The pickers arrive just after 7:30 a.m. in an entourage of cars. Two vans, one station wagon and a pair of sedans complete the parade. From open doors emerge sundry shapes and sizes. Layered from head to toe, Germans, South Koreans, French, Americans, Maoris, and Vietnamese step into their own breath. The "gang" of pickers circles around its leader, anticipating another day of back-bending labor and hand-rolled cigarettes.
After they take a row, we follow. Every shade, shadow, color, taste, feel and movement is new to me. Kevin tractors along as Chris and I stack crates of grapes bulging opaque with nectar. Everyone on the vineyard uses gloves except for Chris. She's got hard, Kiwi hands.
The pickers work quickly. We start up the second tractor to match them. As we catch their pace, I turn to one of the pickers in the row next to me, "Man, it's a good workout." Through puffs of his durry, he replies, "Nah, mate, I was built for this." He bends, snips, carries, bends, snips, carries, all morning long, low and sweet between grapes, a smoke dangling eternally from his crooked smile. The bees hum, the fantails play, the vineyard dog, Coco Chanel, pursues.
We break for a "Smoke-O" by mid-morning. Cigarettes, coffee and sustenance. I pull out shorts and a snack. A few of the local boys pull out a ball. They don't need a break to change clothes or smoke fags; what they need are a few precious moments to play rugby between vines.
The crates take our day. From rows to blocks, vineyard to winery, we load up the Utes and their trailers a handful of times. Although the pickers stay behind, the rest of us vineyard beasts end our days at the winery. Coco Chanel, the loveliest of all the beasts, is too tired to make it. By mid-afternoon I've got the last of the day's harvest in my rearview driving up Route 6.
Although Coco does not make the trip, her bees, birds, spiders, caterpillars and stinkbugs certainly do. The assembly line writhes with movement. It's our job to separate the living from the dying. Besides harmless insects--being one of the more peaceful nations on this planet, not even New Zealand insects are poisonous--we discard leaves, stems, under-developed, botrytis and bird-pecked berries. Most clumps are fit for Bacchus, but when we do find a cluster of small grapes, we test them for tartness the old fashioned way: by eating them. We separate like madmen: sorting, tasting, chucking in an incohesive rhythm before the assembly line steals the rest. It's a delicious duty, but by the time tons have been reduced to nothing, I am drenched from the inside out in grape juice; my fingers woven into mittens, I peel them apart beneath a fireman's nozzle.
The sun leans heavy on the horizon. The eastern sky begins to wither as the west blossoms. Air cools, juice coagulates; the day tramps on. Stubborn, empty crates need their bath. Hundreds of them lie in wait, complacently mocking our next hours of tribulation.
Lynsey takes to the fireman's hose with the ferocity of a woman who wants a sizzling shower and warm meal. I follow her lead, toppling three towers of sticky terror. They hit the ground with a slam. Chris, Lynsey, Kelly and I rotate between unstacking, hosing, organizing and restacking. We soak with the crates.
Back to the Glass
Wet, tired, hungry, cold. I get back in my Ute and drive the half hour back to my place. A hot shower, a hardy meal (with leftovers for lunch) and a welcoming bed compel me to speeds over 100 km/h through autumn-leafed air. A cloudless day dims to starry night.
City-life seems distant. Country-life makes sense: it's burning and true. It's sore and simple and refreshing. It's fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, legs and feet from dawn till the day is done.
I don't spend enough time in wine country-and if you are reading this, then you probably don't either. A city is all hustle. A city's got no patience to admire changes in light or marvel at the way things work. A city expects everything right now, rarely respecting the time it takes to get there.
As Ernest Hemingway wrote, "It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end." From country to city, ground to glass, a bottle of wine epitomizes that journey. Every vintage has a story to tell, so the next time you open that pinot, make sure to get yourself a nice glass and a quiet place. Let the journey decant. Let wine country flow.
Check out some of my photography from vintage 2013: