From the outside, winemaking seems romantic.
Farm workers lovingly tend to their vineyards throughout the spring and summer, and then hand harvest their grapes in the early fall. Those grapes are then gently crushed — by foot, of course — and turn into wine on their own through the magic of fermentation.
We’re led to believe that winemakers simply monitor this process. They’re there to make sure the final product winds up on the dinner table, but nature takes care of virtually everything.
This narrative is partially true. But it ignores the grueling, backbreaking work that goes into every bottle of wine we open.
Last week, I took part in that work during a brief visit to California, where I visited 12 wineries in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District. I came equipped with rubber boots and gloves — and offered to help wherever an extra hand was needed. I’m still hurting.
Wherever wine is made, harvest is a special time. But the work is exhausting.
In the evenings and early mornings, vineyards are packed with laborers collecting fruit, as picking while the weather is cool protects workers from daytime heat and ensures the grapes arrive in pristine condition.
The roads are equally busy. In the mornings and evenings, trucks are filled with grapes. Throughout the day, those same trucks haul equipment and vineyard supplies.
Wineries are abuzz with around-the-clock activity.
Forklifts and tractors are in constant use. As grapes come in, they’re sorted, de-stemmed, and sorted again, as no winemaker wants leaves, spiders, or rocks to end up in her wine. With white wines, those grapes are crushed and pressed before fermentation. With reds, most of the grapes are typically left intact before they’re placed in barrels or tanks. At this point, yeast gets to work — gradually converting the sugar into alcohol and imparting a litany of new tastes and aromas. Over about two weeks, what begins as grape juice becomes wine.
Throughout this period, winemakers regularly taste the fermenting juice — and bring samples to the laboratory — to make sure the process is progressing as it should.
For every winemaking team, the cleaning never ends. From bins, sorting tables, and de-stemming machines to tanks, pipes, and winemaking equipment, scalding hot water is used, over and over again, to hose down virtually everything. Wineries are very wet during harvest season.
The work seems endless. Harvest only lasts about six to ten weeks, depending on the grape variety. But during this period, 12- to 14-hour days are normal. Much of the work is messy and physical. Some is mind-numbingly repetitive. Many tough choices have to be made. And at every step, attention to detail is critical — one small error could result in hundreds of gallons of lost wine.
Despite all the effort, harvest is magical. The air is filled with energy and the smell of fermenting grapes. Winemakers and their teams beam with joy, knowing their work will bring joy and pleasure to countless people. I can’t wait to go back.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.