We gather in the pre-dawn darkness that’s broken intermittently by pairs of headlights as the crew arrives. Harvest 2016 is finally a go in Calistoga.
Calistoga is home to a scattering of old vine blocks. One of my neighbors has some that are 110 years old; about a half mile down the road there are 140-year-old Zinfandel vines.
The three of us who drive the tractor are the anomaly…the ones who work only during harvest. The rest — the family and the vineyard workers — spend the entire year tending these vines.
Despite 25 years’ experience farming corn and soybeans in the Midwest, I am still a vineyard novice as I begin my third year driving the tractor for harvest. There’s always more to learn and to perfect, but, for a wine geek it is a great experience.
Today’s pick will be two adjacent blocks of Zinfandel grapes, one of the old vines and the other of the young vines. The winemaker buying the “zin” wants to keep the old and young separate, so we have to pick it in halves. This process changes the row pattern we will follow, but the experienced crew will point me into the correct rows.
Old vines are fascinating, with those heavy gnarled trunks each expressing a unique growth pattern laden with twists, turns and knots. Their leafy canes have sprouted in all directions and they flail against the tractor tires and windows as I drive through them. The vines are about my age, although they don’t have a Medicare card to prove it.
The pick goes quickly and we finish before the sun crests the Palisades. We take our load of just under 6 tons of Zinfandel grapes to a transfer pad where they are fork-lifted onto a big truck and driven to the purchasing winery.
A week later, we are harvesting more Zinfandel. Zin is a varietal well suited to Calistoga’s warm to hot days and cool nights. My tractor tows a flatbed trailer loaded with two 4-feet-by-4-feet plastic bins. As I drive between the rows of vines, the crew swarms around me and I try to stay somewhere in the middle of them.
It’s often described as “picking grapes” but the reality is the clusters of grapes are severed from the vines by strong, skilled swipes of knives. The crew uses well honed, curve-bladed knives with precision to cut the stems of the clusters. Anytime there is a break in the action they will be seen sharpening the knives with old-fashioned pocket whetstones. They are amazing in the way they attack a vine, reaching under the leaf canopy to quickly make the cut. At ground level another skill set is in play. Each worker has a hand tote, which is a solid basket-like bin utilized to capture the grape bunches. They maneuver the totes with their feet so that when the clusters are cut from the vine they fall into the tote. It’s not 100 percent accurate, but in the long run it allows them to be much more efficient. When the tote is filled, they hoist it above their heads and hustle toward the two large bins behind my tractor where they toss the load.
Two of the oldest crew members man the bins behind me, spreading and leveling the grapes that are thrown in. They deftly remove any leaves which can impart unpleasant flavors if crushed along with the grapes.
When my bins are full, the craggy faced veteran on the rear bin steps off the trailer motions me to go as he utters the one word I have come to appreciate, “vámonos.” I am on my way to the transfer pad where the bins are fork-lifted from trailer to truck for delivery to a winery.
A few weeks later, we have moved on and are harvesting Cabernet Franc, one of the “parents” of Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Sauvignon Blanc. Most wineries use Cab Franc as a blending grape where the predominant varietal is Cabernet Sauvignon. However, it seems like Cab Franc is being bottled more frequently lately as a stand alone wine. The grapes we bring in today will be bottled as a vineyard designated Cab Franc.
These vines are completely different than the Zinfandel we picked earlier. The Zin vines were head trained. There are no wires used to control the growth of the vine and the position of grape clusters. Head trained vines have a central trunk and then the annual growth occurs in an umbrella shape. Grape clusters are found at many points under the leafy “umbrella” and aren’t always easy for the crew to locate.
The Cab Franc is trellised on what are known as T-vine formations. (There’s even a winery in Calistoga named T-Vine.)
Metal or wooden posts are used to form “T”s in the rows of vines. Wires are strung the length of the rows and attached to the outer arms of the “T”s. As the vines grow each year the wires are used to create a canopy of leaves under which the grape clusters grow. Vine trunks and main branches are trained to grow in a linear fashion down the rows and the grapes are linear as well.
With the head-trained Zinfandel we generally pick 6 rows at a time as the crew can move unimpeded among the vines. The trellised T-vine Cab Franc allows us to only pick 2-1/2 rows at a time. The crew works in the same row I drive in and the two adjacent rows. Those in adjacent rows must either throw their tote of grapes over the wires into my bins or duck under the wires to dump the totes.
Like the majority of red wine drinkers I consume only a tiny percentage of Cabernet Franc versus Cabernet Sauvignon. But every time I sample a good Cab Franc, I find it to be an appealing wine…I need to drink more of it.
Years ago, Charbono was readily found in Napa Valley. Much of it has since been replanted, mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s become such a rare grape there are barely 100 acres left in the world, about half of it right here in Calistoga. Amazingly, that half is spread among 5 or 6 different growers. Charbono’s origins are in France, but it was brought to the Napa Valley by Italian immigrants.
In a full circle kind of way, Charbono is a special grape to me. In the ‘70s, before I even knew what it was, we used to drink Inglenook Charbono at a steakhouse in Wisconsin. Now, I am a participant in its harvesting.
Today we finish the 2016 harvest by picking the last portions of two blocks of Charbono. The “young” vines (about 30 years old) go first. They are trellised on linear wires with the clusters readily exposed since the crew leafed this block yesterday afternoon. The large, plump bunches fill our bins quickly and we complete the block in a little over 2 hours, bringing in about 15 tons.
As we move to the old vines (about 80 years old) the difference is like night and day. The old are head-trained without wires. They are by far the shortest vines on the ranch, most not reaching three feet in height. It’s said the Italian settlers trained the vines to grow low to the ground, thus absorbing and retaining the warmth of the soil. Often the crew must go to one knee to reach under the umbrella-shaped leaf canopy to find and cut loose the bunches. The rate of picking is perhaps a third to one-quarter that of the young vines.
I have long since passed the point of wondering if it is worthwhile to continue with the the low yields and difficult handling of these twisty, knotted old vines…they are a treasure in the wine world.
It’s apropos that we conclude the 2016 harvest with Charbono.
– Doug Herrmann, a Calistoga resident and Calistoga Welcome Center volunteer, contributed this blog post from his experience working in a Calistoga vineyard.