La Vendange

A winemaker’s life is not always rosé. After caring for their grapes all year, great wine depends on one critical decision: when to harvest. Mother nature complicates the decision significantly; if harvested too early, the grapes will be underripe and will lack flavor and the right alcohol content; if harvested too late, the grapes could rot; and if the weather brings too much rain, the grapes could mold. It’s a game of chance, and Amy likes to win.

It’s Monday, and to prepare for the harvest, Amy’s mom is already buzzing in the kitchen, making coffee cakes and flipping through recipes. She will feed the grape pickers a delicious lunch to reward and thank them for their hard work; and because she only gets a day’s notice before each harvest day, she prepares in advance.

As we clean and prepare the new winery for its inaugural batch of grapes, several villagers stroll over and ask when we are harvesting and if they can help. I question whether other wineries are brimming with people eager to lend a hand, but Amy says no. I think she and Matt are just that fun to work with (and Cindy’s lunch is just that delicious).

Matt keeps a close eye on the forecast, and rain’s-a-comin’. The three of us head for the vineyard to collect a sample of the Syrah. Amy’s first priority is to pick the Syrah because it’s the most temperamental, and if it rains the crop will quickly rot. We each take a plastic bag and walk down different rows of vines, collecting just a grape or two from each bunch until the bag is about half full. We drop off the sample at the lab, and await our results: we need to know the alcohol content, and the sugar and acidity measures.

Later that night we crush some of the grapes and sample the juice to determine if it tastes ripe. After a big sip, Amy asks what I smell. With my elementary wine palate, I struggle to describe it, and I don’t want to offend anybody. It smells like nothing, but then I force myself to utter the word straw. Your grape juice smells like horse food. Amy laughs and says, “How about bananas?” I breathe a sigh of relief. There’s truly nothing I dislike more than bananas, so if Amy thinks her wine smells like bananas, I couldn’t have offended anybody comparing it to horse food. Matt walks in, takes a sip, and exclaims, “Bananas!” The banana smell indicates the grapes might not be ripe enough.

I’m not a morning person, and I have never been religious coffee-drinker, but something cosmic happened: I tasted Amy’s coffee. Delicious. So delicious, it’s enough to lure me out of bed earlier than usual just so she’ll have time to hand brew me a cup. Over a hot mug of coffee topped with a cloud of raw-milk foam, Amy and Matt discuss the lab results of the Syrah. The alcohol content is low (only 11.1%; winemakers aim for 12-12.5%), and coupled with the banana scent, it indicates the grapes are not ready. But with rain en route, we have to pick anyway: the harvest, or vendange, will commence Sunday.

What do you wear to pick grapes? I am curious, too. Should I wear shorts so I can stop buckets of grapes? Or long pants to dodge the thorny weeds? The troops assemble in the vineyard at 9 a.m. There are twenty three of us from every corner of the world: Australia, England, Switzerland, France, Germany, and the U.S.. One woman is wearing a long, floral dress, “Oh, this old thang? It’s my farm dress!” and another is clad in all purple, which is genius. My La Gramière t-shirt and Lululemon pants should fare well.

Amy gives us quick instructions and we’re cut loose, each of us equipped with a pair of clippers, a gray bucket, and the promise of Cindy’s coffee cake at 10 a.m. Two people clip down each side of every row, and the aisles are lined with rectangular bins. As soon as we fill our gray bucket, we dump the grapes into the bins and continue down the row. Soon, it gets uncomfortably hot, so we take our morning break and fuel up with water and coffee cake.

After three hours, we have picked all the Syrah and finally get to reap the real fruit of our labor: lunchtime. We dine alfresco under the shade of nearby olive trees. Atop a long banquet-style table, Cindy lays out a polka-dot tablecloth, then serves a pear, goat cheese, and candied walnut salad, and a light pasta with fresh tomato, Parmesan, basil and garlicky breadcrumbs. Wine flows, but I stick to water; otherwise, I’ll be curled up under one of the olive trees in less than a minute.

When our vendange team disbands, probably to enjoy a well-deserved siesta, the work has just begun for Matt, Amy, and their intern (moi). We drive a tractor down each row of vines, stacking forty-seven grape-filled bins on the back.

Amy has ordered a special beer keg from England to keep her harvest team going. When we get back to the winery, our first order of business is to tap the keg, probably because Amy knows we’re in for a special treat: hand-sorting every single grape stacked on the tractor. Anything that’s dried or moldy gets chucked. We’ve picked through the grapes for an hour, and I see about forty-six more bins stacked on the tractor. C’est pas possible! But, as Amy says, great wine requires a lot of great beer. With a few cold brews, Amy’s dad’s potato chip stash, and fabulous company, we persist.

Many wineries skip this labor-intensive step, which takes longer than the harvesting, but our pile of rejected grapes would have compromised the wine. Châteauneuf-du-Pape also hand-selects each grape, and they’re known for some of the best wines in the world.

Because Matt and Amy add no unnatural yeast or sugar to their wines, they try to preserve the wild yeast by not rinsing their grapes. We unload the hand-selected grapes into the tank to begin fermentation, and it’s a wrap. We sweep the floors, pressure-wash the bins and buckets, and lock the winery.

It’s 9 p.m. before we return home. After we inhale three pizzas and a glass of wine, we hit the sack, dreaming of what Mother Nature has planned for tomorrow.

 It will take about eight more days for Amy and her team to harvest her remaining grapes. She’ll have to roll the dice and barter with the weather gods for perfect harvest conditions. But, I’d put my money on La Gramière. And you can too – La Gramière wines are available through importers in Seattle, Boston and New York. Santé!