Every year around fall I disappear from the Internet. My day job, which I love almost as much as my moonlight career as a writer, is in the wine industry. I work as a lab technician at a California winery, and fall in the wine industry is when we harvest grapes to start the somewhat magical process of creating wine. This is my fourth harvest, and today we finished picking the last fruit of the 2014.
I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade
Like riding around on rail-cars and working long days.
Harvest is a strange thing. It’s exhausting, almost to the point of collapse, some days. It’s oppressively time-consuming, draining, physically and mentally. It devours you. It sucks you in and spits you out the other side a different person. It transforms your body into something stronger than before. It makes you mentally strong, and yet it beats you to the ground. It demands endless sacrifice, of time, of your body, of alcohol, of pieces of your identity. And yet, year after year, I find it enchanting.
Harvest is when you make friends unlike any others. When you work with the same people for twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week, when you brew coffee with them in the morning, break bread with them at lunch and dinner, and share drinks after hours, they become your family. They become your life. And though you might never see them again after you part ways, they will always have a little piece of the insanity you shared during that vintage. They will always have a little piece of you.
Harvest is when you live eternally in the moment. You put down your cell phone. You forget to check Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Tumblr, Instagram. You forget to text back. You don’t have time to read the news or click links or browse The Chive or whatever your poison of choice happens to be. You know only your immediate surroundings. You know only the people you work with. The only problems the world faces are the ones in front of your eyes. What do I have to do today? That’s the only problem to solve. The view over the vineyards is more beautiful without an Instagram filter; the smell of freshly fermented wine is impossible to communicate through Snapchat. The things outside cease to matter.
Harvest is when you push yourself to your limits. You don’t sleep, you drink too much, you work yourself to the bone, you eat more food than you possibly could have imagined, you climb inside tanks and shovel tons and tons of grapes out the door. You get so tired the word ceases to have meaning. Colors take on different hues. Everything seems brighter, more vivid, through the lens of exhaustion. Emotions are more real, and yet, at the same time, curtailed – things that might once have been irritating or frustrating cease to be so, because you simply don’t have the energy to spare.
Harvest is when you make connections with your history. Winemaking is one of the oldest forms of technology on the planet, and homo sapiens sapiens have been fermenting grapes and turning them into wine for almost as long as human civilization has been in existence. When I bite into a cluster of vitis vinifera, watch our basket presses squeeze new wine from fermented skins, or smell the freshly-toasted wood of our new barrels, I am reminded of my shared history both as a laborer and as a consumer with my ancestors in Greece and Syria, who made their own wine for generations. I am reminded of the connection we share with the earth, the give-and-take relationship involved with farming, the roots we plant in the soil as deep as the vines themselves.
I work with people who don’t enjoy the long hours, who find the physical exhaustion overwhelming, who would rather spend their weekends with their friends and family, and of course, there’s a part of me like that, too. I don’t like the sacrifices I have to make: writing, reading, watching television or movies, spending time with the people I care about, grocery shopping, exploring, traveling. But I remind myself that those sacrifices are only temporary, that the rest of the year is made richer for the time I devote to the ever-present reality of harvest.
At the end of the day, there is something to be said for closing your computer, shutting off your phone, and drowning out the noise by putting your head down and going to work. There’s magic to it. At the end of the day, there’s something beautiful in dirty hands and tired bodies, violet wine and toasted oak barrels. Harvest is life, as rich and present and visceral as it can be.