Sunday, October 4, 2009

Harvest Epiphany

Or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (with apologies to David Foster Wallace for the title) Note: Just posting this now since my hands finally have feeling in them again.

Here’s some advice: If you ever get a late night tweet from Dr. David Horowitz, Marketing Professor at Sonoma State, inviting you to participate in a “fun, fun, fun” grape harvest be very careful before you reply in the affirmative. I did say "Yes" and the next thing I know, Dr. Dave was at my door at 5:00am to whisk me off to Ketcham winery to pick Pinot Noir grapes. I brought water, gloves, clippers, hat, sunscreen, and my own 5-gallon bucket—a brand new super sturdy high grade PVC bucket that I have a feeling I will never see again.

When we arrived the vineyard was shrouded in fog and I could hear the soft muffled “flump” of the grapes being tossed into buckets between the vines. We got a quick tutorial on what to look for in the grapes-- clean full clusters-- good. Moldy, mostly raisins, or bird pecked clusters-- not so good. Then we were set loose to start harvesting. Oh the thrill of it all. For the first hour or so it was rather meditative and relaxing. (Probably due to the fact I was not yet awake)

I said very little and focused on my cutting skills While the others chatted away. Most of the people at the harvest had gone to high school or college together so they had a very familiar sensibility and manner with each other that involved calling one another douche bags and other such terms of endearment at the crack of dawn.

I was hazy on the details on who and what this harvest was for, but the gist of it as follows: The guys in charge of the harvest were all members of something called the "20-30 Club", which I think, judging by the conversations I overheard, is a club for guys in their 30’s with at least 20 moving violations or something like that. I’m guessing the wine was going to be made and then sold as part of their “get out jail” bail bond charity. But I'm just sayin'.

The solitude of the harvest

The main problem of the day seemed to be lack of bodies to cut the grapes. An all points bulletin had been put out to get people to work that morning but not many took up the offer. One of the guys claimed two Canadian girls he met at a bar the night before would be arriving any minute. What a pick up line must have been!—“Hey! Wanna come back to my place and pick grapes? It’ll be hot! Really!”— Heck, a Canadian may just fall for that line. But the girls never showed.

By the third hour the thrill of it all began to wear off and I was in serious need of more than water. But being around all those grapes was not calling me to have wine. No. Beer was the siren song in my head. Strange thing how that works.

By the fourth hour I was starting to wonder if Dr. Dave even knows what the word fun means since he used it so liberally to entice me to the harvest. But then again he is Marketing Professor so it’s all part of the con job. If something is called fun more than once, it means you are in for some hard labor. To maintain my focus and waning energy I tried to imagine I was in Spain or Chile or France or Italy paying for this experience. This is just the type of activity people with more money than sense would pay dearly for. Would I pay $5000 for the chance to pick grapes in France and stay in a Relais & Chateau property like this? I just might. Of course we gringos are not very good at sustained labor. Our pasty white skin burns quickly and our pudgy hands callous fast and we never shut-up or stop complaining. We like the idea of hard work way more than the doing of it. So we need to pampered all along the way to get us to think we are doing something authentic, meaningful, and fun.

By the fifth hour, the fog was long gone, the sun directly overhead, and any illusions I had that the work was fun had been burned to a crisp. I began plotting revenge schemes in my head to get back at Dr. Dave for getting me into this chain gang.

Right about the time I was about to lose all my will to carry on, the ubiquitous Sparkel Farkel aka Shana Ray aka @sharayray showed up to make me laugh. She managed to pick some grapes, tweet about it, and answer her email all at the same time without so much as mussing her hair. You can read her take on the whole thing here.

It's a big logistical undertaking to harvest grapes and get everything where it needs to be in a timely manner. The grapes we picked were going Cahill winery for the sorting and crushing. And although all the "20-30" guys in charge of the harvest were very nice, I’d hate to be out to sea with them, as I’m afraid the boat might run aground or capsize while they argued about the best way to sail the ship. Just kidding, sort of.

Despite my whining, I have to admit there is something about intense shared labor that is very bonding and I did manage to have some fun. Plus I learned a few very important things along the way:

1. I am the perfect height for picking grapes. 5’1” is the magic metric if you want to avoid breaking your back bending over to reach the grapes.

2. The fun of harvest decreases exponentially with the declination of the sun. Fog = Good. Direct Overhead Sun = Not So Good. It’s all fun and games till the fog burns off.

3. The professional grape harvesters (the Mexicans) are amazing to watch, poetry in motion with speed and efficiency. {The four professional laborers picked more in 2 hours than all the rest of us did in 6 hours. Talk about skilled!}

4. No matter when you ask the grape boss or harvest master (or whatever you call the person in charge) how much longer to go, they will always reply—“Just one more bin to go. Keep picking!”

5. Cutting off the finger of a person on the opposite side of the vine from you is considered to be very bad form. Not to mention life altering for the other person.

6. I am very much like the Pinot Grape itself: fair, thin-skinned and weather sensitive. With the sun directly overhead, I was close to slipping into a grape induced coma and ready to be crushed.

I think my six hours of grape harvest experience may just last me a lifetime.
Thank you to the "20-30" boys and Dr. Dave for all the fun. Really, Thank you.

This is Domonic. He seemed to be the one everyone loved to rag on and generally disparage the most. But hey, that’s what friends are for.

The cutest little wine baby ever made an appearance.

Dr. Dave and his laundry basket bustin' a move on the vines.


  1. Well-written! Critical and entertaining.

    You forgot to mention the best part--we'll be getting free wine!

    You think I'm doing it just for the fun, fun, fun?!?!;) I'm glad you came along for the adventure.

  2. Oh right. I forgot about the free wine. How many years will that be?

  3. I thought it was just free lunch.... AWESOME!

    Though, I am not sure about the name, Sparkle Farkel, I am glad I could make you laugh! :)



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