A writer and winery owner discovers the meaning of extending the harvest table.
Illustration by Carly Larsson
I know that harvest is near when my husband, Rob, starts sampling the grapes in the vineyards. There are lab tests to tell him the sugar level and the pH, but what he’s really after is that perfect taste. As harvest draws closer, I pull my biggest pots and pans out from a hard-to-reach cupboard. We rearrange the house so that the dining room becomes the living room and the living room becomes the dining room. The heirloom table we inherited from my husband’s family, which usually sits in the bay window collapsed down to its smallest size, gets expanded to its fullest potential: all six leaves added. “When do we start?” my daughter asks.
“We don’t know for sure yet,” I respond. “Dad says Thursday or Friday. Monday at the latest.”
The rhythm of harvest is in our family’s bones. We’re getting ready for the day when the grapes are ripe and at the peak of flavor—that’s when harvest begins. Then, for about a month, it’s nonstop winemaking, all day every day.
When we started our winery 20 years ago, Rob and I pledged to each other that we would take the best care possible of the people who work for us, and so, like centuries of winemakers and other farmers before us, that includes keeping them well-fed during harvest. Our crew—from eight to 20 people—comes to our house every night for dinner. They often arrive cold or wet, definitely hungry and ready for a hearty, warm meal. My table somehow expands to fit them all.
When the grapes are ready, there’s no waiting. Picking crews of 20 or 30 go out at first light each morning, fan out at the top of the vineyard rows and clip pinot noir or chardonnay clusters into 5-gallon buckets. When those buckets are full, the pickers run to the bottom of the row to drop the contents into wooden half-ton bins. They run back with empty buckets to fill again. These crews work relentlessly until every perfect grape cluster has been picked and the bins have been loaded onto a truck headed for our winery. The day is busy and full of the rituals of winemaking, but it all comes to a halt at dinnertime.
A few of the harvest gang are regulars, coming back year after year. For more than two decades now, a trio of old friends—affectionately known as “the clowns”—takes time off from their real jobs to come work with us each fall. They have become like part of our family, adopted uncles to our kids. Other people might come from the East Coast or sometimes the South to experience this legendary season in the winemaking world. We welcome the extra hands.
Over the years, I have amassed a collection of recipes that are well suited to feeding a crowd of work-weary folks. These are those make-ahead, comforting dishes that can sit if necessary (for those nights when they say they’ll be here at 7, but somehow 7 turns into 9). The veterans have their favorites—my well-worn meatloaf recipe, served with mashed potatoes, of course! But there are others: pork pie, mushroom lasagna, moussaka and chicken dijon. Each gets trotted out year after year. When you figure out what works, you stick with it.
No matter what’s on the menu, when it’s time to sit down, everyone helps. We bring the heaping platters of food to the table, we light candles, we fill water glasses, and we open many bottles of wine. Inevitably, someone tries to shush everyone so a toast or two can be made, then we dive into the food and it seems like 10 conversations start at once. There’s always lots of laughing, usually over the retelling of things that happened in the cellar that day; sometimes long, serious conversations about the state of the world. Sometimes we reminisce about harvests gone by.
After all these years, I’ve learned that gathering people around a table and offering them a good meal and a glass of wine is one of the greatest joys in life, and is perhaps the perfect recipe for building community. The magic that happens is one of life’s small miracles—the kind that makes all the hard work worthwhile. In the midst of all the laughing, talking, eating and drinking, sometimes I step back and think to myself: This is what it’s all about. This is why we do what we do. And this is exactly what the world needs right now.
Maria Stuart is a veteran of the Oregon wine industry and, with her husband, owns R. Stuart & Co. Winery in McMinnville. She blogs at PinotMom.com.