Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

Archive for December, 2016

Harvesting Zinfandel: Ode to the Pickers by Rhoda Stewart

“[C] had written to her friend Valentine. ‘Come, they’ll be harvesting the grapes.’ ” . . . . “‘Harvesting the grapes?’ [Valentine] asked, astonished. ‘Really? Despite the war?’ ” . . . . “‘Despite the war, Valentine,’ [C] confessed. ‘What can you do? They haven’t found a way of gathering the grapes without harvesting them’” (Colette, “Grape Harvest,” circa 1916. The Collected Stories of Colette edited and with an introduction by Robert Phelps, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1983, p. 64)

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Two Zinfandel Clusters – Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel vineyards are the oldest premium wine producing vineyards in California (and probably in the nation) because they were recognized in the 1800s for their winemaking potential by some of the earliest wine growers in the State, many of whom hailed from the best wine regions of Italy and Eastern Europe, and who were looking for something better than the ubiquitous Mission vines. Instinctively recognizing that most of the regions where Mission grew were also well suited to Zinfandel, they grafted their cuttings onto a native rootstock known as St. George, also well suited to Zinfandel. Watered only from the rains that fell during the winter rainy season, the vines were forced to send their roots deep into their piece of earth, which resulted in small crops of intensely colored and flavored grapes. The vines flourished over the decades under such vineyard management, and because the native St. George rootstock was phylloxera-resistant, they survived the epidemic that destroyed much of California’s imported vitis vinifera winegrape vineyards in the late 19th century.

Today, in the early 21st century, Zinfandel vines planted well over 120 years ago are therefore still flourishing. However, the harvesting of these old head-trained vines, whose fruit hangs hidden under the leaves and often low to the ground requires skilled pickers to gather in the grapes at optimum ripeness. When I first stepped into the Bill Moore Zinfandel vineyard that late September morning, I didn’t immediately see the picking crew, who were almost lost among the sprawling vines. When I did catch up to them, I was momentarily mesmerized by what I saw.

Their hands seemed to see by touching, so familiar were they with the structure of these old head-trained low-to the-ground vines. Swiftly and with precision their fingers sought out the plump, blue-purple clusters and severed them from their anchors.

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Zinfandel Picker focussed on harvesting the clusters- Moore vineyard

Even their feet played a part as they deftly moved their tubs onto the next vine, playing them at times as if they were a soccer ball. I had trouble keeping up, so quickly did they clean a vine. It seemed no sooner had I gotten my lens focused on one of the workers, zooming in on his hands, than the hands disappeared and I had to move along with them and try again. It took no more than 5 seconds for a picker to clean a grape-laden, close-to-the ground old vine. I had to be fast, even with an auto-focus lens. The challenge became interesting and exciting.

Zinfandel Picker approaching gondola with tub of grapes - Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel Picker approaching gondola with tub of grapes – Moore Vineyard

It had been a startling revolution to me, when I got into my research on Napa Valley Zinfandel in the late 1990s for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey*, to discover just how many historic Zinfandel vineyards were (and still are) in Napa Valley (Napa Valley, after all, being famous for its Cabs and Chardonnays). One of the most historic and wonderful was the head-trained Bill Moore vineyard on the eastern benchland of the Napa River, just above downtown Napa. The vineyard consists of 10.6 acres of vines, 95% of which are Zinfandel, with the oldest being planted in 1905 (which inspired one customer to nickname it “Earthquake Vineyard”). I had visited the vineyard a few times in the late 1990s for Old Vine photos, one of which graces the introductory pages of my book.

So it was momentous that I encountered Bill Moore purely by chance in late September, a few days before the 2016 harvest of his vineyard was to begin.  After a half-hour chat of “catching up,” he invited me to come by for the early morning harvest, which was to take place over the next two days. I was delighted to accept his invitation, since, for various reasons, the Moore Vineyard harvest had been on my mind. I felt I had been given me a second opportunity to get the story of this amazing Zinfandel vineyard.

Although I was not early enough the first day for harvest photos, I did manage some stunning images of the clusters at peak ripeness.

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Old Vine Zinfandel, with clusters at peak ripeness – Moore Vineyard

I actually had gotten into vineyard photography and wine writing when I first arrived in Napa Valley because of the beauty of the old head-trained Zinfandel vines and their clusters of luscious grapes.

The second day of picking, I arrived before the sun had cleared the eastern mountains and hot air balloons were floating high over the valley floor. The dozen or so pickers, too, were already hard at work gathering in the crop. After a few minutes of scanning the vineyard to see where they were,  I was soon in full pursuit, catching up to the gondolas creeping along the rows as they were being filled from tubs dumped into them, one after another.

