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Why Grape Harvest is Done at Night in Sonoma Wine Country

The nighttime is no time for rest during the grape harvest in Sonoma County. As more and more wineries have decided that the dead of night is a prime time for picking grapes, night picks have become increasingly visible in this fast-paced period of picking and crushing the vintage.

You might see them picking if you’re driving between the hours of sundown and sunup through a viticultural region of Sonoma County: look for the lights, sometimes appearing like a small factory floor all ablaze in the middle of a night-shrouded vineyard.

It all started with the sparkling wine houses, largely focused in the Sonoma Carneros region. The grapes that are picked at low sugar accumulations for sparkling wine, and the style of wine that they are destined to produce, are particularly sensitive to bruising and damage that can happen during picking. If they are not cut very cleanly off the vine, grapes inevitably may be scratched or slightly crushed during the harvest. And, just like in your home kitchen, any fresh produce that’s been cut into has a better chance of lasting longer if put immediately in the refrigerator.

The cool nights of Sonoma County’s late summer and fall harvest season provide Nature’s refrigeration, delaying oxidation and spoilage before the grapes get into the winery.

But there’s more than keeping the grapes cool and fresh: the picking crews prefer the cool freshness of the night air, too, according to Glenn Alexander, vineyard manager at Bacchus Vineyard Management. Even clients of his like Kick Ranch, which grows hearty red grapes like Grenache and Syrah as well as Sauvignon Blanc, prefer to pick at night now, because of yet another factor: their winery clients like the grapes to come in nice and pre-chilled, so they don’t have to spend energy cooling down the considerable thermal mass of a tank of grapes.

During the daytime, sometimes the harvest can be hard to see, with workers lost amid the green rows of vines. But during the night, it’s all on display, with tractor-mounted lighting gear spread over the rows, creeping slowly up Carneros hills and across the Alexander Valley floor. Pickers stay safe by wearing yellow vests, but it’s not a problem to find the grapes in the night, which, if they are red wine grapes, glow blue in the light. But nearer to dawn, the dew on the grapes makes them shine like jewels.

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