Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the harvest of our Syrah from a couple of stellar vineyards: Three Creek Vineyard and McGinley Vineyard, both of the newly created Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara. Grapes are typically picked in the middle of the night nowadays. This keeps the grapes cold, locking in their flavors and staving off the possibility of fermentation starting too early. In our case, this meant that crews from our fastidious vineyard manager, Coastal Vineyard Care, were ready to roll at 3:00 a.m.
It’s a bit disorienting to be awake this early in the first place, but as I approached the vineyard, the eerie sight before me only exacerbated my already unbalanced state. Lights hovered above the moonless vineyard like an alien spaceship searching for signs of life. I hopped out of my car, cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight. I picked my way up the sloping vineyard aided by the light of my cell phone. The soil in this area is good and gravelly lending to ideal drainage for grape cultivation. And ‘gravel’ is really a misnomer; if you’re not careful, you’ll trip face-first over gourd size stones.
As I neared the crew, I was struck by the frivolity of the wonderful souls picking what will become the product for which I care so much. There was singing, and hollering, and a sort of verbal whistling. The energy is contagious. When I opened by saying that I ‘participated’ in the harvest, I really should have said I ‘observed’ the harvest. These folks are professionals, and there is no room for Sunday pickers.
They were clad in half the layers I was wearing, despite temperatures dipping into the high 30’s. The grape vines rustled and plunged as the pickers expertly extracted the purple gems from the comfort of their yearlong homes. They move in teams of three, the rear picker eventually moving forward to become the front picker, in a rhythmic cycle until they reach the end of the row. The ‘bucket person’ constantly removes full buckets and replaces them with empty ones when a picker shouts, “Cubo!” The ‘leaf person’ hovers over the pallets removing any leaves, branches, or other foreign material, as the tractor and its four great overhead lights slowly motors just ahead of the pickers.
I’m a big fan of technology; I’d feel naked without my iPhone, iPad, and sophisticated bottling line –and I was an early adopter of screw caps for all our wines. But being in the vineyard, shuffling through the dirt, seeing our grapes hand-picked in the dark and cold by a proud, symphonic team, made me realize how few industries such as winemaking still exist in modern America. We actually get to observe and participate in the entire lifecycle of our product, from earth to bottle. And it’s still an industry where hand-picking and hand-crafting have meaning. Did I have to arise at ‘oh-dark-hundred’ to hustle out to the frigid vineyard? No. Would the grapes have been successfully picked with or without me? Yes. But had I stayed nestled in my warm bed, I would have missed that communion with the soil and people that collectively allow me to do my work.
With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, I’m grateful for the wonderful people who, through their stewardship, are delivering beautiful fruit to our winery. I’m also grateful that I get to participate in such an ancient and timeless craft.