Guest Post: Alex Evans Reports — Notes from the Vineyard: Harvest 2012
Since family commitments and my 9 to 5 hustle do not leave much time for extracurricular activities like working harvest, I must live through the experiences of others. This of course is a cop-out — truth is, spending several hours harvesting Chardonnay with Steve Matthiasson in one of his vineyards in Sonoma a couple years ago cured me of the romanticized notions of working the land that I once held.
Thankfully there are many who enjoy the labor of harvest to make the wines we all enjoy. Since I opted out of another harvest, I asked my friend Alex Evans (on Twitter: @GenWino) if she would chronicle her experiences of harvest 2012 at Virginia’s Pearmund Cellars…
I was warned I was going to be wet and to come prepared. No worries, I thought — been there, done wet. My harvest uniform consists mainly of: men’s cargo shorts (men have ACTUAL pockets to hold valves, tape, etc), t-shirts procured from various Salvation Army stores (preferably a dark color to hide wine/water, but ultimately just cheap), and boots.
Properly attired, I headed out to work. Only surprise? I was used to working in the hot Aussie sun. Get wet? Wait ten minutes, and you’ll be dry. My new winery was designed in a way to educate visitors on all aspects of the winemaking process, which as an educator, I support. But it also means that I spent the day in a dark, cool cellar (in full view of all guests) – getting sprayed/squirted/spilled on every part of my body and not drying out. I blasted hot air on my drive home, in an unsuccessful attempt to dry off/warm up.
Why was I getting so wet? Most people don’t realize how much of winemaking is spent cleaning. You spend 5 hours making a mess, than another 3 hours cleaning it up. You’ve heard the term “Cleanliness is close to Godliness?” In the wine world, that’s MORE than true. A clean work environment/equipment/everything around you means you keep nasty bacteria (the source of unfortunate aromas and more) at bay. So cleanliness results in better wine for you! But it also means… wet and cold.
That particular day, I was in charge of cleaning barrels. We were racking red wine from barrels to tanks for blending pre bottling, and that meant emptying and subsequently cleaning said barrels. Staying dry was a futile effort — at first the machine was so awkward that I sprayed myself with every attempt to switch barrels. Eventually I got the hang of it, but by the end of the day, my not-used-to-physical-labor arms were so exhausted that I was back to involuntary showers as I finagled the contraption from barrel to barrel.
So that was day one. If past experience proves true, this was only the beginning of what will be a rewarding, embarrassing, educational, and overall hilarious few experience.
It’s 7:00 am, and the sun has started to rise, but a mist still hovers in the vineyards. I’m wearing my cargo shorts, work boots, three shirts, and I’m still shivering a bit. Hot coffee and a blueberry bagel with cream cheese help, but, still too early for my night-owl self, we hit the rows of Chardonnay.
I’m technically on the winemaking team, but when you’ve got fruit to harvest? It’s all hands on deck. Plus, I’ve never spent significant time in the vineyard, so I was more than game. There were 8 of us, chatting in English, Spanish, and a lot of Spanglish, and we cleared the first few rows in a few hours. Most of the fruit was BEAUTIFUL- bunches you see in wine books as prime examples of typical Chardonnay. Other bunches had individual berries which fell victim to any number of potential vineyard problems/diseases/weather hazards. The remaining? Well, pesky raccoons clearly feasted a few times, as all that were left of a few rows were bunch skeletons.
After about 5 hours, we stopped for lunch: Chipotle, two bottles of water, and a hefty glass of wine. My mistake? Sitting down. I’m the type who can be on my feet for 12 hours a day and not notice, but the minute I sit down, I’m done for. (Ed. Note — wait til your my age kid… the minute you sit down after hours on your feet, you’re head instinctively rolls back and you immediately fall asleep followed by loud mouth open snoring.) So a burrito later, I push up to my feet and drag myself back into the rows.
Unfortunately, fatigue was the least of my problems. Being inexperienced with clippers, I stabbed my left pinkie finger three times and full on sliced into a finger once. “Roughing” it as I was, I refused to seek band-aides, so I kept wiping my fingers on my shorts. Every three bunches, wipe finger. Repeat. I eventually stopped bleeding, but my left leg looked like a Jackson Pollock painting crossed with Jack the Ripper — red blood lines going every which direction, layered on dirt, sweat, and the odd grass stain.
Other enemies of the day? Bees. Wasps. Yellow Jackets. Strange bee-roach hybrids that fly and look meaner than a cartoon alien bent on taking on Planet Earth. They hover around the lugs, around individual bunches and berries- basically anywhere they can find sweet grape juice. Honestly, I don’t blame them- I too love the sweetest of the grapes we were picking. Closing my eyes and holding my breath (super brave, I know), I willed them not to sting me, but all of us were not so lucky — a colleague/new friend got one on his forearm.
Once we picked them into lugs, the grapes were then emptied into bins and taken to the “chiller” overnight before processing. And thus begins the 2012 Chardonnay. I often get asked the question- why is wine so expensive? Unfortunately, there is no “single element” which dictates price. But now I appreciate on a whole new level that AN element certainly is the (wo)man power involved in even just the grape picking.
Our day ended at 6:00 PM; the fields were about halfway finished, but after 11 hours, we had collectively slowed so stopping was logical. We toasted each other and a long day’s work with a glass of wine (though secretly all I wanted was a super hoppy and very cold IPA), and we compared cuts, hand cramps, and sunburns.
My favorite thing about harvest? Our days always end with laughter; albeit, it’s often very weary, sometimes sunburned, and occasionally bee-stung laughter, but still, it’s laughter.
Alex’s harvest 2012 reporting will continue early next week…
When not pretending to be a winemaker, Alex is Director of Education at Washington Wine Academy. With a previous stint in Australia and one planned in Argentina, she unfortunately doesn’t know enough about winemaking yet to keep herself clean or avoid bruises. Alex holds a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) certification and is a candidate for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust Level 4 Diploma.