The sky was misting when I walked up to the vines. After 45 minutes of driving through the fog on a two-lane highway and a gravel road at 5 a.m., I hope that I arrived at the right destination--Chandler Hill, a small-production, family-owned vineyard in Missouri wine country. As the fog gently rolled across the nearby pond and the mist woke up my tired face, I knew I was far from my urban confines and in the right place.
This particular vineyard, which grew vidal blanc grapes, consisted of 30 evenly lined rows of vines. The translucent, thin-skinned grapes--somewhere between a yellow and a green color--seemed to glow from the inside out. Mother Nature’s morning dew kept the grapes coated in a layer of accumulated rain that dripped off the clusters when you cut them from the vine.
It wasn’t supposed to rain like this. I overheard the winemaker and the owner discussing the effects that the overnight rain would have on the crop. Weather is a tricky part of the harvesting process. Everything from too much rain to too little rain can determine the yield and the sugar levels in the grapes. It’s the sugar levels that then signify the alcohol level of the wine.
Weather aside, five vineyard workers, the winemaker, the winery owner and one neighboring farmer showed up to help pick grapes on that misty morning. We were all handed a pair of brand new schears from a brown plastic crate. The winemaker, Tom, lined up the rookies for a few ground rules on picking grapes for the first time.
“You want to pull the leaves on the vines aside and start cutting off the grapes,” said Tom.
“Put the full-looking clusters in the lugs, which are these white bins we lined up in the vines.”
Tom turned the the vine and cut a cluster that was half-full of grapes with tiny berries at the bottom to show us for the next rule.
“Some of the grapes won’t be fully developed, so just cut off the underdeveloped part or drop the cluster to the ground if it’s really small.”
Tom cut another cluster for the last rule of the day.
“And lastly, some of the grapes will have some rot on them. This is what happens when the animals get a hold of them. Just chop off the rot, and put it in the lug.”
We all spread out down different lanes to start working our ways through each row. I started at one end. The leaves, like the grapes, were soaked in last night’s rain, so every time I touched the leaves or a vine, I’d get splashed by all the water droplets puddled in the center of the leaves. After moving through a few vines, my sleeves were soaked. But at least we weren’t working in direct sunlight and heat. It could have been much worse.
The first cluster I snipped off of the vine was pristine.
I held it longer than I should have before tossing it into the lug. I had to admire the taut grape skin with its see-through veins and few freckles from sunburn. I couldn’t help but think how this bunch would soon be smashed into a juice. Then I realized I had to spend less time admiring and more time cutting. Everyone moved down their lanes quicker than me.
The next cluster I cut was mushy at the bottom. This one was a little rotten. The brown grapes actually smeared off of the grape stem with a swipe of my thumb, but I cut off the rot anyway. Fortunately, there wasn’t much rotten clusters in the vineyard at all, just a lot of ripe, plump grapes that I tossed into the lugs.
I was extra careful to go through the vines once to get all the good fruit. Then a second time to drop the underdeveloped clusters or cut them and keep the ripe parts. And lastly I went through each vine a third time to see if I missed anything. The only things I seemed to miss were the tiny clusters of ripe grapes, so I snagged them during my third view.
I took my first break after two hours of cutting. The time seemed to fly by when you’re slightly soaked and standing in the quiet, middle of nature. As each of us conquered the vines, we filled our lugs. Another vineyard worker drove around to pick up the full ones. All of the full lugs are then weighed to figure out how much fruit the vineyard produced, which will help estimate how much wine will become of the grapes.
At the end of the day, we filled lots of lugs--I lost track of how many. I was exhausted, soaked and covered in grass clippings, but I felt a big sense of accomplishment knowing that I was helping make wine. After a day of picking, I drove through a fogless road back to my urban life, cleaned off my muddy boots and rested up for the next day of harvest--crushing the grapes.
Stay tuned for part two of “Working the Harvest.”
Special thanks to Chandler Hill Vineyards and their head winemaker, Tom Murphy, for letting me learn all about their harvest. What their gorgeous property looks like without the fog:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Originally from Missouri, Katie has lived in Switzerland, Chicago, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Arizona--and prefers to live in close proximity to old vines. Her first job in college was pouring wines and pruning vines at a winery in Augusta, Missouri, which was the first designated AVA in America. Since then, Katie has spent several years working in corporate America as a copywriter and content marketer. She now works for herself because "her boss" adheres to a strict unlimited winery vacation policy. Follow her tasting and travel notes: @eieigel.