Clippers in one hand, I duck under the vines, snipping bunches of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Sweat rolls down my neck. It’s not easy to find these grapes. Gnarly branches and rough leaves scratch my bare arms. By the time October rolls around in Sonoma County, the leaves have overcrowded the vine, adopting shades of burgundy and gold, masking the goods that lie beneath. Fumbling for a position from which to snip the grapes is an acrobatic act. My body is twisted like a pretzel. This is why some wineries use machines to harvest the grapes.
In this case, I am the machine. Cradling these deep-red beauties in my hands, I dutifully shuttle them to a tractor bed a few feet away. A half hour earlier I took mental notes as I watched workers sprint to the tractor with blue plastic bins filled with grapes perched on top of their heads. One man stood next to the grape pile, logging each worker’s delivery on a wooden board.
As my brow furrows and I ponder how to move faster, I hear screams, cheers, and chants from workers up the hill. This is team building, a rah-rah approach to the 2014 harvest in Sonoma County.
If this were a paying job I’d be earning well below minimum wage, something that 38-year-old Bret Munselle, who manages the Alexander Valley vineyard as part of his family’s fifth-generation company (Munselle Vineyards), doesn’t hesitate to share with a chuckle. He knows this vineyard—and all of Sonoma County’s terroir, including the 250 acres his family manages throughout—like the back of his hand. “Our family has farmed this county for 130 or 140 years,” he says, stretching his hands out to the golden-dappled rows of vines, bright under the late-morning sun. “We’ve farmed pretty much everything.” His father tended the farm, and his grandfather and great-grandfather before that. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are sold to local wineries that include Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Stryker Sonoma Winery, and Rodney Strong Vineyards.
Later, as we taste the most recent vintage of Munselle Vineyards’ very small-production wines, only 150 cases each, he remarks that he’s the guy wineries call when they want to plant new blocks. Or new varietals. Or when Mother Nature is messing with their plans. It’s because Munselle’s heritage encompasses nearly a century and a half of knowledge. It’s not just grapes, either. His grandfather farmed prunes, tomatoes, and dairy to help with World War II efforts.
The first Munselle Vineyards vintage was in 2006, and there are only four wines from the vineyard, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
To be in wine country during the harvest, which lasts from late summer to mid-October in the Northern Hemisphere, is practically a religious experience. Mother Nature is in charge of when the grapes will be picked. This means vineyard workers must be ready to pounce when the time is right.
That’s an idea that California wineries capitalize on by using migrant, low-paid labor. Yet there are examples where this dirty work is just as important as what happens while making wine in the cellar. Witnessing the camaraderie Munselle showed to the workers, speaking practically fluent Spanish, is proof. Boisterous banter cuts through the fields. About a fourth of the workers are women.
It’s an extended family of sorts. This year marked the first time one long-time worker had not come for the harvest since the 1970s, which was back when his parents were dating, Munselle notes. Six workers have completed the last 20 harvests for his family.
But, Munselle didn’t immediately jump into the family business; he spent four years working for a bank before returning to his roots. Today he raises three girls with his wife, and spotting him in a pickup with his border collie in back is a familiar sight around these parts.
The entire region seems rich in family histories. Earlier that morning before entering the vines, I dropped by Garden Creek Ranch Vineyards & Winery, a start-up winery founded by the son and daughter of two other grape-growing families in Sonoma. Both are second-generation and have 50 years of grape-growing history in their blood. Like any new generation within a family business, there is a desire to reinvent the wheel. That’s what Karin Warnelius-Miller and Justin Miller are doing. They are on the fifth vintage of their two wines: Tesserae and Chardonnay, crafted from the Chardonnay and Bordeaux-blend grapes they grow. Warnelius-Miller’s decade-old project is verjus and saba (two grape-based juices for cooking), plus olive oil, bottled and sold under the Terra Sonoma label at Williams-Sonoma. It’s also used at Gramercy Tavern in New York City, and in restaurants throughout California, Colorado, and Washington.
Dressed in a plaid dress-shirt, jeans, and a black baseball cap, Justin greets me in the gravel driveway. A rooster crows in the distance. “Being in the element, being in the culture, it’s emotional,” says Miller, who just got back from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, where he journeyed to experience grape-growing in a different climate. Minutes later, he’s cradling bunches of Petit Verdot in his hands like infants. “This, to me, is a glorious moment,” he says. “Talk about picture-perfect! You should see these hanging on the vine!”
Six or seven Latino workers who appear to be in their 30s and 40s man a grape-sorting machine, studying each grape intensely, and using their hands to move it along. All but one are brothers and have worked here since the age of 16. Their father worked on the Millers’ ranches since 1969.
When I taste the 2007 Tesserae (its name means a broken piece of mosaic) in a dark barrel room, under the glow of a cluster of tealight candles, it speaks to me. This is a wine with soft, supple tannins, with a round, elegant mouthfeel, and layers of black cherries. It’s made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Malbec grapes, and uses 140 strains of natural yeast. Only 588 cases were made, and it was only released in November of 2012.
“We believe in patience. And we believe in the handicraft. The meaning starts in the field. Essentially, wine is a reflection of individuality,” says Warnelius-Miller. Then she acknowledges, “It’s enticing to go mechanical—and it’s a quarter of the cost.” But at the end of the day, she says, “I grew up on tractors and trucks.”
A year ago I spent a few nights in a winery’s cottage in the Dry Creek Valley American Viticulture Area of Sonoma. One night the winery owner gave a warning: “If you wake up and think you see aliens, it might be Gallo out picking.” He was referring to the space-age-like machinery many large wineries have been forced to adopt.
Or, you could use clippers, as I did.