Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Night and Day: Beneath the Moon and Under the Sun in the Vineyard
Preparations for harvest begin as the end of summer approaches. Pay close attention if you visit in August and you see the effort that goes into ensuring all the equipment is ready to run for long hours once harvest begins. In contrast, the vineyard looks like a peaceful oasis.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Vineyard Manger Kirk Grace knows this is just an illusion. It might look like watching the grapes grow is all that is required for the job but the decisions made in the field affect the wine quality. One of Kirk’s decisions is how much adjustment, also known as canopy management, should be done to the foliage produced by the vines. This allows the optimum amount of filtered light to reach the grapes depending on the weather trends and keeps the ripening process on track. A cooler summer means more adjustment to allow a greater degree of sunlight to reach the grapes. In a warmer year, less adjustment might spare the grapes from damage by too much direct sun. Canopy management also provides air movement into the vines which discourages pests and plant diseases.
Another key decision is irrigation. Typically the grapes get water every two weeks in the summer growing season – just enough to keep them healthy and developing intense flavors. This year’s long wet spring means more vine growth to monitor, and more cultivation and mowing between the rows to keep the cover crop under control.
All the attention to creating healthy vines and soil has paid off. Kirk says, ”This is a benign year for pests and plant disease,” which is a fair trade-off for the cooler weather and longer growing season of 2011. Based on the speed at which the grapes are ripening, he predicts that harvest will start officially around the second or third week of September and continue for six to eight weeks. He expects the cooler weather will produce a high quality and smaller yield of grapes with an optimum balance of acids and tannins.
The end of summer means work in the vineyard office also increases. The vineyard crew swells from a group of seven who work year round pruning and cultivating, to thirty-nine workers organized into four crews. The crews get a refresher course in safety, a high priority for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, starting with proper use of the specialized shears for removing the grape clusters from the vine, reminders on handling heavy loads, and guidelines for operating the tractors.
Once harvest starts, about seventy percent of the picking is done at night. The cool night air in the Napa Valley allows the acids formed in the grapes to rebound to their optimum levels for harvesting. Kirk is there every night with the workers keeping an eye on the pace of the harvest and overseeing the action. Typically a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars shift starts at 2:00 am and runs until mid-morning depending on the amount of grapes identified as ready to pick.
Each crew is trailed by two tractors – one pulling the plastic bins, or gondolas, to collect the grape clusters and another towing a lighting rig to illuminate the row. Each tractor pulls a trailer holding three gondolas. Each gondola can hold up to half a ton of grapes with each member of the crew picking the equivalent of 2-3 bins per shift. Filled gondolas are weighed and loaded on to flat bed trucks to be delivered to the production area of the winery. By mid-morning the vineyard crew’s work is done for the day.
Working nights means sacrifices for everyone in the vineyard crew. Kirk compares the vineyard work to preparing for the Olympics or the World Series. “There are lots of challenges and lots of rewards. If you have done everything right, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor.” When you open a bottle of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars wine you get a chance to enjoy the fruits of the vineyard team’s labor too.
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