(Editor’s note: The following essay appeared in the November 1990 edition of the California Wine Press and has been rerun in California Wine and Food. In some ways the world has changed since then—wages have risen and the price of top-quality wines has, too--but the hand picking of winegrapes remains much the same.)
By Dan Clarke
They start to gather in the darkness. It’s still a little chilly and most are wearing light jackets or wool plaid overshirts. Later they will peel these off and work in tee-shirts.
Bancroft Vineyard is on the top of Howell Mountain a few miles to the east of St. Helena in the heart of the Napa Valley. Here at 1800 feet elevation it’s usually cooler in the morning than on the valley floor.
Simon, Ruben and Ignacio are among the first out of the bunkhouse. A few minutes later Leopoldo—“Polo”—joins them. These men live at the vineyard pretty much year ‘round. They have families in Mexico they haven’t seen since they came up in January to begin the pruning. Within a week after harvest is completed they will be on the way back to El Llano, their home in Michoacan. It’s a difficult life and they work hard for their six to eight dollars an hour wages. At home they might make that for a whole day—when they could find work.
Headlights coming up the drive announce the arrival of more pickers. Most of them are from Mexico, but are living in the wine country now. Two crews will be working today with about 10 pickers each. Gringos don’t pick grapes. Oh, they can and sometimes do just for the experience or to augment the Mexicans’ work, but the fact is, they’re not very good at it. There will be others working today, men and women without Latin surnames who will drive tractors, help pickers dump bins of grapes into the gondolas, and remove “MOG” (material other than grapes).
Everybody pretty much knows what the group is going to do and what his role in the day’s activities will be, but there is an air of anticipation; an excitement and maybe a little tension. The feeling could be likened to the feeling shortly before kickoff of a football game or backstage just before the curtain goes up.
Joaquin Villanueva, the foreman, confers with vineyard manager Jon Seibel and then speaks to the pickers in Spanish. There is the sound of machinery everywhere. Two Ford pickup trucks leave the staging area, taking the pickers out to the vineyard. Four Kubota diesel tractors leave, too, pulling empty blue gondolas on the low trailers behind them.
Most farm work is done for wages, but this is different. Harvest means piece work and the chance to earn $100—maybe $150 a day. Each person shares evenly in the money his crew will earn today. The first half hour or so, picking is done in only a half-light and care must be taken not to include any clusters of “second crop”—grapes that begin their growth after the majority do. These may look mature, but they’re not. Their characteristic shine or slight luminescence can’t easily be picked out until the sun gets over the pine trees adjacent the vineyard. Now and for the next couple of hours the packers are literally running. They scurry from vine to vine, looping around each other until their trays are filled, then run to the gondola which usually precedes them down the row about twenty to thirty yards ahead. Later, fatigue will slow them a bit, but now they run toward the gondola, usually dumping their bins themselves if they are working in the same row as the tractor. If they’re in a row adjacent, they’ll hand the bins to helpers who attend the tractor and gondola—under the vines or over them. The helpers this day are tall Anglos who can usually take the tray over the vines more easily than they can bend to the level where the Mexicans are to pick the tray up. Occasionally, Arriba! is heard and a picker sends his bin flying over the vines and right into the goldola. We retrieve the empty bin and send it back at him. This throwing of the bin may be thought to conserve time and, when it’s done accurately, probably does. There’s a macho element to it, though, and I can’t deny that for men who weigh maybe 130 pounds to press 40 to 50 pounds of grapes overhad then fling them over the vines and directly into the gondola is pretty impressive athletically. As the day warms, this practice wanes as does the running.
Picking fast and picking cleanly is imperative, but is not easy to do. Leaves are sometimes cut along with grape clusters and must be minimized before the load goes to the winery. The tall helpers stoop over the gondolas, working furiously to remove leaves and anything else that’s not grapes. Each gondola holds about two tons and as one fills, it must leave the vineyard row and be replaced immediately by another tractor with empty gondola. Filling each gondola takes about 45 minutes and care must be taken to periodically level the load and gently pack down the grapes, otherwise the gondola will overflow without acquiring its required two tons.
Whether picking or packing, handling ripe grapes gets the hands sticky. Loaders and packers will rinse off occasionally in water from the orange cylinder kept on or near each tractor. Pickers will use the same water source for drinking but don’t seem to have time to wash off. When loaded, the tractor and gondola will be driven back to the area in front of the bunkhouse and shop where Javier will weigh the grapes and load them onto a large flatbed trailer. Later, this trailer will be towed down eight miles of steep and windy road to Beringer.
Nature, good viticultural practices and maybe a bit of luck along the way have combined to produce exceptional red wine grapes from this vineyard. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from another section at Bancroft are picked for Beringer’s Private Reserve, but this Merlot is regarded as something really special. At the end of the year Beringer will release its first-ever Merlot, designated as “Bancroft Ranch.” The price is projected to be $27 a bottle on release for the 1987 vintage. Who knows how much the Merlot grapes picked today will be worth when they are available in bottle in three years? Perhaps this is a question only writers ponder. (Editor’s note: The Beringer Winery currently sells Bancroft Ranch Merlot at $90.)
Around noon people begin to wonder if we are close to finishing. Today, Beringer Winemaster Ed Sbragia says he wants 24 tons. The pickers are tired, but they’d rather continue deep into the afternoon and are disappointed to find that the winery can only accommodate the 12 gondolas of grapes today.
Disappointment is tempered by the exhilaration of knowing that relaxation is just a few minutes away as some ride in from the vineyard clinging to the last full gondolas, others standing in the back of a stake-bed pickup. A few minutes to rinse their picking bins and themselves and then quickly to the iced tub of sodas and Budweiser.
About seven hours ago I thought the atmosphere resembled that preceding an athletic contest and now, sitting under a tree and savoring the second beer, I feel like I used to when peeling off tape in a locker room and looking forward to a shower.
Fifty yards to the north and out in the sun is the big trailer with 12 gondolas of our grapes. Better to stay away from them now as the bees are attracted to their sweet stickiness. It’s nice to relax and gaze at them. They’re a very tangible record of our labors today. In an hour they’ll be gone and in two hours they’ll begin to be dumped into a stemmer/crusher at Beringer and its stainless steel augur will continue the work of helping fruit reach its highest expression.
And tomorrow before dawn we’ll begin again.
Editor's note: Links to websites of all the Napa Valley wineries, as well as hundreds of lodging and dining options in the North Coast, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.