It’s happening right now – the harvest of the 2016 vintage in California. And since this is Labor Day weekend I thought it a good time to pay homage to the people who work the vineyards. Picking grapes is not easy work and from now into October throughout the wine country there will be men and women working long hours to start the grapes on their journey to us the liquid delight known as wine.
Some of the picking is done at night when the weather is cool and the grapes are too. It helps transporting them without the need to cool them down and to get them right into fermentation. The cool weather certainly is beneficial for the folks in the fields too. I had the opportunity to pick some grapes once during harvest and know first hand that this work is much easier without the hot sun beating down.
The workers are amazing to watch as they clear rows of vines. Using a flat, curved bladed knife or some snips in one hand and cradling the grape bunch in the other they use one quick cut at the stem and gently lower the fruit into a bin. As each bin is filled they are brought to a larger one and the worker is typically given a token which will later be redeemed for the day’s pay based on how much they have picked. Not an easy way to earn a living.
Note: Some producers and those in areas with labor challenges do machine harvesting but I prefer the human touch and think it’s better for the grapes and the wine that gets produced. It’s cheaper to use machines and we will likely see more and more mechanized harvesting, but I hope not too soon!
This is the most active time in the wineries too and it’s a terrific time to pay a visit to see all the action. The harvest starts with white varietals like sauvignon blanc, semillon and then a little later, chardonnay. Red varietals typically start with pinot noir and then progress to the longer hang time, slower ripening cabernet sauvignon.
Large bins of just picked grapes are trucked into the winery and the first stop is usually the sorting table where winery workers literally pull out bad bunches, twigs, leaves and wastes. How much attention is given to sorting is one of those things that impacts the ultimate price of the wine – minimal sorting means lower labor costs and faster processing while greater attention is just the opposite. Without getting into all the detail the next phases are crushing/de-stemming (although some wineries go for what is called whole cluster pressing for white grapes and skip this step) which opens the berries and lets some of the first grape juice out. This is called free run juice and is sweeter and generally regarded as the highest quality juice. I can attest to just how tasty this fresh grape juice is! Then for white wines the grapes are pressed to push all the juice out, skins are discarded and it is then moved to the fermentation tanks where the chemical transformation takes place to turn the juice into wine. For red wines the pressing doesn’t happen until after fermentation since the color comes from the contact with the grape skins.
There are obviously lots of nuances and processes that go into making wine but I try to remember that very first step – the person working the vineyard under floodlights or in the cool fog of early morning, moving down row after row after row of vines, cutting then gently lowering each bunch into a waiting bin. Each wine I sip started the journey with the touch of human hands and as I pop the cork I like to think that it is a thank you for the gift of their labor and that of all the people who planted, nurtured, sorted, monitored, moved barrels, cleaned tanks, blended, bottled and packaged that wine on its way to me.
So this weekend let’s sip to them.