While my wife was in the hospital this week with our second baby, we were lucky enough to be paired in the post-delivery room with an acquaintance: the well-respected Central Coast grower relations director of a major international wine consortium, who I've known for several years, and whose passion and efforts to introduce sustainable practices to his growers I admire. In the conversation, we were discussing the beginning of the 2007 harvest (more on this soon) and I mentioned that we had begun with a "cherry pick" of the ripe clusters from the top-of-hill blocks of Roussanne. He lamented that with the machine harvesters that the company favored, such a selective harvest was impossible.
This got me thinking. At Tablas Creek, all our grapes are harvested by hand. This is partially dictated by topography (our hills wouldn't permit mechanical harvesters to enter) but is, beyond this, a quality-driven choice. Many Rhone varietals, most notably Roussanne but also including Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre, are uneven ripeners. This means that some clusters on a plant will be ripe (usually those on the Western side, or those exposed to the sun) while others (typically those in the shade) are still underripe. Often, ripeness can vary widely. We address this difficulty by harvesting the same section of the vineyard multiple times, going through to bring in the ripe clusters first, often making another pass a week or so later and then usually finishing up another week later with the last clusters to ripen.
It is probably evident to all of you that this sort of discrimination is impossible with a mechanical harvester. Even within producers who hand-harvest, it's difficult for people who purchase grapes to assert this sort of control over their vineyards. A grower receives parameters from the contracting winery that will require the grapes to average a certain brix number, a certain acid level, etc. So, he'll do his best to pick when the average ripeness of the grapes matches what his or her winery wants. But, averaging doesn't work that well. What you get with grapes that ripen unevenly is a mix of underripe, overripe, and ripe fruit. The numbers may average out to what is expected, but the flavors will contain components of underripe (green tannins and thin, herbal flavors) and overripe (raisiny, porty flavors and an oxidized character). Adding overripe flavors to underripe flavors does not, as the British might say, a good wine make.
At Tablas Creek, not only do we use exclusively estate fruit (giving us the ability to make very selective picking decisions) but we also have committed since 1994 to giving our field crew year-round employment. Most of our crew have been with us since 1994, and have learned the specifics of what we want. When we need to bring in short-term seasonal labor (when we're really pushing to bring in fruit, or when several varietals ripen at the same time) we divide our crew among the newcomers, and they act as the best guardians of quality we could ask for. There is no way that they're going to allow these guys here for a few days or few weeks to compromise the quality that they've worked on for the past year. Furthermore, we pay all our crew (full-time and seasonal) by the hour rather than by the ton picked. This is even more unusual in California, and it further reduces the incentive to harvest grapes that are not exactly what we want. Yes, it slows down the pace of harvest slightly, but it largely eliminates the need to do an aggressive sorting of the harvested clusters before fermentation. If you look at our grapes as they come in, they could look like they come from a grocer's table.
If you add the percentage of grapes that are machine harvested (70% in California in the mid-1990s, and surely higher today) to the portion that are purchased from growers (more than 80% of what's left) you can get a sense of what contributes to the cost of production of artisanal wines.
But, it's worth it... quality grapes coming in means you have at least a chance of making truly fine wines at the end. If you have grapes of mixed quality to start with, you'll never have that chance.