A Close-Up View of the Hard Work of the Difficult Harvest of ’88

Times Wine Writer

Harvest time is a phrase that conjures up pictures of men, women and children gaily prancing in the vineyards, sipping last year’s wine, nibbling on bread and cheese and lopping bunches off vines laden with this year’s bounty.

I can confirm that vision is myth. Harvesting grapes is hard work and ought to be left to professionals. I have a gash on my finger, a twinge in my back, a recollection of a brutal headache, a bee sting and a greater appreciation of the work involved in bringing in the crop.

Harvesting, viewed up close, looks a lot easier than it is. The professional picker knows how to wield the serpette--the small, sharp, curved knife--under a curtain of foliage and how to feel for the right spot to cut without ripping his own flesh. They work swiftly for the benefit of not only their wages (they are paid by the pound), but also for the benefit of the resulting wine.

Armed with serpette, sun visor, Band-Aids and three kids--but not enough cold sodas or common sense--I went into the fields to harvest some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes the first week of September. It proved to me once again that grape growing and picking isn’t as simple as it might seem, and that the weather conditions that lead up to harvest can affect the grape and wine quality drastically.


A Strange Harvest

The 1988 harvest of wine grapes in California is almost over now, and in years to come, it will be remembered as one of the strangest on record. Growers say the conditions that created the 1988 California crop were very curious.

It began with an unseasonal period of warmth in March and April that fooled the vines into thinking they should begin blooming. And they did, earlier than usual. This wouldn’t be bad news except for a cold snap in May followed by hail.

Greg Fowler, wine maker at Domaine Mumm in Rutherford in the Napa Valley, had hoped in his spring forecast to see a large crop. When the grapes were all in, Fowler said, volume was down about 10% off his original projection.


“One reason was the drought conditions we had,” he said. “But it started with bud break that came two weeks early because of the warm weather.

“The early cluster counts came in fairly high but then there was that cold spell--some people even had a little frost damage--and then during the ‘set,’ we had some hail that caused more problems.” The result was what growers call “shatter,” where berries in formation never form.

There followed more heat during the set of the fruit, so berry size and cluster size never increased.

Some growers in Napa and Sonoma report that the crop will be down 20% overall this year with the worst shortage in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, especially those in mountain vineyards. At Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Spring Mountain above St. Helena, clusters were tiny.


Stu Smith, co-owner of Smith-Madrone, said: “We’re growing a lot of leaves this year. When the cold spell wiped out the bloom, we never got much fruit. We’re harvesting a heck of a lot of stems that should have made for a good crop, but there are no berries on the stems.

“And that means that picking costs are going through the roof.”

Pickers typically are paid by the weight of the fruit they harvest, but this year, many growers paid pickers by the hour because of the reduced crop. Smith said many clusters are “coming in with 10 berries instead of 50. In Cabernet, we’re down 50% and that’s off a short crop last year.”

Even Pinot Noir was affected. One grower said his Pinot Noir clusters measured two inches on average.


The earlier-growing Chardonnay wasn’t hit as hard in the North Coast counties, growers said, but across the Napa and Sonoma regions, everyone said Merlot and Cabernet were hard hit.

Elsewhere in the state, crop levels were closer to normal, with a small increase in tonnage expected in the Central Coast counties, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

Good News

The good news is in flavors. Growers are very happy with the intensity of the fruit, and although this doesn’t make up for a reduced crop, it is the fourth great year in a row in terms of quality.


As for my harvest experience, it started at 7 a.m. with a drive over mist-covered Mark West Springs Road and down the Napa Valley to Doidge’s coffee shop for an early breakfast, intended to sustain the body for the next five hours of work. (The scones were great.)

An hour later, Marc, Adam, Joel and I met Tor Kenward, vice president for Beringer Vineyards, at Beringer’s Home Ranch Vineyard behind the famed Rhine House. It was nearly 9 a.m. and the thermometer already read well above 80 degrees.

We drove into the dusty vineyard with 30 lug boxes, certain we’d get enough Cabernet juice to fill two small barrels and give us a wine to watch from grape to bottle.

Things turned out less exciting than I imagined. I have harvested grapes before and I know it’s hard work, but 1988 turned out to be truly exasperating. Clusters were puny and on many vines nonexistent; in some vines, clusters were so small, you couldn’t get more than four or five berries with one swipe of the knife and had to go back under the canopy of leaves for more.


In years past, if I cut a tiny bunch of six grapes and missed the lug box, I ignored it. In 1988, I was on my knees scrambling after every berry.

At 9:30 a.m., one of our pickers, Joel, age 3, gave up the task, preferring instead to collect lava rocks. Total harvested: four bunches and two rocks.

At 9:45 a.m., Marc, 10, had filled two lug boxes, but Kenward checked and found a lot of the bunches underripe; sugar readings were low. Those bunches had to be dumped out of the bins.

Marc said, “This is not fun.”


Vines Suffered

It was now clear what the heat and hail and cold had done to the vines months earlier: shatter had diminished the fruit drastically.

The grapes we wanted, moreover, were not firm, but skins had begun to soften; we wanted grapes that were sweet with a slight acidic tang, with good fruity taste. That meant we had to chew a grape off virtually every bunch.

At that point, I recalled the expensive late-harvest Rieslings whose labels carry the phrase “individual bunch selected,” and I began to imagine that phrase popping up on this Cabernet.


At 10:15 a.m., I suffered my first finger cut.

At 10:30 a.m., the temperature was about 95 degrees, and Adam, who would be 7 in a week, said he was exhausted. But the bunches in his bin were perfect.

At 10:55 a.m., we took a short break for sodas. We had done only about eight bins and looked at the acre we had just covered and realized we had to scale a nearby foothill road and attack the terraced vines.

By 11:15 a.m., the boys were bushed. I drove them back to the winery for ice water and a rest on the lawn. Kenward and I finished up at 12:50 p.m. We had picked 19 lug boxes, some of them not filled. Instead of the 900 pounds of grapes we had anticipated picking, which would make 30 cases of wine, we wound up with half that amount.


The rest of the day was spent crushing and mashing the grapes into juice (feet work best), starting the fermentation and cleaning up.

A few days later came the good news. The quality of what we harvested was looking great. Fermentation concluded without a hitch and the wine was then transferred to one 30-gallon oak barrel. Eight gallons left over went into glass carboys.

The wine will remain in the barrel for two years. During that time, evaporation will reduce the amount started with and during other treatment, a bit more will be lost. Kenward estimated he’d be able to bottle about 12 cases of wine from our efforts in 1990.

Maybe by then, I’ll have recovered from the backache. But I’ll never lose my ever-growing respect for the people who do this for a living.


Wine of the Week: 1986 Mark West Pinot Noir Blanc ($5.75)--When you taste a Champagne that is made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes, you often see a hint of salmon color from the grape skins. And the aroma of the wine is often faintly like berries. This wine is essentially Champagne without the bubbles. It has an excellent fresh berrylike aroma and just enough sugar (1.1%) to offset high acidity. It is dry enough to serve with rich foods, such as the salmon its color resembles, and is a perfect way for newcomers to wine to see what the Pinot Noir grape does when it is halfway to Champagne.