(Editor’s note: The following essay appeared in the November 1990 edition of the California Wine Press and has been rerun in California Wine and Food. In some ways the world has changed since then—wages have risen and the price of top-quality wines has, too--but the hand picking of winegrapes remains much the same.)
By Dan Clarke
They start to gather in the darkness. It’s still a little chilly and most are wearing light jackets or wool plaid overshirts. Later they will peel these off and work in tee-shirts.
Bancroft Vineyard is on the top of Howell Mountain a few miles to the east of St. Helena in the heart of the Napa Valley. Here at 1800 feet elevation it’s usually cooler in the morning than on the valley floor.
Simon, Ruben and Ignacio are among the first out of the bunkhouse. A few minutes later Leopoldo—“Polo”—joins them. These men live at the vineyard pretty much year ‘round. They have families in Mexico they haven’t seen since they came up in January to begin the pruning. Within a week after harvest is completed they will be on the way back to El Llano, their home in Michoacan. It’s a difficult life and they work hard for their six to eight dollars an hour wages. At home they might make that for a whole day—when they could find work.
Headlights coming up the drive announce the arrival of more pickers. Most of them are from Mexico, but are living in the wine country now. Two crews will be working today with about 10 pickers each. Gringos don’t pick grapes. Oh, they can and sometimes do just for the experience or to augment the Mexicans’ work, but the fact is, they’re not very good at it. There will be others working today, men and women without Latin surnames who will drive tractors, help pickers dump bins of grapes into the gondolas, and remove “MOG” (material other than grapes).
Everybody pretty much knows what the group is going to do and what his role in the day’s activities will be, but there is an air of anticipation; an excitement and maybe a little tension. The feeling could be likened to the feeling shortly before kickoff of a football game or backstage just before the curtain goes up.
Joaquin Villanueva, the foreman, confers with vineyard manager Jon Seibel and then speaks to the pickers in Spanish. There is the sound of machinery everywhere. Two Ford pickup trucks leave the staging area, taking the pickers out to the vineyard. Four Kubota diesel tractors leave, too, pulling empty blue gondolas on the low trailers behind them.
Most farm work is done for wages, but this is different. Harvest means piece work and the chance to earn $100—maybe $150 a day. Each person shares evenly in the money his crew will earn today. The first half hour or so, picking is done in only a half-light and care must be taken not to include any clusters of “second crop”—grapes that begin their growth after the majority do. These may look mature, but they’re not. Their characteristic shine or slight luminescence can’t easily be picked out until the sun gets over the pine trees adjacent the vineyard. Now and for the next couple of hours the packers are literally running. They scurry from vine to vine, looping around each other until their trays are filled, then run to the gondola which usually precedes them down the row about twenty to thirty yards ahead. Later, fatigue will slow them a bit, but now they run toward the gondola, usually dumping their bins themselves if they are working in the same row as the tractor. If they’re in a row adjacent, they’ll hand the bins to helpers who attend the tractor and gondola—under the vines or over them. The helpers this day are tall Anglos who can usually take the tray over the vines more easily than they can bend to the level where the Mexicans are to pick the tray up. Occasionally, Arriba! is heard and a picker sends his bin flying over the vines and right into the goldola. We retrieve the empty bin and send it back at him. This throwing of the bin may be thought to conserve time and, when it’s done accurately, probably does. There’s a macho element to it, though, and I can’t deny that for men who weigh maybe 130 pounds to press 40 to 50 pounds of grapes overhad then fling them over the vines and directly into the gondola is pretty impressive athletically. As the day warms, this practice wanes as does the running.
Picking fast and picking cleanly is imperative, but is not easy to do. Leaves are sometimes cut along with grape clusters and must be minimized before the load goes to the winery. The tall helpers stoop over the gondolas, working furiously to remove leaves and anything else that’s not grapes. Each gondola holds about two tons and as one fills, it must leave the vineyard row and be replaced immediately by another tractor with empty gondola. Filling each gondola takes about 45 minutes and care must be taken to periodically level the load and gently pack down the grapes, otherwise the gondola will overflow without acquiring its required two tons.
Whether picking or packing, handling ripe grapes gets the hands sticky. Loaders and packers will rinse off occasionally in water from the orange cylinder kept on or near each tractor. Pickers will use the same water source for drinking but don’t seem to have time to wash off. When loaded, the tractor and gondola will be driven back to the area in front of the bunkhouse and shop where Javier will weigh the grapes and load them onto a large flatbed trailer. Later, this trailer will be towed down eight miles of steep and windy road to Beringer.
