Months before pumpkins are picked from their vines and the alluring smell of cinnamon brooms stops you in your window shopping tracks, a different harvest takes place in Northern California: the Grape Harvest. There are no hayrides or haunted houses, no bowls of candy to scavenge from, and no cornucopias bursting with fruit. Instead, there are men, women and children donning yeoman costumes with wide-brimmed hats, dusty gloves and well-worn boots and armed with pruning shears.
Grape harvest is concurrently exciting, stressful, frustrating and rewarding. This is the moment the growers have been waiting for all year and even the slightest miscalculation can cause great distress. If it rains the day of harvest, the grapes will retain too much water and are diluted. If the sun shines brightly for the days before you decide to pick, then the brix level, or measured sugar content of the grape, may spike resulting in an undesired ripeness.
There are men, women and children donning yeoman costumes with wide-brimmed hats, dusty gloves and well-worn boots and armed with pruning shears
Mick Unti of Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley shared a story about missed opportunities. He had been testing the ripeness of his Fiano, a white grape indigenous to Italy, and was measuring it every hour on the hour to determine optimal picking time. This particular harvest year, the ideal ripeness level fell on a Sunday, but his workers were all in church or spending time with family. He missed the optimal window and was forced to harvest at a later time. That vintage wasn’t a complete disaster, but certainly not the final product that Unti Vineyards was hoping for. Mother Nature is fickle and growers must take advantage of these small windows of opportunity.
Most harvests take place at night or in the very early morning. Temperatures are much more comfortable at night for the field workers and the bees and snakes are all away and slumbering. Also, the grapes are firmer since they retain more sugar at night before kickstarting the process of photosynthesis by diverting energy to their leaves once the sun rises. As you can imagine this allows little time for sleep since as soon as the grapes make it to the winery, they need to be weighed, sorted, pressed and prepared for their transformation into wine.
Mother Nature is fickle and growers must take advantage of these small windows of opportunity
There many ways to participate with harvest if you’re interested. Picking is the main one, but some wineries may require you to roll up your pant legs, kick off your shoes and reenact the classic Lucille Ball scene of stomping grapes with your bare feet. If you’re planning on tasting at the winery during the months of September and October, you may be able to opt for a more immersive experience by asking to participate in harvest. I’m certain you’ll get to sample some of the product after a hard day’s (or night’s) work.
Note: Harvest season in NorCal lasts from mid-August through October.