Wine Time: Blood, Sweat, and Tears – aka, The Grape Harvest

Illustration by Joel Hedstrom

Illustration by Joel Hedstrom

It’s easy to get cerebral and abstract about wine. But let’s remember one thing: it comes from grapes farmed in a vineyard—it is an agricultural product. And there is perhaps no better reminder of this than the actual grape harvest, which is taking place all over the Northern Hemisphere in these early-to-mid-autumn months.

In the world of wine, harvest is the time of year when grape growers and winemakers pick the ripe fruit and begin the process of making that year’s vintage. The process can take anywhere between one and three months depending on weather conditions, the cadence of the growing season, available labor, and so on.

Not unlike many other farmed products, the signature chorus of the grape harvest might as well be, “IT’S REALLY HARD WORK.” To be an intern or volunteer or entry-level employee of some kind during harvest means one is tasked with much of the busywork and labor that is essential to turning grapes into wine. I have yet to encounter an article or testimonial that paints it as glamorous, charming or, least of all, easy.

It’s not meandering through a vineyard plucking grapes from the vine as though at the apple orchard for a weekend romp. Time is of the essence, so speed and efficiency are key. The grapes will continue to ripen as long as they are on the vine, especially if the weather is warm. The work must begin early during the day when the sun is low and the weather is cooler for picking grapes. One sommelier recalls a harvest in 1998 in Tuscany, picking grapes early in the morning with a family of older Italians chattering away until the sun popped over the nearby hill, causing conversations to halt and picking to speed up in an effort to beat the heat.

If not picking, one is often cleaning equipment—the grape press, the inside of tanks, the floors and so on. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it is absolutely non-negotiable when it comes to winemaking. One must be ready to do A LOT of cleaning among other physical labor —like climbing up great heights over giant vessels to manipulate the fermenting wine (aka ‘punch down’ or ‘pump over’)—over 10–12 hour days at least six days a week.

“Bring rubber boots. You get really wet. All the time,” states Tai Rosa Maldonado, a 2018 alum of the iconic Matthiason vineyards. “It’s not for everyone. If you don’t have a good attitude and solid work ethic[,] please stay home.” Maldonado also implores how necessary it is to train and prepare mentally and physically for working harvest, as well as in a winery in general. “The stronger you are the more prepared you will be to lug around heavy hoses, punch down thick caps, hoist bins of fruit, rake literal tons of fruit into the de-stemmer, and not get injured.”

Given how challenging harvest can be it is easy to wonder “why do many wine professionals seem so insistent on participating in the process?” I discovered that it was typically the pursuit of knowledge that brought so many to harvest. A sense of community and accomplishment brings them back—or at least makes the memory of the experience worthwhile. Through harvest, you work hands-on with the grapes and develop relationships with fellow workers, vineyard and winery owners as you work together to create something. When paired with the practical knowledge of learning and seeing exactly how a wine is made and witnessing the chemistry and science that goes into winemaking, the whole affair becomes unforgettable and connective.

It is a popular belief among wine professionals—sommeliers, beverage directors, importers, buyers, etc.—that in order to be a true sommelier one must participate in at least one harvest, if not more, especially as trends in wine evolve (e.g. the natural wine movement). To behold firsthand how much work goes into creating thoughtful wines and to begin to comprehend how the aromatics and different flavors of a wine are developed is priceless.

Why participate in harvest? A connection to nature, a culture of hard work and integrity, a community, and a greater understanding of the grapes in the glass, and in a year or so an opportunity to taste one’s hard work.

Local Harvest Experiences

Next Chapter Winery

Includes a tour of the distillery and winery with the owner Timothy, a foray into the vines to pick some sugary wine grapes, a tasting of ten of the wines and spirits made here at the winery, lunch from the Red Barn Restaurant of flatbreads and salads, and then the grape stomp!

When: September 13 from 6–9pm and September 29 10am–1pm
Cost: $49 for Adult 21+; Children Under 3 are Free
Limited to 40 people per experience

Cannon River Winery

Includes shuttled transportation to and from the Winery and Vineyard, an educational, hands-on harvesting experience, followed by a delicious catered meal and wine tasting.

When: Saturdays in September
Cost: $25

Parley Lake Winery

Winemaker Steve Zeller shows you what it takes to harvest each year’s vintage. You will take part in picking the grapes and bringing them to the crush pad where they will begin their journey to the glass. Please dress for the weather. Sturdy boots or shoes are recommended. Sessions are approximately 4 hours. As a token of our appreciation for your part in our harvest, each person will enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the session and take home a bottle of wine.

When: September 21 at 8am; September 22 at 4pm; September 28 at 8am; September 29 at 4pm
Must reserve your spot in advance