The French call it vendange, and if you've been anywhere near Oregon's wine country in the last couple of weeks, the number of trucks clogging the two-lane highways, their beds filled with bins of grapes headed to the wineries, will tell you it's harvest time in the Willamette Valley.
Brian and Clare giving the grapes the hairy eyeball.
The weather, as everywhere in the Northwest, has been unpredictable and tending toward disastrous, with cool temperatures in the summer months leading up to what looked like an early, and very rainy, fall. Which would have spelled calamity for Oregon's wine industry, since the fruit wouldn't have had a chance to develop the flavor that time and sunlight bring. Luckily, though, the sun came back for a few wonderful weeks of Indian summer, warming the grapes enough for a decent and, some might optimistically say, even a possibly promising vintage.
Bird damage has been particularly bad this year.
My friends Clare and Brian of Big Table Farm in Gaston buy their grapes from six different vineyards, using the facilities at Coelho Winery, where Brian is the winemaker, to make wines under the Big Table label. The first part of making the wine involves sorting the grapes, culling out clusters that are moldy, that have dried, raisin-like clumps or, particularly this year, "bird damage" or clusters that lost their sweetest grapes to flocks of birds.
Clare and St. Lester.
Brian, like most winemakers, practically lives at the winery during the harvest for the several weeks it takes to bring in and begin making the wine. Many wineries hire people to help sort the grapes, but when you're operating on a shoestring like Big Table does, friends and volunteers often fill those slots.
So for two days last week I (gladly) played harvest slave, driving from Portland down to Amity, a trip of a little over an hour, to help sort through the grapes that will make up the bulk of Big Table Farm's 2011 vintage. Thursday was a fairly easy day, with only a few bins of fruit to cull, which was lucky for me since I had no idea what I was doing.
Raking grapes onto the sorting belt.
Mostly it involved standing next to a conveyor belt as Brian used a forklift to load a bin of fruit onto a machine that would tip it enough for Clare to rake it onto the belt (not too little, not too much). With the fruit passing by way too fast for my undiscerning eye, I would try to pick out the obviously damaged fruit and hope that the others (Brian, Clare and their friend, Lester) would get the rest.
Gorgeous pinot grapes from Cattrall Brothers vineyard.
Friday looked like it was going to be a killer day, with fruit from three vineyards to go through, so I volunteered to come back and help, making a grand total of four of us working through what turned out to be 5 1/2 tons of grapes (that's 11,000 pounds, folks). Another friend, Sarah, joined us in the afternoon to lend a welcome hand, but it was still a mind-boggling amount when we added it up at the end of the day.
One thing I learned was that, in addition to picking and sorting the grapes and making the wine, a lot of time is spent cleaning the equipment between lots and at the beginning and end of the day. Sometimes it involves simply hosing off the belts and machinery with power sprayers, but then other times also means cleaning them with three different solutions: TSP, citric acid to neutralize the TSP and then a final cleaning with iodine and a rinse with water.
In the middle of the day we broke for lunch, traditionally a large meal for the whole crew, so about twelve of us…our crew and the Coelho team…gathered around a table in the yard for a meal of French dip sandwiches made from grilled tri-tip, fresh French bread and a delicious jus, along with corn on the cob from Big Table. A bottle or two of Coelho rosé was opened and consumed, but only enough to grease the skids for the long afternoon of sorting that lay ahead.
We finished the gorgeous pinot noir grapes from the Cattrall Brothers vineyard, their deep blue, dusky fruit almost perfect and needing very little culling (top photo). Then we dove into the grapes from a new vineyard for Big Table, albeit one of the oldest pinot vineyards in Oregon, planted in the 60s, neglected in recent decades and recently rejuvenated. It took quite a bit more work to sort, but the grapes had a deep, full and intriguing flavor. They will definitely take some delicate handling, but it'll be fascinating to taste what the wine will be like under Brian's care in future vintages.
Pinot gris in solid form.
Next up were the pinot gris grapes from the same vineyard, perfect pinkish clusters that glowed in the afternoon light and were, again, very easy to sort. As we were finishing, another load of pinot grapes arrived, but would be held for the next day's sorting. After cleaning the equipment, I was glad to fold my tired self into Chili and head for home and a shower with a newfound respect for the work that goes into that glass of wine I so casually consume in the evening.