Log In / Join Now

Reminiscing on a Day Immersed in the Pinot Noir Harvest

Thirty-four years ago, I worked one day of the Carneros Pinot Noir harvest
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 8, 2013 3:00pm ET

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.

Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  October 11, 2013 6:19pm ET
Your harvesting story reminds me of that old wine country saying "It takes a heap of beer to make good wine."

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Joseph S Barrera
Cazadero, CA —  October 16, 2013 4:55pm ET

When I was a kid in the 50's and in So Cal I picked grapes for 9 cents a lug! I knew then what I was not going to do for a living.

Dr. Joe Barrera
Quinn Bottorff
Edmonton, AB —  October 22, 2013 10:45pm ET
I volunteered for the harvest at a 30k case Pinot and Chardonnay focused winery in Niagara, ON, CAN, in 2006 and those 30 days taught me so much about how to run and how not to run a winery. If it was not raining we started at 6 AM and finished after 9 PM and the work was backbreaking-in one day I moved 30,000 lbs of grapes-also, the owner did not even want to give use CAN Thanksgiving day off as it was a non-rain day. This experience taught me so much about how to run, and not run, a winery. Maybe someday my dream of attending a 1 yr enology and viticulture program will come true so I can start my own line of wines-1 yr should be enough after 7 yrs for my BSc and MSc in Agrology.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.