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It's Dim Pickings for Vineyards

Boutique California wineries are joining the trend to harvest after the sun goes down. The workers, and the grapes, stay cooler.

October 09, 2005|Michelle Locke | Associated Press Writer

ANNAPOLIS, Calif. — The vineyard smells different at night, daytime dust damped down by the faintly brackish fog rolling in from the Pacific.

Above, stars blaze in black velvet. At ground level, the white glare of fluorescent lights outlines the silhouettes of farmworkers moving swiftly in the shadows.

Not your typical harvest scene, but one that's becoming increasingly common as more vintners try picking after dark.

"It's better at night," says Fermin Manzo, foreman of the crew picking pinot noir grapes for Hartford Family Wines on this crisp fall night.

The advantage to night harvest is that temperatures are lower, good for grapes and workers.

In the day, grapes end up sitting in bins under the hot sun and can start to ferment by themselves -- not a good thing. Meanwhile, workers run the risk of heat-related illnesses if they try to work a full shift. "They'll pick just maybe four hours and they'll be tired," says Manzo. "At night you go slower, but you can work longer."

Hartford vineyard manager Walt Chavoor likes the fact that crews can go longer and make more money. And he's happier with the results of their work. "I am convinced that one of the most crucial things we can do for wine quality is to bring fruit in cold," he says.

Of course, visibility is the big challenge to night farming.

The key to overnight success is getting enough lights ready and meticulously planning which rows will be picked so there's no fumbling around in the dark, says Sonoma County vineyard owner Saralee Kunde, who does about two-thirds of the harvest at night now.

"Everybody wants cold fruit. This way we can satisfy everyone," she says. "And it's so much nicer on the guys. Our crew is much happier picking at night. Some days they'd be out there and we'd be 100 degrees and it'd be miserable."

Picking at night by machine -- the way most fruit on the state's half-million or so acres of wine grape acreage is picked -- has been common for years, says John Miles, an agriculture engineer at UC Davis.

What's new is that smaller, boutique-style wineries that rely on hand-picking, which they believe yields higher-quality fruit, have been joining the night owls. There aren't any hard figures on the trend, but Miles says a rough estimate might be as much as 10% of the hand-picked harvest is coming in at night.

Night picking won't work everywhere; the ground needs to be relatively flat and the vines trained to grow so that the grapes are easily visible.

From a distance, night harvesting lends an eerie glow to quiet fields.

Up close, nature and machine set up dueling symphonies, crickets chirping a descant as the tractors rumble along in bass.

Vineyards use different methods, but at Hartford, dark is dispelled by a big metal "tree" studded with fluorescent tubes that is dragged along the rows by a trailer.

As they do in the day, pickers work with a practiced rhythm, stripping the vines of ripe fruit and tossing full bins of the gleaming black grapes into waiting containers.

Vintner Mike Moone, an aptly named fan of night harvesting, likes the concept so much that he recently threw a party at his Luna Vineyards in Napa, where workers and guests picked pinot grigio grapes as a huge harvest moon hovered above.

Says Moone with a smile, "Nighttime's the right time."

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