I am no stranger to hard, physical work – I grew up on a horse ranch and spent many hours cleaning corrals, mucking out stalls and stacking hay, and I’ve still owned horses up until recently (just don’t have the time and money any more – sigh). The wine industry is physically demanding as well. I’m used to stacking and schlepping 40-pound cases of wine around with ease. I’m short, but sturdily built and pretty strong for a girl.

Picking grapes is hard, hot, sticky, dirty work and it made me feel like a total wimp. I found out first-hand exactly how hard, hot, sticky and dirty it is yesterday, when I went out to Petite Sirah Vineyard at J. Rickards Winery (the wonderful, small, family-owned winery where I am happily employed, or to put it more succinctly – my day job) to help pick grapes. We were hosting our annual “Harvest Hands” event, where we invite our wine club members to get down and dirty – experiencing harvest with us at the winery.

Surprisingly enough, this was the first time in my long wine industry career where I’ve had the opportunity to pick grapes myself. I now have new perspective and a whole lot more respect for the crews that go out and pick every year. I’ve seen the crews literally running down the rows, grape knives flashing, picking tons and tons of grapes, all in a day’s work. Many of the workers get paid per ton, so speed and efficiency are of the essence. They are like grape-tub-toting athletes. I was more like a grape tub-toting-turtle. The good news is I still have all my fingers – those grape knives are sharp!

We started out in the vineyard around 10:30AM, much later than a regular crew would have started – the real grape crews usually start first thing in the morning, but we gringos needed to have our coffee and pastries and chat a bit before we headed out. By 10:30, it was probably around 90 degrees in the vineyard, but there were grapes to be picked and processed, so off we went, sharp grape knives in hand.

We paired up into teams, which worked really well. My teammate was Richard, a really nice guy who works with a local vineyard management company. I figured he was a good teammate choice, because he probably had a better clue about grape harvesting than the rest of our motley gringo crew. We grabbed a grape bin (looks like a busboy’s tub) and put it between us and started down the row, carefully picking grapes and tossing them into the bin, then scooting it along the ground with our feet and then finally dumping it into the big bin on the tractor. Comparatively speaking, we were probably one of the faster teams.

I was wilting in the heat and fading fast when we were finished, about an hour and a half later. We then trudged up the hill to the winery behind the tractor, which was bearing our precious load of hand picked Petite Sirah.

Back at the winery, the big bin was dumped into the stemmer/crusher, a machine that separates the grapes from the stems, then the grapes were dropped onto the vibrating sorting table, where our crew picked out any unsuitable berries (grapes), leaves and any other foreign matter that may have been accidentally picked. I didn’t help with that part – I was needed in the tasting room to help with a large tour group.

When the rest of our intrepid crew finished up on the crush pad, they came in and we enjoyed a delicious, authentic Mexican lunch, of course served with COLD beer. As we say in wine country, “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine!”

Next week, I’ll be helping out on the crush pad, hosing down bins and doing whatever else the guys need me to do. This was a great experience, I think I’ll leave the grape picking to the professionals from now on!