Vineyard Touches: Harvest

Vineyard Touches: Harvest

After the vineyard work of winter, spring and early summer—pruning, tying, shoot thinning, suckering, leaf pulling, red and green drop, and all the rest—it comes down to this: the harvest. “Oh, there’s a lot of energy and anticipation,” says Cambria’s vineyard manager, Matt Mahoney, regarding the days leading up to first pick. One day, everybody’s playing “a waiting game.” The next day, winemaker Denise Shurtleff, says “Go!” and the next two months will be a blur.

Vineyard Touches: Harvest

It began this year, as it usually does, with Pinot Noir. Only 2015 was the earliest start ever. A fact Denise attributes in part to the mild winter (which led to early budbreak), to California’s drought, to this year’s light crop. In the crucial days leading up to first pick, Denise was out there everyday walking the vineyard, tasting the ripening grapes and doing laboratory analyses of grape sugars. 

Vineyard Touches: Harvest

When she gave the “Go!” on Aug. 3, Matt and his team jumped into overdrive. Once picking starts, “I’m in bed by 7 p.m.” Matt grins, “and then I come out to the vineyard around 4 a.m. It’s two months of 12-hour days.” Picking goes on for about 18 hours a day. Nighttime harvesting is done by machine, under bright lights. Daytime picking is done by hand. To determine how the methodology impacts the wines’ organoleptic qualities, Denise explains that “we’ve done side-by-side trials comparing hand-picking versus machine-picking.” These experiments are ongoing. 

Night-picked grapes arrive at the crushpad as cool as if they’d been refrigerated, which keeps them fresh and crisp. Day-picked grapes are immediately put under dry ice to cool them off. The “steam” that issues from the bins isn’t a cloud of water, but pure carbon dioxide gas returning to the atmosphere. 

Vineyard Touches: Harvest

Part of Matt’s job is to make sure the routine mechanics of harvest are taken care of: the eight-man crews are notified about where to pick, trucks are there to carry the grapes from the vineyard to the winery (just a stone’s throw away) and drivers are available to drive the trucks. Matt’s cell phone is never far from his hand, so he’s in constant touch with the winemaking team. “Even while we’re making sure to get today’s pick in, the winemakers are thinking about what we’ll be picking tomorrow.” 

Denise has noticed over her 16 years at Cambria, that some of the vineyard blocks routinely ripen earlier than others. For instance, Barbara’s Clone 667 Pinot Noir is usually among the first. But that doesn’t mean she takes anything for granted. “Sometimes, a later-ripening block will ripen earlier for some reason. So you have to pay attention to the entire vineyard, because you don’t want anything to sneak up on you.” 

Vineyard Touches: Harvest

Fortunately, between all of the people looking at the blocks—field workers, vineyard managers, winemakers and assistant winemakers—surprises are rare. Following Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Viognier are picked at Cambria. Syrah, too. Chardonnay is usually last, especially the older vines, which ripen more slowly. 

In this extremely early year, harvest will probably wind down the first week of October. By then, the entire crew will have earned a well-deserved rest. And then, before you know it, winter will be here and the ancient vineyard cycle starts all over again.

By: Steve Heimoff