The morning air is brisk as I arrive at Vince Tofanelli’s Calistoga vineyard. Although the sun has yet to peek over the hills, the sky is on fire with oranges and reds. Already the baseball capped heads of grape pickers bob up and down above the vines. Everything is rush-rush.
Aware of my arrival, Vince waves and walks over to greet me. He says, “I can’t remember the last time a harvest seemed so promising. The vines look vibrant, and the grapes are firm and ‘crunchy,’ which is great, because some years the berries can be sweet but soft.”
He pulls out a refractometer to test grape sugar levels. After squeezing a couple drops of Zin juice onto the prism assembly, he holds the instrument to the light.
“Earlier today the Charbono was at 16 Brix, not yet ready to harvest. But the Zinfandel’s at 26 Brix. One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution. These are the grapes we’re picking this morning.”
I ask what I can do to help, and Vince sets me to work picking leaves out of the full bins. Load after load of grapes are tossed into the bins, giving rise to a ripe sweet smell. Vince’s mom walks behind the line of workers, marking on a clipboard as each bin arrives.
The sun finally crests the far hill, painting the valley floor golden. While extracting leaves, I notice the occasional lighter-colored grape bunch and wonder aloud why Vince lets those pass through.
He tells me he doesn’t mind a few “almost ripe” grapes, since the sugars in general are up. Those grapes that aren’t quite “there” add acidity and complexity. I look closely and notice that the Zin fruit isn’t uniformly black. Vince holds up a bunch of grapes so the sun shines through them. “Notice how bright red they are.”
I pick up a bouncy cluster to feel the fruit’s texture: rubbery, firm, and tight. Small white spiders crawl out from between the berries, startled from being tossed about. “These are good spiders.” Vince says, “They don’t bother the grapes and in fact eat bad bugs.”
As more help arrives, Vince relieves me from leaf picking duty. I ask him why grapes must be harvested so early in the morning.
“In the early morning, grape sugar levels are stable, acid levels are better, and the cooler grape temperature aids fermentation. By afternoon, the vines shut down and the fruit gets flabby. Come on, I’ll show you how to pick grapes.”
Holding a grape cluster with his left hand, he uses a sickle shaped knife to cut the berries off the vine. After several more swift motions, every cluster has been removed. I’m amazed that it only takes a few seconds to unburden a vine of its fruit.
On the next vine, Vince finds a bunch that’s shriveled and covered with fungus. “Try smelling it.” It’s vinegary, musty. “That’s what’s called ‘noble rot’ and it’s caused by the botrytis fungus. If I was making a white dessert wine, this rot would be a good thing and would give the finished wine a honey character. But found on Zin, noble rot is just rot.”
Another paradox of wine. Rotting fruit isn’t always a bad thing.
Not knowing how Vince got into farming, I take advantage of the conversational lull to ask.
“I started as my grandfather’s assistant, in my 20’s. By then he was less able to do the physical labor, so I helped out. In the process, I learned farming the traditional, old world way, using the same methods my grandfather learned growing up in Tuscany.
“Though I was born and raised here in Calistoga, I spoke only Italian until I started school. The bus used to drop me off just down the street,” he says, pointing towards the Silverado Trail.
“These days, I hold onto a bit of the fruit from these twenty-seven acres to produce about 1000 cases of wine for my own label, Tofanelli Family Vineyards. What I struggle with these days, though, is whether to make a wine that’s consistent from year to year, or one that represents the vintage, using no special processing. I prefer the taste of the vintage, but each year, the flavor profile changes.
“Industry wide, wine styles seem to be evolving. Winemakers are throttling their wines back for greater subtlety and balance. For the last decade or so, winemakers have been picking later when the sugars are higher, which makes higher alcohol wines. Then they use more oak for balance, making even bigger, more powerful wines.”
After about two hours of picking with six vineyard workers, the harvest for today is done. I ask Vince how much fruit he thinks was harvested. Judging from what’s in the bins, he tells me, probably four and half tons. He covers the bin tops with a plastic tarp to help protect the fruit from the European Grapevine Moth, and climbs into his pickup. Leaning out the window, Vince says, “I used to feel melancholy and purposeless walking through the empty vineyards after harvest, even though it was great to sleep in. But I’ve gotten used to that, and now I’m able to let go and move on. So many things to prepare for next year.”
I stay behind in order have more time to sketch.
Plucking a Zin grape off a vine, it tastes sweet and its chewy skin and crunchy seeds make the small globe taste like candy. On subsequent tastes, I notice few berries are alike, reminding me of the variant flavors of wild blackberries.
Splitting a dusty plum-colored grape, I squeeze its juice on a page of my sketchbook, forming a puddle. It would seem the juice of a red grape would be red, but it’s as clear as that of a white grape. I rub the skin in the juice and red pigment begins to flow.
I walk along the far side of the property, then turn into the Zinfandel vineyard. Even though the vines are a good distance apart, their canes reach across rows, tangling with one another, blocking my path. It's there that I find a thick twisted-wood trunk, a great subject to draw. Facing North with my hat pulled to one side, I’m shielded from the hot sun while beginning to sketch.
Leaves whisper in the late morning breeze as the canes sway. Everything feels alive, and I feel a strange yet comforting sense that the vines are aware of my presence. These old vines have lived in the same spot for decades and are as rooted to the land as the trees. What fascinating stories they must have hidden in their roots.
I imagine farmers like Vince, who have worked the land for most of their lives, are privy to these stories and are aware of much more than just a change of seasons. The cycle of life is ever present; what has died enriches the living, and the living creates more life.
A gust of wind flips the pages of my sketchbook, and I stand to stretch my legs. Breezes pass in waves across the vineyard, and I can feel all living things breathing in unison like a collective meditation. I feel myself merging with the vineyard’s rhythm, understanding now that I’m already a part of nature’s dance and always have been. I feel the spirit of place, the spirit of the vines.