Beer & Wine Wine

A Beginner’s Guide to Working the Wine Harvest

And 10 lessons learned along the way.

Bunches of grapes
Image:

Mark C. Anderson

An old buddy and I have attempted our share of wine quests together. There was the time we retraced the movie “Sideways” in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, minus the spit-bucket guzzle. There was the week we traversed Ribera and Rueda wine country with a band of wine buyers on the invitation of the Spanish government. There was the spring we rambled from Mumbai to Nashik scouting the Indian subcontinent’s booming wine industry, including an obligatory Indian wedding crash. 

So when he suggested a new one, I was all ears. The plan: Contact the same wine pro who helped arrange our Nashik trip, Shardul Ghogale, a University of Bordeaux alum. He directs sales for the award-winning Left Coast Estate in Oregon. Perhaps the winery could use help with its harvest, we figured. 

If it did, we’d get to do something we’d never done. The chance to see the increasingly celebrated Willamette Valley was a bonus. The pay would be minimal, but there would be room, board, a lot of overtime and few expenses besides waterproof work boots.

I checked in with Left Coast’s winemaker, Joe Wright. His priority seemed to be confirming we were ready for long damp days and short sleep intervals. “I just need warm bodies,” he told us. I relayed the update. “Oh, man,” said my buddy, who’s more gourmand than grunt. He withdrew immediately. 

I was still in, and a few weeks later, my first day of harvest school was in session. These are 10 lessons I took away from the succeeding month.

1. Expectations Are Futile

Our first work day on the crush pad would be a short one, we were informed—more orientation than oomph. Then the tractors started coming and kept coming, all morning, from 7:45 a.m. on, ultimately dropping off something like 48 bins of grapes. By the time we were done scooping, weighing, sorting, pressing, shoveling, cleaning, pumping, pressing and cleaning again, it was approaching midnight. 

The next day, we were prepped for a long haul but were home midafternoon. Fellow intern Mike Duffy and I made a pact: Skip the expectations and spend our energy staying present and ready for anything. 

“You don’t plan; you go until it’s over,” Ghogale told me later. “You just never know how the harvest season is going to go,” added team veteran Lisa Fahrner.

There’s one thing that can be counted on, however: Something will go wrong, so how you respond matters most. For 2020 (and very likely going forward in many wine regions), the big something was wildfire. When I drove north to Left Coast, it was framed by no fewer than four raging blazes that made the local air quality the worst in the world. Wright didn’t flinch and instead directed more pinot noir grapes to the soaring stainless-steel tanks that ferment white pinot noir. Without the skins, his pioneering take on the fickle grape picks up neither its red hue nor any potential smoke taint. Already an international bestseller, Left Coast’s flagship wine production leapt to 11,000 cases produced in 2020, more than that of any other winemaker. 

2. Yes, Wine Is Work

To me, the hustle of the harvest sounded like a feature, not a flaw. A few days in, my body begged to differ. My fingers didn’t close like they used to. My thighs were going purple polka dot after I learned from the field team how to hike a 100-pound “macro” bin from my thighs to the waiting tractor trailer. My hand was seeping blood beneath a bandage and a latex glove after I smashed it into the hard steel of the wine press hustling to squoosh the 10th of 12 big bins’ worth of pinot noir—about 10,000 pounds of grapes, the weight of an African bush elephant—through the small top opening of the wine press over the course of 45 minutes. After week one, I asked Duffy what part of his body he’d regenerate. “My muscles,” he replied.

3. Harvest Speaks Its Own Language

Brix and bungs, snow cones and sock filters, pump-overs and punch-downs, racking and riddling, digging out a fermenter and walking out a line—the words some use to describe their wines are famously flabby, but production doesn’t play that verbal game. The terminology of the harvest stays lean.

Brix, by the way, denotes sugar content (in liquid) and bungs are big barrel corks. Snow cones are conical spouts for spraying super-cold CO2 gas, and sock filters prevent skins from clogging up the works. The most fun terms, though, are the action words. Digging out a fermenter involves getting barefoot, jumping in a giant barrel and scooping out skins with shovels and buckets. Walking out a line means draining, step by step, serpentine tubes that connect presses, fermenters and barrels. Pumping-over describes the process of circulating red wine from the bottom of a barrel to the top to release carbon dioxide.

“Some terms may not make sense to [outsiders],” said assistant winemaker Mark Rutherford. “Some are stupid things we’ve evolved over the years.”

4. Harvest Can Be a Contact Sport 

Late one night, Duffy and I stood high atop a plank balanced on open-top ferment barrels the size of a Shrek hot tub, using stainless steel mashers to break up the thick layer of skins that has formed over the fermenting grapes. The punch-down process is a good workout. We were starting to sweat. 

I paused and stepped from the plank to the brim of the barrel to get a better angle. In doing so, I unsteadied the plank enough that Duffy’s next lunge with his steel wand sent the board shooting from beneath his feet like a skateboard stunt gone wrong, pitching him into the pit of grapes and the hard wooden side of the wine vat. 

Punch-downs extract more color, aroma, tannins and flavor from the skins. Duffy’s punch-down would extract a kaleidoscope of color from his hip bruise, from syrah purple to chardonnay gold. But he found his composure quickly and got back to work. At that night’s debrief, the vets trotted out their tales of misadventures. I felt grateful to hear them and proud of Duffy’s bounce back: What might have felt like a misstep seemed more a rite of passage. 