Nature, good viticultural practices and maybe a bit of luck along the way have combined to produce exceptional red wine grapes from this vineyard. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from another section at Bancroft are picked for Beringer’s Private Reserve, but this Merlot is regarded as something really special. At the end of the year Beringer will release its first-ever Merlot, designated as “Bancroft Ranch.” The price is projected to be $27 a bottle on release for the 1987 vintage. Who knows how much the Merlot grapes picked today will be worth when they are available in bottle in three years? Perhaps this is a question only writers ponder. (Editor’s note: The Beringer Winery currently sells Bancroft Ranch Merlot at $90.)
Around noon people begin to wonder if we are close to finishing. Today, Beringer Winemaster Ed Sbragia says he wants 24 tons. The pickers are tired, but they’d rather continue deep into the afternoon and are disappointed to find that the winery can only accommodate the 12 gondolas of grapes today.
Disappointment is tempered by the exhilaration of knowing that relaxation is just a few minutes away as some ride in from the vineyard clinging to the last full gondolas, others standing in the back of a stake-bed pickup. A few minutes to rinse their picking bins and themselves and then quickly to the iced tub of sodas and Budweiser.
About seven hours ago I thought the atmosphere resembled that preceding an athletic contest and now, sitting under a tree and savoring the second beer, I feel like I used to when peeling off tape in a locker room and looking forward to a shower.
Fifty yards to the north and out in the sun is the big trailer with 12 gondolas of our grapes. Better to stay away from them now as the bees are attracted to their sweet stickiness. It’s nice to relax and gaze at them. They’re a very tangible record of our labors today. In an hour they’ll be gone and in two hours they’ll begin to be dumped into a stemmer/crusher at Beringer and its stainless steel augur will continue the work of helping fruit reach its highest expression.
And tomorrow before dawn we’ll begin again.
Editor's note: Links to websites of all the Napa Valley wineries, as well as hundreds of lodging and dining options in the North Coast, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.
by Dan Clarke
Only one award was made to the Grower of the Year, but several people received it.
In January the California Association of Winegrape Growers, otherwise known as CAWG, initiated this award for an individual, family or company representing “an outstanding example of excellence in viticulture and management, and is recognized by others for innovation and leadership within the industry.” The John Kautz Family of Lodi were the collective honorees.
John and Gail Kautz are Chairman and Vice-Chairman of Kautz Family Vineyards. All four of their children are active in the family business. Son Stephen is President of Ironstone Vineyards. His brother, Kurt, holds the title of Chief Financial Officer of John Kautz Farms. Jack, another brother, works in property management for the company. The boys' sister, Joan Kautz, is Vice President for International Operations of Kautz Family Vineyards. Theirs is a family of substantial achievement, but one that fits the “down to earth” expression--their titles seem more for defining roles than for impressing people.
John Kautz moved to Lodi in 1941 when his parents purchased a 38-acre farm out of bankruptcy for $13,000. “It was all run down,” John recalled when interviewed in the spring of 2012. “We built a milk barn and started selling.” Leadership traits showed early. Like most farm kids, John was closely involved with his family's work. There were chores, but he found time to serve as president of the Future Farmers chapter at Lodi High School. He was also active in scouting and before he graduated in 1948, he had attained the rank of Eagle Scout. “After leaving school I went right into California Young Farmers and eventually became their president in 1956,” John said. In 1952 John's father had died, leaving him the responsibility of taking over the original farm and an additional 40-acres the family had acquired.
Gail Kramer grew up in Oakland, but her family owned cattle land in Calaveras County. She became an elementary school teacher after graduating from Stockton's College of Pacific (now University of the Pacific). Gail and John married in 1958. While rearing four children she was involved in Parents Club and 4-H and later took ever more active roles in civic and political life.
The pair kept their focus on farming. Gail mentioned in passing that other young couples they knew enjoyed taking short trips to San Francisco or maybe Carmel. She and John didn't—unless it was related to business. “We were having fun, though,” she explained. “As we got involved in more organizations, we did a lot, traveled a lot.” Time on the road in the early days may not have taken John to resort areas, but the savvy businessman realized that buying equipment in Lodi and in nearby Rio Vista was expensive. When large farming operations in the southern San Joaquin Valley made new purchases that meant their old equipment could be had at bargain prices when John visited Bakersfield.
