It’s muggy out underneath the vines. I’m itchy, and my shoulders are on fire. We’ve been harvesting for the past four hours, and the crew has fallen into a steady rhythm: grab bunch, twist, slice stem with the grape knife, then drop the bunch into the bin. Continue to locate all the clusters under the leaves, remove all the bunches before moving onto the next grapevine, and periodically, dump your bin into the trailer moving along in the middle of the row.
Hand harvesting grapes is backbreaking work. You’re on your feet for 8-10 hours: walking, stooping, bending, sometimes on your knees, peering through vines with the aid of a headlamp strapped to your forehead, slicing through thick stems, and dodging spider webs, empty bird nests and sometimes, a field mouse or two. It’s dusty, dirty, and sticky. Occasionally a stray berry [or spider] slips down your sleeve, then you do the shimmy.
This past month, our team gathered at the Harney Lane vineyard in the Clements Hills to hand harvest our Chardonnay. We met at midnight, donned our headlamps, gloves and face masks before being handed our knives and picking bins. There was some instruction regarding what bunches the winemaker wanted, as well as instructions to remove leaves and other unwanted material from our bins. Then we went to work—for a long 8+ hours.
Most wine that we drink today is from machine-harvested fruit. A large machine moves along over the top of the vineyard row, shaking the vine trunk until the berries fall free into a hopper. Machine harvesters can operate 24 hours a day without a break, although they’re generally scheduled to run through the night, when the temperature is cooler, and the grapes are at their freshest. This mechanical process is far quicker and less expensive when compared with hand picking.
Still, it is indeed a memorable experience, at least it was for the Nostra Vita team. It built a sense of camaraderie, encouraged communication, and fostered a sense of humor. For our team, it enabled everyone to not only see where the vineyards are located but gave them some insight as to what it takes to go from vine to bottle. Our crew is outstanding. They never balked at continuing to work through the night, and even though I was ready to drop at several points during the early morning hours, everyone remained upbeat, in good spirits and kept pushing through into the daylight hours.
As the sky changed color, and we switched off our headlamps, there was a shared sense of accomplishment at working through the night, and a collective cheer rivaled the final cries of a lone coyote on a nearby hill. We were tired, dirty, sticky, and stiff, but the grapes themselves were beautiful, the bunches intact and undamaged. Making our way back to our cars, the production team headed out with the grapes for processing and by the end of the new day, the juice was safely ensconced in barrels and tanks inside the winery.
Our team did an outstanding job this year, and we couldn’t have done it without each ‘n every member: Robert, Kyle, Katie, Jan, Eloy, Miguel, Sergio, Victor, Anisa, Tim, Chad ‘n Brien. I’ve been told that the 2021 Chardonnay is fermenting nicely: clean, crisp, well balanced and dazzling—both in the glass and on the palate. But the best part is the sense of pride that each member of the Nostra Vita team shares. They’ll be able to tell you exactly how this special wine was made, and that they personally had a hand in creating it, just ask them!