Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Grapes of Mirth- Winemaking Part 1

At five A.M., I pulled myself out of bed, bleary eyed and groggy in pursuit of grapes. My friend would make wine today and we needed to pick before the sun came up. I prepared to head to Napa, bundling up in layers and searching for my headlamp and trail mix. My coffee was strong and gone too soon, like most things in this life. I crawled into the truck and meandered over the mountain and through the valley to the vineyards patiently waiting to be picked.

The grapes were far more patient than I was upon arrival. We were at least a half hour early. It was dark and cold, I was tired and cranky. Two very surprising things I learned from harvesting- the first being that the winemaking philosophy is very much like catering’s “Hurry up and wait.” You can be there feeling like you’re waiting forever and anxious to get going, but you had better be ready because once things start, it’s all a flash.

The other surprise was that picking grapes is dangerous. When the pickers showed up wearing thick gloves and wielding curved knives, we were told to stand back, and not to go into the vineyards without one of the winemakers monitoring the pick for quality control.

By the way, our party included two guys who work at wineries; Patrick at a small operation with lots of exposure to the pick and the crush, Steve at a large distributer; his girlfriend, Nik, who advises winemakers; their friend, Matt, who was responsible for the whole operation and needed the startup help for making his first large-scale batch of wine; and his wife, Natalie, who like me, was simply there to learn and support.

Natalie and I chatted excitedly, snapping photos and trying to stay out of the way. I understood why they wanted us to stand back- we were a liability. The pickers were like ninjas, sweeping through the rows of vineyards with lightning speed and sharpening their knives on their belts when they got to the end. The grapes piled up before our eyes, and over four tons were picked in less than two hours.

We were all in a hurry for different reasons. The pickers get paid for yield, not time; the guys wanted to get the grapes to the warehouse to be pressed, as it’s first come, first served; and the ladies wanted coffee and warmth as the sun began to come up.

I was disappointed to not be able to help with the pick, but Natalie and I had no problem standing back and eating them, seeds and all. If I only ate what I picked, does that make me a picky eater?

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