Ballet in the Sonoma Valley vineyards

William M. Dowd photos and video
SANTA ROSA, CA -- The grape harvest on the five Russian River Valley ranches supplying grapes to the winemakers at Sonoma-Cutrer wrapped up several weeks early this year, a testament to a good growing season.

But it also was a testament to good old-fashioned manpower.

Under the watchful eye of Javier Torres (right), the senior vineyard manager his colleagues refer to as "The Marlboro Man" because of his attire, 12-man crews made their way through the grape fields, wielding nothing more than a curved cutting knife and a lot of plastic boxes to take down an astounding one ton of grapes every 15 minutes.

"They're really amazing to watch," David Perata, Sonoma-Cutrer general manager, told me during a final-day harvest tour of the 1,100-acre complex. "They make it look effortless, but it's quite a skill to be able to work that fast that long, and without damaging the fruit.

"They work in 12-man teams -- eight to do the cutting, one to drive the tractor and three or so to handle the collection baskets, take care of any other tasks that need doing. Some of them have worked together for quite a while, so they make it a smooth operation."

It is difficult to envision the precision and speed the harvest workers use to get the delicate little chardonnay grapes from vine to the washing and sorting station. This video gives a taste of that speed:

This is the last year the scene at Sonoma-Cutrer will be seen only by employees and invited guests. The company, which is owned by beverage industry giant Brown-Forman of Louisville, KY, is targeting a spring 2009 opening for visitors. At that point, visitors will get to see the actual work depending on what season it is -- pruning, planting, harvesting, trimming back the vines at the end of the season ... whatever is going on is at the six vineyards is what tourists will see as they are taken through the complex on special motorized carts.

Sonoma-Cutrer, which had been a "white house" until producing a pinot noir harvest four years ago, is best known for wines created under winemaker Terry Adams (right), such as its Russian River Ranches cuvée crafted from several estate vineyards, and its Les Pierres and the Cutrer chardonnays.

They're a bit different than a lot of other Sonoma County appelation wines, since the various ranches into which the complex is divided provide a variety of soils virtually side by side. The Cutrer vineyard, located about a dozen miles from the Pacific Ocean, is planted on what once was an ocean floor.

At one time before grapes became the money crop, it was a hops operation. The triple-towered hop kiln barn seen below is what remains of that era.

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