Harvest Dance

As summer becomes fall grapes become wine.

In the last half of August, as summer ages, the winegrapes in the vineyard show their first outward signs of ripening. This bundle of events, called veraison, alerts the winegrower to the impending harvest: the berries begin to color, changing, variously, from green to yellow or red or purple; they soften and swell and sugars begin to accumulate in the juice at the center of the berry. The winegrower sees the coloring of the berries as the coy blush on the cheek of his prospective partner in the upcoming harvest dance.

And so the vineyard is made ready for harvest. A final spray is applied as the berries begin to swell, to protect against fruit rot. The grass in the row middles is mown short for the benefit of the pickers. Bird patrols begin. The winegrower arms himself with cracker shells to frighten marauding starlings, with exploding rockets to fire into flocks to frighten, and with live shotgun ammo for the final stages of the aerial battle with the descending clouds of hungry birds. The month between veraison and the moment of ripeness is a time of constant vigilance.

The winery is made ready to accept the grapes. Crushers and presses are cleaned and repaired as needed. The winery floors are cleaned. New barrels arrive from the cooperage and are checked for soundness. Pumps and hoses are checked. Yeast cultures arrive from the wine laboratories. Bird patrols of the vineyard continue, warning rockets launched, the flocks dispersed for a time.
In the final days before harvest, the grape pickers are alerted. The picking shears are cleaned and oiled, the picking boxes are brought out from the barn. The transport wagons are readied. The winegrower checks the ripeness of the grapes by sampling berries, tasting them, checking the amount of sugar with a refractometer in the vineyard, selecting a sample of berries to take back to the winery lab for fuller analysis of sugar, acidity, ph. And always the bird patrols, the exploding rockets launched into the flocks.

Suddenly, with an abruptness that startles, the winegrower realizes that the hall is ready, the musicians ready, the dancers ready, and the harvest dance begins.

The pickers arrive at 8 am, as the sun burns off the heavy dew. They tumble out of their cars, vans, pickups, anxious to begin. They select their picking shears, are assigned rows and begin to snip clusters from the vines, filling plastic lug boxes with the winegrapes. When full, the lug boxes are carried to the ends of the rows, and loaded onto the truck for transport to the winery. Meanwhile, back at the winery, the crusher is sanitized, tanks are sanitized.

The first grapes arrive at the crush area, brought from the vineyard by the picking boss. The boxes are unloaded and immediately emptied, one by one, into the top of the crusher. Out the side of the crusher are spit stems and from the bottom fall individual grape berries, their split skins allowing the juice to flow outside. The juicy berries, called must, fall directly into the open tank. When the first tank is full, it is removed and another put in place beneath the crusher.
In the vineyard the pickers move steadily down the rows harvesting the ripe fruit, the boxes of grapes move steadily out of the vineyard. The grapes continue to arrive at the crusher, and tanks fill with crushed grape must. The band has settled in, the music is solid, the dancers steady. 
Each full tank is closed up, to keep air from the must, and left for a day or two or three, depending upon the will of the winegrower, for the skin soak. The juice extracts some flavors from the skins of the grapes during this time. Then, yeast is added, and the fermentation begins. As the yeast population grows and the grape sugars are metabolized into alcohol and carbon dioxide, the tanks are opened to allow the carbon dioxide gas to escape. The grape skins begin to float to the top of the must, and the seeds fall to the bottom. Several times each day this floating mass of skins, called the cap, is punched down into the fermenting liquid, to wet it, to allow the alcohol in the wine to extract color, flavor, and aroma from the skins. And so the grapes begin to be wine.
After several days of fermentation, the must is removed from the tank and pressed to separate the liquid from the skins and seeds. The wine is pumped into barrels in the winecellar to complete the fermentation.

By the end of the first week of harvest, wines are fermenting in the cellar in barrels and in tanks. Juice is being pressed from the white grapes and pumped into barrels to ferment, red grapes are being crushed into open tanks, fermenting caps punched down. Many rows of grapes are picked, the pickers are moving steadily up and down new rows, selecting the ripe bunches. Birds are continuing to feed, the yeasts continue to feed. All is well, all is right. Some dancers are taking breaks, others have taken their place on the dance floor, but the dance itself is intact, continuing apace.

Day by day the dance goes on. If rain falls, the picking slows or stops, the pickers rest, the crusher stops, but the yeasts continue their work in the winery, and the bird patrols continue. On rainy days, the hungry flocks are more tenacious in their feeding, harder to dislodge from the vineyard. Ever more shot shells are used, more grapes are lost, more individual starlings die, but the flock lives and eats. Then the clouds lift, the sun returns, and the picking resumes.

By the third week of harvest, the winegrower no longer knows what day of the week it is, and doesn’t care, it is harvest time, and every day is equal, each day is unique, every day the dance steps are the same, reordered into new combinations, new moves. In the vineyard more grapes are ripe, more vines are ready to be shorn of their crop, the pickers move steadily through the rows. In the winery grape clusters enter the crusher, and emerge as must, yeast is added to the tanks, and wine is born. The presses are stained a rich red, the winegrowers hands darken. Bees hover about the boxes of grapes, invade the crusher, try to drink the juices coming out of the press. In the winecellar, the water-filled fermentation locks are bubbling furiously, releasing the carbon dioxide produced by the fermenting yeast, preventing air from entering the barrels and tanks. The pace of the dance in the cellar is quick, beaten out by the staccato burbling of these fermentation locks.

Now the end of the picking is in sight, whole sections of the vineyards are finished, the latest maturing varieties have ripened and are being harvested. In the final day of harvest, the pickers extend themselves, doing more than ever to finish. And the clusters go to the winery, and the yeasts eagerly eat the sweet juice, and more grapes become more wine.

Now the harvest is finished in the vineyard, the birds have left to find another place to eat. Now the crusher is silent, cleaned and ready to be put away until next year. The wines continue to ferment, the last tanks of must will be pressed shortly.

Another week, and the press is put away, the crushing area cleaned and still. Inside the winery, the fermentation locks still sing, though some are slowing, some hesitantly blurp only every few seconds as the yeasts in those barrels run out of food, as the wine ferments to dryness. The winery is quieting, settling down for the long winter ahead, a time when the young wines mature in the cool dark cellars, embraced by the oak barrels, partaking of the flavors and the aromas of the oak, complementing the wines natural perfume.

And in the vineyard, the vines prepare themselves for the winter ahead. Shorn of their crop, they use the hours of sunlight to produce carbohydrates, storing them in the plant tissues. Then the leaves die, coloring and drying and falling. And the vines are naked once more, ready for winter, awaiting the touch of the pruning shear. And the harvest dance is over, the dancers gone home. And the band plays on, silently, and the grapes are wine.

-Copyright © 1994 L. Mawby