What it’s like to work a harvest in Napa, continued

I had the idea to write about working a harvest in Napa for a long time but I struggled when it came time to get it all down in words. After you do something enough times, it can become second nature and harder to describe to an outsider. That was my problem with the original piece, and after sitting with the post for some time I realized that because there was so much information to cover I left out a few crucial details.

Something I regrettably and completely looked over was the fact that you will be submerged in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The sunrises, smells, and sights of an early morning harvest drive to the winery are an experience unlike any other. The scent of the vineyard soil being disturbed, pomace dumped after pressing, and grape clusters released from their vines fills the air with a sweet and earthy aroma that is quintessential of harvest. This filled my car every morning driving on Highway 29 and it always excited me for the day ahead. Smell is the number one sense correlated with memory and I will always think of my first harvest in Napa Valley when I smell this scent.

As someone from Southern California, I always considered myself a sunset person and preferred this time of day to sunrise. Harvest changed me – there is something so peaceful and spiritual about a Napa Valley harvest sunrise that charges you with the energy you need to work through the long hours. The colors are an indescribable palette of pinks, yellows, blues, oranges, and reds. Every morning is unique to the one before but equally as special. There’s a reason the hot air balloon industry thrives in Napa! It’s easy to be on autopilot driving to work at 5 am, especially in the middle of the season, but taking a moment to appreciate the grandeur in the sky around you will truly make the early rise worth it.

Napa has such rich, prolific, volcanic soils because millions of years ago it was covered with active volcanoes and part of the valley was even submerged under water. In the early mornings driving to work when the sun begins to peak out of the Vacas, the Valley gives off a prehistoric aura. It’s so raw at this time of day and has a completely different feeling than when the rest of the Valley wakes up and the bustling tourism begins. You can’t experience this feeling any other time of day and it’s truly something special to be witness to its beauty in the peacefulness of the early morning.

I touched on this in the first piece, but I don’t think I elaborated enough on how much you will learn working a harvest in Napa (especially as a harvest newbie). I came to work my second harvest in Napa right after I had graduated with a degree in viticulture and enology. You can learn so much in school, but until you are actually thrown into the cellar you will only have a conceptual understanding of winemaking. I thought I knew how a pumpover worked, but it wasn’t until after I did them just shy of a hundred times that I actually felt like I understood them. I took an extremely in-depth sensory evaluation course for my major that taught me how to look for flavors and aromas in wine. That was one of my hardest and most rewarding classes, but I really learned how to smell and taste flavors in wine by smelling and tasting my way through the cellar during harvest – tasting the grapes in the bins waiting to be weighed, putting my nose in the barrel as I filled it with wine, stopping to smell the fermentation of an open-top Pinot tank as it wafted up during a pumpover. I would literally taste the foam of an inoculation as the fermentation was starting just to see what it was like. It wasn’t great but you get the point. Now when I taste wine I am much better at pinpointing what I smell because I am connecting it to the cellar and the step of the winemaking process that created that particular scent.

That said, you will only get out of a harvest what you put into it. If you show up every day willing to work hard and invest yourself into the work you will be rewarded with a wealth of knowledge. Get to know the people, both interns and full time, working on your team because they probably have really awesome stories and experiences to share. You can learn a lot just by watching your teammates work and asking questions. Most people who work in production love what they do especially if they studied wine, and will love answering your questions about it. You truly get more out of the experience the more you devote yourself to it. Taste and smell as many things as you can and be willing to help with as many different projects as possible because this exposure will pay off.

Between these two posts I’ve talked a lot about how beautiful and exciting harvest is, but you will only truly understand when you immerse yourself in it completely. Cheers!

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