Sights and sounds of the Napa Valley harvest season

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

NAPA, Calif. -- Harvest on the vineyards begins hours before dawn, with bright lights moving slowly between rows of grapes.

The motor of a tractor hums. Workers yell. Freshly picked grapes get tossed into bins. After the grapes are brought in they are sorted, then crushed, before fermentation begins.

Long before a bottle of wine is bottled and corked, dozens of pairs of hands work to bring it to fruition, with the emphasis on harvesting the grapes at exactly the right time, under the right conditions, within a narrow time frame.

In the Napa Valley, it begins in August with the picking of grapes for sparkling wine. With afternoon temperatures often topping 100 degrees, vineyard workers begin their day in the middle of the night.

"They start at 4 in the morning [and] go until 11 or 12. They love it because it is nice and cool," said Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Vineyards in Napa. "We've got all day to process it. It's a nice way to start the vintage."

By November, when the mountain fruit is picked to make robust red wines, the days are much shorter and the leaves have turned red. The work takes on added urgency with the onset late autumn rains that can ruin an otherwise promising vintage.

Inside the caves at Staglin Family Vineyards, motors run as the juice is pumped from the bottom of the tanks to keep it circulating and ensure a maximum extraction of flavor and prevent spoilage.

The clank of metal doors and lids opening echoes off the walls. The rings and valves make high-pitched crackles against the stainless steel tanks.

More dulcet tones can be heard at Freemark Abbey, where cellar worker Crisprn Martinez sings above the din.

When the day's work is done, workers gather for a harvest lunch. Music plays, food is devoured and beers are raised in a toast. Then they head home, readying for another day among the vines.

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