Picking grapes is becoming a lost art. I still retain that romantic notion of people grabbing ripe berries and dropping them into a bin that they slide along with their foot. I can visualize the pickers hustling between the rows of vines with those bins full of grapes and dumping them into an even bigger bin. Maybe they are even singing as they work. At the end of the harvest, all the pickers, men and women, can relax over a meal and celebrate their work knowing that they have made a contribution to what will someday be a work of art in a bottle — wine.
That picture is in my imagination. What we are more likely to see are big machines with bright lights working in the vineyard during the dark of night. The machines straddle the rows and through artificial intelligence, fishing line and computer eyes flick every berry off the vine and throw it into a nearby bin. Loud engines hum and clattering bins make noises like huge drums. In the morning the machines and the grapes are gone.
What I imagine is a romantic movie with happy people enjoying the celebration of a good harvest with a happy ending. What is more likely to be happening is a science fiction movie with a mysterious ending. We don’t have a big machine so we have to roll back the clock to when grape harvests were done by hand. But even that can be tricky.
“I would love to help you pick your grapes sometime.” So says all the friends who have never spent any time in a vineyard. Our friends are pretty scarce come late September and October when the grapes are ready to be picked. Kids soccer games, out-of-town visitors or blasting into space with Jeff Bezos are good reasons to avoid picking. These “friends” must think that picking grapes is a hot, sticky, buggy, back-breaking job. Times being what they are creativity is required. Enter the college students.
Silicon Valley is full of college students serving as interns in the tech world. Universities from all over want students to experience the magic of entrepreneurship so programs are designed to orient students to starting and building an enterprise. And what could be more entrepreneurial than making wine?
So each year we enlist a group of enthusiastic college students from Ohio to pick our grapes. In exchange for their efforts they can boast of the experience and they get a free lunch. It all works.
A training session is always mandatory before the enthusiastic students jump into the vines. Most important is the orientation to the tools used to snip the grapes. The fear is that someone’s finger will be included in one of the bins. The tool with the razor blade-sharp hook at the end is the biggest concern. The goal at the end of the pick is for someone to proclaim, “No One Was Injured!” While the students toil, questions about the wine industry come fast and furious. One student this year asked, “What is the difference between red wine and white wine?” Another asked, “When did you begin to drink heavily?” Yet another asked, “Can we drink the wine from these grapes later today?”
It was all a big success and I am reminded that there is so much to learn about wine and we all start somewhere. The sharing is the fun part of wine.
At the end of the pick my imagination came back to life in the kind of movie I prefer. They did pick and enjoy it and at the end there was a celebration where we toasted to our efforts. As one of the Ohio students reminded me, “They don’t make movies about picking soy beans."
Rich Moran enjoys wine country and talking to young people about sharp tools.