wine Features

Getting Your Hands Dirty in Sonoma


By Jim Clarke
August 2007

If you think immigration restrictions haven’t tightened since 2001, you should ask the winegrowers of Sonoma — finding workers has become so difficult that they’re asking you to come pick the grape yourself!

Actually, that’s not their motivation. It’s education, with some entertainment to boot. At many wineries, the crush — i.e. harvest time — is so busy that tourists in the vineyards could become a nuisance; after all, it’s just a few weeks long, heavily dependent on the vagaries of the weather. The quality of the year’s wines can hang on getting it all done as expeditiously as possible. However, it’s also a picturesque and exciting time. Visit at other times and it can be about as thrilling as watching grass — I mean grapes — grow: the crusher–destemmer is dormant, the wines quietly aging in their barrels, the bottling line…well if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll be bottling something from a previous vintage.

However, Sonoma has the right balance of producers who are big enough to accommodate hands–on visitors, but not so big that you’ll feel like you’ve spent the day as a cog in the wheel of an assembly line. The Sonoma Grape Camp is designed to give you the experience of the harvest, and a feel for the work involved, without leaving you so exhausted that you can’t enjoy some good food and some of the products of the vineyard in the evening.

Because it’s organized by several different organizations, the Grape Camp can set its dates — for 2007, it’s taking place September 24–26th — and be confident that one of the participating growers is going to have some grapes ready for picking, so you can plan ahead; I’ve been invited to a couple of harvests by small producers, and it’s sometimes a matter of fly–out–early–and–hang–around–waiting, or, “Fly out this very minute or you’ll miss it — there are rains coming!”

Day one is really an arrival day, with a dinner to give you the energy for the harvest work the next morning. Days two and three have similar programs: a couple of hours of harvest work in the morning, followed by chances to experience the grapes as they are transformed throughout the winemaking process. For example, tasting the grapes themselves — if you’re used to traditional table grapes, tasting the winemaking varieties fresh off the vine can be revelatory, and makes it that much easier to see where all those complex flavors in a wine come from (I’m particularly partial to Cabernet Sauvignon this way). You also taste juices from the various grapes and get a glimpse at later parts of the winemaking process by making your own red wine blend.

With all that work, there’s plenty of good food to sustain you, contextualized by pairing seminars and a cheese–making tour so you can see how wine’s most famous accompaniment is made as well.

If you can’t make it out to Sonoma in September, this year the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission is bringing some of the experience to New York City. The grapes, the juice, and the pairings will all make their way to the East Coast for events at Columbia University and the James Beard House in early October.

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