Harvest: Life and Lessons from the Vineyard

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We’re two Central Coast locals who appreciate wine – and the land, people, and story behind every bottle. Come along and let’s explore all that 805 Wine Country along California’s Central Coast has to offer.

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Isn’t it marvelous? We can walk into a winery, grocery store, or liquor store and pick out a bottle of wine in minutes. Our biggest dilemma may be which varietal, region, or style to choose. 

It’s so easy, in fact, that we may forget how much work, how many hands, and how many years went into producing that bottle of wine. 

It’s harvest season throughout 805 Wine Country. Across tens of thousands of acres of vineyards from Paso Robles to Edna Valley and beyond, grapes are being cut from the vines, loaded into bins, and transported to crush pads. There, well-oiled cellar teams take the grapes on the next steps to becoming the wines we love to drink.

As the saying goes, great wine starts in the vineyard, and the vineyard spans seasons. The vineyard season starts in winter when the vines are dormant. Spring ushers in bud break and fruit set. During the summer, the grapes continue to grow until they reach that exciting phase of veraison, when the grapes begin to change color and start the ripening process.

Winemakers and vineyard managers start checking lots of things. Sugar levels (measured in brix). Skin thickness, seed color and texture, berry shape, stem color. The goal is to have all the elements come together in balance: flavor, tannin, acidity, sugar.  

Finally, the vineyard season of harvest arrives: the crucial, no-rest-for-the-weary, all-hands-on-deck culmination of weather, farming, timing, and sometimes a bit of luck. 

Over the years, the opportunity to visit a few local vineyards has given us a few lessons in the cycle of winemaking… and life. 

Here we share why the human touch matters, the importance of relationships, and the sweet taste of seeing a dream come to fruition.

Wine and the Human Touch

We arrive early in the morning, but the harvest crew has been working since before dawn. 

As we walk the rows with the vineyard manager, he explains what his team is doing and what they are looking for. Their expert eyes and trained hands clip some clusters from the vine and toss them in the five-gallon buckets along the row. They let other clusters fall to the ground. 

We first visited Tres Ninos vineyard as part of our article on winemaker Mary Bradley.  Located in the Arroyo Grande Valley tucked into the hills near Lopez Lake, Tres Ninos vineyard produces lovely Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and other grapes that are sought after by many winemakers.

They make it look easy — reach through the vines, clip the clusters, drop them in the buckets. Move on to the next grapes.

But it isn’t as easy as simply cutting off all the clusters and putting them into the bucket. 

The beauty of hand harvesting is the human brain and ability to tell the difference between good grapes and those to leave behind. 

With thousands of pounds of grapes to harvest, this is no time to study each cluster and evaluate its worthiness for picking. The team knows in seconds by sight and feel if a cluster makes the grade. 

This knowledge is honed over time in multiple harvests. An experienced grape harvest crew member can make harvesting a row of grapes look deceptively easy. 

Trust us, it’s not. We are each given a pair of pruners and within minutes, we understand the talent involved in this vital job. 

It’s a fine line with three edges: harvest quickly, pick good fruit, don’t pick bad fruit. Time is money during harvest — you want to pick quickly so the fruit can be transported to the winery as quickly as possible. The longer the grapes sit in the bin, especially in hot weather, they can start to ferment. 

You also want to fill the bin with the best quality fruit. However, not every cluster is picture-perfect yet it’s still quality enough to pick. Each cut is a decision point. Human hands and eyes quickly choose which clusters to pick for the bin and which to leave behind. These may be moldy, shriveled, have insect damage (yellow jackets are a big offender) and more. 

Mechanical harvests take the bulk approach, with machinery shaking or stripping the grapes as they move down the row. There’s no discernment. No crucial human element. Later on the sorting table, good grapes are separated from bad but the initial quality pick possible only from a human will always be missing. 

After working up the row, we are done. The harvest crew, however, has been at it for hours. They empty their buckets and sit down for their lunch break. It’s 9:30 in the morning. Depending on the heat and other factors, they may be back to harvest a few more hours.

Nurturing the Land, the Grapes, the Relationships

Travis Kottwitz has been working at Glenrose Vineyard for 16 years. First hired to help with construction and other projects at the vineyard, he soon was made vineyard manager. 

While vineyard owner Don Rose is actively involved, it’s Travis who is the face and personality of the vineyard. 

Glenrose Vineyard in the Kiler Canyon area of the Willow Creek AVA was planted by owner Don Rose in 1994. He terraced the steep slopes, an unusual design for a Paso Robles vineyard, so the vines could better access the water-holding calcareous limestone soil. The 60 acre vineyard is planted primarily to Rhone varietals.

Travis is who winemakers talk to about their grapes. He’s the one who manages the harvests. He’s the one who’s out in the vines checking their health, growth, ripeness, and more.

He’s the one who’s the conduit between the land and the winemaker, the grapes and the barrels. 

One of the winemakers who counts on Travis and his expertise is Matt Villard with MCV Wines in Paso Robles. Travis has been working with MCV Wines since 2013, when Villard was searching for top-quality Tannat. Now, MCV Wines has three blocks of vines under Travis’ careful watch: Tannat, Grenache, and Syrah. 

Left - Teresa Villard (MCV Wines), Right - Travis Kottwitz
Kara enjoying an afternoon exploring the Glenrose Vineyards

While the quality of grapes at Glenrose is exceptional, Travis’ expertise and passion for service and caretaking — both the grapes and the relationships with winemakers — is what keeps it all working. Like a good vintage, it’s the balance of his talent, instincts, and personality. 

