The Real Dirt on Harvest – Part One
It’s 3 am and we’re waking up (so you don’t have to) to go check on the harvest activity in the vineyard and show you the real dirt about what goes on around here. As we drive up to our Rancho Nuevo vineyard, where the crew is picking this morning, we can see the glow of the floodlights in the distance. Like we are the lone, lost aliens looking for the mother ship… we follow the lights. We’ve got Pink Floyd playing in the car and are feeling the celestial vibe…
The smell of ripe fruit lingers in the cold, crisp air, as we park our cars, grab our phones, and set out to take some candid pics of the pick. First, we look around to make sure there are no mountain lions lurking nearby, and then off we go to catch up with the group…who mind you, have been here since 10 pm the night before. Yes, it’s nearing the end of October and yes, our harvest is still going on… like a certain bunny, we keep going, and going… it’s the Sta. Rita Hills after all and we’re in it for the long haul. So, sit back, kick your feet up, and we’ll do the work so you can get the real dirt on harvest.
Ahhhh…harvest season…it ain’t all flowy dresses and rancher hats picking a few grapes and tossing ‘em into a wicker basket as we skip down a hill Laura Ingalls-style. It’s grit and grind, it’s blisters and backaches… it’s “hey watch out for that gopher hole!” as you’re walking down a row taking a picture – yeah, that’s just for us…the vineyard crew knows this land, so they good. It’s all hands on deck as our crew works tirelessly in their labor of love… the transformation of a season of hard work nurturing the vines, alongside Mother Nature, into the wines we will enjoy for many years to come. It’s a thrilling, demanding, and incredibly rewarding time, and we’re happy (honestly!) to be up at this ungodly hour to be a part of it.
Let’s set the stage here… though our operation is made up of many teams, two in particular live and breathe harvest: our vineyard crew and our cellar crew. Each team has specific roles, and their diligence, pace, and mindfulness are all important to ensure that the quality of the grapes is preserved and cared for and that each component of harvest is successfully executed. We’ll sneak over to the cellar crew another day…for now, let’s focus on what happens in the vineyard.
Harvest in the Sta. Rita Hills is anything but average, like we said… it keeps going, and going, and going. With the longest growing season in ALL of North America, our harvest kicks off sometime around late August, early September with Pinot Noir, shifts focus from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay in early to mid-October, and wraps up around Thanksgiving with Syrah and Grenache. Boy, our crew will have earned their pumpkin pie by then…
Over a long three months, we hand-pick our three vineyard sites – the east side (where the winery is located), the west side (home to Terraces, Block M, and Anna’s Block), and Rancho Nuevo – which together total 120 acres. In other words, while industry friends in other regions are settling into post-harvest vacation mode, our crew is still at it, and still at it again. The flip side of this, thanks to our cold-climate we are not pressed to harvest “quickly” like other areas and can take our sweet time to hone in on the desired ripeness and ideal window to pick each vineyard section and varietal.
Two dozen diligent, loyal men and women together make up our full-time vineyard crew… most of who we have been fortunate to work alongside for many years. Crew veterans, Nacho and Francisco, along with Chad, manage our farming, which is undoubtedly THE most important element of our winegrowing philosophy.
The samples are not just an old-school band from Colorado…before a pick is scheduled, Chad, Nacho, and Francisco spend time “sampling” certain blocks and test for desired ripeness. Small cluster samples are picked, then brought to the cellar to measure weight, brix (sugar), and pH levels. When a block is determined to be at an optimal level of ripeness, and Chad says “let’s get it,” Nacho gets the crew geared up for an overnight pick, while most of us are winding down to sleep. They start their picking day around 10 pm… yep, START their day. Having staged the necessary equipment the day before, everything is ready when they arrive after dark.
Brrrr… it’s frigid out here. We don’t just wear our Patagonia jackets for show. It’s also dark and dead-quiet… a magical time with no phones, no distractions… allowing for focus, and the crew is that. While the conditions are in fact a benefit for our crew, we purposefully elect to pick overnight because the cold temperature preserves the quality of the fruit, which we’ve meticulously nurtured all growing season long. Just as you want your produce to be kept cool in the shade at the farmer’s market, the same is true for grapes during harvest.
The mother-ship floodlights illuminate the night sky while our crew picks two rows at a time, working carefully to hand-pick each cluster, place into buckets, and then transfer to picking bins being pulled along by a tractor with crew members on either side sorting out unwanted leaves or debris. The countless hours spent leafing earlier in the year pays off here, as the fruit is more accessible at harvest and debris is minimal. It’s so quiet out here that when someone breaks out into a song… it feels spiritual like we’re singing in a church. Some of us are just humming along…
Our two tractors work like Sting and the Police… (synchronicity)* when the three bins on one tractor are full with ½ ton each, it heads to the winery to deliver the bins as the other takes its place in the vineyard…a seamless transition. Even picking by hand, our fastidious crew averages about 1 ton per hour. After several hours the crew takes their “lonche” break in the middle of the night… before the sun has even risen. *Synchronicity was one of their albums, google it.
Picking lasts well into the early morning hours as the temperature remains quite cold—picking and loading, picking and loading, row after row, hour after hour, tractor after tractor… you get it.
After a long night, the work “day” comes to a close with… the sunrise! It’s a beautiful thing to see the autumn sunrise over the Sta. Rita Hills in the early morning… a reward for the soul, providing a reverent moment to break for the day, often prompting a song or two. Finally, our crew will set up the pick for the coming night and then break for the day around 8 am, exhausted and ready to take a shower and go to bed. We are immensely grateful for our vineyard crew and their tirelessness during a very long harvest season… these men and women are the backbone of Melville.
Well, that’s it, that’s the real dirt on the vineyard. No one got eaten by a mountain lion, no one sprained their ankle in a gopher hole, but we DID, however, gain a new appreciation for the vineyard crew and their endurance…day after day and night after night. Phew, we’re beat just walking around and watching. Our boots are dirty, our noses are pink, and we feel like we’ve been up for hours… hopefully, Chad’s got some coffee brewin’.
Curious what happens after the fruit is delivered to the winery? Stay tuned for the Real Dirt part 2, where we go visit them cellar rats… we mean, the talented and meticulous folks receiving the fruit…