Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I Hear that the Zinfandel is Ready!

It was a cold, overcast Sunday morning as I filled my coffee cup, looking wistfully back toward my bedroom doorway and the warm bed beyond, before slipping quietly through the front door and into the dark, morning chill. I was up much earlier than was my custom; I’d been invited to work my very first harvest with Toucan Wines, down south of Arroyo Grande in the Husana (pronounced WAZ’ nă) Valley and I didn’t want to be late.

I’d been talking to Doug Timewell and his wife Teri Leivers about joining their team of volunteer harvesters for the past three vintages, but my schedule had always precluded this plan. This year I was clear, because Sunday is my "day-off" (thanks, Chris!) so I was leaving plenty early, hoping my early arrival would convey my eagerness for the task at hand! Of course, I also wanted to be early to allow me time to grab a cup of coffee at a Broadway Bagel on Grande Ave (in Arroyo Grande) on the way, then find the property, to which I’d never yet been.

Unfortunately, the bagel shop didn’t open that early (really?? 6:30??!? really??), but that worked out just fine, as the web site directions were… well… imaginative at best. The expected 30 minute drive was more like 45 to 50, and I arrived mere minutes ahead of the rest of the team, most of whom lived right there in the valley. For those of you who have not visited the Husana Valley – as I had not previously – it is quite stunning. I was reminded of childhood memories of visits to the family farms of Wisconsin, but with way more oak trees! My only warning is, should you decide to take a drive out through the valley, please watch for bicyclists. They abound on the curvy roads, though mostly after the sun comes up, so in this case, I was fine.

Our harvest team consisted of Doug, Teri, five of their closest neighbors (and I mean that geographically) and me. Our mission: Petite Sirah. Toucan Vineyards have about an acre of Petite Sirah on their estate, all of which was ready to come down the hill and into the winery. We had gloves (a must if you want to pick petite Sirah without having "oompa-loompa" hands for the next couple of weeks!). We had pruning sheers. We had 5 gallon buckets to fill the waiting bins. And Doug? He had the tractor.

Doug and Teri led us to the netted rows of vines that they had identified as ready (that is, with a Brix of 24.5), and cut us loose. We were told to only take the well formed clusters, leaving behind any under-developed ones, though I found the vineyard to be so meticulously tended that very, very few clusters were left when we’d finished. And so we began. For those of you who have not tried a harvest, prepare to become reacquainted with a bunch of muscles you’d forgotten that you had. There is a lot of squatting and reaching involved. A lot!

For the next two and a half hours we moved in concert, vine-to-vine, row-to-row. The relief came when your bucket was full and you got to hump it up the hill to the waiting tractor, usually a hundred yards up, and two rows over. But at least you got to be upright! Finally Teri, who had been working ahead of the rest of the group, checking berries in the next rows, declared we were finished. The news brought a round of delighted "Whoops" and a high five of two. We collected our gear and to a man (and woman) beat Doug, driving the final load down in the tractor, to the winery, where we said our good-byes. The day, however, was not yet over.

As the rest of the harvest crew waved their good-byes and drove away, Doug and I headed to the winery to process the fruit, as Teri disappeared back into the vineyard to search out any missed clusters. Ducking through the roll away door, I found that Doug had been busy; the tubs of grapes were neatly stacked, five high, around the immaculate crusher-destemer machine. In fact, my impression of the entire room was how notably clean and sanitary everything was. The walls. The floors. The cold room, where previous vintages of Toucan Wines quietly developed. Everything was neat, clean and meticulously organized.

After a quick tour of the compact facility, Doug explained how the processing worked; he climbed onto the scaffold atop the crusher-destemer and dumped in grapes from the bins I passed up to him. My job was to keep the bins coming and kill as many black widow spiders as I found. And there were many! It seems they really like Petite Sirah, though not – Doug assured me – as much as they like zinfandel! But I digress.

Surprisingly, for all the grapes staked up when we came in, the crush went quickly. It only took about half an hour to forty-five minutes to process almost a ton of fruit and push the tank into the reefer to begin the cold soak. A couple of weeks have gone by since then. I’m pretty much off the Ibprophin now and am moving about pretty much like a man my age. And just in time, too; this weekend, I hear that the zinfandel is ready!