For example, during the very smoky year of 2020, Travis devised a watering system that saved Villard’s and many other winemakers’ grapes from smoke taint and the severe financial hit that would have meant to their business. 

Travis is the perfect example of how the trust built between the vineyard manager and winemaker can be as much a part of a successful harvest and the resulting wine as the grapes themselves.

Small Vineyard, Big Dream

Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to leave your corporate jobs, buy a bed-and-breakfast, become innkeepers in a beautiful place (where you also get to live), and, oh, plant a vineyard for your very own little estate bottling.

Meet Pat and Tony Goetz, owners and innkeepers of the boutique four-room The Casitas of Arroyo Grande bed-and-breakfast and The Casitas Estate luxury wedding venue.

The Casitas of Arroyo Grande, a luxury inn that sits on top of a tall hill overlooking the valley below, has its own little estate Syrah vineyard tucked to the side of its vibrant landscaping and down the hill from its four private guest casitas.

When they first purchased their 12-acre estate, which was then named Casa de Colores (House of Colors), their immediate concern was updating and transitioning the property from a private residence to a luxury B&B. Once that was finished, however, they knew it was time for their other dream. Their Syrah vineyard was ready to be planted.  

Each year, harvest has grown steadily, but still not producing enough fruit to yield a full barrel of juice. Would the 2021 harvest be the full-barrel bonanza? 

I arrive at 4:30 am, with quiet hellos spoken through the rows so as not to wake the overnight guests in the casitas up the hill. I meet Pat & Tony’s friends who’ve come to help with the harvest, but with our headlamps switched on, it’s impossible to see their faces. 

Tony suggests I start down a new row. With my empty five-gallon bucket and a pair of pruners, I’m ready for my first harvest. 

I know this from our time at Tres Ninos, watching grape sorting and crush at several wineries, and conversations with winemakers over the years — that the better the quality of the grapes picked, the better the quality of the wine. 

But now those decisions are in my hands, literally. Which clusters do I pick for my bucket that contributes to their 2021 harvest and which do I not? 

I can feel the pressure as I examine clusters under my light. These at the top of the slope have seen attacks by yellowjackets, who apparently enjoy Syrah as much as humans. They slice open a grape and eat the flesh, leaving just the seed and an empty skin. Trouble is, sometimes the grape still looks whole. And of course, not every grape on a cluster has been eaten.

Pat said that the grapes attacked by yellowjackets add a bitterness to the wine. Oh, dear. More pressure.

Other clusters are shriveled, weightless, but light in color, not the dark purple of raisiny Syrah grapes.

I want to pick the best grapes for Pat and Tony’s harvest, and I also don’t want to leave viable fruit behind. Tony’s hoping to be heading to Kynsi Winery with their bin around 7:30, and we have several rows to harvest in these predawn hours that will go too, too fast.

I pick the best clusters from my instincts, but I know they’re not optimal. Oh, dear. Have I just ruined their entire vintage?

I keep moving down the row. Thankfully, the next section of fruit alleviates my stress. Here hang luscious cascades of dark purple grapes. These, ah these, are good grapes. I clip as many as I can, still watchful of yellowjacket damage, shriveled grapes, and others to leave behind.

It doesn’t take too long to develop a rhythm as sight and touch start working together. A cluster that doesn’t produce a certain heft in my hand is likely damaged; another that’s shrively and light pink didn’t ripen. Yet another is the slightly wrinkly skin of a Syrah grape that’s very ripe — that’s a good one to pick. But the one that’s tight like raisins strung on piano wire gets left behind.

Bucket after bucket fills. Each gets walked to the bottom of the rows and placed gently into the waiting bin. Each bucket gets Pat and Tony closer to that elusive full bin.

We keep harvesting. Some patches are poetic in their Syrah grape perfection, symmetrical triangular swags just like in the photos we’ve all seen. A few feet down the same row, the fruit thins out or turns shrively or damaged.

It’s funny how pre-dawn darkness seems so unchanging. Then all of a sudden, the sky lightens. The first fingers of sunrise are pulling their way up the hills to the east.

Our team is on a mission. The goal is absolutely in sight. The bin is nearing the top, and the fruit is beautiful. We start focusing on the best clusters and filling our buckets as quickly as we can.

The sun has topped the hills. Tony calls up. “We have a full bin!” His excitement carries in the misty morning air. We finish filling our last buckets and take them down the hill to add to the bin. Near-black fruit fills the bin. Tony and Pat are beaming.

Their little Casitas Estate Obispeño Vineyard has just produced its first full bin. This is a very good morning.

We take a few photos to capture this historic moment, and Tony drives off to deliver their handraised, homegrown estate grapes to Kynsi. The rest of us head up to The Casitas, where Pat creates a breakfast that puts her innkeeping skills in the spotlight.

Individual souffles, scones, croissant french toast, coffee… and a lovely cluster of deep red grapes.

Kynsi isn’t far away, and Tony is back within an hour. Their grapes have been weighed, destemmed, and initial brix levels are exactly where they want them. Even better? They’ll have enough juice for a full barrel, including the percentage needed for the angel’s share. The 2021 vintage will be their first barrel of 100% estate juice.

Cheers to that. And to seeing this dream come true… no doubt, the first of many.

The Magic of Harvest

Appreciating a good wine — its color, aromas, tastes — and the winemaker’s talent and efforts to create it is one thing. 

But being involved with harvest, even in the smallest of ways, gives you an appreciation of the work, love, passion, and time — from many people along the way — it took to make that wine. 

Getting up close and personal to harvest is a special experience. We raise a toast to those who make the magic happen.

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