Did you ever watch one of those vast shoals of small fish suddenly darting this way and that in unison? How do they all know what to do, and which way to go? I ponder on this again as the roads swell to overflowing in Napa Valley during harvest. Everyone seems to have the same idea and they all suddenly appear, darting in unison from winery to winery. Someone asked me recently, “Why is it so busy in Napa during harvest?” It seemed a rather obvious question at first, but then you start to think about it and it merits answering. What is the ‘Shoal Think’ behind this phenomenon?
The answer is in the symbolic power of harvest. Every year I take pictures of crush for my own amusement, and sometimes for the benefit of those I am working with. I have been struck more than once by how the sight of a small crew hard at work in the cellar at harvest feels like the many nativity scenes I remember from childhood. Mary, the winemaker, nurtures the arrival. The owner is a Joseph, fretting around the manger. The international interns get to be the Magi, bringing their exotic languages and habits from other climes to our cellars.
Each year this repeated cycle of life creates a new entity. It will have its own personality and allows us to keep talking and writing about the same product again and again. There will be updated tasting notes and new sales conversations. They will be laced with details of how the heat did this, or the early rain did that. We can mesmerize the visitor with the small complexities. These details then validate the cerebral sophistication of this year’s purchase investment. The approaching wine is also wreathed in a ritual welcome. Winery owners decry all the vagaries of the weather and the season for that vintage. They do not want to have the ‘evil eye’ cast upon their work. Then after 18 months in barrel they will laud the wines that emerge from the darkness as superlative as the ones that came before it – in some clever way.
We yearn for this ritual in our lives, for tradition, and for meaning. Why else would you have the same double soy macchiato with extra foam every morning, from the same barrista? Feeling uncomfortable when someone else makes it. Why else would the ‘7th inning stretch’ be the best thing that ever happened in an American sport? Or why would we travel across country to sit in Nowheresville USA in a camper van, with a vast crowd of others, to look at our moon passing in front of our sun for a tiny moment in time? Movie theatres have survived videos, and DVD’s, and still hold up pretty well against Netflix and Hulu. Turns out we want to sit in the dark with strangers and share some emotions, gasp, laugh, and cry together. We are drawn to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, while still feeling we have made an individual choice to participate.
Being in Napa Valley for harvest means being part of something that is big. We have not lost our primal urges; we can feel the power and energy of harvest. It is nature and humanity in their dance, it smells, it’s sticky and tactile, and the sounds of hard endeavor reverberate at every property visited. Most importantly the end result is expensive and has stature. If it was corn or walnuts, the crowds would not be here with eyes like saucers. The more luster we add to these coveted trophies the greater the desire to see them birthing will be. Every time I read ‘Super Ultra-Premium Boutique Cabernet’ I feel slightly despondent, but this is where we are. The great thing about harvest is that it’s not as dangerous as going to Pamplona, but you still get to brag about your athletic prowess when you get home. The bulls you run with are the other ‘big hitters’ who join you in the narrow, congested confines of Highway 29 and Silverado Trail, bumping and jostling each other as you hurtle from one wine experience to the next. “Yes, we were in Napa Valley for harvest, it was awesome!” You made it to the agricultural Super Bowl. You got to see the weary gladiators of the crush pad and see their battle scars up close and personal. You got to watch the black pearls drop from the destemmer. You picked a few berries and tasted them so that the DNA of 2017 harvest became part of you. Who could blame anyone for wanting all that – no wonder it’s so busy at harvest. The rest of the year our cellars and crush pads are romantic, but frankly rather dull and sterile by comparison. At harvest the dragon awakes and breathes fire into the air.
Lest the “Wineries have ruined Napa Valley” crowd start nodding sagely, I must interject that there are many entities complicit in this yearly drama. Hotels, restaurants, marketing organizations, press, media and many other service providers stand to make a lot more coin per head than wineries do from these harvest disciples. They have promoted this agrarian adulation of harvest just as heavily, if not more so, than the wineries.
Inconveniences aside, I think we should throw open our doors to this harvest celebration and welcome the many travelers who seek it out. It is a blessing to be made aware of the season and have nature give you markers that so beautifully illustrate the passage of time in your life. The wine vintage itself may not actually be that important in the end. But feeling the breath of the land heave and fall is an annual rhythm to be cherished. We are lucky, those of us who are connected to this industry. As we inhale and exhale at harvest time, we are indeed part of something grand.
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