The Grapes of Craft

To be in wine country during the harvest, which runs from late summer to mid-October in the northern hemisphere, is practically a religious experience for a wine editor.
To be in wine country during the harvest, which runs from late summer to mid-October in the northern hemisphere, is practically a religious experience for a wine editor. Tony Walczak

While machinery has overtaken some vineyards, many vineyards continue to rely on the patience and perseverance of handpicked harvests.

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.


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