Their hard work and increasing civic involvement didn't escape notice. In 1965 John was named National Outstanding Young Farmer by the United States Junior Chamber (the Jaycees), an award of which he is very proud. Four years later he was named Top Farm Manager U.S.A. by the Ford Foundation. As success--and recognition of that success--grew, so did John and Gail. “We started taking a trip to another part of the world every year or two,” John said. “And we traveled with other couples from other parts of the country. (We were) opening up our vision to the world and to agriculture in the world.”
Having had success farming tomatoes, peppers, beans and other row crops, Kautz Farms expanded into wine grapes in 1968. John's leadership was soon evidenced in that world, too, as he wrote the first check to start the California Association of Winegrape Growers in 1974.
Eldest son Stephen Kautz, now President of Ironstone Vineyards, explained that Steve Millier, the winemaker for Stevenot Winery in the 1980s, had been purchasing grapes from the family and suggested they make a small quantity of wine carrying the John Kautz Farms label. The family agreed as there was the possibility of some future sales to Japan. Opportunity loomed.
Steve Kautz had purchased his grandfather's herd of cattle in 1976 while he was still in high school. He attended Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo as an Animal Science major and had thoughts of becoming a veterinarian. Returning home from school, he heard his Dad announce, “You're going to run the bell pepper operation.” Though he had no real farming experience, Steve acquiesced and must have done an acceptable job of managing some 2500-acres of row crops he had been assigned. Soon the decision was made to build a winery on the ranch at Murphys in Calaveras County. As Steve tells the story, his father said to him, “You've gone to college and you've learned to cook and you can speak a little. You're the president of the new winery. Congratulations!”
“About the only thing I knew about wine at the time was Eye of the Swan (a blush wine made by Sebastiani),” Steve commented. Nevertheless, Ironstone has prospered. Apparently, as with row crop farming, lack of prior expertise isn't necessarily a barrier to developing a winery.
Ironstone is much more than a winery, though. It's a major tourist attraction. There's a commercial kitchen, a deli and facilities for banquets and weddings. A resident chef gives demonstrations and cooking lessons. Visitors might enjoy an indoor concert featuring a restored theater pipe organ from the 1920's or a summer concert set outdoors amidst the 14.5 acres of landscaped gardens. Since 1982 Steve Kautz has lived in the little town of Murphys, where the winery and its surrounding Calaveras County vineyards are situated, and he remembers when it was different. He acknowledged that his winery is rather spectacular and that he's in the entertainment business, as well as the wine business. “But the Kautz Family are truly growers,” he reminded a reporter. “Everything else is just an extension of that. We started as grape growers and I absolutely love growing grapes.”
But which grapes to grow can be an issue. In 25 years Steve has seen trends come and go. “We're constantly changing and evolving,” he observed. “It (used to be) Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, then Merlot. Then it was Pinot, Pinot, Pinot. Then Shiraz. Now Cab and Chard are kings again.” He feels his winery president side helps the part of him that is a grower in that he's out in the market place and may be sensitive to what wine drinkers could want in the future. Five years ago he planted Muscat Canelli. Skeptics said, “What're you going to plant next—Barbera? Carignane?” Steve reflected briefly before responding, “Well, yes . . . maybe.”
The ardent outdoorsman has an unusual approach to wine education and the promotion of his brand. He disdains what he calls the mystique of his industry, preferring “no walls, no barriers when talking about how a grape gets into a bottle of wine.” Sometimes visitors to Ironstone are seated out in the vineyard for tastings. Stephen has even poured his wines on river trips for white water rafters “I like to take 'em out of their environment and put 'em in mine,” he said.
Though brother Kurt Kautz has a degree in Agricultural Economics from UC Davis and carries the title of Chief Financial Officer, he seems to prefer talking about farming than discussing number crunching. Years ago he grew quite a variety of specialty crops for the family produce business. Currently, though, he's busy overseeing about 5500 acres of winegrapes, most of which are planted around Lodi and in southeastern Sacramento County. In addition, he manages the Bear Creek Winery, which receives grapes for family winemaking efforts and for the custom crush market. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot make up about 75% of the 20 varieties grown. Ironstone produces both regular and reserve bottlings of Cabernet Franc and they may be California's largest single grower of that variety. Kurt supervises 30 to 40 employees year-round, though the total approaches 100 on a seasonal basis. “We have a 60-day window to harvest and (just) 50 harvest days,” he said. “You could not do it all with people, so we machine harvest.”
