Ernest Hemingway said “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”
The famous writer obviously forgot one important caveat: except during harvest.
As the decidedly uncivilized harvest season unfolds in Sonoma and Napa counties over the next few weeks we’ll see the signs –– the media circus, the gawkers and the tourists –– all craving a glimpse of how wine is birthed.
Their photos, of course, won’t capture the spectacle — the joy in the midst of the contractions. And it’s a messy, long labor, not unlike that of comedian Rita Rudner who complained “life is tough enough without having someone kick you from the inside.”
The gawkers, may not realize it, but the locals know who calls the shots when it comes to harvest: the grape. It’s that’s bossy diva who’s running the show and has everyone working ridiculous hours, causing sleep-deprived winemakers, growers and their crews to resemble the walking dead.
Sleep deprivation, of course, isn’t the half of it. These harvest pickers often risk their lives, and most certainly their sanity, for the optimal pick.
Case in point. For more than two decades 78-year-old Lee Martinelli has teetered on his tractor, defying gravity on Jackass Hill that, with a 60 percent slope, is the steepest vineyard in Sonoma County. Keep in mind this steep slope isn’t even legal in Sonoma County anymore, but the hill at Martinelli’s winery in Windsor was grandfathered in. The vintner keeps his boots loose when he harvests his prized zinfandel in case he needs to jump ship should the tractor take a spill.
If the quirky name — Jackass Hill — leads you to assume that a donkey was involved in plowing the 3-acre vineyard, you’re wrong. Martinelli said the name dates back to the 1970s, and it has to do with a two-legged creature, a snarky one at that. Helen, late second wife to Martinelli’s late father Leno, once groused “only a jackass would farm that hill.”
Like the hijinks of Jackass Hill, there’s a hilarity to harvest, whether you love it or you hate it, whether you want to curse the diva or celebrate her. Clearly harvest time makes strange bedfellows. It’s that odd mix of strange and wonderful. Just when winemakers think its intensity will send them over the edge, they’re spared by exuberance.
Perhaps you’re already beginning to feel the impact of that bossy grape. If not, keep your eye out. Here are the 10 ways to tell it’s harvest.
1. Stocking Up — You’ll notice some Type-A winemakers making a Costco run to buy ungodly amounts of frozen dinners. The jury is out on which brand is more popular — Amy’s, which is vegan-friendly, or Stouffer’s, which offers full-on, soothing comfort food. Whatever the case, these winemakers have it all dialed in. They refuse to cook during harvest — they thaw.
2. Traffic Jams, Literally — You’ll likely get caught behind grape-laden trucks during harvest because it’s next to impossible to avoid them. They’ll slow your pace so you have to factor “truck traffic” into your time of arrival. What’s more, you’ll notice a purple residue trailing behind these trucks. A few grapes always fall off the trucks and create their own sauce when you run over them. Just beware because this special sauce is slippery.