California’s annual winegrape harvest typically extends well into October for certain late-ripening varietals.
This year, however, it’s looking like the harvest season, which kicked off earlier than usual in August, likely also will be over much sooner than usual. One annoying aspect of the shifted calendar for some vintners: Special events for winery fans that were planned to precede harvest, in some cases, overlapped it.
Those inconveniences aside, every harvest season not only serves to define a vintage, it serves as a reminder that it takes a lot of people and a lot of sweat to make wine.
It takes back-breaking work, specialized skills, scientific knowledge, sleepless nights and beer. Yes, beer. More on that in a moment.
The true unsung heroes of the harvest season are the vineyard teams — the men and women who have been tending the grapevines during the spring and summer months, guiding them from bud break through veraison, who suddenly are performing at Energizer Bunny speed. Once it’s determined that the grapes are ready to pick, they need to be picked — additional days on the vine can impact the quality of the finished wine, which means there is no time to spare.
Every winery handles harvest just a little bit differently. But at most of the estates, in addition to a vineyard crew, there also is a cellar crew. These are people who help de-stem the fresh grapes that have just been brought in, thus initiating the crushing process — transforming the fruit into juice.
As the various lots of juice begin to be fermented, it’s time for the enology team to swing into action. Enologists monitor the wines until fermentation is completed. They typically have strong scientific backgrounds, primarily in chemistry but also in biology.
And let’s not forget the people who get most of the credit, even if most of the work is done by others: the winemaker. That’s not to understate the importance of the winemaker. After all, it is he or she who determines the final blends for all of the wines. But if it weren’t for the vineyard teams and cellar teams, the winemaker would have nothing with which to fill those oak barrels and stainless steel tanks.
Depending on the size of a winery, jobs can overlap. At very small estates, where the grapes are grown on the property, it’s actually possible for one person to perform all of the tasks — even picking the grapes when each individual vine is ready.
But in most cases, a good number of people are involved in the process, and to all of those people, we owe a sincere thanks this and every harvest season.
Oh, and what about the role that beer plays in the process? I can’t tell you how many winemakers have told me that, at the end of a long, hard day of overseeing grape truck arrivals, crushing, initiating fermentations and other tasks, there’s nothing more satisfying than an ice-cold beer.