Last week I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Santa Ynez Valley tasting wine and meeting with winemakers. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to help the folks at Clos Pepe with their harvest. To me, seeing the harvest up close and personal is an incredible opportunity; to everyone else, it’s a crazy idea. “You’re not going to want to do that type of work for very long!” was the general comment I received when I told my friends and family about my plans. Not only would it be hard work, but the grapes would be picked after 9pm–I’d be on a night shift!
It was certainly an incredible opportunity–Wes Hagen, the winemaker at Clos Pepe, was a huge source of knowledge and I learned more in one night than in several weeks’ worth of studying. I learned to “punish the vine and baby the fruit” when picking, and discovered how to tell if a bunch of grapes isn’t ripe enough (taste them!). I saw the grapes I helped pick get crushed and I chewed on their stems and seeds to learn just what a ripe crop of grapes should taste like (the stems and seeds should be brown and taste nutty rather than bitter). I experienced the time it takes to “wash dishes” (as Wes says) after crushing–spraying down all the equipment, cleaning the floor, covering the fermenters. I love to read and study but nothing compares with actually getting your hands dirty and experiencing things for yourself.
My friends and family were right, too, that picking grapes is no walk in the park. Kneeling in the vineyard dirt at night, dust swirling in the air, clipping grapes and grapes and more grapes is hard work! My knees started to ache, so I sat down, then my arms started to ache, so I stood up, then my back started to ache, so I knelt down again…
“Taking a break” from picking meant helping to sort the grapes. Clos Pepe sorts only in the vineyard as the grapes are loaded into bins on a tractor, as opposed to sorting on a table later. Wes is proud to have “the cleanest bins” around-no leaves in these grapes! Sorting means leaning into said bins, pulling out leaves and other whatnots, checking for botrytis and red underripe berries, delicately sifting through the mass of fruit while more buckets are dumped in over your head. At the end of the night I was covered in dirt with scratched-up knees and completely exhausted! I didn’t expect the wind to be knocked out of me to such a degree (hey, I’m a crossfitter!)
One of the greatest things I learned wasn’t about winemaking at all but about the hard work it takes to harvest any kind of crop. I never realized such grueling work goes into picking fruits and vegetables. I have a lot of respect for the people who do this work regularly. I can’t imagine what it would be like to do such physically demanding work all the time. Did I say I wanted a vineyard?
Maybe a small one would do.