LODI, Calif. – It’s wine grape harvest time in California’s Central Valley, which means young people dressed in festive costumes – school is out for the harvest – are swarming the vineyards, gently clipping the precious fruit from the vines and reverently placing it in wooden tubs constructed by hand in the South of France.
Later, dark-haired women will modestly raise their pleated skirts to their knees and press the grapes with their feet while dancing to the sounds of lutes, played by old men smoking pipes. At sunset, great tables will be laden with game and the many other fruits of the harvest, with a particular focus on pumpkin, squash and rutabagas, and eating will be followed by much merriment.
Well, not exactly.
The harsher truth is that every evening around sunset, teams of harvesters attack the vineyards with tractors and automated harvesting machines capable of picking the vines clean at many tons per hour. It’s not as romantic as the more fanciful version of the annual wine grape harvest, but it gets the job done. The work is done at night to protect the harvested grapes from the heat of the day.
It’s 10 p.m. and a full moon and the occasional tractor headlight are the only brightness on the damp Sacramento River delta west of Lodi, where some of the world’s finest wine grapes are grown. No, it’s not as romantic as Tuscany or as scenic as Napa, but a good number of Napa wineries buy a good share of their grapes from the Lodi region.
Ben Kolber has invited us to come along for a ride on top of the harvester while he and his workers push hard to bring in the Viognier while it’s at its peak. This portion of the 700 acres of vineyards owned by his wife’s family, the Ripkens, can be found at 19 feet below sea level, protected by a series of dikes running in all directions.
The Ripkens hand-craft a small percentage of their grapes and sell it from a small winery on their property, but most of it is grown on contract for other wineries.
“We want to harvest Viognier between 22 and 24 brix (the sugar level), so when we get to 20 or 21 we contact the winery and schedule our deliveries,” he said.
We awkwardly clamber up a sticky ladder to the top of the Australian-made harvester, an ingenious machine pulled by a tractor that straddles each row of vines, violently shaking them at just the right rate to cause the grapes to tumble onto conveyors and into a bin, which is pulled by another tractor one row over. These grapes will be delivered to a local winery by six o’clock the next morning.
The machinery lurches forward and we watch in fascination as the grapes appear as if by magic on a conveyor arm that reaches over a bin a dozen feet away before tumbling neatly in a growing pile. We complete one row in perhaps 10 or 12 minutes and repeat the process going the other way.
Kolber, who once studied drums at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, hands us each a few of the small, green grapes. They are sweet and juicy.
Lodi has long been known as a great wine-grape region – particularly zinfandel, but increasingly everything else from pinot noir to chardonnay. What’s changing is that the region is growing a reputation for wine-making as well, and one could easily spend many happy days traversing the Lodi Wine Trail and its dozens of tasting rooms. It’s a little like Napa may once have been, where the winemaker will spend time in the tasting room, pouring his creations and talking about brix and nose and the vagaries of American and French oak.
Alas, there are no long tables laden with horns of plenty or happy young people picking each grape lovingly by hand. No, but the harvester is very cool, the weather couldn’t be nicer and the wine from Mt. Diablo to the Sierra Nevada is inexpensive and delicious. What could be better?
Note: Special thanks to Rustin for connecting us with Ben, and to Steve and Darla for carting us around and giving us a place to stay.