The Birds and The Bees in The Zinfandel Trees: 2020 Harvest in Ventura Vineyards Old and New

Bruce Freeman picking Zinfandel in upper Ojai CA late August 2020.

“The birds and the bees know when the grapes are ripe,” says Clos des Amis winemaker Bruce Freeman.

It’s 9am on a warm late August morning, and we’re knee deep in thickly trunked Zinfandel wherein large dark clusters of grapes hide bees with a few yellow jackets for good measure. The birds are out too, mostly mourning doves cooing like a daytime owl and acorn woodpeckers making a ruckus.

I’ve asked a silly question: if we’d picked the week before, would the bees be so bad? Would they have taken so much fruit?

Wouldn’t matter, says Bruce.

When the brix is right, the bees know it and they’re right there too ready for the harvest. They snuggle their little fuzzy butts right in there, humping the seeds to get the juicy, seed pulp, leaving hollow hulls and seeds behind.

Not that the bees have gotten too much from this vineyard. These 30 year or more old vines are laden with lovely black fruit destined to become the first Zinfandel Bruce has made from this vineyard in 15 years, or so. At least so far this harvest there’s no sign of the powdery mildew which plagued last year’s vines; 2019 saw so much late spring and early summer rain followed by warm, foggy days, an ideal environment to cover the leaves in a white coating of spores that spread to the fruit destroying both.

Instead of clusters blighted by powdery mildew, we had bees to contend with. I’d already been stung once this week — not in a vineyard but in my house where one was trapped in my shirt! — so I was extra careful. I am also still wielding less than a full component of fingers and arms– my wrist still broken and my right index finger still recovering from the “blender blunder.” One bee did sting Gretel Compton, Bruce’s partner in life, the vineyards, and the winery.

We were quick and careful in the early morning sun, and within three hours, we four socially distanced “Clos des Amis” had done the backbreaking work of picking the vineyard pretty clean, leaving those clusters with too many bees or too many raisins behind.

While I’d long understood the challenges of zinfandel and been in vineyards in Lodi around harvest, this was my first time picking– and seeing first hand that yes, zinfandel definitely ripens unevenly. While MOST of the clusters were perfect for picking, some were more raisin than grape, and some clusters had a range of ripeness with berries in color from dark purple to rose red. Too many raisins would make the wine too sweet and high in alcohol, too many green or not quite grapes would make it too acidic. You want the grapes to be “just right” which can be measured by the amount of brix or sugar.

Or by following the birds and the bees to the Zinfandel trees!

No, these vines really aren’t trees– certainly not the great oaks surrounding the small vineyard and providing shade for the picked grapes in the bin in the back of the truck.

Greg Renick is deep in Zin.

As vines get older, the trunks get thicker and thicker. Very old zinfandel vines grow gnarled, develop so much character — both in the vine and in the glass. In this vineyard, as they stop producing they were pulled out. But zinfandel is resilient and three plants returned to the middle of the plot, hard to pick with the bunches so low to the ground.

Many of these older vines, especially the head trained ones pruned in the traditional way, resemble trees, possibly weeping willows, with their branches reaching out and sweeping the ground.

We picked in two adjacent areas: one with a fair amount of shade, and the other with much more sun. While all of the vines are said to be thirty or more years old, the head trained vines in the shaded area seemed much more full of vitality — and fruit– while on the sunny gentle slope, where most of the vines were on a contemporary cordon, the vines were less rambunctious and the grapes not quite as abundant.

Most of the fruit on these old upper Ojai zin vines is so low to the ground you have to bend over or kneel to pick it.

All of the vines were closer to the ground than most, making picking literally back breaking work. With my broken wrist and blendered fingers, as well as the bees and yellow jackets, I moved slowly, methodically, working out a system where I’d cut the vine where the second bunch grew, take the vine with both bunches to the bucket, cut the clusters off into the bucket with my pruner and repeat, periodically moving the bucket down the line or over to the truck where some one else would dump it into the bin. (Why not prune away while picking? The vines aren’t done! They continue to absorb energy from the leaves until they fall and the vines enter winter’s dormancy period).

Our goal that day was to fill the bin– and buckets too went into the back of the truck, and following a quick lunch of carnitas tacos Gretel made, off to the winery we went to process it.

Half was bucketed by hand from the bin into the crusher/destemmer and the other half went whole cluster into two 55 gallon “pickle” barrels, then the crushed/destemmed fruit went on top; this is an experiment in carbonic maceration of this fruit, a technique often used in France on Gamay, and which we saw in action with Thierry Puzelat at Tue-Bouef in the Loire Valley.

If you think picking grapes is a sticky business, processing them is even more so. Fortunately, most of the bees buzzed off by the time we got to the winery! But with only four of us, it was all hands on deck — or the crushpad…and so I didn’t take any pictures to share.

But there will be more opportunities as harvest continues! Tomorrow I’ll be back up on South Mountain helping to pick and process the 2020 Estate Sauvignon Blanc!

And on a personal note, in other good news today, I saw my ortho: the xrays of my five week old breaks to my wrist show they’ve healed! I’ll still wear the brace as needed, but it’s time to move onto the next phase of healing — physical therapy and increased activity. Soon I’ll be hauling around buckets of fruit in each hand like Gretel pictured above!

NOTE: Near the end of each month since January 2019, I write about my experiences in the vineyards and the cellar at Clos des Amis.

July 2020: Verasion: Heading toward Harvest 

June 2020: ZOOM BOOM 

MAY 2020:BLAME IT ON…

APRIL 2020: PASSION

and more:

Bonus: A little bit about me in this recent 30 second video of Gretel and I in the Clos des Amis Estate “Rattlesnake” Vineyard on South Mountain, Santa Paula, CA.

4 thoughts on “The Birds and The Bees in The Zinfandel Trees: 2020 Harvest in Ventura Vineyards Old and New

  1. Glad to her your wrist is healed! One of my favorite Thracian wineries has a problem with bees destroying their Öküzgözü grapes and found a clever, if time consuming way to deal with it. They cover each cluster with paper bags to keep the bees off!

    Liked by 1 person

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