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Special trucks are predominant features in harvests now, but testing the grapes is still a hands-on job. (Johan Hallberg-Campbell)
Special trucks are predominant features in harvests now, but testing the grapes is still a hands-on job. (Johan Hallberg-Campbell)

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The harvesters—an all-Vietnamese crew numbering about 18—arrive at midnight. A tractor lifts a bank of floodlights high, to shine down on the rows. A supply of flimsy wooden baskets gets unloaded and distributed. Debbie has chicken soup on the stove, meant for her husband and Steve, a winery hand, some time in the morning. The workers will get a meal break too, but the crew boss prefers they eat outside in the wind.

It’s a brutal, burning wind. After a thaw earlier in the month, there’s no snow on the ground, so the wind tries to lift the dirt. It’s already knocked down the sign at the entrance to the property, and now it balloons the chests of the scarecrows made from hazmat jumpsuits and Javex-bottle heads, and sends the paper hawks above spinning. After workers dump the grapes from their baskets into a bin, they toss the baskets high against the black sky and let the wind carry them to the next row.

After an unusually warm fall and unpredictable winter, the grapes hardly look like grapes any more. What once were plump, green berries are now brown and desiccated. Some, pecked at by birds, have been reduced to leathery black husks. Some still cling in stiff clumps to the vine, but many small bunches have fallen to the bottom of the netting, where it’s closed by plastic clips. So the “picking” is more akin to gutting the nets, taking hold of the sides of the seam and yanking to break the clips and spill the grape clumps into baskets.

But it’s not as easy as that because the hard clusters get caught in the nets, so you hit the nets from below, bouncing the frozen bunches toward the opening. Sometimes the net hits you in the face. Dust flies into your eyes. Then you reach inside the nets and grab at the clusters still holding on to the vine, or paw at them ineffectually if you’re wearing inappropriate gloves. Last, you gather up the bunches that have fallen outside the baskets onto the frozen ground. In the darkness, the grapes are the same brown as the dirt. Each cluster is precious, though, so you search to make sure you’ve grabbed all you can. Then you haul your basket to the next full section of the row, get down on your knees and gut the net. You keep going until the basket’s full and gets dumped and sent sailing high over the row.

I’d planned to be out long enough to fill one basket, but stayed for three, although by then my nose was running and I was moving more slowly. The Vietnamese guys took pity on me and began dumping grapes from their baskets into mine.

The barn, where the press waited, offered shelter from the wind but no heat. There were rubberized mats to keep one’s feet off the frozen concrete. “You learn these tricks,” says Rob.

Eventually grape loads began to arrive from the vineyard—7.5 frozen tonnes in all, their smallest harvest ever—and pressing started. By the middle of the night, the temperature had dropped to -14 and that, plus the dehydrated nature of the grapes, meant the juice was coming out between 42 and 47 Brix. That in turn meant the compressed cakes of grapes would be dumped from the press, the hard surfaces of the flattened fruit looking like dull pennies. The cakes would be broken up, reloaded and repressed. Later pressings would be lower in Brix, and so they would keep pressing, for days, until they met Inniskillin’s 40 Brix measure.

Some time around 3 in the morning, Debbie went into her house to check on her chicken soup. On the TV, a Weather Network announcer said a cold front was forcing people to stay indoors.

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