Every year, an amazing thing happens in wine country. Right before the leaves begin to turn – and just as the weather shifts from the heat of summer to the crisp chill of fall – the valley floor changes shape. Seemingly overnight, the vines get heavy. The fruit turns plump and luscious, straining against the trellis systems that hold them tight.
For the eager tourist, this is simply another of nature’s wonders. It is beautiful, awe inspiring and makes for some great photos. But to those who work the valley floor, this transformation elicits one word: harvest.
In industry speak, this translates to early mornings, late nights, backbreaking work, tireless labor, painstaking perfection, a race against time and the elements, and – if you are lucky – a few solid harvest parties.
As luxury European sedans flood winery parking lots, tasting rooms jump with the increased numbers and never-ending string of parties. On the surface, everything is a celebration, a call to festivity and opulence. Yet in the early hours of the morning, as the pedestrian folk sleep off the previous night’s revelry, diligent skilled laborers take to the vines, working row-by-row to efficiently carve out the fruit.
Knowing when to pick is a finely tuned craft. Part science, part intuition, it requires epic patience and clarity. Vineyard managers and winemakers painstakingly walk the vineyard rows, sampling grapes and knowingly assessing sugar levels. As they deftly maneuver through the thick leaves and plump fruit, they make quick calculations in their heads. How many rows remain unpicked? How many crews are needed? What are the anticipated temperature shifts? Each team has a unique process, but the end goal is the same: picking the perfect grape, at the perfect time, with the perfect levels of sugar, tannin, and acid.
What does this all mean? It means that tactics and methodologies change based upon the style of wine being made; it means that there is a very short window in which all of this can be completed; it means that all extracurricular activities and engagements must be surrendered during harvest – a missed day could make all the difference; it means that vineyard managers and winemakers are militant about weather changes; and it means that too much rain, heat, frost, or hail can destroy a harvest.
In the Northern Hemisphere, harvest typically happens between August and October. The first grapes picked are those used for sparkling wines: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As opposed to making “still” wine, sparkling wines require lower sugar levels and higher acidity. Picking these clusters earlier allows for this. In the Napa Valley, the Carneros AVA is the place to be for sparkling wines; cooler temperatures foster the Burgundy style grapes (see previous post regarding the 16 AVAs of Napa Valley here; the accompanying video can be found here). As such, come mid-to-late August, large flatbed trucks start rumbling through the country lanes, carrying bins and laborers, ready to tackle the expertly grafted vineyard rows.
In a festive twist, the first wine house to start picking typically has a little ceremony where a bottle of sparkling wine is sabered and then poured over the first lug of grapes, thus blessing the start of harvest. In 2012, Mumm Napa Valley took the reins by sabering a bottle of 2003 DVX Brut, signaling the start date as August 10.
Once the grapes used for sparkling wines start to be picked, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the valley follows suit. Next up are the white varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay (for still wine), Riesling, Pinot Gris, and more. These go quickly. And then, in a nearly seamless transition, the red varietals prepare to take center stage. These typically take longer to reach full maturation, so a bit more time is necessary. It is here that you get your Pinot Noir (again, for still wine), Merlot, Malbec, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, and others. Finally, as though completing a crescendo finish, Cabernet Sauvignon (the unofficial “king” of the valley) is the last to take the honors. As some would say, the best is saved for last.
For many winemakers, how the grapes are picked is just as important as when. In some wine regions of the world (specifically the flatter, larger vineyards…think South Australia, the Central Valley of California), mechanical picking has become du jour. Big machines lurch down vineyard rows, leaving stripped vines in their wake. For the sake of time, cost, and efficiency, these machines are widely celebrated. But for many others, hand picking is still preferred. It is an art; a finely-tuned skill. You just don’t walk off the street and start cutting grapes. You have to earn this badge of honor.
As one local proprietor recently said, “You don’t just trust anyone with your vines. They have to earn this trust. Working directly with the vines is probably the most intimate thing you can do. I’d rather pay hand-over-fist to get the best laborers in my fields than to cut corners.”
Hand picking benefits from precise selection and discernment (i.e. only picking the healthy bunches), as well as gentler handling, thus protecting the juice content by not damaging the skins. In the Napa Valley, all of the picking is done by hand, a fact recently touted by one vineyard manager who mournfully sees the ever-increasing benefits of mechanical harvesting as soon eclipsing the use of hand laborers.
As harvest gets into full swing, canvassing the valley becomes a lesson in agriculture. Early morning jaunts are peppered with glimpses of stooped-back crews, shuffling through the morning mist as they carefully balance overflowing bins on top of their heads. Tractors pull weighted down trailers that are quickly filled to capacity. In-ground scales weigh and record the loot, calculating per acre tonnage. It’s a finely-tune practice, largely the same since the first grapes were first harvested centuries ago.
