It's still before dawn and we’re all standing impatiently, in the dark, talking a little amongst ourselves and listening to the tractors idle, watching the grass and pieces of vineyard that their headlights cast with light. In our heads we have the master plan: rows 1-15, skip to 35, then work back, then on to the next block. Pick one clone first, then the next, keeping everything separate. Make sure each section of vineyard goes to the right winery, make sure they get the perfect amount of fruit, and make sure the fruit is clean and cool.
As the morning crept in, the crew arrives – women and men, armed with small, plastic bins and curved picking knives. They take their place next to us, ready to begin. Then, when the light is strong enough to see the clusters of grapes hanging among the vines, we rush in.
The next hours of grape harvest are a blur of noise – bins slapping against larger bins as grapes are dumped, the noise of our fingernails against the plastic bins as we grab any leaves or stems that have found their way into the fruit, the idling of the tractors and calls of the workers as they pick. Stanzas of Spanish ballads and “si se puede” call across the vineyard. As we finish one row and move on to the next, we run as fast as we can – it’s a race against the light and heat now. The fruit must be cool when it arrives to the winery. We have to finish before lunch, but we’re shorthanded.
A second, promised crew hasn’t arrived. The crew now working has harvested grapes both in the morning and at night for several days. They’re tired. The morning is wearing on and too much fruit is left on the vines and they know it. We keep calling the vineyard management company for another crew, but no one answers. No doubt they’re in the midst of picking elsewhere.
I speak enough Spanish to understand what’s going on. The women have children at home. They’re all exhausted and we’ve been at it for three hours. We understand and are apologetic as we hand out water and soda. Tensions still rise and complaints began to be voiced as we continue on, bending over the bin after bin of fruit to clean it, picking the grapes and dumping them in the larger boxes behind the tractors. Then the talk of leaving the field begins. A few insults I wish I didn’t understand are lobbed out. It's hard work, and the crew's been doing it for days. It's only understandable that they're tired and ready to stop.
But on the winery side, if this crew leaves it will push the rest of the harvest back, risking that perfect balance of sugar, grape ripeness, acidity and flavors that we now have. We sell to several high-end Pinot Noir producers and, at this time of year, harvest is a delicate dance that ends on a day when you can get a crew to pick the fruit, the winery has the time and space to receive it, and the maturity of the fruit is at the winery’s optimum level. And one of the wineries we’re picking for today is ours. Our winery-to-be. And our optimal ripeness is TODAY.
We keep rallying and crossing our fingers, and finally (thank god) another crew pulls in. They picked farther up the Anderson Valley for a few hours and have now arrived to help. The crew already at work relaxes – they will now be able to leave early and catch a few hours of sleep before beginning again tonight at 8 p.m. We’re all ecstatic. The rest of the morning seems to fall into place – the crew that has arrived is fast. Very fast. We finish harvesting our fruit – the result of an entire year of labor. The fruit as near to perfect as you can get – we can tell from the ripeness of the grapes that the alcohols will be moderate and the flavors will be outstanding. Enough acidity will be in the wine for it to age well, and the wine won’t be too tannic. We played the guessing game perfectly.
As the workers begin to leave and the last bins are rushed to the wineries, we thank the workers, offer them more to drink, and promptly open a beer. It tastes better than I can imagine as we sit there, covered in sticky grape juice and sweat, and talk about the morning’s trials, and what we may be in store for tomorrow, as we will again gather before dawn to relive the entire experience.
I always try to remember that all this crazy activity, all our work and joy, it all starts with a vine – something my parents fell in love with (which ended in 15 acres of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) and, many years later, I would too. So much goes into a bottle of wine other than the fruit, or even soil, sun and water. It’s HOW you water and when, how closely you know the vines and can come to their aide when they need it, how you prune them back in the winter (which determines the crop for the next several years), and how fast you spring out of bed when frost threatens at 3 a.m. It’s when you pick the grapes and how many crews you’re able to get, how many apologies and encouragements you can hand out when things don’t go perfectly, and how many days in a row you can rise before dawn and do it all over again. This, for better or worse, is the beginning of a winery.