At its heart, California’s food economy is all about agriculture. Our state produces almost half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. In the Bay Area, one of our biggest crops is grapes. And right now, it’s harvest time-- it started on August 1st and could run through late fall.
Tourists who visit Wine Country might imagine seeing people with bare feet squishing grapes between their toes. That’s part of harvest. But there’s another part that happens not with toes, but with fingers and tractors, and not in daylight, but under floodlights that burn through the night.
It’s 10pm at Fire’s gas station near St. Helena. Even though the entire valley is filled with activity, this gas station is the only thing open for miles.
Behind the counter, a woman named Jean rings up a customer in work boots. Outside, trucks rumble past, hauling grapes down the darkened highway.
“It's the St. Helena highway. It's also the Highway 29. It's also Main Street St. Helena. This is where I tell people dogs are traded and dates are made,” says Jean, laughing.
Tonight is the last night of the 2012 grape harvest. The work’s been going non-stop, 24-hours a day, for weeks.
“The workers come from out of the county,” Jean explains. “They come all the way from Modesto, Lodi. They get picked up in the early morning. They start at 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning. They're not done til 6, 7, 8. They work around the clock this time of year. Helping keep that grape juice flowing. And their hands are shadowed with the color--we call it the ‘purple pride,’--you know, you can be proud when your hands are stained that color, knowing that you were in touch.”
Jean will ring up snacks and cigarettes and coffee in Styrofoam cups until daybreak. She’ll also sell straw hats and cotton work gloves—men’s size large—along with the candy bars and chewing gum.
“In the middle of the night, it's crazy because they have the vineyards all lit up and you can hear em, just, whoosh shh shh shh through the grapes, you know. You can hear them.”
The gas station is surrounded by the harvest. Field workers and tractors move through fields right across the highway.
About ten miles from the gas station is the Paraduxx Vineyard. It’s owned by a company called Duckhorn. In a field outside the winery, six men in orange safety vests and heavy work boots are doing squats--stretching out their muscles before a long night of grueling physical labor in the fields.
These guys are getting ready to work—hard. They’re trying to pick the last grapes of the season before a storm comes. Although the skies are clear right now, heavy rain is in the forecast.
Fermin Hurtado, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, is the foreman tonight. He’s paying attention to everything, watching the sky for rain, making sure the work goes as planned.
He came to the US from Michoacan in 1976. He’s been working for Duckhorn for 20 years. This time of year, the harvest, or ‘la cosecha,’ is his very favorite part of the job.
“Porque ahorrita viene los frutos de todo lo que trabajó
durante todo el año,” he says. Now is when we see the fruits from all our labor thorughout the year.
Tonight, he’s excited, but he’s also worried. If the fields get too wet and muddy, the tractors that haul the grapes to the winery will get stuck in the mud between the vines, and the harvest will come to a stop.
“Ellos dicen que a las 3, 4 de la mañana, llegue la lluvia, pero vamos a ver que pasa,” says Fermín, looking up at the sky. They say the rain’s coming at 3 or 4 in the morning, but we’ll see what happens.
A few steps away, Jorge Flores is sharpening the small curved knife he’ll use to cut cabernet grapes by hand until sunrise, or until it starts raining. He’s been cutting grapes for five years. He slices them from the vines by hand, and drops them into a grey plastic bin with the number three stenciled on the side.
“Cada de esa es nuestra ganacia,” Flores say. Each one of these is our income.
They get paid by the bin, or ‘bandeja’ Each one holds about 40 pounds of grapes. The faster you pick, the more bins you fill, and the more money you make. But even though speed is important...
“El cuchillo es algo peligroso, si no tiene uno cuidado,” Flores says. The knife can be dangerous if you’re not careful.
And being careful can be challenging because the pickers’ attention is divided--watching the blade, working quickly, and inspecting the fruit while as they cut. Not all the grapes are high enough quality for the vineyard to use.
Flores inspects a cluster before tossing it aside.
“Esta no la quieren, ésta no es calidad. Es la fruta buena que quiere la companía,” he explains. This one they don’t want, this one isn’t good quality. The company wants good fruit.
Out in the field, the men move quickly, hunched over at the waist, pushing aside leaves to get at the ripe fruit, and kicking their bins along the ground as they move from vine to vine.
Full bins weigh about 40 pounds. As soon as they’re full, the men hoist them on their shoulders, and run as fast as they can to a waiting tractor where they toss their grapes into a crate the size of a pickup truck bed. Then they shout the number stenciled on the side of their bin to the foreman, and he jots it down on a clipboard. This is how they’ll get paid.
The work is fast and relentless and physically demanding--that’s why the stretches and squats are so important before they start. Being in good shape is the only way to make a living at this. Even so, Flores says, the work eventually takes a toll.
“Al principio entramos con ganas. Ya despúes de media noche, se cansa el cuerpo ya.”
We start out with a lot of energy, Jorge says. But after midnight, our bodies start to get tired. We start out with a lot of energy, but after midnight, our bodies start to get tired.
But just because the body gets tired doesn’t mean the work is done. The men will keep picking tonight until the very last grape is stripped from these vines…or until it starts raining.