A Daring Solution to Harvest 2023

Published March 4, 2024

August 22, 2023. I pushed back the grape leaves to reveal a perfect Pinot Noir cluster. The voluptuous, deeply purple berries were starting to soften, meaning that harvest was close. I turned the cluster over. Turns out it wasn’t perfect. Some of the berries were crunchy and grape-nut-looking things. Sunburn. I checked another cluster. Same problem. The more I looked, the more I was discouraged. Sunburn was throughout the vineyard, which would make harvest a real pain.

 

Harvest was already going to be complicated for other reasons. First, the guy we usually called to get pickers changed jobs. Second, Laurie was caring for her mom and so wasn’t available to do her normal role of organizing volunteers. Third, the hot, dry summer had the grape sugars increasing quickly. And now we had sunburn, which meant we would need even more labor either in the vineyard or in the winery to sort out the damaged grapes. We needed a plan.

 

For the sunburned grapes, we could either hire a crew to ‘drop’ the damaged clusters before harvest, or we could sort them out in the winery. But hiring a crew is expensive, and Laurie wouldn’t have time to organize friends and family to sort the grapes. We couldn’t ask a harvest crew to pick only the good grapes because they are paid by the bucket, and that level of attention would take extra time and re-training. As for the sugar, rain and cooler weather would help, but this was obviously out of our control. As I pondered these issues, I started seeing a simpler, more affordable way to get the grapes in: Pick the crop myself. While keeping my fingers crossed for rain.

 

The upsides of the ‘solo pick’ idea were numerous. No crew to find or pay. No need for sorting help because I could take care to pick only the good clusters. Also, I would get first-hand experience with our new trellis system. (More on that in a future newsletter!) The downside was the risk. Picking would be slow and would probably stretch more than a month. We would need just the right amount of rain and cooler temperatures to keep sugar levels in check. And to make enough wine, my hands and back would need to hold up to picking and carrying 32,000 pounds of grapes.

 

The first day of picking on September 8 gave me an sense of how big the task would be. That day I harvested 1,769 pounds of Pinot Noir. It was a dawn-to-dusk effort; not sustainable on a daily basis. But the plan was theoretically doable. The only question was the weather. A typical Willamette Valley fall weather pattern (if we could get it) would be perfect: overall cool, with a day of rain followed by three or four days of dry. Repeating hopefully for a month. We got lucky, and the fall weather pattern kicked in within a week. But it didn’t last for just a month. It lasted for seven weeks!

 

I settled into a rhythm, picking on the dry days and working in the winery on the rainy days. This allowed me to recover from the rigors of picking and get caught up on fermentations and pressing. The rains knocked the sugars back, allowing the grapes more time on the vines to get that extra flavor development. The timing of it all was magical. It felt like a dance with Mother Nature. I just wasn’t sure if my strength would be there for the last waltz.

 

By October 7, I felt surprisingly good. I actually felt energized instead of exhausted. I was sleeping great. I’d worked off 10 pounds of dad-belly fat. I was feeling intensely alive and an incredible sense of gratitude for the beauty of this Oregon autumn. I was having too good a time. And I wasn’t even hitting the dispensary.

 

Our high trellis system definitely helped because I could stand upright while picking. I was worried about the upcoming Chardonnay pick though. We buy the Chardonnay from our neighbor, Cassin Family Vineyards. Their vineyard is on the more common lower trellis system, which is harder on the lower back. But the Cassin Chardonnay was beautiful, with large clusters, which made for fast, easy picking. On the second day there I managed to pick 1,928 pounds, my best single-day total.

 

On the final day of picking, October 31, I brought in the last 500 pounds of Pinot Noir. That made the final total 31,796 pounds. Close enough to the goal. I had been tracking the sugar levels in each batch of grapes as the harvest progressed and thanks to the weather, they were staying in a really good range (23 to 25 brix). But I had not tracked the acid levels. I just had no time to take samples to the lab. It was possible that after seven weeks of harvest, the acids could be seriously off track. I brought in a juice sample from the final picking and waited nervously for the results to show up in my email. They came back spot-on perfect. Oregon truly is a magical place to grow Pinot Noir.

