Last week at this time, I received the email that the grapes were almost ready. It has been a very favorable growing season this year in Livermore Valley, California. As Goldilocks might say, “not too hot, not too cool…just right”. As a result. the grapes were ready a bit ahead of schedule but nobody told the grapes, so it was time to start the harvest for 2016. Ruby Hill and Rubino Estates winemaker, Jesse Plautz, was looking for a few good volunteers to help sort in the production facility. Always one to jump at a chance to do something off the beaten path, I replied immediately that I was ready, willing and able!
Being new to grape harvesting, I was excited to give it a try so I mentioned the idea to a few folks. I found it very interesting that quite a few older folks I mentioned it to immediately said…”Just like on ‘I Love Lucy’.” Some were referring to an episode where Lucy stomps grapes in Italy and others were referring to an episode where she tries to keep up with an assembly line and ends up eating the chocolates to try to hide the fact that she can’t keep up. Both are very funny episodes but neither was anything like the actual experience. [“I Love Lucy” was a television show that ran in the US from 1951 to 1957; I caught it on reruns growing up but had to go searching on the internet to find the grape stomping episode so enjoy the above links if you haven’t seen the episodes either.]
I arrived at the facility along with five other volunteers at 9:00 a.m. After a little bit of training from Norm, (the enologist), John (the assistant winemaker) and Jesse (the winemaker), we were busy working as the first line of quality control in the juicing processing. We started to work the first sauvignon blanc grapes that were harvested just hours before from the vines right there on the estate. Of course, I snuck a taste of one of those grapes. 😉 My, were they sweet! But I was told that, as soon as fermentation started, the natural sugar would feed the yeast and begin the conversion from grape juice to fine wine.
In a little over an hour, the six of us had worked through over three tons of fruit and the winery workers and winemaker had tested, treated, labeled and stored the first juice of the season. Besides being fun and a bit social (as you chat with the five other people working the sorting table with you), my best word to describe the experience was ‘sticky’!
After a brief respite and a chance to hose down, we were back at the sorting table working away on eight tons of freshly-picked merlot grapes. These, too, were much sweeter than I expected. They were also small relative to a table grape – like hundreds of firm little juice bombs in each cluster. Being a dark purple grape, the merlot was a little easier to sort than the sauvignon blanc. The green leaves were easier to pick out. We even scooped up a beautiful grasshopper whose camouflage as a green leaf was superb. Too bad he didn’t know that he would have been better off mimicking a purple merlot grape when passing by on a winery’s sorting table!
All in all, it was a wonderful experience. If my schedule permits, I will happily volunteer to help sort again. In the meantime, we now just wait for the release of the 2016 vintage to find out what oenological magic Jesse will perform with the fruits of our labor. If the vintages that they are currently pouring in the tasting rooms are any indication, I am certain it will be spectacular.