The sun is only just beginning to rise when the crew of vineyard stewards at Bethel Heights Vineyard begins working.
The fog will burn off in the hills of West Salem, Oregon, soon enough. But so early in the morning, it still hangs in the vineyard.
Some days, this crew is done working as many people are beginning. On Oct. 11, they finished harvesting just after 9 a.m. But a week later, there’s more work to do. Bethel Heights wants to finish harvesting before the rain hits.
“I think we can finish tomorrow,” winemaker and co-owner Ben Casteel says on Oct. 19.
More than 27,000 acres in the Willamette Valley are devoted to producing wine, according to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. Most of those acres – 19,030 – grow pinot noir grapes. The valley’s typically temperate climate is friendly to wine grapes, especially pinot noir.
And before those grapes are turned into the wine that attracts thousands of visitors to the Willamette Valley each year, someone must pick them.
That is today’s task.
An endurance contest
Harvesting grapes is not “complicated” work, Bethel Heights co-owner and general manager Pat Dudley said. But it is hard.
“It’s an endurance contest,” Dudley said.
Vineyard workers disperse into the rows of vines and emerge minutes later with buckets full of grapes. They run back and forth from a tractor, which collects the fruits of the group’s labor into the vines.
Five-gallon buckets of grapes in each arm, or strapped to a belt or harness, do not slow the workers down. Full buckets weigh up to 20 pounds by most of these workers’ estimates.
Methodically and efficiently, they move down each row of vines, clipping clusters of grapes with shears and dumping them into their buckets.
The 27-person team is done with the first “block,” or section, by 7:35 a.m.
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Jesus Garcia estimates he can fill 50 buckets in an hour on a good day. Jose Luis Martinez, the crew lead, says he’s seen people fill as many as 70 in an hour.
Some vineyards have tried to lessen the physical burden of the harvest with machinery.
At Stoller Family Estate and Vineyards in Dayton, a retrofitted tractor follows harvesters through the rows as they go so they don’t have to run in and out. It doesn’t fit in every block, but the vineyard uses it when it can.
There are even mechanical grape harvesters: big tractors that shake the vines and catch the fruit.
Neither of those is an option at Bethel Heights.
“We couldn’t mechanize this process if we wanted to,” Casteel said, because the vineyard is too old.
Most of their vines have been around for as long as Casteel has been alive. They are planted too close together for a tractor to fit through and are too delicate for machinery.
So the vineyard relies on the hands of its workers. The crew usually contains 15 people, but during harvest season, year-round workers recruit friends, family and whoever else wants to earn some extra cash.
Harvest workers at Bethel Heights are paid $1.70 for a full bucket. Back at the collection tractor, Blanca Guzman and Karen Martinez give each worker a ticket for every full bucket they bring back.
A worker harvesting 70 buckets of grapes an hour can make $119 an hour. So there’s a financial incentive for working as quickly as they do.
It’s what brings Maria Solorio back for harvest season year after year.
Plus, it’s more fun than some other agriculture jobs.
“The conditions are good, and you’re in fresh air,” she says, picking alongside her husband, Juan Anguiano. “Except when it rains. That’s not as fun.”
In the family
Willamette Valley’s wine story began more than 50 years ago and Bethel Heights was early on the scene. Dudley and her family – sister Barbara, husband Ted Casteel, Casteel’s brother Terry, and Terry’s wife Marilyn Webb – bought 75 acres in 1977 and moved to Oregon from California the following year. The family made its first wine in 1984, Dudley said.
Ben Casteel, the winemaker and son of Terry and Marilynn, was raised on the vineyard.
And the vineyard crew is an extension of the Casteel/Dudley family. Some members, like crew lead Martinez, have been around for decades. A wall in the barrel room of the property contains photos from harvest celebrations in the past. Martinez is standing in all of them, stoic and unsmiling but ever-present.
His stoicism breaks, a little, in the field. He shouts down rows of vines, directing workers to new rows and telling them when it’s time to move. But he jokes, too, and in the midst of the chaos, there is laughter.
Husband and wife work side-by-side. “There are good grapes over here!” Anguiano shouts to Solorio just down the row.
Jose Jose Castellano, 74, periodically calls “niño!” (boy) to 76-year-old Jesus Baltazar. It's a call-and-response. They check in on each other.
The two oldest crew members have done farm work all their lives. Castellano likes harvest season. It’s a pretty time of year, he says.
A year unlike any other
No one had high expectations for this year’s crop. A late frost threatened the grape crop in April. And then in June, weeks of rain delayed everything.
The unusually wet summer gave way to an unusually dry and hot fall, which gave the grapes more time to ripen.
“This crop caught everybody off guard with how big it is,” Casteel said.
Vineyards measure crop sizes by “lag weight,” Casteel said. During the middle of three growth phases, the grape clusters grow slowly and winemakers weigh them. The clusters grow by factors of 1.6, 1.8, or 2, with the latter meaning they double in size.
“We almost never get to the top number,” Casteel said. “We did this year.”
The fall weather gave the vineyard more leeway, and more time to wait.
“In the final ripening, you can get some real intensity,” Dudley said.
The hope is that these grapes turn into robust and flavorful wines.
Once they leave the harvesters’ hands, the pinot noir grapes pass on a conveyer belt by two harvest interns who will pick out, by hand, leaves or bad clusters. The grapes will then be dumped into a barrel where they will sit and ferment. Eventually, they will be bottled by Ben’s brother, Jon Casteel, who now owns a wine bottling business.
The workers, for their part, said they don’t drink much of the wine they help create.
“I prefer beer. And tequila. Like most Mexicans,” Anguiano says with a smirk.
Solorio drinks wine on occasion.
“I like to taste it,” she said.
"But a bottle is better!" Anguiano said.
Shannon Sollitt covers agricultural workers through Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by reporting on under-covered issues and communities. Send tips, questions and comments to email@example.com
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vineyard harvest arrives in Willamette Valley: Oregon's Wine Country