Harvest at Chateau Montelena, October 2012
During this year’s harvest, we were invited to join the crews at Chateau Montelena on a chilly Sunday morning in October. We arrived in the late 5 o’clock hour, confident that we would be the early birds in the fields. However, our triumph was short-lived, as we learned that the first pick of the day had commenced at 4:00a.m. By industry standards, we had slept in and were slacking. Slackers before 6:00a.m.; who knew?! Jumping out of our vehicle, we quickly heard the most surreal sound: cheerful songs belted out by the crews. Seriously? Wasn’t it far too early to be so chipper and in tune? But sure enough, the crews were calling and responding as they cut back and forth down the rows. Physical labor had never sounded so fun.
Joining the crews, we were immediately greeted by Mickey, resident taste tester and general “know-how” of the vineyards. Canine to Dave Vella, Montelena’s vineyard manager for the past 28 years, Mickey conjures the perfect image of wine country living. A healthy golden lab, friendly beyond belief, and resolutely loyal to her papa; we fell in love at first sight. Dave likes to joke that he knows when to pick based upon Mickey’s suggestion; if she likes a grape, he’s sure that it’s ready for harvest. High standards for a high-performing dog.
Having lived and worked amidst these estate vineyards for nearly three decades, Dave knows the process well. During harvest, he and Bo Barrett (Montelena’s “wine master”) daily walk the vines during harvest, skillfully assessing the vines’ readiness. Having met during their undergraduate days at Fresno State University, their communication and interaction goes beyond collegial respect. Friendly banter interrupts their conversations, as do nonverbal cues, only recognized by the two of them. To a bystander, it’s almost impossible to keep up. One minute they’re inspecting the wine barrels and then suddenly – sans words – they’re off, racing back to the vineyards to check on something. In a sense, theirs is a marriage of sorts, born of many back-to-back harvests and countless hours spent working side-by-side.
Unlike many of the other, larger wine house conglomerates, harvest at Montelena hasn’t changed much over the years. Dave still wakes to an alarm that alerts him to the slightest change in temperature; Bo still paces through the vineyards and wine cellar, carefully observing every stage of the process. Obtrusive fowl are still dealt with the old-fashioned way (think Mickey in her best element as retriever!). Vineyard crews are part of the extended family (about half of them stay on year-round) and the wine game still retains that special element of cowboy flair (the same flair that got Montelena recognized 36 years ago at the 1976 Judgment of Paris). Located in the far reaches of the Calistoga AVA, it takes a concerted effort for tourists to make their way to the tasting room. But for the Montelena faithful, this is just the way they like it. Quiet. Serene. Untouched.
The land that Montelena currently occupies was first purchased and planted in 1882 by Gold Rush entrepreneur Alfred Loving Tubbs (Tubbs’ legacy lives on, as the lane connecting Highway 29 to the Silverado trail still bears his name). Located at the base of Saint Helena Mountain, save for a multi-year hiatus during Prohibition, the vineyard produced wine under the guardianship of the Tubbs family until 1958, when it was sold to Yort Wing Frank, a Chinese engineer. During the Tubbs’ family proprietorship, a beautiful stone chateau was built. Eager to not let his homage to his heritage be outdone, Frank excavated a lake and erected an Asian garden style over it. By the early 1960’s, the property sat at a unique crossroad: one part European chateau, one part Chinese garden. In 1968, ownership changed once again, ushering in the era of Jim Barrett (Bo’s father) who replanted the vineyards, thus producing estate wines again by 1972.
Fictionalized in the 2008 film Bottle Shock, Montelena has occupied legendary status in the valley since those renegade days. Reverence is paid to the early dogged exploits set forth by these pioneers. No one can deny that it was their relentless pursuit that helped propel the Napa Valley to the current status that it enjoys today.
Given this rich history, it goes without saying that we were honored to join Montelena’s crews. As we canvassed the estate with Dave and Mickey, we discussed the flavors and characteristics that indicate a vine’s readiness. What followed was a crash-course in viticulture and winemaking. Seriously, with his experience, humor, candor, and forthright techniques, Dave should teach a class. By the time we left, we were giddy with our newfound knowledge. While still neophytes in the grand scheme of things, our heightened wine production know-how had increased ten-fold, thanks to Dave’s tutelage.
More than anything, simply being a part of this time-honored tradition was enough to make us feel like kids invading a candy store. Grapes, grapes, everywhere! But beyond the obvious, this experience unveiled some hidden truths of the industry. It further reiterated that the true backbone of the wine industry rests upon the nameless and faceless laborers of the valley. The tireless crews who gamely pick at a rapid-fire rate, yet are zealots about protecting the integrity of the fruit. It goes without saying that – collectively – harvest is the most important time in the industry.
As the season prepares to change yet again, one look around the valley shows that the vines are nearly empty of their fruit. With each night ushering in colder temperatures, the vines systematically go dormant, preparing for the winter ahead. But for these last few days of harvest, we enjoy the slight chill in the air and marvel at the memory of having been a part of such a time-honored tradition.