Zinfandel pickers emptying tubs of grapes into gondola - Hot Air Balloon in distance -  Moore Vineyard

Zinfandel pickers emptying tubs of grapes into gondola – Hot Air Balloon in distance – Moore Vineyard

I was amazed by how quickly the tubs of grapes were coming in.

Two women, their heads hooded, their faces partly covered against the dust, stood on the sides of the gondola as “minders,” conducting a field sorting of clusters and debris. When they saw me, their uncovered their faces and gave me a big smile and a wave. They looked happy. It was a beautiful piece of earth to call your place of work!

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Gondola “minders” – Moore Vineyard

But what struck me most profoundly was the concentration of the pickers as they went about their work. So singularly focused were the men on their vines that, in the words of Colette (“Grape Harvest”), my “entry into the vineyard caused no commotion.” The men hardly noticed me edging in with my camera in hand, seeking an iconic image or two of the grape harvest. When their tubs became full, they hoisted their purple treasures on their heads and moved quickly to the gondola, where they pitched their burden onto the rising mass of grapes. It was all done in one swift movement, then quickly back to the next laden vine in the row.

Gondola and pickers, Moore Vineyard

Gondola and pickers, Moore Vineyard

I pursued them tenaciously, and from time to time was rewarded for my efforts by a gloved hand holding a cluster of grapes, the other holding the shears, suddenly coming into focus; a quick snap of the shutter, and the image was made.

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Grape picker severing a cluster from the vine – Moore Vineyard

This went on for about two hours; then suddenly it was over. The vines were bare of their fruit; the gondolas brim-full, and the pickers were going back to their cars and trucks parked in the lane that led to the residential buildings. I followed them, and watched as they paused for a drink and a snack, and then they were gone. The grapes were on their way to the winery, and I was left to peruse my images in hopes that at least a few represented something approximating what I was seeking.

And also to ponder a moment on how differently my day with the pickers had ended compared to how the day had ended for the two friends in “Grape Harvest.” In that intriguing story, the pickers take a few moments after their sumptuous lunch to cavort joyously with the visiting friends’ pretty maids, who had just arrived at the vineyard. Seeming to understand that the harvest is a happy time even during the war, the two maids arrived dressed in festive clothes that had been beautifully remade out of those their ladies had discarded, giving the elderly and silently grieving men a validation for their toilsome work in the hot vineyard: “The aged giant, suddenly animated, sat one of the maids down on an empty tub, and hoisted the whole thing on his shoulders . . . . The heavy air seemed light to them, now that two women’s laughter, affected, deliberately long, had set it in motion . . . .” (68)

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Zinfandel picker with his tubfull of grapes – Moore Vineyard

When I looked again through my images a few hours later, I saw gleams of that same joy of the harvest on the faces of my pickers, a joy that brings these pickers back to the vineyards vintage after vintage, to gather the grapes at their peak ripeness. Yet how unlikely it is that people who drink the wine think even once about these dedicated men and women who arrive before dawn to pick the grapes, nor how important, even revered and celebrated, this stage is, in the grape’s journey from the vine to the bottle.

For myself, I thought of the steep, rocky hillsides of the Priorat DOQ in Spain, where I had visited in April. From time to time, my guide pointed out to me the workers toiling among the tiny Garnacha vines high above us. Yet when he and I shared a bottle of Priorat over dinner that evening, I was not thinking of the workers we had seen, but rather, how wonderful was the wine we were drinking. Only later did I stop to consider what it must be like to harvest those vines come fall, to gather in the Garnacha grapes that made the wondrous wine I had just enjoyed.

Now, when I read a back label that tells me how the wine in my bottle was made from grapes harvested from old head-trained vines, often grown on steep, rocky hillsides, I stop for a moment to acknowledge those crews of pickers who dragged their tubs over the difficult terrain, where no machine has ever served, in order to bring in the grapes. Carefully nurtured over the spring and summer months to reach perfect ripeness, the grapes must now be carefully gathered by the skilled pickers. Without them, the vintage  comes to naught.  With them, the grapes’ journey towards becoming a bottle of wine that may help someone, somewhere, to make the end of the day just little bit better than it began is officially underway.

The pickers’ work is finished. The celebration begins.  Salud to the pickers, to all!

“I could give up a lot of things today,” said Ray Coursen, Elyse Wine Cellars, “before I could give up my glass of red wine with my dinner.” (A Zinfandel Odyssey, 377)

*(San Rafael, CA; PWV, Inc., 2002),

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