This was going to be exciting and different - picking Sauvignon Blanc under lights in the middle of the night! Although night time harvests, with their spot lights lighting the sky as though it was a local football game, have been used in the Napa Valley for many years, we have never been part of a night-time picking.
Normally we would show up with the vineyard manager and picking crew at dawn and wait until our eyes adjusted to the fuzzy light, then pick away! But with the need to get all 8 tons of Sauvignon Blanc grapes picked as quickly, (and as chilled), as possible, with only a crew of 16, it was a necessity to start early. The crew arrives at 4:00 am, and quickly take their places in the vineyard, filling half-ton bins with chilly night-time grapes under the glare of the massive overhead lights.
We follow the blinding lights to the end of the row, where each picker uses their headlamps to adjust to the band of grapes on the vines. Our forte is “leaves” - or the removal there of. First we start several vines in front of the line of pickers and sweep our hands down the canes and around the bunches to remove leaves from the picking area, so that the guys can reach right into the fruit zone and pick cleanly (no leaves), dropping the ripe bunches into the pans beneath them on the vineyard floor.
Clip, clip, thump, clip, thump, goes the noise, with an occasional hoot or shout or song from the pickers. Then they all run with their full pans to the half-ton bins being pulled slowly behind the tractor in the next row and toss the fruit in. It’s now our turn again to quickly pick out and remove any leaves and over-ripe fruit from the bigger bins behind the tractor. Scooting under the vines and back to their place on the row, the pickers start again, and continue for 6 hours until all the bins are full and the requisite tonnage agreed upon in our contract is weighed and loaded safely on the truck, bound for the winery.
The sun streams through the vines and the lights are shut off. In the distance, a flock of hot air balloons is taking off, and all that can be heard is the hiss of their heaters. The bins are full and loaded onto the truck, headed to the winery, and the vine rows are eerily silent when the crews depart and are filled with nothing but leaves!
It’s been a long but successful day, and the torch for the responsibility of the newly picked grapes is happily passed from the vineyard manager to the winemaker.
At the winery, our job is once again “leaves”. The bins are dumped into a 20 foot conveyor that slowly moves the grapes up to a crusher/stemmer. But on the way, the MOG (Matter Other than Grapes – read “leaves”) needs to be removed. We line up on both sides to sort through the cool grapes until our fingers feel frozen with the sweet sticky juice, trying to move the bunches around quickly as they travel up and out of reach, and remove anything doesn’t look like it should be included in fine wine – tie tape, branches, over or under ripened bunches, and leaves! If it’s not a grape, it doesn’t go onto the tank!
We will return with the winemaker to the winery tomorrow, after the grapes have chilled on
their skins in the tank overnight, when they will be removed and pressed off and the juice will return to the tank to begin its fermentation into wine. But until then, we will dream of the sweet smells of freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc, and picture vines, without grapes - or leaves!