For mom-and-pop operations in Sonoma County, harvest time is done the old-fashioned way, with early days and hard labor

9/8/2006: 58: PC: Bennett Valley grape grower Joe Judge, right, with his family, wife Gail, daughter Sarah and son Blake. (Savor Fall 2006 / Chad Surmick)


Two hours into picking sauvignon blanc grapes, 11-year-old Sarah's hands are numb. Her mom, Gail Judge, is a row over and well ahead, seemingly at one with the clippers.

Gail's husband, Joe, blue bandanna around his head, runs the show, loading 40-pound bins full of ripened grapes into a horse trailer for transport later to Napa.

"This family thing, it's cool," Joe said. "It's the building of a legacy."

Son Blake, 17, who plans to study viticulture in college, breaks up the hard work by goofing off with his cousin Miles, who is clipping the same row.

It's 9 o'clock in the morning on a densely foggy fall day in Bennett Valley, the kind for which the appellation is famous, and the Judges are racing against the clock, trying to ensure their just-picked grapes won't have to sit around in any later-day heat.

But they also have other things to do. Soon Joe will head to his office at Morgan Stanley, and the kids will make it to school.

"It's all a juggling act trying to make this happen," said Gail. "It's like putting on a big party, all the advance preparation, the details to remember, but you have to do it a bunch of times."

This is harvest, en famille. This time of year, when the grapes need picking, dozens of mom-and-pop operations are slugging it out the old way, relying on their own physical labor and early-morning wake-ups to get through crush.

Judge Family Vineyards is planted to 9.5 acres of several varietals - sauvignon blanc, sauvignon musque, syrah and grenache. The grapes go to such wine brands as Ferrari-Carano, Schug, Novy and Tor Kenward Family Wines.

The sauvignon blanc they're picking this day will be delivered promptly to Luc Morlet, Staglin Family's winemaker, who also makes a small amount of wine under his own name.

The Judges are just one among many mom and pops in Bennett Valley, though their appellation also has its share of big guys, namely Kendall-Jackson, whose sprawling crew of pickers can be heard in the distance.

Joe Judge says he and his family have benefited from the help of fellow husband-and-wife teams Wells and Mary Wagner, the owners of nearby Sylvan Hills Vineyards, who supply chardonnay to Stags Leap; Brett Raven and Diane Kleinecke of Frostwatch Vineyard, who will soon be launching their own label; and Ken Hunt and Suzanne Madsen, the growers of Nolan Vineyards, which supplies syrah to Matanzas Creek and La Crema.

"They're all within a rifle shot of where we are," said Joe. "Just mom and pops. We help each other, quid pro quo. Everyone has a tractor; it's kind of like the old days."

David Cooper and Virginia Morgan in Dry Creek Valley can relate. Back in 1996, the pair bought a run-down farmhouse at the corner of Dry Creek and Yoakim Bridge roads with four acres of dry-farmed zinfandel in desperate need of pruning.

"I knew something about making wine," remembered Cooper. "I didn't know squat about vineyards. I made a joke to Virginia to get anyone whose last name ends in a vowel and see what they're doing. When they're plowing, I'm going to plow. When they pull their leaves, I'm going to pull our leaves, and unless there's a conspiracy, that's how I'm going to learn how to farm, and that's what I did."

Ten years later, in addition to taking care of the vineyard, they're making 2,000 cases of Yoakim Bridge wine and operate a very busy tasting room, open three days a week. They do everything themselves.

Because they're vintners too, harvest is a head-to-the-grindstone multimonths-long event that starts with the picking of the grapes and extends into days upon weeks of Cooper and Morgan's cleaning out barrels and tanks, pitchforking grapes into bins, doing punch-downs (the process, during fermentation, of breaking up the "cake" of skins, so that the skins and the juice underneath are combined) every four hours, trying to remember to eat and sleep in between.

"I have 25 bins working at one time," Cooper explained. "It's like (painting) the Golden Gate Bridge. You punch them down; by the time you're finished, you start punching them down again. I get up in the middle of the night. I can't imagine anyone working for us. Who's going to do that?"

The two often don't leave the property for weeks, stocking their freezer in advance with enough food.

"Even town looks strange," Cooper said about the intensity of it all.

"I just have to keep him alive," Morgan added. "I could be bringing him food at 3 o'clock in the morning while he's punching down. His hair will get long. At harvest he looks like Don King."

Despite the hardships of harvest, the folks at Yoakim Bridge remain smitten by what they do.

"It's a lot of work," Cooper said. "A lot of people have no idea. But you get out of it what you put into it. The romance is there - it is a wonderful thing; I'm not dealing in bulbs or mattresses."