The quality of grapes in Lodi and the wines made from them have improved markedly, according to Kurt. “The wineries in Lodi are putting out some fantastic wines,” he said in assessing the current situation. “And I know some guys (growers) with small yields who're getting fantastic prices.” Both the grapegrowing and winemaking businesses are changing. “Other countries are competition—they have cheap labor and they're all increasing their quality,” he said. “But the key is getting your yield per acre up and being able to control your quality when you do that.”
Though she had studied Agricultural Business with a focus on international policy at Cal Poly, Joan Kautz stepped into heady responsibility with the family's winery. “My particular role now is international marketing and distribution, a job I began right out of college.” Was that a difficult situation for a young woman? Perhaps so, but she seemed unfazed by the challenge she accepted 19 years ago, saying her mother and father helped. “They've always been particularly supportive . . . and a lot of the people I was to deal with already knew my parents. Also, I had people like Dennis Collins and Jeff Techel as mentors. You can always sit and listen and learn.”
Sales of Kautz Family Vineyards brands had grown to 500,000 cases per year, but lately that has been pared back by about a third. Canada and Denmark are their most significant export markets at the moment, but emphasis changes and evolves over time. The United Kingdom was once a strong market, for instance, but supporting distribution in larger stores became more trouble than it was worth. “We pulled back from (big chain) markets to concentrate on independents and the wholesale trade,” Joan explained. “Now longevity and profitability are more important. Ironstone is the priority brand and (we're) building on our reserve wines.” She's excited about an Ironstone Reserve old vine Zinfandel, dubbed “Centennial,” which will be released this year. Fruit source for this 2009 vintage is the Rous Vineyard in Lodi, which was planted in 1909.
Marketing wine has taken Joan Kautz to some exciting and sophisticated parts of the world, including an eight-month stint in Paris. Though she's still in charge of international marketing, she's happily living back home in Lodi these days where she and her husband are bringing up their two daughters.
She wants to help the business continue to grow and “to develop even stronger brands and brand image—to show the world our dedication and what we have to offer,” she declared. Buyers may have a limited understanding and perhaps a perception that Napa and Sonoma are the only growing regions in the state. “It's a continual battle,” she observed. “(There is) a challenge to get attention and respect from people. We need to show that California is very broad and that there are other areas out there.”
Asked how farming had changed in the last 60 years or so, John Kautz responded, “Where we used to be a California industry, it's now global. If you're going to be a major producer of any commodity you just about have to be in all segments of it because you have to understand the industry in all parts. And now it's harder. We used to program our game plan with just California in mind. We always had cycles, but now you have to take in the world.”
Mechanization has led to more efficient operations, which certainly is a positive, he believes. The increased presence of government is another matter, however. “The laws and regulations that we have to cope with are just beyond belief,” he said. “Some of it is good. Some is necessary, but the majority is just overkill.” When the subject of efforts by special interest groups that make life harder for a farmer came up, Gail charitably characterized supporters of such causes as having “gotten too far away from their agricultural roots.”
Asked what advice on leadership he could offer to the generation just beginning their careers, John Kautz said “There is leadership both within your industry and leadership within your political arena.” Those likely to help the farming industry are “people who want to get out of their own background and want to learn and develop,” he said. “Awards and recognition will lead to more opportunities. Every industry is looking for young people to come to their boards. They look for a busy person. A major factor is whether you're able to communicate, to work with people and be likeable.”
John and Gail may have earned the right to a full retirement, but that's not in their nature. At a Friday afternoon interview, Gail confirmed that she's still active in several projects, one of which is steering the Ironstone Concours d'Elegance held at the winery each September, an event which supports agricultural youth education. John said he started that day, as usual, with an hour in the pool and spa at home. Later he was visiting a nursery. He showed a visitor flats of orchid plants that he was going to take to Murphys the next morning for the weekend tasting room visitors.
“The kids handle the day-to-day,” he said. “We're still busy, but now we get to do the fun stuff. Our whole focus from day one has been to have the family involved. That's the reward—seeing it continue to grow,” John said. “It's been a good run.”
Editor's note: Links to the websites of Gold Country wineries, as well as lodging and dining options, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.