In the early morning light, a lone red-tailed hawk sails low over row upon green row of grapevines. Cool, gray fog crests the hill and begins to flow down the slope, slowly enveloping the vines.
I'm south of town, driving east on remote Ramal Road, with not a structure in sight, nothing but vines groaning with blue-black grapes. It's time for my annual reality check: getting in touch with the Northern California wine grape harvest by helping to pick a vineyard of Chardonnay.
Fog is one of the things that makes the Carneros wine-growing district perfect for the Burgundian grape varieties Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In late summer, the fog remains until 10 most mornings, slowing the maturation of the grapes. This keeps acids high, which is beneficial for fine wine, and lengthens the growing season, producing vine-ripe fruit. Foggy mornings also allow the grapes to be picked cool, which winemakers prefer.
I'm joining eight others eager to see the harvest up close at a seminar staged by a group of Carneros winemakers. Before our group begins harvesting, coordinators give us the essential information: how to use the serpette , the curved knife used for cutting loose the bunches, and where the bandages are. ("Cuts are inevitable," says grower Andy Beckstoffer, who then accidentally cuts his own finger.)
We are also told which fruit to pick. Only ripe fruit; none that is moldy; none that is raisined; none that is sunburned.
As we trudge out into the morning mist, we stumble on cracks in the Diablo Series soil, which, if not tilled, crumbles and looks as if a mini-earthquake has struck. It makes for uneven footing, for risking a turned ankle.
Most vines I attack with my serpette have such long canes that I have to duck down below them, where the grapes hide and little spiders scurry away. I reach up to cut the little clusters free. My hamstring and back muscles soon ache.
One vine, I'm glad to see, doesn't have so much foliage. "This one is easy," I say.
"That vine has leaf-roll virus," says Charles Thomas, one of our aides and winemaker for the Robert Mondavi Winery. Many of the leaves have curled up and the grape clusters look sick. Soon the vine will have to be replaced.
After an hour, I have filled two 30-pound lug boxes with clusters--and rediscovered some muscle groups dormant since basic training.
"Hard work, isn't it?," asks Thomas, who then tells me a trained fieldworker would have gotten a quarter-ton of grapes in the same time. The average harvester gets between $75 and $100 per ton of grapes picked, Thomas says, and a good picker can harvest two tons in a day.
Before we began picking, the vineyard was surveyed by samplers, checking to see whether the grape sugars were high enough and the flavors strong enough to harvest. The samplers arrive at selected vineyard sites in a "selectedly random" fashion. Each winery has its own system, but the samples must ultimately be representative of the entire vineyard.
The berries go into plastic bags and are smashed up until the juice is mixed. Then a couple of drops of the juice are placed into the lens of a refractometer, which gives a reading of the sugar level. Good winemakers also walk through vineyards and taste the fruit to see whether there is flavor worth fermenting into wine.
The actual picking is supervised by vineyard managers such as Ann Kraemer, who oversees Domaine Chandon's 700 acres of Carneros vineyards and their work force of 45 men. She is the one who deals with the logistic jigsaw puzzle of scheduling multiple pieces of field equipment and the people to operate them.
A glitch in one step of this operation can destroy a load of grapes costing thousands of dollars--to say nothing of lost work hours. For example: Pickers need bins for the harvested grapes. A bin shortage cuts productivity.
Moreover, at each picking site there must be at least one truck to take the grapes to the crush pad. On one recent Saturday morning, Kraemer got a call on her mobile radio that a vineyard truck had a flat tire. A load of grapes headed for a winery 30 miles away was in jeopardy.
Not only was that delivery in jeopardy. So was a later one, due for a 1 p.m. pickup by the same truck. To make matters worse, a truck scheduled to arrive at another picking site at 1 p.m. arrived by mistake at 8:30 a.m., when there was nothing to load. In addition, a tractor broke down. . . .
Every year, Murphy's Law rears its head when a piece of equipment that had been checked out the day before stops working. Neighbors often bail out the disaster-struck, but, as Kraemer says, "It can be crazy."
Two days after her mechanical hassles, Kraemer was dealing with a different kind of problem: A handful of pickers weren't clean-picking the vines, so sound fruit was being left in the vineyard.
To reduce such difficulties, some wineries harvest by machine. This requires specialized vine trellising and an expensive harvesting machine with a series of beaters that pound at each vine, jarring and shaking the berries free from their stems. The berries fall onto a conveyor belt and are carried to a bin.
Those who machine-harvest swear by it because it can be used before sun-up and you don't have to make it lunch. Those who hand-pick contend that, unlike machines, their crews are trained to avoid bad clusters.
Regardless of how the grapes are picked, harvest time is hectic for everyone. It's called "the crush" because of how the grapes are processed, but winemakers also know the phrase means the amount of work that must be done in a day.
These weeks in the vineyard, from September through the end of October, are intense. Harvesting decisions often are left until the last second and can turn on whether a rain cloud suddenly moves in one direction or another.
Winemakers all look haggard at this season--they're working seven days a week and are not getting much sleep. Meals are almost always eaten on the run, and it's not unusual for winemakers to lose 10 or 15 pounds during harvest. Larry Brooks of Acacia Winery, like many others at this time of year who simply haven't time to shave, sports what is commonly called the "crush beard."
The period of calm that follows the harvest is deceptive. The trails may no longer be choked with dust from rumbling grape trucks, but winemakers must stay close to the vats and barrels to make sure fermentations don't go awry and produce vintage-dated vinegar.
Prematurely gray Steve MacRostie is one of those who will take no vacations until long after the juice is fully fermented. The winemaker for his own MacRostie brand as well as Roche Vineyards, MacRostie is now shepherding the grapes we picked, now all fermenting juice.
How will this wine turn out? Well, that depends on a lot of wine making decisions--which yeast to use, whether to do an optional malolactic fermentation, the type of barrels to age the wine in, how long it should age. . . .
By this time, the grapes are almost forgotten. The winemaker, not the grape grower, now takes center stage. And another form of art comes into play.
Wine of the Week
1991 Rabbit Ridge Vineyards "Allure" ($7)-- Blends of the French grape varieties that go into Cotes du Rhone have become popular among California winemakers, and one reason is that these wines can be flavorful and drinkable at an age when a Cabernet Sauvignon is still closed and tannic. A recent recommendation of the 1992 Quivira Dry Creek Cuvee ($12) prompted more calls than I expected, so I have sought a less expensive alternative. This is it.
Winemaker Erich Russell, whose Rabbit Ridge Vineyards has doubled total production to 30,000 cases in the last four years, says of Allure: "It's my pasta wine, that's why I first made it. I eat so much pasta I needed a wine to go with it." Allure is a nearly equal blend of Syrah and Grenache, with smaller amounts of Mourvedre and Cinsault for complexity. The wine has loads of fruit, a trace of spice, not much tannin and excellent balance. It was aged in a combination of American and French oak barrels and has a smooth, polished texture. The wine may be seen in some places for $6 or less. A great value.