St. Helena’s Ehlers Estate started its 2013 harvest at 4 a.m. Monday with sauvignon blanc. This year, as is tradition, the eight vineyard workers were joined by office and hospitality staff who wanted to get up early and pick grapes.
How did they do? In a word, winemaker Kevin Morrisey said, “awesome.” He added, “Last year when we did it, it was freezing cold, there was dew on the vines, so everybody was wet, cold and dirty. This morning was just beautiful. Not a drop of humidity, no dew on the vines. The fruit was beautiful, it was a nice, mellow morning.” After the group had picked more than 11 tons of sauvignon blanc grapes in four hours, they shared breakfast burritos together.
Leading the crew was Francisco Vega, who is vineyard foreman, assistant winemaker and cellar master. Besides his eight full-time, permanent employees, he’s in charge of two interns from Argentina. He’s been at Ehlers Estate for almost 14 years.
On the crush pad Monday morning, he said, “I think it’s going to be an amazing harvest. When we pick the fruit, it is easy to see the fruit is in good condition with really nice flavors. It’s going to be a nice harvest for us for sauvignon blanc and then rose,” he said. After that, the crew will harvest cabernet sauvignon somewhere between Sept. 5 and 20, he added.
At 4 a.m. Monday, it was 60 degrees, a warm, beautiful morning. Morrisey said half the estate’s sauvignon blanc grapes were picked Monday morning and the rest was scheduled to be picked Wednesday. He added, “We always pick at night, because the fruit is cold and is in optimum condition. Besides, the guys like it because it’s not too hot. There are no bugs at night, the bugs are all sleeping.”
Vega’s crew used headlamps to see what they were harvesting, and Morrisey said that was possible because they leafed the vines Sunday, so they didn’t have to hunt for the fruit. Additionally, they have worked in the vineyards throughout the year.
Morrisey called harvesting grapes at 4 a.m. with headlamps “quiet, old school, amazing and really magical.” He added, “We don’t have to light the place up like a movie set to pick grapes.”
Vega said the many men have made up the same crew for the past three or four years, although some have been with Ehlers for six or seven years. He doesn’t use contract labor to harvest the grapes, although every year his crew changes a little bit. “Some of the guys find a new job or decide to go to Mexico and never come back,” he said.
The sauvignon blanc picked this week will be bottled around the last days of February, Morrisey said, and will be released to the public in March. He expects the sauvignon blanc to be “bone dry, crisp with lots of acid and fairly low alcohol.” The wine will see no oak aging and not go through malolactic fermentation.
“It will be a clean, dry, floral sauvignon blanc,” made from estate grapes, not blended with sauvignon blanc from up and down the Napa Valley, Morrisey said. “Sauvignon blanc is as serious a wine as everything we do. Year after year, I want it to taste like Ehlers.”