Our eldest daughter, Sarah, is in love with a handsome young winemaker. When she isn’t doing research at UC Berkeley or home with us for a night in Alameda, she’s with him in a caretaker’s cottage across the road from the Oakville Grocery in Napa Valley. Not a bad place to go visit a daughter, especially after the summer heat and tourists are gone.
When she called to ask for help harvesting a ton (...yes, literally, a ton...) of cabernet grapes, before I could clamp my hand firmly over my mouth the unconditionally loving mom in me answered, “Of course, sweetie. What time would you like us there?”
A page from the Alice archives: Last time someone asked me to help with grape harvesting, I was seven — too young to object and no idea what lay in store. A family friend had a weekend place in St. Helena and they asked their friends to come help with harvest, then picnic and swim in cool water under warm autumn sunshine. Lucky girl, you say?
It was 205 degrees in St. Helena that day. (Ok, honestly, it was probably only 105, but it sure seemed like 205.) They forced us to pick tubs and tubs of grapes. (Ok, probably only a tub or two, but it sure seemed like tubs and tubs.) It was hotter than h-e-double-toothpicks and I was covered in sticky purple syrup. I was a bee magnet, and let me tell you, seven-year-old girls know how to shriek. I was stung about 100 times. (Ok, maybe only once or twice but to the people hearing me scream at the top of my seven-year-old lungs, it sure must have seemed like 100.)
But as regular readers know, I am a “daughters’ love” addict and will do anything for a fix. Sarah said they would start picking at 7 a.m. That meant leaving Alameda by 5:50 a.m., which was OK by me but inconceivably early for my husband, king of the weekend snooze.
When I mentioned the grape harvest plan casually to Si, he said, “Tell her we’ll be there by 9 a.m.” (Sarah: If this is a parent love contest, I win! You know I would have been there at 7 a.m. if it were up to me. Indisputable proof that I love you more. Being a morning person has nothing to do with it.) When I called Sarah with her father’s ETA, she laughed and said they would save us a vine or two.
Her sister, Emily, was taking photos at a children’s birthday party that day, but Em’s fiancé, Marshall, volunteered for vineyard duty. (Future in-law points for Marshall.) We stopped at the Buena Vista Avenue 7-11 for Si’s Big Gulp and the romantic California Lottery “scratcher” he buys me before any road trip, then headed off the Island. I figured we would be cutting grapes until the sun dropped below Mount St. John.
We arrived about 9:10 a.m. and wandered down the dirt road between the vines. Two small blonde girls, one about the age I was the last time I picked grapes, stood beside a tractor. I told them I admired their bravery for taking on such tough work. They looked confused. Then Sarah handed us clippers and lead us to our assigned vines.
I thought Sarah had been kidding on the phone, but seriously — they saved us just a few vines. She didn’t tell me that the majority of the vineyard was harvested the previous Thursday. We were eco-tourists, just getting the wine country experience.
Less than a half hour after arrival, we were back in the car headed for the winery to process the grapes. Marshall got down on his knees on wet concrete and scrubbed out the giant square holding tank. (More points for Marshall.) Si and I climbed ladders and stood beside a stainless steel chute to push cabernet grapes into a de-stemming machine. We were the quality control crew, inspecting and sorting for mold, raisins and wayward leaves.
Soon I felt like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory sketch as Sarah’s fellow’s brother shoveled grapes into the chute and I tried to keep up, knowing that Sarah’s fellow was watching from below. My new, previously white, gloves became saturated with sweet dark purple juice. (If the wine tastes anything like the thumb of my glove, 2011 will be a fabulous vintage!)
The highlight of the day came when Sarah’s fellow’s brother’s blonde 25-year-old girlfriend got into the scrubbed plastic vat and stomped grapes with her bare feet – just like Lucy and Ethel in the grape stomping sketch. She said, in a soft southern accent, that she could now cross something off her bucket list. Si stood with his forearms draped over the edge of the vat, watching that gorgeous girl with her pants rolled up, purple to mid-calf. As I watched him watching her, I thought, “I bet Si can cross something off his bucket list now, too.”
The sweet southerner came to Napa Valley for a summer job, met Sarah’s fellow’s brother, and stayed. She is the youngest of four and her daddy’s little girl. She told me that her daddy back in Oxford, Mississippi — the location for the movie The Blind Side — misses her so badly that he planted a single grapevine on their family property, then called to say she better hurry home and take care of it or it would die.
Never met the man, but I totally get him. He reminds me to be grateful that our youngest moved back to Alameda and into our basement after college, and her big sister is only an hour and ten minutes away. All is well.