Before I made wine, I picked grapes.
Yesterday I relived my first harvest as I watched a crew pick a Pinot Noir vineyard in Carneros.
The pickers start early, often in the middle of the night if not before dawn, and they work fast. It's hard work, but the pay is good. Sometimes the pickers get paid by the ton, sometimes by the hour, but it's always the same hectic pace. The crew I observed yesterday hails from Stockton, an hour-plus drive to and from Carneros. They swept through the rows, cutting clusters and filling lug boxes, which weigh about 40 pounds when full. The lug boxes are then dumped into a larger bin, and then the grapes are hauled off to the winery for crush.
The first time I picked grapes was in 1979, when I joined a team harvesting Pinot Noir at Winery Lake Vineyard, not far from where I watched yesterday morning's harvest.
The vineyard's owner, Rene di Rosa, was a charmingly eccentric sort. He had once been a newspaperman, and would stop by my office in downtown Napa periodically just to chat and grab a free newspaper. But in the 1960s he bought a large piece of land in Carneros and began planting a variety of grapes, mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Gewürztraminer. He also had an amazing art collection. His former home, art and property are now the di Rosa preserve, well worth a visit.
Anyway, one day during the '79 harvest he stopped by my office and suggested that if I really wanted to understand the wine business I should get out from behind my desk and get my hands dirty.
A few days later I met him and his picking crew as it prepared to harvest the Winery Lake Pinot. The crew worked at a dizzying pace, so fast that at times it seemed as if they were running, which in fact they practically were. I couldn't keep pace and slowly eased up, realizing I wasn't up to the physical demands. That night when I got home I remember my aching muscles, a long hot bath and the better part of a six-pack.
I was even sorer the next day, but wiser for the experience. Yesterday was a nice reminder.