Harvesting Grapes: A Day in the Field

Guest author Laura Zander is a book nerd on a perpetual quest to satiate her curiosity and observe the magic of juxtapositions. A veteran of the tech world, she's widely acknowledged as a product, marketing, and operations guru. You can follow her reading life at loudlatinlaughing.com or @lz 

Hours before dawn on Sunday morning, I leave the city and head north to a small family-run winery to help harvest grapes. The SOS signal hit the volunteer email list on Friday after a storm was spotted on the horizon, making Sunday the last harvest day of the season. C-SPAN radio keeps me awake as I bleary-eyed cruise the highway in pitch black night, thinking of all the people nestled in the last throes of cozy sleep before they laze towards coffee and the newspaper. I make a pit stop for coffee refresh, then wind past farmland on a one-lane road, through the gate and up the hill to the winery. 

Headlamps flash in the vines-- the real crew started at 5 a.m. and are already picking when I arrive. Armed with gloves and a knife, I foray into the mix of day laborers who stand around with full bins waiting for the tractor to swing by and collect its bounty. We’re instructed to finish this row then attack the rows of syrah grapes below us, picking all the way to the road. I grab a bin and start grappling with the grapes. Some pluck off easily just using my hands, other bunches need to be extricated with a few swift knife strokes. The crew leader is Pedro, in charge of driving the tractor and herding us from one section of vines to the next. Pedro is a grape picking machine, reaching into the vines and rat-a-tat filling his bin. My progress is weak in comparison, but I pick up the pace and get into a zen state. We are peaceful locusts, swarming the vines and leaving leaf bits and vine twigs in our wake.

As I work in my corner of the field, I watch dawn pinken the sky, and take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the scene, my own luck at being able to participate. I hear the rustle of metallic strips of paper fluttering in the breeze, meant to prevent birds from alighting on the fruit. I hear the singsong call and response of the workers. A joke about burros swings across the rows. There is a distinct sound of grapes hitting the bin, thwack. I begin to think in Spanish, remembering how to say basic things like “Dame un otro!” and “Por fin!” 

I soon realize the staggering amount of waste involved in producing wine. Grapes are crushed as they are wrestled from the vine. Whole sections of the field will be ruined because we aren’t able to get the entire crop in before the heavy rain hits. This is planned for, apparently. While the winery has a bottling permit for 5,000 cases, they normally produce around 1,500 per year. They have harvested enough grapes over the previous ten days, along with today’s haul, in order to meet that goal. I pop a grape into my mouth during my second hour of harvest, curious about the taste of this product I’ve been thrashing around with for hours. I can feel the freshness, my teeth cut into the skin and juice oozes, I fish the seed out from the pulp.

This may seem obvious, but grapes grow on a vine. And vines like to twist around things. Sometimes I think I’ve sliced the connection between the grape and vine only to find that the cluster has clutched and wound itself around the wire of the fence. This is infuriating, to untangle a bunch that is colluding with the fence. I end up twisting the grapes back and forth, mangling most in the process.

Out in the field, working with my hands and knowing exactly what to do next (continue picking this row until my bin fills up or I run into someone else), my mind is freed from normal constraints and wanders pleasantly. Random bits that enter my mind during this time: every wino should be required to do this, to embrace the origin of his folly, to cherish the end product in a new way. I also ponder what the day laborers must think about my presence. I can’t imagine them showing up to my office to volunteer for meetings.

After trucking to a neighbor’s Cabernet Sauvignon field to pillage grapes, we regroup at the winery for a break. Bread, lunch meats and condiments are spread before us; we tear into them, savoring each bite as if from the best sandwich ever made. Fed and watered, the volunteers are given a choice of jobs while the day laborers are hauled back into the field to gather as many tons of fruit possible before they collapse or before the rain starts. Volunteers can either continue picking grapes alongside the workers or remain in the winery and help with the grape/stem sorting. 

In hindsight, I wish I’d picked the return to the fresh air, sunlight, and movement. Instead, I stand on a metal bench for hours while a conveyor belt moves destemmed grapes past me and I remove remaining bits of stem, leaves, and bugs. We make “I Love Lucy” jokes about the conveyor belt episode, and the six volunteers settle into the monotonous and never-ending task of standing in a single spot and picking out detritus. We chatter about various topics ranging from politics to the first concert we ever attended, trying to entertain each other. Bin after bin of grapes clatters into the chute aimed at the destemmer machine, which crunches and separates the grapes from stem, spitting an unending pile onto the slow moving table. Occasionally, things get stuck, or need adjusting. This stops the table, we attempt to move our feet from the spot they are stuck to, sticky with grape juice and welded to the bench, all of us heading into the sunshine to stretch and move around. Back on the line, our weary bodies lean against the table, our eyes glaze from the monotonous sight of grapes, our ears are assaulted by listening to the same album on repeat. A rumor sweeps the room that we are on our last batch. We perk up, become momentarily jaunty, and tear through the final wave. Huzzah, we reach the end, a final wash of our hands, the owners press bottles of 2005 Syrah into our arms as thanks, and we wobble to our cars. 

It has been a fascinating day, a combination of agriculture and manufacturing unique to winemaking. The process itself is as crushing on the body as it is on the grapes. On the drive home, the sun sets, making it a rare day that I catch both sides of the sun’s dance atop the horizon. Back in the city, I ease my nearly broken body into the hot tub and enjoy a glass of the 2005 Syrah. It is the best sip I have ever had, due to the quality of the product and the intimate glimpse inside the process that produced it. The physical labor so uncommon to my life and yet so inherently human makes me feel more real in this crumpled heap of exhaustion than I do on any other day. 

Photos By Laura Zander

Guest author Laura Zander is a book nerd on a perpetual quest to satiate her curiosity and observe the magic of juxtapositions. A veteran of the tech world, she's widely acknowledged as a product, marketing, and operations guru. You can follow her reading life at loudlatinlaughing.com or @lz 

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