Harvest 2010 is here

Today at 9:36 a.m. my colleague Diego, using a forklift, tipped a bin loaded with Sauvignon Blanc grapes into one of the presses at Starmont and harvest had commenced.

It’s been a bit of a slow burning fire this year. A cooler than normal summer has pushed us a few weeks behind a “normal” harvest schedule. A lack of a good long heat spell has also meant there doesn’t seem like there will be an onrush of early ripening fruit. Instead, it seems like a measured march into what could be very busy October and November. (There’s even some talk that we won’t get Thanksgiving off.)

I’ll be working in the lab and the cellar this harvest and I’m looking forward to not only seeing the production side again, but to see more of the analytical processes involved with harvest.

The start of harvest is always a fun, although bit tense time. While we’re all looking forward to the overtime and extra money the grueling hours and stress are not fun. Simple traditions, however, help keep you excited. This morning, us cellar guys gathered around with the winemakers, vineyard managers, lab staff and folks from the administrative office to toast another vintage with a glass of sparkling wine. It’s a nice tradition, practiced at many wineries, although some break out champagne to toast the last load of grapes for that harvest.

This harvest could well go deep into late November and perhaps even December depending on weather.

In the weeks leading up to today, many of my coworkers in the cellar would joke around with each other asking if “you’re ready for harvest?”

As our cellarmaster reminded us this morning: “It doesn’t matter if you’re ready or not. Harvest is here.”

It’s a 24-hour industry

As I drive through the vineyards to the winery in the morning, the sky is painted in light shades of blue and orange as the sun begins its ascent.

The edges of my high beams catch groups of vineyard workers emerging from the rows of vines after a night’s work. Their legs are caked in mud and with a weary gait they trudge toward their cars parked on the side of the road. My day begins as their day ends.

After swiping my time card at 6:30 a.m., I walk into the cellar and begin the morning round of pumpovers. During fermentation, red wine needs to be mixed around and “pushed” a little. A pumpover is a process in which juice is pumped from the bottom of a fermentation tank to the top. The juice that is sent to the top of the tank trickles back down through the “cap” at the top of the tank. This cap consists of grapes, grape skins and a smaller amount of seeds and stems. Forcing the juice over the cap helps it ferment as well as draw color from the skins through what is known as “extraction.” The deep garnet and purple colors you love in red wine comes from the skins. Ensuring that all the juice has plenty of contact with the skin ensures good colors as well as good flavors.

Setting up a pumpover involves hauling a 20 to 30 pound sprinkler up a flight of stairs to the catwalk above the tanks. You then need to secure it to the tank hatch and make sure it’s centered above the cap. You then switch on an air pump that draws the juice up to the sprinkler. The sprinkler is like a whirly gig — two long arms centered on a revolving piece. As the wine is forced through the sprinkler it spins over the top of the cap sending a fountain of wine falling upon the cap and the rest of the tank. It’s almost a hypnotic sight, the wine cascading down along the sides of the tank and foaming on the top of the cap.

I usually wrap up the morning pumpovers around 1 p.m. and after a quick lunch it’s back to other cellar jobs. These can range from transferring wine from tanks to barrels, helping out at the crush pad or digging out a tank. By 5:30 p.m., it’s time to start the evening round of pumpovers to help the late shift. By 7 p.m. I’m usually out the door.

Back home, I step out onto my patio into the still night air. I can see Venus dancing with the moon as well as a host of other stars. I have a beer and a cigarette and listen to a pair of coyotes snarling and screaming as they fight in the distance. Their wild animal cries pierce the air in discord with the low humming, grinding sound of tractors starting up for another long night’s harvest.