V I E W F R O M T H E B A R N
Around 9pm, the still night air is broken by headlights as the first of the crew arrives. A cloud of dust follows the cars as they park under the giant oak tree. Memories of the calm darkness become distant as the diesel tractor engines fire up. The harvesting lights, hung above the fruit trailers, power on, illuminating the narrow valley. ATV engines roar to life and swoop down from the barn off on bird-net removal missions.
As the rest of the crew arrives, whistles and greetings are barely audible above the tractors climbing the hills.
The engine noise fades and the dust settles back to the ground. Not for long.
Lupe races back on her bright red ATV, the newest and fastest of the fleet. The green John Deere chugs along behind her. Its trailer carries the first ton of fruit, stacked neatly in small yellow bins. Lupe jumps from the ATV onto the forklift. The safety beep blares as she reverses to weigh the fruit on the scale and then load the pallets onto the long flatbed.
Now the true rhythm of nocturnal harvest has begun in front of the barn. The process repeats twenty times through dawn, with the flatbed departing and returning from the Lompoc winery. Straps fly over the precious load to make it down the curves of Ballard Canyon Road and out West. Only an early morning coffee and “lunch” break halts the activity. The tractors wait, panting in idol, ready to finish the night and rest by day.
U P A N D D O W N T H E H I L L S
Ruben can slow the crew down if he needs to, he asks them to eyeball each cluster with the light of forehead mounted headlamps. They select only particular grapes, perhaps the unevenly colored for rose. Not tonight.
Tonight, we harvest Syrah, and it is all ripe. Tonight La Cuadrilla flies unbridled, and at its most impressive. Stacks of empty yellow bins, flung from the trailer, methodically placed under the vine rows to each side. A full bin comes sliding back, the empty whisked away in the same motion. The laser light of the headlamps dance around the corridor and the leaves glow, back-lit by the team working the opposite side.
The members seldom utter a word, but the harvest continues its constant forward movement. Not like a machine, there is far too much frenetic human energy within the bubble of light and action. Picking shears snip too fast to observe individual cuts, and the clusters drop into the bins pushed forward by knees and an elbow. The leaves shake as hands rove through the canopy in search of fruit.
As the full bins stack high on the trailer, Pepe gives one more inspection, searching for an errant leaf to pluck out, before jumping off. The next tractor surges forward, loaded with empties, and the crew doesn’t pause to note another ton down.
E V E R Y N I G H T
Just hours ago, Sashi and Ruben walked the vineyard. The plan of attack finalized, block by block. Durrell Clone first, to be blended months from now with opulent Estrella River into Originals Syrah.
With the first hint of daylight, the crew makes its way to Ruben’s block, starting at the top and working down. Here the tractors must wait on the periphery, and La Cuadrilla carries each bin out to exchange for an empty. With the tractors hovering away from the action, Ruben’s Block becomes more intimate, tranquil.
So begins a month of heavy picks, and the last night will be just as fast-paced as the first. We are already deep in, with Sauvignon Blanc, Rose, and Viognier behind us, and the trickle of Grenache and Roussanne will follow. For the next few weeks, we only care about Syrah. It will turn our hands black with no point in cleaning the pigment from pores until the last gallon flows into barrel.
The harvest plan is sound. La Cuadrilla will execute.