Flirting with Autumn, this years harvest takes place on a cloud covered pre-dawn morning at Ehlers Estate.
“Before this last heatwave, we had a completely different crop out there.” ~ Kevin Morrisey, Winemaker & GM, Ehlers Estate
Harvest at Ehlers Estate. Tuning in to my internal clock of fear and fright, I awake at 3 am. About an hour and a half before I need to get up. I set the alarm again, this time for 4:30 am. Tossing and turning like a fish out of water for the next 45 minutes I resign myself to an early start. I launch myself out of bed, and say under my breath, “Harvest.” It’s humbling. I am not an early riser. I know how difficult it is for me to get up at this hour. I think about the people working at this time every day for weeks on end.
Ehlers Estate grows organic Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I thrive after dark. The magic hour when the sun sets and the birds are getting settled. Content to enjoy the comfort of my warm bed, it’s got to be something extraordinary to rouse me at this hour. Harvest is not only exciting, it’s invigorating to be in the vineyards with those who are the creators of great wine.
“In three days the world changed in the valley.”
Walking out the door at 5:15 am, I am fully loaded. Gear on my back, four shots of fortifying espresso and a spring in my step. I am heading up valley. When I say up valley, it means north towards Calistoga. This time to St. Helena‘s Ehlers Estate. The roads are dark, but as travel up Highway 29, I am shocked by the number of cars on the road. The traffic is mind-blowing. Uniform in our direction, 90% of the vehicles on the road are heading north with me.
“The 2017 vintage will have a very distinctive characteristic.”
The air is thick. The clouds opaque. The moon struggles to break through the sky, teasing with a game of hide and seek. For a brief moment, it shines then evaporates like a glass of water in the Sahara. Content with hiding, the moon illuminates the vineyards from the veil of a dull sky.
Arriving at my destination, I pull into the empty parking lot. There are only a few cars in the area, all I assume those who are already hard at work in the vineyards. Parked, I exit the vehicle and shiver. It’s not cold. Far from it. It’s eerily quiet, and I panic. Perched in the front of the winery (built in 1854), I’m a little spooked. Completely without reason. Even so, I lock the car doors (like that can protect me from whatever I’m afraid of). Feeling a little childish I call winemaker and GM, Kevin Morrisey. He’s there in a flash and the next thing I know we are walking in the vineyard. Today’s harvest is of Merlot.
“We started picking at 3:00 am, now it’s almost 7 am. Four hours, nine tons.”
It’s perplexing, this season. Coming out of the devastating drought that ended in early 2017, the weather in Napa Valley had been textbook perfect for winemaking. Kevin describes the harvest of the Sauvignon Blanc. “We picked it about two weeks ago. It was before the heat. It was a big beautiful crop. Fresh flavors, really great acids. It’s going to be another terrific year for Sauvignon Blanc.” It’s already fermenting in steel tanks inside the winery. The aromatic scents of tropical fruit coming from the tanks surround the winery. Addressing the heat, Morrisey says “The heatwave was historic. Nobody’s been through that here. It’s not normal. Those berries are black. Imagine you’re dressed all in black, with a black hat, sitting in the sun all day with no breeze at 114 degrees. It started out to be a great harvest, and we lost a lot of juice.”
“There are a lot of people who work hard every day and they don’t make anything.”
The people out in the vineyard have a vested interest. Unique in the valley, the people picking fruit are employees of Ehlers Estate. Not migrant workers. Involved in this process from the beginning they take great pride in the vines. Harvest is a sign of their accomplishments. Working furious & fast in the interest of time, they sing a bit and shout encouragement. The speed at which they fill the baskets is awe striking. They are the guardians of these vines, this vineyard.
I walk the dark rows between the vines filming, the headlamps shine on the black, blue skins of the bunches. The process is fast due to the advance trimming of leaves taking place just before the harvest. This efficiency allows a team of perhaps 20 to pick a whopping 8 tons of grapes in just four hours. It all takes place in the shadow of the moon.
Harvest in 2017 has had all kinds of twists and turns due to the heat. This latest plot twist leaves question on how this vintage will turn out. Morrisey says that this will be a year of recognition. There is no mystery that 2017 was a landmark year. The question is how well the grapes withstood the intense heat. The hope is that it’s reflected positively in the wine.