4AM Harvest At Benziger Winery

It’s 4 am on Sonoma Mountain and the vineyards are in total darkness. Suddenly an overpowering spotlight illuminates a huge circle in the field. It feels like a scene out of Close Encounters but there is no UFO; just Mike Benziger’s light truck making its way into the vineyards for a 4 am harvest.

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According to Mike, “We pick many of our grapes at night. The quality is better. The fruit is cool, plumper and tends not to have dehydration problems. And because they’re cooler, it’s also better from a conservation standpoint. We don’t have to waste power refrigerating.

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It may be early in the morning, but there is a Super Bowl rush among the 16 pickers and 16-person support crew. Mike says his job is to “take the frenetic pace and make sure the chaos stays organized. It’s an exciting time. There’s a wave of energy that goes through the vineyard. Wine has an incredible memory and it will remember the energy of that day.”

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Following the light truck is another vehicle carrying large bins for the grapes. The support crew wears headlights and sorts through them, removing leaves and bad clusters. “This is the last quality control point before that bin becomes wine. Once they go into the winery that’s what you live with. It’s like a marathon; some grapes only make it 18 miles, some make it the full 26 and cross the finish line.”

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All the grapes harvested this morning are Cabernet Franc, and were used to make the 06 Tribute blend. One of the reasons the crew is able to work so fast is that the vineyard has been groomed the day before. The bad fruit has been removed along with leaves and other debris.

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Grapes are coming from every angle; over the vines and from workers jumping up from underneath. “A competition forms between the guys to see who works the fastest. Which is great, provided they also work with high quality. These men have all worked for me an average of 13 years. There are no rookies here.”

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The number-one job for the cullers is to remove the bad berries first, and then the leaves second. Grapes with sunburned skin, or that are rose colored instead of dark purple or black, are rejected.

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Grape clusters are not allowed to by pulled by hand, which would cause juicing before they reach the winery. They are sliced off using sharp knives or cutters. At peak ripeness, the grapes will fall off easily, and great care is given to make sure they wind up in the bins and not on the ground. “The ones with best flavor fall off first.”

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Joaquin Corona has worked at Benziger for 22 years, and keeps track of how many grape buckets everyone has collected. Each picker yells out their assigned number every time they deliver a new one.

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The same crew that grooms the vineyard is also the one that picks it. Anything that is left on vines makes it into the bucket. “Our guys tell us they would much rather pick at night. It’s easier to work in the cooler temperatures.”

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Mike switches from task to task as needed. “My job is to control the energy flow, and maintain the highest quality pace. Each person in charge of making the wine is there to make sure they have the raw materials they need. This is all you’ll get to work with. This is what will be in the bottle and what the customer will taste.”

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Patsy Wallace (Mike’s sister) and Dale Wallace, engineer, sort through the grape clusters. “During the picking all your endorphins are going. You’re exhausted afterward, but it’s a good tired.”

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The crew heads to another block of the vineyard.

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“We always time it so we finish at 8 am. These grapes are certified biodynamic by Demeter, so the winery has to be sterilized the night before they’re processed. We want them to be the first grapes in that day or we have to clean all over again.”

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This block of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, overlooking Sonoma Valley, will be picked the next night. “You can see the demand we put on the grapevines to work hard. There’s not a lot of green left. Everything they had they put into those grapes.”

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A view from the vineyards down to the winery.

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Sterilizing the stainless steel tanks. They are jacketed with foam to conserve energy.

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The just-picked Cabernet Franc grapes.

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The fruit is put into the destemer.

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“This is working on the finest level of detail; berry by berry pruning. One last quality check to remove anything defective. Anything over the edge goes into the wine.”

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These grape skins have already gone through fermentation, and are now being pressed to extract more juice. “It’s up to the winemaker if any of the pressed wine goes into the free run. A lot of times the free run can be rich but lack structure. The first pressing can help give form.”

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“This is the most traditional form of winemaking, mixing skins and juice together. When grapes first arrive the skin is all white. All color comes from the skin. If mixed too violently the wine tastes bitter. If not mixed enough you lose the character and intensity the grape wanted to give you.”

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“The more careful you are in the vineyard, the less winemaking you have to do in the winery. Winemaking is strictly a process of stewardship. That’s when you get the purest representation of what the vineyard wanted to give you.”


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