My Experience at Belle Pente Winery
By: Matt Perrella
I worked my first wine harvest in 2014. The winery was Belle Pente in Willamette Valley, Oregon. Being in Willamette Valley, the primary focus was on Pinot Noir, but smaller quantities of Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay and Muscat were also made. I can truly say it was a gratifying experience. You can learn the steps of winemaking from books but getting a behind the scenes view garners a new appreciation for all that goes into it. There is something to be said about opening a bottle of 2014 Belle Pente and knowing that I was part of the team that contributed to the wine.
Before heading out to Oregon, I was given advice from a few people who have worked harvest previously. First of all, buy a good pair waterproof boots. You are going to be on your feet all day and getting wet constantly. Second, be in decent shape. You do not need to hit the gym and train to work harvest, but you will be expected to carry, push and climb frequently. Most important of all, follow precise instructions and communicate. No detail is too small, and deviations can be costly. After having worked a couple of harvests, I would pass this advice along as well.
Going in, I knew it was going to be long hours, sore muscles and getting dirty. Reflecting back on my experience, these are a few things that stand out.
1. Mother Nature plays a major role in winemaking. The weather and season influence almost all decisions during harvest, such as when to pick grapes. If it looks like rain will hit, there are two choices; pick before the rain hits or wait it out and hope the rains are not too bad and the grapes can dry out. If you pick earlier that you would like in order to beat the rain, the risk is that the grapes are not going to be as ripe as desired. However, if you wait until after the rain, the risks are dilution or the fruit and the chances of mildew increases. Another complicating factor is making sure you have a crew ready to go for picking on your desired date before or after the rain.
2. Grapes that taste good makes good wine. The adage that great wine is made in the vineyard is true. While sorting grapes, discarding undesirable bunches, leaves and other matter, there was a marked difference in the fruit that came in from various vineyards and blocks within vineyards. There is a clear link between how the fruit tasted and the finished wine, in both taste and texture.
3. Your hands will be stained purple for weeks. You are in contact with grapes, juice, must and tools that have been in the fermenting wine all the time. This sounds like a silly problem, and it is, but this does remind you how much you are working with your hands. Making wine is a hands-on, physical experience.
4. Picking grapes is not an easy task. Vineyards are often on slopes, and the soil is uneven. You are constantly squatting and moving sideways to cut bunches. When your bin is full, carry it to the end of the row and repeat the process. The goal is to get the grapes picked and to the winery as fast as possible. Vineyard crews have my respect.
5. No meal will ever be as satisfying as the ones you make with your team at the end of a long day.
Harvest was one of the must fulfilling experiences I have had. It put into perspective the effort that goes into making the wine we enjoy. I would say if ever the opportunity arises for a chance to work harvest, go for it.