All Hands on Deck for Harvest Season in Sonoma
In California wine country, harvest season brings a flurry of activity, celebration, and hard work as wineries bring the year’s labor to fruition. All hands are on deck to harvest the grapes, providing the first preemptive taste of the year’s wine.
Three of our favorite wineries, Beltane Ranch, Flowers Winery and Belden Barns; are all boutique operations in the Sonoma area, run by tight-knit teams. These small batch productions are intimately connected to the land, and committed to sustainable farming.
All Roads North spoke with the people behind them to share the joys and challenges of the harvest season at their properties:
Beltane Ranch has been in the hands of Lauren Benward’s family for six generations. Having grown up at the winery with her brother Alex, she has a lifetime of harvest memories to share.
“Harvest was always the most exciting time of year,” Benward said. “It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of work. It means long days getting dirty with a spirited team to bring in all the fruit. The smells, sounds and feels of harvest are unforgettable. It’s ripe, sticky, dusty and wonderful. My favorite is the spirit of the crew and the tacos when we are done.”
At Beltane, the harvest season usually begins in late August for the Sauvignon Blanc, then carries into September for the Rosé, and October for the reds. Alex leads harvest operations, picking everything at night to retain the quality of the grapes.
“My kids get so excited they actually put themselves to bed early on harvest nights so they can get up and help,” Benward said. “A skilled group of men and women will pick through the night and then my brother will haul the fruit in multiple loads to the winery at sunrise. At the winery, we will watch it go to press or de-stem and taste the free run juice with our winemaker.”
Flowers Winery winemaker Chantal Forthun cites harvest time as one that intimately connects the team to the land.
“Rising to the challenge – literally climbing to elevations of 1,400-1,800 feet perched high above the fog line – our team enjoys the ultimate harvest payoff: a soaring view of the craggy coastline below, and beguiling maritime breezes wafting through the coastal forests,” Forthun said. “Standing amidst the elements in our estate vineyards, our winemaking team is viscerally connected to the birthplace of our coastal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and inspired to craft a 2022 vintage reflective of time and place.”
The Challenges of Harvest Season
Although certainly a celebratory and joyous time, the harvest season is also full of challenges and tough work.
“Harvesting the extreme terroir of the Sonoma Coast is no small feat,” Chantal said of Flowers Winery. “The steep slopes of our estate vineyards require our team to farm every vine by hand. In blocks of our Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge vineyards, our team members are even required to wear soccer cleats to keep their footing…it’s wilderness winemaking.”
Nate Belden, co-founder of Belden Barns along with his wife Lauren Belden, spoke about the challenges of long work hours during the night.
“We pick in the middle of the night, often starting at 10pm or as late as 3am, and finishing as the sun is rising,” Belden said. “It is a crazy site that looks like a UFO landing, with a large light boom extended off the back of a tractor that pulls large bins.
We pick at night for a couple of reasons – One, all of our picking is done by hand. It’s easier on those of us doing the work to be in the cool of the night rather than the heat of the day. Two, we want to get our grapes into the winery in good condition. Cooler temperatures reduce unwanted microbial activity and the grapes are structurally in better shape when the vines have had a chance to recover from the heat of the day.
This practice does take a toll on sleep and most of us laugh with hindsight later in the winter at those instances when our tempers were artificially short due to harvest sleep schedules. It’s a congenial industry and everyone knows at the end of the day that all intentions are pointed to creating amazing wines know matter how crabby we may have been at certain moments.”
Beltane Ranch prides itself on providing unique guest experiences at any time of the year, but the harvest provides extra special opportunities for visitors.
“One of the most rewarding things about harvest time is that you can really taste the flavor profile of a wine at harvest time,” Benward said. “One of my favorite things is to take guests into the vineyard as harvest approaches and sample the grapes, test the sugar with a refractometer, taste them compared to previous vintages. We are super proud of shaping our wines in the vineyard and there is nothing like tasting them on the soil that grows them. I think it really makes for a deeper understanding of the fruit and the farming behind it.
Guests also love to visit the sheep who roam through our vineyard munching the weeds and fertilizing as they go. They are part of our regenerative farming that has allowed us to farm without spraying any kind of herbicide and build the health of our soil, vines and ecosystem. And they are adorable!”
Belden Barns invites guests into their harvest season with a special annual celebration.
“Our happiest memories during harvest usually come during our annual Grape Stomp,” Belden said. “This is a public event where visitors get out into the field to pick grapes and bring them back to dump into a large bin. Those that want to take their shoes off and stomp grapes with their bare feet. This is the one time during the season when we take time to reflect on all the work that leads up to harvest. Lauren and I give a speech of gratitude and take the ceremonial first plunge into the grapes and then ‘release the hounds’ for folks to have fun.”
Sonoma and Mendocino – A Farm to Table Road Trip
This luxury food and wine vacation to Sonoma and Mendocino is a true ‘Farm to Table’ odyssey. Not only will you stay in style at award-winning boutique inns and enjoy mouth-watering culinary delights at some of California’s most highly regarded restaurants, but you’ll also harvest, forage and catch the fruits of the region yourself, as you spend time with local producers, ranchers, and chefs.