Harvesting the 2023 Santa Cruz vintage

Santa Cruz County vineyards are getting into the heart of harvesting season beginning with pinot noir. Despite a delayed start to this fall's harvest, local winemakers say it's a shaping up to be a great year.

Grape harvesting season is officially in full swing for vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The harvest is running several weeks behind the typical schedule because of this year’s cool, moderate weather. 

At Lester Family Vineyards in Aptos, the harvest began Sept. 20, about a month later than past years. The vineyard, which was started in 1998 by Dan and Pat Lester, produces award-winning pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay. 

Lookout photojournalist Kevin Painchaud got to spend several hours Oct. 2 with the crew of around a dozen workers as they carefully harvested the vineyards’ pinot noir grapes.

The picking of the grapes normally starts between 5 and 6 a.m. Crews often start their work before sunrise. Workers wear headlamps and use large floodlights to get the job done in the darkness of the early morning.

The harvesting day starts early because that’s when the air and the grapes are cool.

Picking grapes when they are still cool prevents the sugars and pH level in the fruit from spiking in the heat, which can affect the flavor of the grapes.

Each member of the crew picks grapes and places them into a bucket. When the buckets are full, the freshly picked grapes are dumped into large containers known as macro bins, which each hold about half a ton of grapes.

The size of the crew varies greatly depending on the size of the vineyard.  At Lester Family Vineyards, a crew of between 12 and 15 workers harvests the grapes. They are all seasonal workers, employed across a variety of vineyards throughout Santa Cruz County during the harvest period, which typically runs from August to November.

A bird's-eye view of the vines protected by layers of bird netting. There are 186 rows of grapes in this particular vineyard.

Bird netting is often spread across the top of a vineyard to prevent birds from feasting on the tasty grapes.

The beautiful deep purple color of the pinot noir grapes. The pinot noir harvest will last about a month this year and then workers will turn to harvesting the vineyards’ chardonnay and syrah grapes.

Armed with shears, workers spend hours hand-clipping the ripened grapes and dropping them into their buckets.

Crew members stop for lunch in the late morning or around noon. Workers typically cook tacos filled with beans, rice and often chicken.

A tight-knit group, the workers share food among themselves while relaxing in the beautiful environment.

After a hearty lunch, the crew heads back to the vineyards to work another couple of hours. The work day typically wraps up around noon or 1 p.m. 

Once the macro bins are filled with grapes, the bins are weighed and the weights recorded.

On this particular day, workers fill nine macro bins with pinot noir grapes, or 4.5 tons — enough to make roughly 540 gallons of wine, according to Wine Spectator

After the grapes are harvested, they are immediately driven to Darling Wines in Santa Rosa, where they are processed the same day. Wine grapes need to be processed soon after they are picked.

The vineyards of Lester Family Vineyards in Aptos at the end of a hard day of work.