It was the second weekend of September when the call for help went out to friends and club members of Satori Cellars in Gilroy. With the prior week’s unusual heat wave, the vineyard grapes were ripening more quickly than expected and it was time to harvest some of the more early ripening varietals, namely the blocks of merlot and primitivo zinfandel.
In the morning darkness my husband and I bounded out of bed; excited to participate in another Satori harvest, our third time in as many years. We quickly dressed in layers and, anticipating a dusty, sticky day, threw on our grubbiest jeans and old tennis shoes.
With hardly any cars on the road, it was just getting light out when we arrived at 6:45am to meet a group of 30 other like-minded people—all eager for this adventure outside our normal daily lives. An assortment of pastries and hot coffee were laid out for us to enjoy while Tom and Sandy Moller, the owners and winemakers, explained the morning’s agenda.
The morning sky was overcast and the air was cool—perfect conditions for the task at hand. Tom explained that it was important to harvest the grapes early in the day while the sugar levels were still low—before the sun’s warmth would spike the levels back up again. “Picking grapes in the early morning when the grapes’ temperature is below 68 degrees allows for optimal fermentation.”
Everything we needed to pick grapes was provided: work gloves and small sickle-shaped scythes. Moller provided instructions, “The grapes are looking excellent, but just in case, don’t pick anything that might look moldy or under ripe.”
The group followed behind Aquarius, the assistant winemaker, who led us toward the rows of merlot grapes we would be picking. Along the way, we could hear roosters crowing from nearby farms. We walked carefully; dodging the deep rabbit holes and random tree roots sticking up from the ground. A pack of friendly dogs; some belonging to the Mollers and others brought in by the group members, followed along for the fun.
The head-trained vines were at eye level—no stooping or reaching overhead was required. For the very first time, Aquarius had trimmed the top growing canopy of vines—exposing the grape clusters and making them easier to get at. We pickers soon found our rhythm and discovered the knack for cutting the grape clusters from the plant—tossing them into the plastic bins that were positioned along the rows beneath us.
We moved along in leapfrog fashion as the portion of the vines we were working on were stripped—moving ahead in the row to get at the other clusters waiting to be picked. Along the way, I couldn’t resist sampling some of the grapes. Although seeded and small in comparison to table grapes, these vine-ripened gems were sweet and full of flavor.
Soon the bins were filled and picking came to a halt as we realized we were out of empty bins. Just then, Moller slowly drove his old flatbed pickup truck down the row to collect the heaping bins and to drop off empty ones. Moller’s teenage son Riley and a few of his sturdy young friends who were riding in the back, jumped off to collect the bins and leave us some empty ones. As the truck passed by, we pressed up against the vines, careful not to get our toes run over.
“Anyone want anything to drink? I’ve got a cooler filled with waters and anything else you might like.” Moller drove off, taking the loaded bins to the sorting “station”—where other helpers sorted out leaves, twigs and undesirable grapes from the bunches.
As we resumed our picking, light conversations started among our diverse group—ages 10-80 years old. One couple, with delightful Polish accents, lived next door. We learned that several people worked at high tech jobs in Silicon Valley, one person was a nurse, another, a yoga instructor and many of us were retired. Although the majority of us were returning to this annual ritual at the vineyard, this was a first-time harvest for several newcomers.
Kerry White, a recognized “grape whisperer” from New Zealand joined us—explaining the virtues of a relatively new technique he uses to put “biology back in the soil.” Similar to composting, White explained his process of growing and adding back living organisms to the soil, providing the vines with nutrients they need for improved growth and more abundant crops.
It was the group’s consensus that we all shared a common bond—our abiding admiration and fondness of the Mollers. Their kindness, generosity and positive attitudes have uplifted many a visitor to their winery.
Now we were onto the rows of primitivo zinfandel, not only the first of all the zinfandel grapes to ripen but also a grape varietal that ripens unevenly. Moller was back with further instructions, “Pick the large clusters, usually it’s two or three, closest to the trunk of the vine. Leave behind the small clusters that look like Christmas tree ornaments and any clusters that look translucent or are light in color. We only want the big, meaty, deeply colored, opaque clusters. Some raisining is fine—that’s typical zinfandel.”
Two hours flew by as we chatted, laughed and picked the grapes from more than 600 vines. We spotted Jeff and Carol in a golf cart coming down our row—with all the fixings to make Bloody Mary’s for those of us over 21.
Pretty soon, we had picked so many grapes that the people sorting them could no longer keep up. So, several of us headed for the sorting tables to balance the workload. We joined a half dozen other sorters; picking through the grape-filled bins—ensuring the quality of the fruit. I passed the time talking about the important things in life with Aurora, a long-time friend of the Mollers. We were glad to be wearing gloves as there were lots of earwigs and spiders lurking among the grape clusters. These bugs fell to the bottom of the bins and were tossed to the ground.
Mike Wendt, a Gilroy resident, was probably the hardest working individual on the scene. At 6-foot-5-inches tall, Wendt was the perfect height to lift the bins of sorted grapes onto the back of a pickup truck that converted into the crush pad where the grapes were poured into a crusher/de-stemmer machine. Wendt held the ladder for me as I climbed up to get a better view. I watched as Tom, another sturdy worker, turned on the noisy machine and then gently poured the grape-filled bins into the hopper. First, a corkscrew shaped paddle separated the grapes from their stems. The stems will be composted and later, turned back into the vineyard’s soil. Then, the machine lightly crushed the grapes and, using gravity, the resulting “must” (composed of juice, fruit, grape skins, seeds), traveled down a wide tube into a fermentation container.
At capacity, the fermentation container can hold nearly two tons of crushed grapes. The grape must will ferment inside the container for the next eight to 14 days. During this time, yeast will convert the grape sugars into alcohol (fermentation). The grape skins that float to the top will be “punched” back down into the juices—providing color and flavor.
When fermentation is complete, the seeds and skins will be strained and the remaining juices moved into barrels or tanks for up to three years, depending on the grape varietal. After the wine has aged sufficiently in the barrels, it will be bottled and ready to enjoy.
At 11am, just as the overcast skies were giving way to a hot, bright sun, Moller and Aquarius called a halt to the day—saying it was time for lunch. Moller reported, “We harvested nearly six tons of grapes today which I’m pretty sure is a record for the first pick. And the ‘numbers’ are fantastic (around 27 brix and 3.7 pH on the zin and 25.5 brix and 3.7 pH on the merlot). Brix (°Bx) is a measurement of the sugar in the must—all pointing to the amount of alcohol a wine will have. If that sounds like Latin the short answer is “tasty wine.”
As usual, Sandy Moller had cooked up something special for us—this time, deep pans of chicken and eggplant parmesan, a big tossed green salad and garlic bread. A selection of Satori Cellar’s finest wines and chocolate brownies rounded out the delicious meal.
As we drove home, we could not think of a more satisfying way to spend a day—being out in nature, in the middle of a beautiful vineyard, alongside a group of interesting people—all working toward a common goal.
It is fascinating to think that three years from now, we will most likely be drinking the wine made from grapes we hand-picked that morning.
With sincere gratitude to the Mollers and their friends, we hope to be back soon.