grape picking dogI’ve got a new one to add to the list of “things they never warn you about when you start a winery”. That would be: how do you proceed when the grapes are ready for harvesting and your Chief Winemaker and all around Wine Boffin is held up by Homeland Security at the airport. Let me back up a bit. Anyone who’s followed our winemaking adventures has learned that the first hard lesson of winemaking is that there is no planning during harvest season. You test and test and test the grapes, sometimes three times a day on the vines. And when they are ready (i.e. the sugar levels are at the optimum point for winemaking), they are ready. You pick immediately. Regardless of whether it fits your schedule. This causes a lot of nailbiting at small wineries like ours since the rest of Napa and Sonoma counties are on the same High Alert Status and have snagged or employed all the available crews for miles around. The best we can hope for is to find a few guys who are willing to pick whichever of our varietals has come ripe in the hour or so before they start their “real” jobs or on their lunch hours. Standard payment for grape harvests is by the ton. Which works out well for the crews when they are picking 30 tons for B.R. Cohn, Schug or Benziger. It’s a little different with our vineyard where no one varietal is going to account for more than a ton. To paraphrase a certain supermodel, grape pickers around here don’t even get out bed for less than 10 tons. However, there are a few ambitious types who will give up their lunch hour or a few hours sleep in the morning to come pick our grapes for a flat by-the-hour-rate. It’s a good chunk of change for them — when you can find someone available. This year, with its crazy weather which delayed then accelerated the harvest, is finding all the varietals coming ripe at the same time. Where usually Chardonnay and the white grapes are picked as early as August and the heartier reds in mid to late October, this year, everything is ripening at the same time. But those conditions aside, we did manage to find a few guys to harvest the Mourvedre, which started screaming loudly on Monday, in grape talk, that they were ready for harvest.

An even better stroke of luck was that Cousin John, our eccentric winemaking buddy, was also available and willing. Cousin John has noted wryly that he has become a semi-fictional character on a certain blog, but I will swear to his Mr. Natural ethics. John is the world’s foremost proponent of traditional methods of food production. And when I say “traditional”, I mean the traditions of several hundred years ago. But Cousin John will happily work for grapes. Grapes that he plans to make wine out of using a technique he saw in a 15th Century Burgundian tapestry in a Paris museum! Can I rest my case?

Jesus and Juan harvest the Cinsault.

We managed to get two of the guys who picked our Grenache last week. Plus three of their buddies. We needed all of them!

With a crew secured and Cousin John and myself standing at the ready, we had only to wait for Andy, Chief Winemaker, who was flying back from Europe that morning. It was a delicate balancing act and it all fell apart when the crew showed up and started picking with customary speed. Cousin John and I had no choice but to set up the crusher/destemmer and start processing grapes as fast as we could. Since a good Mexican crew can strip a vineyard of a ton of grapes in about an hour, that meant working faster than John and I had stamina for. And did I mention we are in the middle of a heat wave and the temperature on the crush pad was hovering at 102 degrees?

As the crews sped through the vineyards, an alarming and unexpected problem became clear. Our late spring rains and cool summer, followed by several week long heat waves has reduced yields around Sonoma and Napa to sometimes only 60% of normal. Some grapes never ripened, others burned on the vine. Around the valleys winemakers are saying this may be one of the smallest harvests on record.

Tell it to our Mourvedre!

While we crushed, John even managed to make this attractive hedgerow out of the discarded grape stems.

This hearty Rhône style varietal is one of the backbone grapes of Southern Rhône wines — where a wine can be a blend of up to 18 types of grapes. It’s a big bold varietal that produces a wine with a higher alcohol content and a lot of tannins. Mourvedre is sometime known as Estrangle-Chien, or “the dog strangler”, a name that is not too popular at Two Terrier Vineyards. It’s also a grape that can be relied on to produce consistent harvests unlike more temperamental grapes. So in lean years like this, I suppose Rhône winemakers would be using a lot more Mourvedre in their blends.

There can, however, be such a thing as too much Mourvedre, to my thinking. We’re definitely at that point. Last year, our Mourvedre grapes yielded about a ton of grapes.

Cousin John at the crush

Each of these white vats will hold a half ton of fruit or a ton of crushed fruit. (Cousin John shown for scale.)

Within an hour, Cousin John and I had filled up a vat to the very top with crushed Mourvedre. But the crew was still picking and hauling down fruit. A second white vat was more than half full when John and I had to call a halt and tell the crew: “Job Done”. There were still one or two rows left, but we were running low on energy to process it and were dangerously close to heat stroke. So I guess we’ll reserve the stuff on the vine for the harvest of the Cabernet. Let’s call it Late Harvest Mourvedre.

And did I mention that our fearless leader was still nowhere to be seen? As we struggled through processing the last 5 picking bins, we got a text that Andy had been pulled aside at Immigration. That’s a fairly common occurrence since Andy raises all the terrorism flags: dark complected, British passport, frequent travel to Asia. With the number of times he’s been detained at SFO, you’d think they’d have a complete dossier on him. But apparently this new Homeland Security Department is not as integrated as they would like you to believe. And, surprisingly, “I have to get up to Sonoma to crush grapes” is not seen as a suitable excuse for expediting his process through detention.

Andy in full “Wine Boffin” mode. A boffin is a British term for an egghead or sciencey type. In this case, it means someone who does experiments in a lab while John and I do the grunt work.

The result was that Andy finally pulled up just as John and I were thinking we were about to faint in the heat and we were — literally — dumping the last batch of grapes into the crusher/destemmer. Unfortunately, relief was not to be had for this hardworking crush crew. Andy disappeared into Dr. Frankenwine’s Lab to do readings and sciencey stuff with an airy wave and “You two are all set to clean the crushpad, then?” At least cleaning up involves lots of sprayed water, but John and I still muttered subversive threats under our breath such as “damned management”, “unionize”, “exploitation”.

At least that’s done. Until we have to do it all again for the Cabernet harvest next week! And tonight, when I have to press out the Grenache and Cinsault into secondary fermentation tanks. Oh, and bleed off some of our massive amount of Mourvedre to add to our Rosé.

This is what I like to call “The Brute Force and Ignorance” portion of winemaking, which involves hefting huge vats of grapes around — usually in 90 to 100 degree heat.

Which is why I’m awarding the inestimable Cousin John our highest honors:

Thanks, Cousin John! Everyone says: “We couldn’t have done it without you.” But in this case, it really is true.