 

By mid-November, the new 2023 wine was in barrel in the quiet winery. I was feeling an emotion that I had never felt with previous vintages. I felt an incredible sense of gratitude for how much I had enjoyed this harvest. For friends and family who showed up to help. For getting a front-row seat to a seven-week cinematic showing of a stunning Oregon autumn, with blue skies and yellow maple trees, puffy white clouds and golden grape leaves. Like a great concert or writing a song, farming grapes and making wine are how I create beauty.

20 thoughts on “A Daring Solution to Harvest 2023”

  1. Sally and Jay Leet

    Wow. It sounds like your efforts were Herculean! We were there in December, after winning the auction for a tasting at The Edwards Center fundraiser. As we said then, please put us to work.

  2. Bryan Hutcheson

    Fabulous story! So happy everything turned out so well! Can’t wait to drink the special vintage. Look forward to coming out to have a bottle soon. Bryan and Cindy Hutcheson

  3. Debra Kabarsky

    Why does this not surprise me. You are an amazing man Joel Kiff, with an amazing wife and family. Thanks for telling your story, I enjoyed it very much.

  4. Joel – wonderful story, excellent writing, and a beautiful experience. I am envious, but not in a way that makes it a deadly sin. Just in a oh-if-I-had-a-different-life-it-could-be-this-way kind of way. The close suburb of Seattle and the job with the Wall Street bank and the small yard with a nice garden and the dog walks through residential streets with views of Green Lake and the forested Woodland Park Zoo will have to do, thank you very much!

  5. Robert Stapleton

    We visited with you October 4th of last autumn and your passion for what you do was palatable. We now know why as you were in the middle of a life’s peak experience – feeling fully alive!

    Thanks for sharing this story. It makes your wines that much more enjoyable!

    Marianne and Bob – Club member # 450

  6. Wow – what an incredible journey and story!
    I can’t wait to savor a glass of the ’23 pinot noir

  7. Jennifer Stafford

    Wow. Loved starting my day by reading this! I truly appreciate the awe you had for synergy of land and profession in that season. Incredible accomplishment with unexpected, even epiphanal blessings—surely fodder for naming the bottles. Very happy for you and glad you captured this in writing. All our best to you, you wife and those in her care. We hope to visit you this season with Sally and Felix.

  8. Bill Stephens

    Wow, what an amazing and uplifting report, Joel! And who could ask for a better way to shake dad bod?! Can’t wait to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
    Bill Stephens

  9. Sonya Wrisley

    What an incredible harvest! And I’m not surprised that you did it all! I’m excited to see a video of the song that you write and sing about this harvest!!

  10. A remarkable story of harvest and perseverance. Picking all grapes yourself! Wow. I’m sure your efforts and dedication will be rewarded with a fine vintage. My wife and I visited your winery for first time in 2023 when no one else was there. We got a personal tour and tasting and left with some great wine. We got one of the last bottles we understand of the 2015 PN which was incredible. Hopefully we see more of the same in the future.

  11. Dave and Dru Sloop

    Amazing work, and story, and luck! The next time you need volunteer help please give us a call! We’re in Dundee, so only minutes away, and we’re semi experienced pickers.

  12. Bruce Hillenberg

    Hard work.
    Gratitude.
    Grit.
    Soil and soul.
    A daily arc.
    Sweat and grapes.
    Dry and rain.
    Facing uncertainty.
    Learning quickly.
    Acceptance in full bloom.
    Close up.
    I am thirsty now that I have read your experience.
    Your gratitude was freeing.
    Thank you.

  13. Jan & Jeff Santoro

    Thanks for sharing this incredible story with us Joel. All Jeff and I can say is WOW! Even more excited to try your fruits of labor from 2023. Your determination, ingenuity and dedication is much to be proud of!!! We hope Laurie’s mom is doing better. Your granddaughter is just precious and Eddie is too. Looking forward to later this month to place our order. We are actually enjoying a glass of your delicious Pinot Noir Rose as I write this. Meanwhile please take care. Best to you and yours.

  14. Maureen McGlone

    I am so glad to have read your post! Your knowledge, genuine love of wine making, and your joy totally shine through. I will be smiling about it for some time and looking forward to tasting the ‘23 and maybe hearing a song about it.

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