Making $100 Cabernet

Behind The Scenes During Harvest On A Napa Valley Vineyard

Ashley Gauthier
9 min read
Napa Valley ... not too shabby (
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“It takes a lot of beer to make wine.” I heard this expression at least a dozen times during my visit to a winery in Napa Valley, Calif. My friend Amy lived and worked on the vineyard, and I had a trip to San Francisco scheduled at the end of October. I thought it would be fun to take a few extra days to visit her in Napa.

“October is harvest,” she said. She welcomed me to visit but warned that she’d be working 14-hour days and wouldn’t have much time to socialize. “You can put me to work stomping grapes or something,” I replied. Besides, isn’t working on a vineyard one of those glamorous jobs?

When I arrived, Amy was on top of a 20-foot catwalk dumping giant buckets of yeast into stainless steel tanks full of freshly pressed grapes. She smiled and waved, and came down to greet me. Her shirt and pants were covered in pinky-purple splotches, her hands stained a dark red. Little bits of mashed grapes clung to her sneakers. Still beautiful, but hardly “glamorous.”

She took me up onto the catwalk and showed me how to do a “pump-over,” the process of pumping juice and grapes from the bottom of the tanks to the top. Pump-overs mix the grapes and yeast to help the fermenting process. The juice is pumped up through a heavy hose system attached to a stainless steel spinner, which is placed into a hole at the top of the tank. When the pump is turned on, the juice comes splashing through like a giant purple waterfall. This process aerates the wine, giving much-needed oxygen to the yeast. It also gives the grape skins more contact with the juice; that contact is what gives red wine its color. Although I had heard explanations of the process from vineyard tours in the past, I really had no idea how labor-intensive the process was until I helped do it myself.

Winemaking sounds so romantic and ethereal, but I quickly learned that the actual process of making wine consists of grueling manual labor. Oenologists deal with the chemistry of wine and the magic of knowing how to draw out the character of the grapes. But the real winemaking is done by dozens of workers who sort grapes, haul hoses and spinners, attach gaskets and fasteners, carry large buckets of yeast and other additives, clean equipment, shovel grape skins, and lift wine casks. It is hard work. The equipment is heavy. The process is repetitive. And it all requires extreme attention to detail. There are dozens of things that could go wrong, from improperly measuring the yeast to attaching the wrong hose or opening the wrong valve.

By the time I arrived at the vineyard, most of the grapes already had been picked (which I hear is the worst part of the work required to make wine). The grapes then go through a machine that separates the grapes from the stems. Although the machine efficiently de-stems the grapes, workers have to manually sort out bad grapes, removing anything infected with mold or disease, or withered from too much sun. The acceptable grapes are macerated and pumped into the large stainless steel tanks. Each tank must be “inoculated,” which involves carefully mixing yeast and nutrients to add to the grapes.

Armed with a “recipe,” Amy showed me how to measure out the dry powdered yeast. Then she prepared a large bucket of water to “cook” the yeast. In order to properly activate the yeast, the water must be precisely 102-104 degrees. Any hotter and the yeast dies. Any colder and it won’t activate. After the yeast is wet, it is left to rise. We also measured out nutrients that are added during the inoculation process. Then we manually hauled these heavy buckets of additives up the narrow catwalk stairs to dump the contents into the tanks.

After tanks are inoculated, the pump-overs begin. Large hoses and stainless steel parts are moved from tank to tank, attached and detached with bulky fasteners. After a pump-over, any extra juice stuck in the hose is drained back into the tanks by lifting the hoses above shoulder level, one segment at a time, from the end of the hose all the way to the part attached to the tank, to ensure that all of the juice properly drains out. The hoses must then be cleaned with hot water, drained (which means lifting again) and moved to the next location. There are dozens of tanks, each of which must go through the same process.

Once fermentation is well underway, the wine is manually filtered and drained from the tanks into casks using equipment that resembles a gasoline pump. The casks are labeled by hand (it’s harder than one might expect to staple labels onto oak casks), and moved to a storage area. An empty tank is then cleaned, which means a worker must shovel out all of the leftover grape skins, hose down the tanks and sanitize the interior of all parts. The tanks are then refilled with fresh grapes, and the process begins again.

