One unusual feature of our 200-home planned community, Portola Valley Ranch, is tucked on a gentle slope above the tennis courts, orchard, and duck pond: half an acre of cabernet sauvignon and merlot grape vines.
Our community vineyard is maintained through the year by our resident Wine Committee and landscaping staff, consulting with a local oenologist. Sometime in October, however, when the Brix (sugar content) is right but (ideally) before the first rainstorm of the winter season, they send out a call for the harvest. And we all show up bright and early, gardening clippers in hand, to pick the grapes.
The actual harvest—the fun part—only takes about an hour, as we fan out into the rows of vines. The committee tells us whether to pick the small secondary bunches as well as the larger primary ones. There’s an art to maneuvering your clippers into the tangle of tendrils without piercing or crushing the grapes, then snipping at just the right point so that the ripe bunch falls gently into your other hand. Of course, we have to sample a few of the small, swollen grapes to make sure they’re sweet enough, juicy enough—then spit out the tiny, hard seeds. We drop the bunches into yellow bins called lugs, which we (indeed) lug to the street to be loaded into a pickup truck and carted a hundred yards to our tiny winery.
Which is where we finally go, when all the grapes are picked, to stem them. We don surgical gloves and stand for a couple of hours at rectangular tables and rip the grapes from their bunches, this time trying deliberately to break their skins for easy crushing. This is the tedious part, as we slowly convert each lug of picked bunches into lugs of grapes for crushing and stems for composting. Still, it’s a good opportunity to meet new neighbors, catch up with old ones, and gossip about those who have had the bad judgment not to show up. These days our conversations generally avoid politics, although it’s a liberal California community. No use spoiling a perfect day.
When we first arrived in 1987, the stemmed grapes were dumped into tubs and we crushed them in the classic way, stomping on them with bare (and hopefully washed) feet. How can I convey the childish joy of wading around the tubs as the grapes squished and squirted between our toes? Alas, a couple of years later we bought a commercial crusher, which was apparently better for the wine (and more efficient). For a few years they maintained a “Kiddie Krush” where children could crush grapes in a wading pool, which was way cute but didn’t last.
When all the grapes are stemmed and crushed and the mess hosed off, we finally retire to the Ranch House (community center) for a convivial lunch of lasagna or pulled pork, salad, cookies, and of course previous vintages of our wine. It’s one of those meals given extra flavor by a morning of hard (or at least diligent) physical work.
But the harvest is just the start of the winemaking process. The committee ferments the wine in a massive stainless steel vat and then decants it into oak barrels for aging. Not quite two years later they bottle and distribute it: one bottle to each household, one to each resident who helped with the harvest, and the rest to those who bought shares to help defray the costs. The yield is about a hundred cases.
And how is the wine? Damn good—with one exception. In 1989, the wine just did not mellow. After collecting enough complaints, the Wine Committee recalled it all and made wine vinegar out of it! Was this related to the Loma Prieta earthquake just a week before the harvest, which shook the San Andreas fault that runs beneath the vineyard land? We’ll never know, but our “earthquake vintage” just proves that farming remains an inexact science.
Otherwise, the wine is comparable to Napa and Sonoma cabernets, with enough body to pair with food. Ranch wines have won awards in community wine competitions and friends are always impressed when we bring it to dinner parties. “You made that wine?” they ask with wide eyes. It’s like the extra kick you get when you bite into your own freshly picked, home-grown tomato or strawberry. But, you know, it’s wine.
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect Media, Inc.