Think you have the stuff to work harvest? Here’s what you need to know.
On the occasion of our 2022 harvest, we interviewed Elk Cove’s Associate Winemaker Heather Perkin about the intense experience of working harvest in a wine cellar. Like many winemaking students, Heather once alternated harvests in the Southern and Northern hemispheres in search of a home winery. She worked harvest at Elk Cove in 2004, then again in 2005 after which she was hired on as Assistant Winemaker and later promoted to Associate Winemaker. During Harvest, Heather oversees our visiting winemaking students, also known as the Harvest Crew or Harvest Cru.
Why is harvest so important?
Harvest is the one chance we get each year to make wine. After the vineyard crew has worked tirelessly with the vines for 9 months, I have two months to turn grape juice into wine. It is the most critical time for me, because I only have that one chance per year.
If the team and I do a great job in the winery, then the rest of the year we are left to monitor. We make minor decisions like blending until the wine goes into bottle.
What does it mean to “work harvest”?
Gosh! You push your body harder than you thought you could, it’s intense. You work long hours 6 days a week.
Harvest is a full-on work experience. It’s monotonous, thrilling, exciting, you don’t see or do much outside of work, yet the camaraderie and that singular focus for the whole team is very addictive!
Here at Elk Cove Vineyards, the harvest crew works with both reds and whites, from the sorting table to the press, with pump overs, punch downs, transfers, additions, inoculations, barrel filling, barrel stirring… They get to try their hand at everything, hopefully walking away with a full experience and an idea of what a wine harvest is all about.
What can you tell me about this year’s harvest crew? Where do they come from? What skills and experience do they bring?
We have a team of 7 (two of whom have recently come on full-time) and we have our first internationals on the team since 2019! We have a gentleman from Italy and for the first time, we have representation from India. The rest are Americans. Two will be experiencing their first harvest and the rest have a combined total of 10 harvests under their belts. They’ve worked in Oregon, New Zealand, California, Italy, India and South Africa.
We are thrilled each year to have a broad mix of experience on our crew. I personally no longer do other harvests around the world anymore, so harvest is as much a chance for me to extract as much information from their past experiences as it is for them to do the same from us!
You have been in charge of our visiting winemaking students for 15 years+ now, can you share with me what’s changed in that time?
I am finding the applicants are coming from a broader range of backgrounds than in the past – most notably since COVID. Some have never worked a harvest before and are curious, a lot more are coming from other parts of the industry retail and distribution channels, it is no longer just those who have recently graduated from university with a winemaking degree.
We are also attracting people from a wider range of countries – in recent years we have had crew from Italy, South Africa, China and now India. Additionally, the interns are now more widely versed on wines from around the world, encouraging me to up my level of expertise!
How is harvest different now?
Harvest volume is definitely bigger than when I started, having tripled in size here at Elk Cove Vineyards. As a result, I have many more organizational tricks. I use color coordination, how-to guides and many, many printouts for my team and we spend a lot of time training at the beginning. We still make wine the same way, with a few tweaks we have learned over the years. The jigsaw puzzle simply got larger.
What have you learned in your years of working harvest?
No two harvests or teams are ever the same! You can never be prepared enough and that is ok! With the long hours we pull, it is important to shake things up for the team and myself, so I have introduced mini competitions – daily step counts, treasure hunts and even wine tastings when time permits. I love watching people learn a new skill and the joy they bring when it all clicks into place – from using lab equipment, the winery software system, to forklift driving. When they get proficient at racking or using the punch-down tool, their enthusiasm is intoxicating.
It’s important to remember that harvest does eventually end! A smile and check-in go a long way on those really long days. It doesn’t last forever and the end is always bitter-sweet: it is hard to say goodbye to the harvest crew.