The vineyard employees start at about 6 a.m. and work until 10 p.m. or later every single day during the harvest, which lasts about six weeks. After a few weeks of this, the workers are clearly tired, but they are still cheerful and very friendly. There is a calm camaraderie among the employees who know the harvest season is only a short time—and all of the wine for that year must be made within that time period.

At the end of the day, many of the workers will enjoy a few beers, hence the oft-spoken phrase. But I never saw a vineyard worker drunk, or even tipsy.

In fact, during my time in Napa, I noted a clear distinction between wine drinkers and wine lovers. Wine drinkers are people who like to drink (perhaps sometimes to excess) and wine just happens to be their drink of choice. Wine lovers, on the other hand, don’t necessarily drink much, but they love to “taste.” They are far more likely to spit out the wine or consume only a half glass. They appreciate the process of taking raw grape and extracting a particular essence from it, creating a complex and unique flavor. A lot of the vineyard employees are wine lovers.

But the tasting rooms are full of drinkers. Limo after limo full of tourists pull up, and drinkers emerge, trying each wine, perhaps buying their favorites to take home and drink later. A few of the wine lovers disparage the “four o’clock drunks”—tasters who show up at the end of the day (most vineyard tasting rooms close around 4:30 or 5 p.m.) after six straight hours of drinking at various wineries and think they can still “taste” the wines. Buzzed and laden with corrupted palates, the four o’clock drunks are wine drinkers at their worst. They can’t distinguish the flavors of each wine and are hoping to get in their last few drinks before the wineries close. (The drunks should be distinguished from real tasters who show up at 4 p.m. merely because they got a late start.)

The amazing thing about the winemaking process is that delicious wines come out at the end, considering all the things that could go horribly wrong. The winemakers deal with so many potential problems: a bad growing season, grapes that are too acidic or too sweet, potential errors in the inoculation process, rainy days interfering with work, a sloppy worker who makes an erroneous addition. One of the stories I heard numerous times in Napa was of a vineyard that accidentally mixed two different grapes in a single tank. Surprisingly, even though it was a mistake, the wine that resulted turned out to be one of their best.

One evening on the vineyard, as I helped Amy dump a bucket of yeast into a tank, I realized that this work—this plain manual labor—would be the basis for the enjoyment of some future wine lover. If we did everything right, there would be a reward at the end. My jeans, now covered in the telltale purple splotches, felt like a badge of honor.

An Insider’s Guide To The Tasting Rooms

I asked vineyard workers at a dozen different wineries about their favorite tastings in Napa (and tried them myself—for quality control, of course). Two of the top choices offer free tastings to the public, the remainder have small tasting fees. The top-choice vineyards are:

Elyse (almost universally a top choice and free tastings to the public)

Frank Family Vineyards (also offers free tastings to the public and makes a wide variety of wines)

Benessere (makes an amazing Sangiovese)

St. Clement (well-crafted wines and an exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable staff)

Domaine Carneros (known for their sparkling wines, they also make excellent pinot noir)

Ehlers (nice reds, and 100 percent of profits goes to a nonprofit foundation that promotes research in cardiovascular disease)

Hall (offers a nice variety of tasty wines)

PlumpJack (exceptional reds)

ZD (Stands for “Zero Defects.” The winery was literally founded by rocket scientists.)

The larger, more commercialized vineyards are quite touristy and not necessarily worth the cost of tastings. They tend to be more expensive and have fewer unique wines. The Niebaum-Coppola winery might be worth a visit if only to see the Coppola museum (which is free). The winery hosts props from Coppolas films, as well as his Academy Awards. The tastings are expensive, but if you choose to try their wines, they make a nice sparkling wine and an excellent zinfandel.

Cabernet grapes ripen on the vine during the summer months.

A worker deposits his harvest into waiting trucks.

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