Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
September 15, 2011
A day dawns on a September morning in the Napa Valley and the men responsible for getting the grapes out of the fields and, eventually, wine into your glass, are gathering.
Despite the early hour, the excitement is palpable as the group of workers – mostly young, mostly Latino and all uniquely qualified to perform the highly specialized, back-breaking work that a harvest requires, prepare to charge the vines. It is the busiest and most exciting time of the year in wine country. It is the moment when those who have toiled since spring get the first look at how the fruits of their labors will turn out. Literally.
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 how the new vintage will be to work with. 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 future year’s bottom lines. 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 process of making wines.
While the implications of a successful harvest spread wide and far, affecting many a fortune, it all begins in the cold morning light in the vineyard.
In Napa the harvest season usually begins around the first of September as the ripest of the Sauvignon Blanc grapes are picked. The crews, which consists of actual pickers, “leaf monitors” and tractor drivers, head out in unison to pick the grapes. 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 and, with surgical precision, begin to cut the clusters of grapes.
Here, time is money and the speed with which the best pickers work is truly amazing. As each grape pan is filled to capacity at around 35 pounds, the picker will hoist the pan onto a shoulder and 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.
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While there are mechanical harvesters, some of the terrain is so steep, ranging from gentle 10 percent slopes to downright intimidating 50 percent mountainsides, that much of the work must be completed by hand. Any one who has participated in the harvest process knows that the individual effort is extreme. Those who pick and harvest grapes are very, very hard-working people and their efforts are vital to making the wines.
While the role of the winemaker is, of course, paramount in wine, it is the efforts of the team that make any vineyard, any wine a success. Winemaking depends upon the cohesive efforts of those in the fields at the precise moment when the grapes are ready to pick or the vintage will be lost.
As the crews pick and sort, the winemakers will walk the vineyards. 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. They will taste the grapes and, relying on years of experience, make decisions about whether the time is right to harvest a particular block.
There are other factors that go into the decision as well. Most wineries have a wealth of historical information on the vineyards to give them 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 (brix) in a refractometer, total acidity and pH levels.
But while the history and the numbers may be helpful as indicators, the ultimate decision frequently comes down to what happens in the mouths of the winemakers who taste the grapes in the vineyards. Especially at smaller boutique wineries
Once the decision is made it is 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.