Picks, Bins and Burgers: Behind the Scenes at Harvest by Jennifer

On Thursday we had another Waits-Mast fruit pick, this time some Pinot Noir grapes from Mariah Vineyard in Mendocino Ridge. It was a jam-packed day at the winery (we make our wine at Roar Wines in San Francisco) and a particularly hectic day for our winemaker. She awoke in the wee hours for a grape pick for another winery (complicated by a tree falling in the vineyard too!) and spent the day sorting that fruit and doing other harvest work. She wrapped up in time to brave rush hour traffic, meeting us at our San Francisco facility by about 6pm.


Mariah grapes hanging out in the cold room before sorting on Sept. 15, 2016. Photo: J. Waits

After picking the fruit in the middle of the night, Mariah’s owner Dan Dooling delivered it midday and the staff at Roar greeted him and moved our bins of fruit into the winery’s cold room until we could arrive to sort through the grapes.

Roar had a very busy day and when Brian and I got to the winery at around 5:30pm, they were sorting through their last few bins of fruit. Because they were also sorting Pinot Noir grapes and the fruit was in good shape (no mold, for example), we were able to have the cellar interns just do a quick clean-up of the sorting table before we started dumping our bins of fruit on the table for our hand sort.


Dumping fruit from bin onto the sorting table. Photo: J. Waits

As we were preparing, we joked around with our winemaker Shalini and our friend Cynthia about how much of the wine making process is devoted to cleaning up. Every night the sorting equipment is thoroughly cleaned, bins must be rinsed, and there’s endless washing of the tools that touch the grapes and juice. We are grateful for the cellar staff who have to deal with these tasks day and night.

Because of those harvest conversations, I had a bit of deja vu when I read Lettie Teague’s Wall Street Journal piece, What Really Goes into Making that Glass of Merlot. Her accounting of harvest rings true for us and I had an eerie feeling that she had been eavesdropping on some of our chatter at the winery this week, particularly when she wrote, “Winemakers often say it takes a lot of water to make wine. They like to say it takes a lot of beer, too.” I swear that we uttered those same words on Thursday as beers were cracked open while the sorting table was being cleaned.


Bin full of stems that have been removed from the grapes after sorting. Photo: J. Waits

Harvest is full of uncertainty and we agree that selecting the date to pick one’s grapes can be stress-inducing. We rely a lot on the expertise of our growers, our taste buds, and on the advice of winemakers working in the vineyards that we source fruit from; but we don’t always have control over pick dates. Growers need to find crews to pick the fruit, sometimes need to hire folks to drive the fruit to us, and also have to balance schedules that include picks from all of the different wineries who buy fruit from them.

Even if grapes are maturing at a somewhat predictable rate, it can be hard to schedule a pick too far in advance. Weather can also change things dramatically, like when a sudden heat spike occurs or when heavy rains are in the forecast. After carefully tending to the vines all year, no grower wants to see that work destroyed by weather events just before harvest.


Can you spy the Waits-Mast bin? Photo: J. Waits

And then there are grape receptacles to figure out. We have some of our own bins that harvested fruit is transported to the winery in (one-ton plastic bins, which are dubbed “T-bins”), but with five different vineyards we often borrow the grower’s bins. It then becomes a shell game of figuring out which bins are where and how to get bins back up to Mendocino from San Francisco, which can be a three hour drive in decent traffic.

But, back to the task at hand: fruit sorting. Overall, harvest this year has been dry and relatively temperate and for this most recent pick, the Mariah pinot noir grapes were simply gorgeous. We quickly did our sort, pulling out a few leaves and raisins here and there.


Sorting through Mariah fruit with our friend Cynthia (left), winemaker Shalini (middle) and Brian (right). Photo: J. Waits

The sorted grapes then made their way uphill on a conveyor from the sorting table to the de-stemmer and a big bin collected the luscious pinot noir berries underneath. Several bins of those berries are now hanging out in the winery as we await the conversion of their sugars into alcohol during fermentation. After that happens we will press off the juice, storing it in barrels as it ages.

Given the evening hour of the sorting process, we gathered with the crew at the winery and brought in burgers for dinner. They paired well with a selection of wines that everyone had on hand, from a Rosé of Pinot Noir to some killer Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Syrah, to a few of our own bottles.

With another pick and sort completed, we now have two more vineyards to harvest from this week and are in the midst of coordinating the logistics for that. Schedules seem to be aligning and hopefully the weather also cooperates. Now if we can only find our bins. Wish us luck.


1 Comment so far
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Awesome post! Actually enjoying looking at your previous posts as well. We live in Napa and totally love harvest time. It’s magic. You may enjoy our blog about life in wine country: Follow us if you like what you see.

Comment by topochinesvino

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