You love everything about the fermented grape — the color, nose, and taste. Perhaps your favorite is a bright chardonnay, an earthy pinot noir, or even a flirty prosecco. The thought of harvesting grapes and sitting back and enjoying the fruits of your labors is enchanting. You enjoy visions of trouncing up the rows between verdant vines heavy with their clusters of juicy fruit. Take a minute before you polish your favorite wine glasses; there are a few things you might want to consider when you sign up to pick grapes during a wine harvest.
Wineries are ubiquitous, seemingly popping up in the most unusual places these days. Happily affording many people the opportunity to get into the foray and snip some juicy clusters of goodness. Working, and it is indeed work, on a grape harvest is a fun and physical outing that everyone should try, particularly if you love the final product — a beautiful glass of vino.
Note: Some information in this piece was obtained during a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
1. It’s Often Free (Or You-Pay) Labor
Unless you are hired for day labor, don’t expect to be paid for your work. In fact, many larger wineries will charge a fee for you to join in on the harvest activities. Ostensibly, this fee covers your post-harvest wine and dine, however, since they are actually getting free laborers, this should really be your reward for a hard day’s work, in my humble opinion.
Many small, local wineries are delighted to have the free help and will provide a group meal with a free-flowing wine tasting after the harvest is complete. Typically, you will be served one of the winery’s young wines (not fully aged), but tasty nonetheless.
You can visit wineries all over the country, LDV Winery has its tasting room in Scottsdale, Arizona, where you can sip a lovely vintage and watch the antics happening in Old Town. If you are in the Scottsdale area, be sure to visit our destination guide for fun things to do in Old Town.
2. Find Your Own Secateurs
There are a few simple tools you should bring from home. A protective pair of gardening gloves that offer you good finger mobility will help avoid some of the sticky grape juice on your hands. Your favorite pair of sharp secateurs (single-handed pruning clippers) is a must. Your repetitive cutting skills will get a great workout. A sturdy pair of boots is a must, the rows between the vines can be hilly, have surprise ruts, and will have a cover crop to tromp over. Of course, you should wear a hat and sunscreen; a long sleeve shirt is also a good idea.
A well-prepared head gardener will have sharp pruners available, but you will be more comfortable with a pair that you own. The only caveat is you need to remember to bring yours back home with you. If they get lost in the pile unlabeled, you may never see them again.
3. The Grapes Are Ready To Harvest
Grape harvests are very controlled. Vines need to be snipped early in the day or sometimes at night when the weather is cool, but not damp. Protecting the longevity of the vines is key for the vintner to produce amazing wines.
The volunteers will be aimed at one or perhaps two particular grapes that are on the picking docket that day. Depending on the size of the vineyard, you may have to walk to your selected vines or you may enjoy a wagon ride to a far off plot. Either way, expect to be walking through the vines, so wear sturdy wellies.
Broken Creek Vineyard and Winery in Shrewsbury, in central Massachusetts, is a small, family-run winery that you will find across the globe. It has several acres of vines, blends and distributes its own wine, and offers an intimate peek into the winemaking business. Don’t overlook these small local vintners, they are usually more than happy to have you join them during harvest time.
4. Harvest Grapes At Your Own Pace
Harvesters will be given instructions on where and what to pick. If you are pruning as you go, then you will receive a few tips and tricks to keep you moving along smoothly. Vines are pruned and trained to about 5 feet tall and the grape clusters grow high and low on the vines. You will most likely need to do a lot of bending and stretching to reach all the ripe fruit.
Harvesting grapes is a great workout, but remember to enjoy yourself. You are harvesting for the experience, for the joy of being outside, and the satisfaction of accomplishing a hard day’s work.
When you are more interested in drinking wine than harvesting grapes, a wine river cruise might be the perfect vacation getaway. You can learn all the reasons why you should take a wine river cruise here.
5. The Grapes Are Ripe On The Vine
Green or red, acidic or sweet, each grape ripens at its own pace. Vineyards schedule harvests over several weeks in August, September, and October in the northern hemisphere. Conversely, growers plan harvests for February, March, and April in the southern hemisphere. Harvest season will vary with geography and climate, but when the grapes’ sugar content is perfect, it is time to harvest. Ripe fruit waits for no one and when the grapes are ready, the clusters need to be cut before the birds make a full meal of the precious grapes.
The Gloria Ferrer winery Sonoma, California, offers gorgeous vistas and lovely wines. A tour of this beautiful winery will have you wanting to move to Sonoma. You can read a first-hand review of this classic California winery here.
6. Prepare For A Workout
In addition to all the stretching, bending, and squatting required to reach the grape clusters, there are some weight-bearing exercises, too. Typically, harvesters receive a bucket or pail to fill with grapes. Once filled, the buckets are hefted down the row to a waiting harvest bin.
The bins can be smallish 40-to-50-pound lug bins which are usually moved manually to the hand cleaning location or to be loaded onto a flatbed truck. For a large harvest, good size half-ton harvest bins will be used to get the grapes to the cleaning facility.
7. Hand Cleaning The Bunches
Small harvests and delicate grapes are typically cleaned by hand. This process needs to take place right after harvesting and usually is the last task of the day for volunteers and laborers.
A sticky job, each cluster is gently handled, the decaying brown grapes removed, and wayward stems and leaves are relegated to a discard bin. It is difficult to perform this task with gloves and requires workers to handle the grapes with care. Each cluster is carefully surveyed and bad grapes are plucked from the center of the bunch. This process imparts a fair amount of sticky grape juice, leaving your fingers and hands covered in the sweet grapey nectar.
8. Avoid The Bees
Bees are welcome guests to the vineyard’s party. They help pollinate the vines and aid in the creation of a gorgeous crop. Additionally, healthy bees are critical to growing a healthy cover crop. Vineyards select a particular cover crop to grow below the vines to help reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Fewer chemicals are key to happier bees. Great winemakers strive to produce a quality wine that is free of unwanted chemicals that can affect the taste, aroma, and mouthfeel. Achieving a delicate balance between plants and bees is critical in creating a balanced and tasty wine.
May 20 is World Bee Day. Adopted by the U.N. in 2017, it set the stage for a platform to save the all-important bees globally. Protecting the bee population is necessary for maintaining sustainable food production across the globe.
9. Enjoy The Wine
Harvest day is long, the work is strenuous, but the reward is ever so sweet. The quality of the grapes and the care taken at harvest time have a direct correlation to the flavor, acidity, and quality of wine produced. Of course, the weather, terroir, and aged vines bring unique flavor and color to the harvested grapes.
Raise a glass with your fellow pickers to celebrate the vineyard, the winemakers, and the wine lovers as you revel in the glory of a job well done. As your reward for all the hard work, taste all the varieties offered by the vintners. This is the perfect time to explore the different attributes of the wines produced at the vineyard.
Local wineries are the best place to explore new and unusual blends. They sometimes offer wine flights or will allow you to taste a sip before you order a glass. The Cape Cod Winery in Falmouth, Massachusetts, offers a charming, open-air tasting area next to a small patch of vines giving you that out-in-the-country ambiance. If you are heading to the cape, visit our Falmouth destination guide to get your planning off to a great start.
Your foray into harvesting grapes should include a tour of the winery. This is the perfect time to quiz the winemaker and/or head gardener to get all your wine-related questions answered. The next time grape harvest season rolls around, grab your wellies and enjoy a day working in the vineyard.
More wineries to investigate: