Even in America’s warmer climes, the onset of winter can be depressing. The days are shorter, and the warmth of the sun may not be felt for days or weeks at a time.
Little wonder our thoughts may wander back to the winegrape harvest that unfolded only a few months ago…
It’s a cool, crisp, damp, pre-dawn morning in the Napa Valley. One by one, the pickers begin to appear in the vineyards. Will this be the day that the delicate fruit finally is ready to harvest?
For several days, the grapes have been exhibiting the first sign of ripeness. Gently cradled between the thumb and the forefinger, they are soft to the pinch. And upon closer examination, they have attained their full coloring.
The time has arrived for the vintner to taste the grapes. Only a few days earlier, they would have been very sour and bitter. But now the ripening process has picked up momentum, and evaluating the grapes no longer is a day-to-day activity; it’s day part to day part.
A specific sugar level – measured by degrees Brix – is desired for each variety. In the early days of the harvest season, the testing typically is done by tasting. Once the bitterness of the grapes begins to subside, the testing becomes more “scientific,” as a hand-held instrument known as a refractometer is put to use.
Most vintners keep year-to-year logs of sugar levels for specific blocks of vines on specific dates. This provides a range of time that more or less defines the harvest season.
But since every year is different, there is no opportunity for coasting. Once the grapes enter their final stage of ripening, they must be monitored constantly to make sure they’re not allowed to over-ripen.
Finally, the day… the hour… the minute arrives. It is time. The picking crews go to work, carefully snipping the bunches of grapes and placing them in bins for transport to the winery, where the presses and fermentation tanks and barrels… and the winemaker… await.
Every honest vintner will tell you that great wine is made in the vineyard. And when the grapes are picked at just the right time, we’ll have plenty of wonderful wine to keep us warm on those cold winter nights.