In the early morning, before the sun begins to crest above the mountains, I can hear a tractor chugging, making its way through the vineyard. I sip my coffee in the semi-darkness, enjoying the unmistakable feeling of a morning on the brink of Autumn. Listening to the early birds all around me, catching their worms, I watch the sun’s first rays light up the vineyard. The vines, a sea of green with waves of yellow, orange, and red, so recently heavy with fruit, are now free of their burden. The pickers drop the last bin of grapes in a long row at the winery just as our crew begins to arrive, having left only a few hours before. A new day has begun.
I’ve been to Napa, and have watched their high tech equipment sort grapes with a speed and efficiency we will never be able to match. Here in Murphys, as we near the end of harvest and our backs are aching, our hands are stained and caked with tartrates, and we have barely slept, you would think we would be envious. But as our crew stands together around the table, hand sorting grapes to a rhythm that transcends music, I know I wouldn’t trade our Old World techniques for anything.
Under the direction of Winemaker Nathan Vader, who makes wine for Vina Moda and Villa Vallecito Vineyards in Murphys, as well as Euclid out of Napa, our crew has spent eight straight weeks in each other’s company. From early morning, through the afternoon, and into the night, when we can feel the breeze from New Melones meet the heat of the day rising from the blacktop at our feet, we sort the grapes we have come to know intimately. By varietal, we know their taste, color and smell, the thickness of their skins, the way they feel in our hands and all of the characteristics that set them apart from the rest. Anything less than perfection is deftly tossed into the compost bin, where it will give new life to next year’s crop.
We have come together to create something beautiful, a work of art, and as the clusters of grapes move through our hands, any pretenses or ego that may follow us in our day to day life vanish. We work together, laugh together, trade words of wisdom and tell stories of our pasts. We take turns providing a feast at twilight each day, just as harvest crews around the world have done for generations, sitting together and replenishing ourselves for the long hours still ahead. When the moon has risen high above our heads, we pass around a bottle of a previous vintage for inspiration and talk of loves lost and found, triumphs and tragedies, hopes and fears. After so many hours, days, and weeks together, we aren’t able to be anyone but who we truly are. Here, we are family.
Napa may have fancy equipment, and their wine may command a higher price. But this community, this wine, has heart and depth that reminds me of a bygone era. Wine was meant to be made with passion and care, dedication and hard work. I like to think that the Old World winemakers would be proud, knowing that we are carrying on their traditions.
by Dre Edwards
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of the Mountain Chronicle, page 16