When I started to write this it was early October. Then the election got in the way, and now it is early November. So anyway…….let’s start catching up.
Neighboring vineyards have been harvesting grapes for about a month. Some varietals have yet to be picked, and vineyard owners alternate between watching the weather forecast and monitoring the BRIX, or sugar content of grapes still on the vine. One Saturday a few weeks back a car came down our road and a guy named Tommy hopped out and asked how we were doing with our vineyard. He owns about an acre of vines and makes wine just for family and friends.
After talking about our trials and tribulations for a while he asked if we had ever seen a crush. We said that we didn’t really plan to make wine, just grow grapes. Still, it would be interesting to see what happens to the grapes. He said he would be harvesting some of his grapes pretty soon and would let us know when the next crush was happening. We said “Great!”.
The very next day we got a call from Tommy who said he had decided to harvest a few rows and invited us to come see the crush. Becca was on a short break from school, so she, Jed, and I all jumped into the truck and headed over to Tommy’s place. Of course, if we had been thinking we would have realized that before you can crush the grapes you have to harvest them, so we had really been invited to help with a harvest. That was actually just fine with us since harvesting the two lone bunches from our vineyard this year probably doesn’t count as experiencing a true harvest.
Two of Tom’s buddies were already out in the vineyard when we got there, so we headed out to lend a hand. As we got closer we could hear a fair amount of good natured hazing going on over who was moving along fast enough, or filling their buckets full enough. Much of the hazing was being fueled by bottles of beer. Now it might seem odd to be drinking beer in the middle of a vineyard, but since picking grapes falls into the category of summertime manual labor it makes perfect sense. We were quickly offered ‘brewski’, given a quick tour, and shown the ropes.
Giant vineyards pick their grapes using $100,000 over-the-row grape harvesters from New Holland or AGH. Smaller vineyards hire pools of manual laborers to go down each row with special harvesting knives. Amateur operations invite their friends over and send them with garden clippers. Then there was the equipment at Tom’s……one set of very rusty clippers, one newer set of pretty good clippers, and a pair of fabric scissors with a wicked looking 12-inch blade. Since there weren’t enough cutting implements to go around, our arrival quickly became an excuse for a break for some of the ‘crew’. Harvesting grapes isn’t hard work if you’re only doing it for a couple of hours, but if you are bending over or reaching around for hours or days on end, it would clearly fall into the category of back-breaking work. Inviting your friends over and offering them beer is a smart move in every way.
Soon there was an assortment of buckets and baskets down each row, all brimming over with grapes. We were amazed at how many bunches were produced from such a small area. Tommy appeared with a golf cart and began loading up the back with the buckets of grapes, running them to the small barn that is his winery.
Now the fun began. Here is the moment when those of us of a certain age think instantly of Lucy and Ethel, their skirts hiked up around their knees, stomping around in big wooden vats of grapes, getting ever more silly, their white peasant blouses covered with grape juice. At Tommy’s operation, the wooden vats have been replaced with big vinyl containers, and the foot-stomping has been replaced by a nifty little machine called a crusher de-stemmer. It consists of two big cylinders that turn, sucking the bunches of grapes down into the interior where the stems are blown out in one direction and the grapes fall into a bucket in the other. The stems turn into compost, while the grape juice and skins sit in the vinyl vat where yeast and sugars and other assorted mysteries of chemistry take over until eventually you have wine. Tommy let us taste some of his previous efforts which was just as fun as watching what had lead to that point.
Becca had been snapping photos of the whole operation, which in the sepia versions made us all feel very connected to an older time and place in which this afternoon would have seemed very familiar to previous generations. Except perhaps for the tattoos.
When we returned at dinner time to our place and drove past our barn, big enough certainly for a winery. Both Jed and I looked at each other, and neither said a word.