I received an email from Kevin Celli of Natali Vineyards on Tuesday, looking for volunteers to help harvest grapes on Wednesday. The weather forecast was unbeatable, my calendar was empty, and my husband, Troy, was off work after seemingly endless days of overtime at the electric company.
It was only a little bit of a challenge to convince him that this would be a great way to spend our first day together in weeks.
“It will be fun. We’ll be kind of like migrant farm workers, only we don’t know anything about grape-picking and we can’t speak Spanish,” I said.
“And it pays even less,” he responded.
So seeing as he was in complete agreement, I packed the kids off to school, nudged him out of bed, and before he was conscious enough to utter a word of protest, I grabbed us two cups of coffee and prodded him toward the car.
We were 2 of about 40 untrained laborers to arrive at Natali that morning. We received a pair of clippers, a glove to be worn Michael Jackson-style on whichever hand would handle the grapes and a 10-minute introduction and training session from Kevin, which gave us all the information we needed for a morning of manual labor.
1. Natali has 23 acres (8 of them are planted with 14 varieties of grapes.) and many award-winning wines.
2. Just about everything grows in this marine micro-climate, which is similar to the Bordeaux region of France. The Atlantic Ocean moderates temperature and brings mold-reducing breezes, however there is nary a beret or croissant in site.
3. Cut the grapes at the woody stem to allow the plant to protect itself through winter.
4. Ignore the bees.
5. Work post to post, picking all the grapes in one section before moving onto another.
6. Put the good grapes in the rectangular bucket. Throw the unwanted grapes on the ground. Apparently this is referred to as bio-dynamic growing, since the rotten grapes, fertilize the ground. My children, by the way, subscribe to bio-dynamic laundry.
We picked Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the last grapes of the season for about three hours. The dry summer had produced super-sweet grapes (We were encouraged to try them.), but recent rain had bloated them a bit, causing mold on some.
Our goal was to get as many picked as possible before the next bloating rain (forecasted today.) That’s the trick of making good wine. You need to time the picking just right. This was a good harvest, Celli said.
The weather was beautiful. The bees weren’t bad. My fellow-pickers were nice folks, some local, some from as far away as New York. Some dressed a bit high-style for migrant farming, especially since most of us had sticky grape juice running off our Michael Jackson gloves and all over us by the morning’s end.
They were better-dressed for the post-harvest feast on white tablecloths beside the vineyard, however. Natali fed the hungry masses piles of Italian-style, stuffed barbequed pork, an assortment of roasted fruits and vegetables and peach sangria.
Afterwards we did a tour and tasting to see various stages of wine production, and we left with a bottle of wine as a gift for our efforts. Troy reluctantly agreed it was ample pay for a relaxing day in the sun, and we plan to go back soon for one of the vineyard’s monthly festivals–no labor required.
The grapes we picked today will not be bottled for about 20 months, but we can wait. Timing, after all, is everything.