Wright was more measured when we discussed it later. He wants to aim higher, to eliminate the outdated assumption that harvests must push workers to a state of physical and mental exhaustion that can cause accidents. “It’s just not worth it,” he said.

5. Clean Is Compulsory

Our intern chief and cellar master, Alex Lindblom, liked to joke saying “no skins left behind,” but he wasn’t entirely kidding. The team spent an unofficial 4 million harvest hours spray-hosing the crush pad (and the rest of the 12,033 square foot winery) to make sure it remained spotless, even if we were about to muck it back up in an hour. 

“If it means 30 more minutes of cleaning at night that'll set up a morning where you can focus on what's ahead, you'll be in a much better mindset,” said Lindblom. “A clean workspace leads to a clean wine.” 

6. Farmworkers Are Essential to Success

One morning, our harvest crew was sent into the vines to help the field team snip clusters of pinot, filling buckets that would fill bins that would fill the presses that would fill barrels. Inspired by the speed and accuracy of the vineyard staff, I added pace to my game and promptly sliced my hand open twice. “No bueno,” said crew chief Arturo Garcia. 

Garcia has been with Left Coast for 14 years. Left Coast CEO Taylor Pfaff, who came of age on the vineyard blowing up gopher holes and dragging irrigation lines, will be the first to tell you Garcia is the one who knows Left Coast’s vines, soils and fruit better than anyone. That day in the vineyard, Garcia led Duffy to where he wanted the next grapes harvested without so much as looking up or referencing a numbered stake. “He just knew,” said Duffy.

All too often, farmworkers the world over are celebrated for their toil while safety resources, benefits and pay remain wanting. Fortunately, Left Coast breaks that pattern with livable wages and leadership on initiatives like SALUD, which provides health care to vineyard workers and their families.

“My management philosophy is simple,” said Wright. “I hire happy people and try to keep them happy. It’s setting your people up for success: Give them the space, the tools, the latitude and the support. I think you can taste the good energy in the bottle.”

7. You’ll Have Downtime, So Plan Ahead

Boredom, it turns out, can be a big part of harvest, but it doesn’t have to be. Even with expansive winemaking tasks supplemented with surprise duties like invasive blackberry eradication or bathroom mopping, it still takes several hours for the press to run its cycle, and those tasks don’t take forever. 

In your downtime, you might continue your wine education with audio books (winemaker Wright’s favorite wine listen is the novel “The Secret of Santa Vittoria”) and podcasts (cellar hand Steven Leeb likes “I’ll Drink to That”). And I recommend three other tools: 1) a jump rope, for downtime exercise, 2) resourcefulness, so when dismantling 600 buckets for reuse you might set an Oregon record for tallest bucket stack of all time, and 3) a meditative spot; I chose the north-facing patio at Left Coast. 

8. Wine Is Grown, Not Made

During a pause on the crush pad, the most fundamental lesson I heard from Wright echoes what accomplished winemakers love to remind everyone who will listen: Great wine happens in the vineyard, not in the winery. “I’ve known these grapes for the last six months, so I know the health of the fruit before it hits the pad,” said Wright. “We do a lot of work here in the winery, but 75%  is out there. A good crop will be good wine.” 

Ghogale sits on the senior leadership team with Wright and others, but they all defer to Wright on the grapes. “Joe is an artist, and every artist has his or her process,” said Ghogale. “He’s so in tune with the vines, each block on our estate, and he dictates the outcome of each vintage.”

9. Be Ready to Absorb Knowledge at All Times

A sommelier friend and harvest veteran, Paul Wetterau, had two pieces of advice for me: Get good boots, and treat the hard work like higher ed. I took both to heart. “You can just do the work, or do the work and ask questions,” he said. “Like college, you get out what you put in.” 

Rutherford, the assistant winemaker, agreed. “A lot of times, you can get stuck doing the same routine, which is necessary from the winery's perspective—that you do something well and do it over and over—but remember to glean the moments,” he said. “When you get time with the winemaker, have your questions ready. There’s more than one way to do it. Different winemakers have different styles.” 

10. Happiness Is Found in the Small Tasks

When we met, the dump truck had a thick greasy film coating its yellow frame. Its cabin filled my nose with a penetrating perfume of rodent. Its on-the-column gears were finicky. If I wasn’t careful, its stuck ignition could drain the battery, and its burly back gate could crush me. I adored it. 

There’s a certain grace to monotonous tasks like power-washing scores of macro bins in a row or hand-detailing two 8-ton fermenters, even scrubbing the dump truck itself, for hours, until it glowed. The logical and linear duties allowed for a welcome distraction from the worries of the world outside. 

But something about driving mounds of stems and skins to the compost pile, to be used in the vineyard later, transcended that. The rerouted waste fed growth and closed a loop. The route passed the winery’s ducks, chickens and neighboring kitchen garden and ended in an oak grassland, so even as the truck bounced and coughed, it allowed a tour of how sustainable farms can embrace nature rather than repress it. Most importantly, it offered me the joy of rumbling by the tasting room patio while covered in pumice and grape juice, as visitors swirled pinot and clinked glasses. The chance to be on this side of the steering wheel, sweating out the production of a living liquid I have long enjoyed, felt like a baptism.