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October 11-17, 2006

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Sweet cut: Joel Montiel, 63, drove from Fairfield to St. Helena to pick grapes. He uses a small knife to detach a bunch of Zinfandel grapes.

Sweat and Tortillas

One morning in the hustle and flow of the harvest

Text and photographs by Brett Ascarelli

On Tuesday, Sept. 26, before the sun had quite risen, eight hot air balloons hovered in the sky over Napa. Presumably, the tourists within the balloons smooched, proposed marriage or took snapshots.

If they had had incredibly powerful zoom lenses, they would have seen harvest workers at Dickerson Vineyards who had been at work since 7am. Two groups of roughly 15 workers moved across the vineyards with the acuity of hungry birds, gathering Zinfandel grapes for Ravenswood Winery, which makes a single-vineyard designate from this fruit. (Robert Parker has called the wine "the Heitz Martha's Vineyard of Zinfandels.")

The workers, overwhelmingly Mexican, sprinted through the rows of grapes, stopping quickly to cut bunches off the vines. After filling small bins each with some 40 pounds of fruit, the men hoisted the grapes up over their heads and deposited them into a two-ton bin pulled by a tractor. Pouring their grapes into the container, they called out to Jorge Garcia, the crew chief, who noted their progress on a clipboard.

Harvest work only lasts a couple of months and is sporadic. Sometimes the men labor every day; other times, they just work here and there, depending on how many grapes there are to pick. They usually work between three and five hours in a day, making between $8.70 and $9.80 per hour, depending on seniority.

Pumped with the adrenaline of running up and down the vineyard rows, the men were grateful to break for a short "lunch" just before 9am. Sitting on the ground around a portable grill, they made tacos from shared ingredients they'd brought from home. Some 15 minutes later, they made their way back out to the vineyards, bins in hand, clearly weary, but ready for the race to begin again.

Later that morning, the hot air balloons landed, littering the valley with tourists anticipating a luxurious day winetasting, lunching and sleeping soft in area hotels.

Following is a look at one morning in the life of the harvest at Dickerson.


Bin there: Rodriguo Hernandez carries a full load of grapes in the early morning sunlight.


Head shot: Andres Carrera, one of the workers for Wight Vineyard Management Inc. this harvest, is just visible above the grape vines.


Agua: Grape pickers at Dickerson Vineyard take a minute to hose off the dirt before eating an early lunch.


9am lunch: Rodriguo Hernandez waits for tortillas to brown on a grill brought by the crew chief of this group. Lunch is fast--only 10 to 15 minutes. Many of the workers bring lunch from home to share with each other.


Tailgating: Manual Vera, 55 (left), Salvador Vera, 44 (middle) and Manuel Juarez (right) share a quick midmorning bite in the makeshift vineyard parking lot before heading back to work.


Deep fruit: Manuel Vera, 55, who lives in Calistoga, has spent 30 years working with grapes. Here, he gently rakes the fruit, distributing it evenly in a two-ton bin.


Beatific: Calixto Castredon, 29, who lives in St. Helena, takes a break from picking grapes from the old Zinfandel vines to smile for the camera.

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