Wine Ink: Harvest season
In the wine world of the northern hemisphere these are the best of times and the hardest of times. After the time to sow, it is now the time to reap, as the 2019 harvest season begins.
In the Napa Valley the harvest commenced in the second week of August as chardonnay and pinot noir grapes — used in the production of sparkling wines — came off the vines in Yountville, California’s Rodgers Vineyard on Aug. 13. The cooler Carneros AVA, which sits just north of the cooling influences of San Pablo Bay, and which crosses both Napa and Sonoma counties, often sees the first action as sparkling wine houses like Mumm Napa Valley, Schramsburg Vineyards, Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros begin to move fruit from the fields to the crush pads. Now, and over the next couple of weeks, those grapes will be followed by the picking of other white varietals — first sauvignon blanc, and then chardonnay — for the production of still wines.
Early September will see the selection of the first thinner-skinned red grapes like pinot noir, merlot, zinfandel and cabernet franc picked as the heartier cabernet sauvignon hangs a little longer, waiting for just the right moment for the clusters to be plucked. Depending upon the location and conditions, the harvest can go on until the final days of October, and in some years — especially for late harvest wines — even into the first week of November.
For winemakers, this time of year is filled with stress, as they must mark just the right moment to call the pick and send the teams of workers into the fields. This is the most important decision that is made all year and much of that judgment is based on the exact sugar content of the grapes as they ripen on the vines. Depending upon the styles of wines that they plan making, picking when the grapes show the right level of brix is crucial (brix is a winemaking term that denotes the level of sugars). The amount of sugar in the grape is what will determine the alcohol levels in the wine as it ferments.
While virtually all winemakers assess sugar levels in the vineyards using a device called a refractometer, which gives a very clear measurement of the brix, they also will still taste the juice themselves before making the final call to pick. This human element, interacting with nature, is part of what makes the decision so organic.
Once the pick is called, the work begins and almost all of Napa and Sonoma’s harvesting is done by hand. Working in teams, pickers move with alacrity up and down the rows of the vines, cutting the clusters from the canes with sharply curved knives in rapid-fire motion. Once cut, they drop cleanly into plastic bins at their feet. The men, paired in groups of two, work on alternate rows as tractors move down the middle between them awaiting the grapes. Each bin is filled with 35-50 pounds of grape clusters, and then lifted high on the men’s shoulders so they can drop them into the trailer behind the tractor. As the first group makes their deposit, a second group of two men scurries ahead and begins to cut more clusters.
This week, with a sense of irony, as we approach the Labor Day weekend, harvest workers are rising in the dark and trudging into the vineyards, clipping shears in hand, to cut the grapes from the vines. This is a perhaps the most intensive and critical part of the wine making process. The work is back-breaking and hard and requires skills that most who consume the final product, the wines of the world, don’t generally stop to consider.
It is not just in the Napa Valley where this happens. At this exact moment there are workers toiling in France, Italy, Germany and China and anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere where fine wine is made. These workers are frequently people of color. They are immigrants who come for the work and to make some money. Some find full-time employment in the wine industry, but those are the lucky ones. For most it is simply labor for hire.
As the harvest coincides with Labor Day I want to once again invoke, as I do in this space each year, a homage to those who are doing the heavy lifting, via the lyrics of the Rolling Stones “Salt of the Earth” (off their “Beggar’s Banquet” LP from 1968):
Let’s drink to the hard working people
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his backbreaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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