusters from the vines and get them into wineries.

While the wine grapes to be used in the production of sparkling wines, Chardonnay and some Pinot Noir are picked first, other red wine varietals are also just about ready. The thinner-skinned, earlier-ripening grapes like Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah and Sangiovese are all picked before the major harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon — the signature grape of the valley — is collected.

In some cases, like that at Chandon, the trip for the grapes is short from vineyards literally adjacent to the production facilities. But for most vineyards there is a rush to get grapes into trucks so they can quicky be transported while they are still cool to the wineries that have contracted to buy them. Traffic builds early as the trucks make their trips. The pre-dawn hours on the country roads remind me of the chorus of the Bruce Springsteen song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that screams, “Well the highways are alive tonight. Where it’s headed everybody knows.” It is an early morning visual of the harvest

It is now a WineInk cliché (of course one man’s cliché is another’s tradition), but most years over the past decade this column has made reference to the Rolling Stones’ song “Salt of the Earth.” That is because each year, at this time, each harvest season, I think about those who toil to get the grapes off the vines. Those who rise in the middle of the night when their cellphone alarms vibrate and head into the vineyards to pick the fruit at the precise moment when it will make the best wine for our enjoyment.

It’s hard work, picking grapes. A few years back I went to Ehlers Estate, a few miles up the road from Chandon Napa Valley, to get a feel for what it takes to bring in a ton of Cabernet grapes. My September morning began in the chill of a 4 a.m. drive to the vineyard up Highway 29, the main artery through the Napa Valley. This is pretty standard as the best time to pick grapes is before dawn to avoid the heat of the day. But still, it means a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call and working in the dark.

The team at Ehlers was like many in the Napa Valley. There were eight Latino workers altogether. Some worked full time for the winery while others moved from one vineyard to another, doing contract work whenever they can find a job during the harvest season. They are contracted to pick and make themselves available at the behest of the winemaker when the pick is called.

I remember watching with awe in the pre-dawn darkness, with bright lights illuminating the vineyard, as the team moved with alacrity up and down the rows of the vines. With incredible dexterity they cut the clusters of grapes from the canes with sharply curved knives in rapid-fire motion so that the bunches dropped cleanly into the plastic bins at their feet. The men, paired in groups of two, worked on alternate rows as a tractor moved down the middle between them. There was lots of good-natured chatter and the team occasionally broke into song as they moved rapidly down lines of vines.

Once each bin was filled with 35 to 50 pounds of grape clusters, the men lifted them high on their shoulders and dumped them into the trailer that trailed the tractor. As the first group made their deposit, the second group of two scurried ahead and began to cut more clusters. It was clear that there was order and a strategy to the process.

As I tried to keep up, I kept stumbling on the residue of vines that had fallen in my path. I did not cut myself with my cleaver, but it was only because I moved so slowly as to make sure that I would not do so. By the time I cut the clusters from the first vines the team had already moved to the next row, laughing and speaking (I am sure about me) in Spanish. With a row completed I raced to the tractor, only to drop about a third of my bin on the ground. More laughter ensued. And by the end of about three rows both my hands and back were so sore that I was both hobbled and humbled.

The point is, this is what it takes to hand-pick grapes for premium wines. A lot of precise, elegant and hard work. It is as much a skill as that possessed by any farm worker and one that is greatly admired by those winemakers who employ the teams of men who make the harvest happen.

And it is not just in the Napa Valley where this happens. At this exact moment there are workers toiling in France, Italy, Germany, China and anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere where fine wine is made. In California these workers are frequently people of color and immigrants who come for the work. Over time, some find full-time employment in the wine industry, but those are the lucky ones. A 2013 study by the California Research Bureau for the state’s Latino Legislative Caucus found that “92% of the state’s farmworkers were Latino.” But the landscape has seen changes since then as the number of workers allowed into the U.S. on visas has been diminished. Also, according to a 2017 study by the researchers at the University of California at Davis, women wine workers are becoming a more significant part of the labor force.

So it is that each year I try to write a column that pays homage to these oft-forgotten workers who are the backbone of the wine industry. They don’t make the wine, but without them there would be no wine made.

So once again, let’s think about the lyrics to the Stones song “Salt of the Earth:

“Let’s drink to the hard working people

Say a prayer for the common foot soldier

Spare a thought for his back-breaking work

Say a prayer for his wife and his children

Raise your glass to the good and the evil

Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.”



Ehlers Estate 2017 LaDucq Cabernet Sauvignon

It would be conceited for me to think that some of the few clusters of Cabernet Sauvignon that I clipped that September morning in 2017 made it into this wine. But fantasy makes the world just a touch sweeter. This single-block Cabernet is rife with what makes Napa such a treasured place for wines. Dark, deep and almost inky in color, the fruit explodes on the nose with earth tones and aroma of the dark berries. Big, but round, on the palate, this wine has a sense of both place and time.