Harvest Brings Friends And Family Together

Photos by Charlene Pulsonetti

On a cool, crisp September morning, volunteers, staff, friends and family gathered around Hatfield Creek Vineyard owner Elaine Lyttleton, as she demonstrated — with clipper in hand — the proper technique for harvesting wine grapes. 

It was the first weekend of the annual harvest, with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah grapes to be collected. Among the plump grapes would be the occasional reminder of summer’s harsh hand, as some grapes dried out from the heat before they could mature. 

Nonetheless, more than 30 people were kept quite busy for the next few hours, weaving through the rows of vines to collect. 

"I like to go to wineries and tasting rooms (for the) company and the people,” said Donna Bertolero, a 32-year resident of Ramona who decided to try her hand at harvesting. 

Others in attendance, like Steve and Joann Todd, remember helping to plant the vineyard’s first vines. 

Humans aren’t the only ones among the vines — hummingbird nests are a hidden treasure commonly found, as well as bees and roadrunners. Surrounded by the rolling hills of the Ramona valley and with critters for company, harvesters may not face such an arduous job after all. 

Veterans and newcomers set off to the rows of vines with their clippers and buckets in hand, getting to work before the day grew too warm — not only for the comfort of the volunteers, but also to better control the fermentation of the grapes. According to Lyttleton, after picking and destemming, the "must” — a combination of grape stems, seeds, juice and skins — is cooled to help achieve the hearty, dark-red color the wines are known for. It also helps slow the fermentation process of natural yeasts, another reason why the grapes are harvested in the predawn hours. 

Lyttleton and her husband, Norm Case, purchased their property back in 2006, starting with 300 bare-root grape vines planted in 2007. A small harvest in 2009 from the young grape plants allowed Lyttleton to experiment with the process in her kitchen. 

"Before we bought the property, we joined the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association,” says Lyttleton, who credits the local pioneering vintners who came before her, as well as San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, in helping amend the county zoning ordinance to include a four-tiered winery definition, which includes boutique wineries. This allows for small wineries to avoid costly major use permits and offer tasting rooms. 

Case, a retired firefighter, has added infrastructure to the property, including a tasting room and cellar below, as well as a workshop and "ice house” used to store finished bottles. His personal touches have helped establish an intimate setting for the winery, including a pavilion among the vines and a tasting room with a long, communal table. 

Stick around awhile, and he will be more than happy to share his colorful history and many hobbies, including aviation and coin collecting. 

While Hatfield Creek specializes in growing Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, it also purchases other varieties grown in the Ramona valley including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 

During the harvest, students from the Hatfield Creek Winemaker’s Crash Course focused on collecting from designated vines they have been taking care of since early in the year. The nearly two-year class, taught by assistant winemaker Susan Benes Pacheco, takes them through the process of pruning, harvesting, fermenting and bottling. Coming from multiple locations throughout San Diego County, the students learned the process first hand, enabling them to apply the principles to their own small home vineyards. 

Groups of around 10 volunteers stood on either side of the vines, carefully clipping bunches of plump grapes and dropping them into buckets to be collected in larger bins that eventually made their way down to the processing room. The crash course students readied buckets of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah to be combined in the destemming machine, which sends semi-crushed grapes and juice pouring into a large tub. 

Students work cooperatively in the process that eventually leads to the more tedious job of "picking jacks” — sitting around the tub to collect the tiny stems bypassed by the machine. It’s easy to imagine this same scene taking place hundreds of years ago, a tradition that has been kept alive through an appreciation for wine. 

Just before noon, everyone came together in the tasting room to enjoy a home-cooked meal. Though volunteers were dusty from the fields and sticky from the grape juice, there were collective smiles and a feeling of family ambiance. 

After the harvest, the process will continue, with careful adjustments by the winemakers to ensure an enjoyable final product. While most wines are aged for two or three years, Hatfield produces young wines that ferment for only one year. 

It should be an exciting time when the volunteers and students gather once more to taste the fruits of their labor. Much like it did centuries ago, the harvest brings together families, friends, seasoned aficionados and budding enthusiasts to make the most of nature’s thriving bounty. 

This story was originally published in the October 4, 2018 issue of the Ramona Home Journal.